Friday, September 2, 2011

Back from a Fiction Desert

Over the past year, I have heard more than one NPR report on “food deserts”: low-income neighborhoods where decently nutritious food choices are not available within a reasonable distance and/or for manageable prices. So out of convenience, residents eat processed garbage from, well, convenience stores.

What about fiction deserts—has anyone else experienced this?

Two years ago, after finishing a fiction MFA in the midst of a great community of writers, I exiled myself southward from Spokane for the sake of gainful, meaningful, student-loan-repaying employment. I landed in a place that turned out to be a fiction desert.

It was also an actual desert. Or at least a steppe climate. In place of crisp pine needles descending in their soft twirl, I found menacing tumbleweeds—possibly radioactive—darting in front of my car and congregating downwind against a chain-link prison fence, where they bobbed like lottery balls in the recurring gusts.

More forlorn tumbleweeds would crawl through a dinner party in the silence that ensued after a miscalculated Louise Erdrich reference. To be fair, nobody likes a namedropper. But to be fair to literary fiction namedroppers, there should be an appropriate time and place. I didn’t find either.

The place I lived has a lot going for it. I met great and interesting friends, and the Columbia Valley is second only to Napa when it comes to wine. But culturally, the Tri Cities, Washington has that built-in problem: there are three of them. Three not-much-happening downtowns to go along with the suburban sprawl, rather than one vibrant urban center for live music, arts, and literary events. As I write this, I can hear the diehard voices saying, “If you don’t like it, leave.”

Two weeks before we did leave, my wife elbowed me at our neighbor’s end-of-summer barbecue. She pointed with her chin at two women in lawn chairs and whispered, “You should talk to them. I just heard one of them say ‘Iowa Writer’s Workshop’.” Autumn knows and loves me to the extent that she instinctively listens for fiction oases.

Later, in the kitchen, I had a chance to begin a conversation with one of them. A tall, elegant woman a decade or so older than me, she hesitated for a moment when I mentioned I'd overheard her talking about creative writing.

"Are you a writer?" I asked.

"No, I'm just a reader," she said. This almost intrigued me more. I wish I could approach stories more purely, without a thief's agenda.

Several minutes later, after we had traded meta-stories of our respective relationships with short fiction (and practically recited the end of Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" together) I returned to my lawn chair feeling refreshed. And while I'm glad we moved away, the chance occurrence confirmed a suspicion I'd been havingthat I'd probably missed out on literary community simply because it wasn't convenient to me, and my perceived fiction desert was at least partially a product of my own laziness/busyness.

In addition to the tumbleweeds, the big Columbia crawls silently through those cities, and it is good if you take some time and go down to the water.

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