Writing the Dirt

I live out in the country in the extreme southwest of Colorado, 10 miles from the nearest town, a quarter-mile from my nearest neighbor. I’m 40 miles from Durango, where I drive to do business three times a week. When you take a job, you must be willing to drive long distances. I worked one day a week in Farmington, New Mexico, on a dangerous two-lane highway known as the La Plata Highway. It began at the town of Hesperus, spread at the feet of the La Plata Mountains, and tracked the La Plata River from La Plata Canyon all the way to near the river’s confluence with the San Juan.

The La Plata Highway is known for snow and ice in the winter and so many deer that I took to calling it Dead Deer Drive. It was an hour-and-a-half drive one way. The well-watered valleys, walled in by low bluffs and hills called Tooleys, this 40 mile stretch of road remains home to ranches, the Hesperus Coal Mine, and hamlets canopied by broadleaf trees that sway like underwater fronds in sunny, soft breezes.

With three hours of drive time in a day, gives you time to think. I met a man, I won’t say where, who was somewhat heavy set with rust hair. Clean-shaven, a perpetual grin on his face. Might call it a half-smile. Somewhere right of a smirk and left of a knowing smile. He wore an impeccable Bradfield. The words from his mouth came out not quite the way they do from other men’s mouths. He could say them right enough, but he didn’t make much sense.

Through some work I did a long time ago, I am familiar with another man who suffered from expressive language disorder.  He knew what he wanted to say, but chose different words for commonly meant items, maybe every third or fourth word. Through context, everyone who knew him could understand him, but sometimes we had to try hard to reach understanding.

Characters are like that sometimes. You borrow from nearby, borrow from faraway in time. I got Yale Forestall’s physicality from one person, a disability that made him different from another. During those long drives, I got to make up the rest. I’d known people that suffered from Huntingdon’s, a degenerative brain and neurological disease that often leads to suicide. What if my character was diagnosed with that? What if he also suffered from a host of other diagnosable disorders and the State threatened to institutionalize him because he was unable to care for himself?

Yale needed a sounding board, what a screenwriting class I took called a window character. My screenwriting gave me other clues as to where this was going. The hero, I learned a long time ago, moves the story forward. That would be Yale, who’s court battle with a State psychiatrist and his henchman, a District Attorney, over Yale’s sanity pushed the story forward. That was the outside story: Does the State have the right to lock up a mentally-challenged man because he suffers from a host of diagnoses and lives on the fridge? Because he’s a little different?

But the main character, as distinguished from the hero, is the one in the story who changes. He, in this case, Miles Holland, a failed lawyer with a degree in counseling seeking refuge from an unnamed trauma back in Chicago, is the fish out of water with the character arc. This is the inside story. What’s the main character running from? What’s he trying so obsessively to prove? Sometimes, the main character and the hero are embodied in the same person. But not in this story.

It has been said that aa writer always writes him- or herself. Unlike this novel, much of what I write is sci-fi and fantasy. So many of my characters are, on the surface, much divorced from this writer and his life history. The Dirt is the exception. There is more of me in Miles Holland than in any character I have ever written. Didn’t  intend it that way. Being too close to a character can be problematic, too. But I guess I had some expiation to do.

Like Miles, who both acts as Yale’s expert witness and as his attorney in his guardianship trial ( a big no-no), I practiced law in Chicago, and I’m also a psychotherapist. Like Miles, I am a refugee from the East. And like Miles Holland, I am a seeker, a sometimes misguided, sometimes reluctant one. In this novel, I guess I wanted to explore spiritual ambivalence, because that’s what came out in the story.

What happens when a cowboy mystic with deficits the modern world doesn’t understand meets the State head on? Inside that story, what happens when an unhealed healer, in Miles Holland, meets someone, Yale Forestall, whom he finally believes to hold his truth? Can anyone hold our truth for us? Is there an ultimate truth ‘out there?’

Throw in some local politics, a changing Southwest landscape, and Native American influences, and you got yourself The Dirt.