About 15 years ago, my wife and I were living happily in Los Angeles—not far from the beach, in fact—when our landlords suddenly decided they could do better than us and our shallow pockets. The rent went up 20 percent, and we went apartment hunting. Our search eventually led us north to Los Osos on California’s central coast, a few miles from San Luis Obispo. I had recently finished a master’s degree in creative writing, and I was dreaming of a place that was fresh to my senses and easy on my wallet—in other words, a place where I could hunker down and write Something Great. We found a small, shadowed, slightly damp bottom-floor rental, put down a deposit and readied ourselves for an exciting new life. Jobs? Well, we’d figure that out.
Then, I—let me put this as delicately as I can—chickened out.
We went to check out the apartment for the first time since the previous tenants—a pleasant elderly couple with matching moist eyes and crepe-paper skin—had moved out. On the carpet where their bed had been was a large, red spot, maybe two feet in diameter, as if someone from an old noir film had been shot before being dumped off the bluff by the Port San Luis Lighthouse.
We asked the property manager if perhaps the stain could be removed.
“We’ve tried,” she said. “It won’t come out.”
“Then we’d like you to change the carpet.”
What would we do? This was our dream, after all, our romantic grasp after crazy freedom. We’d been to a writers conference in Mendocino a month earlier, and I’d read a piece by the campfire; the group had laughed where I’d hoped they would laugh and gasped where I’d hoped they would gasp, and, at the end, they’d asked, Where can I buy that book? and I’d told them that, at the moment, it existed only in the hard drive of my Toshiba computer. Los Osos was the dream of getting enough good words into that old Toshiba that I could take the words out and send them to New York, or Hollywood, and live happily ever after on the central coast. Were we really going to give up the dream because a gangland killing had apparently once taken place in our bedroom?
We returned to the San Luis Obispo Days Inn to sleep on it. I woke up at 5 a.m. with a 103-degree fever.
We went back to the apartment, and I couldn’t feel anything—not revulsion at the spot, not excitement about the place, not a thrill about the prospect of beach-town bohemianism. The sky was steely gray. The entrance, we suddenly noticed, was laced with spider webs. Charlotte herself was proudly perched on the porch light. The ocean was a mile away, just over a small hill and some sand dunes, but we felt we’d landed somewhere in, say, northern Scotland, in some Hitchcockian land of craggy stones and taciturn watchmen and suspicious seagulls. We wouldn’t have been surprised if all the town’s telephones suddenly went dead.
The real problem, of course, was the job thing. We just didn’t have it in us to make the gamble we were proposing to make.
We surrendered our deposit and wound up returning to my hometown of Las Vegas, where I became the editor of a family magazine. Within a year, we had begun a family of our own. Happy endings have a way of arriving on their own terms.
Still, the romance of a creative roost, of an inspirational portal in space and time, hovers and haunts. I’ve tried to fight the feeling, but it wells up like water when you dig too deep, this notion of another place as creative aquifer.
Maybe, though, the real aquifer is the feeling itself, the stubborn longing of the mind. Surely you could tell a good story about a man so nostalgic for a place he’s never been that he’s unable to truly be where he is. Maybe the real matter to ponder is our hesitance, when we look for inspiration, to look to the world at our fingertips and the ground at our feet, right here on this dry land.
Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Coaching & Consulting, providing storytelling training to students, professionals and organizations.