Quirky is not what you think it is


Sandia foothills, Albuquerque / Photo by Michael Wichita

People who know me best know about my New Mexico thing, which, unlike those people who occasionally go woo-woo and come back from vacation with a newfound Santa Fe jones, is legit and deep.

My parents moved to New Mexico in the 1950s (Cold War, dad was an engineer) and stayed for a decade before returning to Oklahoma; two of my sisters have lived and thrived there for decades now. Twenty years ago this fall I joined the staff of the underdog evening newspaper, the Albuquerque Tribune, just out of college, as the greenest of cub reporters. I wound up staying six years. Even as I was packing to leave New Mexico in 1996, I was worried about stories I didn’t finish — a story about the East Mountain as a place to dump a body or destroy evidence; and an epic series about life along the entire length of San Mateo Boulevard. But eventually it faded for me. I don’t get back nearly enough, and some days I literally ache to go for a meandering drive (and a Blake’s Lotaburger) in Albuquerque.


Blake's Lotaburger, Lomas Blvd. / Photo by Michael Wichita

I recently got to spend a week in New Mexico and it cleared my mind. It made me happy and a tiny bit wistful, and, as I was leaving, gave me some new things to think about — as it always does. I was asked to come speak at the New Mexico Press Women conference at the Albuquerque Sheraton, at their Friday night reception and also at a Saturday morning discussion about writing.

One of the things I brought up — which I still strongly believe — is that the best nonfiction stories (and probably the fictional stories and novels, too) usually come from the subjects that most worry, frighten or repulse the writer. And I think the most boring stories come from familiarity, when we set out to write about things we really love or are already in the tank for. I would guess that 90 percent of modern-day nonfiction, especially online, comes more from people typing about things they already believe strongly in, or hobbies they already have, or food and books and music and movies and gadgets they already get, understand and savor. The Internet won’t get much more interesting until people stop writing about what they adore (or are certain they despise, i.e., the other side of the political fence) and just go out and take notes on things they don’t know about, and are possibly afraid of.

For example: I didn’t take the TV critic assignment last summer because I love television or love writing about how television is made. I took it because television scares me as much as it entertains me.

For another example: If I ran the Travel section, it would include a lot more stories about 1-star or no-star destinations.

During the workshop I was talking about my book (Tinsel, still in salesman mode, Sharpie ready to sign copies), and mentioned that the main reason I did it was because the Christmas holiday — and how people act around it and over-react to it — had at various times caused me sadness, revulsion, puzzlement. But also: wonder, curiosity, dark humor. For me it ranked among our society’s biggest double-standards, at least culturally. It was a subject I thought would be best avoided, which is why I had to write a book about it. Get it?

One of the bloggers at the conference heard this as “WRITE WHAT YOU HATE,” and another tied it into my observations of the Tea Party protestors who were lining Menaul Boulevard on the day I arrived in Albuquerque. As I told the workshop attendees, I’d walked to a dinner engagement almost as soon as I checked into the hotel, rather than drive, so I could wander among the New Mexico Tea Partiers a little bit during their tax day outrage. Not because I wanted to write about them, but because, I dunno, it’s interesting to be among people you probably don’t always agree with, or worse.

I hope I didn’t actually say “write what you hate” because that’s so not what I mean. I don’t think I’ve ever written about someone or something I’ve hated.

But discomfort? Fear? Worry? Regret? Distaste? Sure. That’s where the best stuff is. I’m sure there’s a more zenlike place for a writer to dwell, and only write about the things that she or he finds beautiful and amazing, but who’s to say that beautiful and amazing things aren’t right in there with the darkest of subjects? They are.

• • •

New Mexico is a perfect place for that kind of thinking. I remember a conversation I had once with my friend Scott Gullett, who wondered what New Mexico, at first look, must have been like for the Spanish conquistadores. Gorgeous, probably, but also foreboding as all get out. Something that would make you want to stay (and brutalize the natives) but also something that would say let’s scram. There’s an unsettling vibe to it. Georgia O’Keeffe got here and it saved her life, but in New Mexico she basically said fuck the flowers, check out this skull. If you don’t like some spooky served with your beautiful, then it won’t work for you.

New Mexico worked for me in exactly that way (so beautiful I can’t help but see it; so bizarre and dangerous that I want to flee it), and still does.

New Mexico map / Photo by Michael Wichita

New Mexico map / Photo by Michael Wichita

A lot of my big-time reporter friends have been sent to Albuquerque for a quick assignment (usually a campaign stop) and aren’t wowed, to say the least — and they never quite get why I still crave it. Sony had to make an entire half-hour movie to reassure some of its employees that relocating there (there’s a new movie production facility there) wouldn’t be the literal end of their world, that it might actually be (horrors) a hip place to live.

I love New Mexico, but it’s a love that scares me, and therefore qualifies as Write What Frightens You. Colleagues usually peg me as someone who only likes to write about quirky, funny, dipshitty things– the dreaded “wacky stuff.” That’s actually not it at all. I don’t like New Mexico because of flying saucers. I’m drawn to subjects (people, places, things, movements, events) that unnerve me in a way that is mysteriously inspiring, which Albuquerque does. I like it’s ugliness — everything you see 12 feet from the horizon, and then the fact that everything higher than 12 feet (the sky, the mountains) is so beautiful. I like the Albuquerque you’d see on Breaking Bad or on Cops reruns, the trannies, the stolen cars, the needle-sharers, the strip malls. I like its newsiness. I am fascinated by its people, in a way that’s different from saying “I love the people.” Love is a part of it, but not actually the root of it. Never was. What I like about Albuquerque is that I can know so much about it and not belong there at all.

• • •


Highway 285 / Photo by Michael Wichita

When the conference was over, Michael came out and joined me for four days, and at long last I got to show him my version of New Mexico, on fast-forward.

Poor guy. He was absolutely patient with Albuquerque’s elusive, chain-link-fence-and-cinderblock charms and listened me to reminisce about all the stories I worked on. (Driving around town is really just a nostalgia patrol.)

Alberzerky, Albuquirky, Albuquerque. He and I packed away plate after plate of green- and red-chile meals; lunch after dinner after breakfast, as I searched for the elusive moment of perfection in New Mexican cuisine. (It’s all delicious, but the mouth has a memory all its own, and is seeking a repeat of bliss that may or may not exist. We did Los Cuates, the Frontier, Sadie’s, Garcia’s and so on. But you always find the perfect bite where you weren’t looking: This trip, that magic bite came at the El Camino diner in Socorro, of all places.)

After a whirlwind tour of Albuquerque, we did Santa Fe in barely one day — including a shopping binge for Michael at PhotoEye, and then massages and soaks for both of us at Ten Thousand Waves, a spa up the mountains a bit. If you ever go, get the “nose to toes” massage. After the nose-to-toes treatment, I may have a new guiding principle about massages: Less attention on my back, more focus on my head and shoulders, and face; then feet, ankles, shins, calves. Please alert my staff to these changes.

The next day, we drove five hours to my favorite place in the world: White Sands.

White Sands / Photo by Michael Wichita

White Sands / Photo by Michael Wichita

Then the next day I put him on a plane home. I stayed a couple more days, to eat, obviously. Also got to have some long-overdue drinks with people I knew from the Albuquerque Tribune. I missed the many rounds of drinks (and tears and laughs) in February 2008 when the paper closed (I was in L.A.; it was Oscar weekend), and I was so happy to see some old friends, and make some new ones too. Here’s a photo that Steven St. John, a former Trib photog, took. Adele, Ollie and I are doubtless enjoying Joline’s stories, probably about her Adam Lambert fixation — she’s across the table. Also at the table are Charlotte and Jack. Others were there. I ate most of those green chile cheese fries, or tried to.

Adele Chavez, Ollie Reed, Hank Stuever / Photo by Steven St. John

Tribunistas: Adele Chavez, Ollie Reed, Hank Stuever / Photo by Steven St. John

I’m going back to Albuquerque this summer to work on a piece of writing that might go with some photographs that my friend KayLynn Deveney has been shooting. I can’t give away much about KayLynn’s new project, except that the subject fits the bill in a very Albuquerque way: Something at once lovely and unsettling. Something cheery and yet disturbing, wrong but somehow right. Something you want to know more about, but might not like the answer to. A thing that some people have embraced, some tried to cover up, and some let go to ruin. Something where ideas of a happy life collide with bad taste and faded dreams. I’m in.


  1. Nance on May 2, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I heard Paul Shrader, the writer/director, speak once. He was kind of a jerk, but he said he tells his students to write about the things that prod them awake at 3 a.m. You’re in good company, but much nicer.

  2. Matt on May 3, 2010 at 2:25 am

    El Camino! I went to college in Socorro (New Mexico Tech) and there were many, many late night study sessions at El Cam. I almost want to drive down from Albuquerque now to Socorro to visit some friends that never escaped and have a meal at El Camino right now.

  3. Dan Zak on May 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I would like to read about the East Mountain please.

  4. Joline Gutierrez Krueger on May 3, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    Surely I talked about things other than Adam Lambert. Then again, maybe not.

  5. KarenZ on May 3, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    Very interesting. And I love White Sands too. I remember first going there as a child and feeling like I was on another planet. We had a picnic lunch under the most desolate picnic shelter you can imagine. I’d like to go back there. Also again to Carlsbad Caverns.

  6. brendandoherty on May 3, 2010 at 11:39 pm

    two great things about this.

    1: the best theme=the stranger comes to town. good writing demands, and you recognize, hank, that the ziggers be viewed by the zaggers. Why do they zig? what good is zigging when we have zagging, and so on. great questions for the ziggers, and when those zaggers read that story, haven’t we all learned a little bit more about ourselves?

    2: best chile in Socorro. it is hot, and dry, and awful in a repulsive way, and there is a certain charm in liking a place because it is tough, slightly evil in its uncaring quality, and worth a few curse words. like a cactus.

    I, too love the places you mention, because, at the very least, they are unlike anywhere else. I marvel at the Meth moms and the engineer dads with well stocked toolsheds manage to cling like fossilized barnacles to NM. Most of us who love it have to leave it as well.

    some trees, like some plants, people and places, just do better when they are placed in a different container. I miss it because I can navigate it with my eyes closed, see the ghosts of people who lived in the houses, feel the anguished, rushed heartbeats of people who long to be somewhere else, despite knowing that when they get there, the there isn’t what they thought. And the people around them have SETTLED. Oh, I could go on.

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