WHEN ART IMITATES LIFE: English teacher’s novel gets real as he’s ‘going to the desert after this’
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“Going to the desert after this.”
This six-word autobiography may have been written for a fictional character, but English teacher Ron Bell seems to be living up to what he wrote five years ago.
After teaching at Country Day for 18 years, Bell has decided to retire to explore different places, write poetry and continue past writing projects, the main one being that of the character for whom the earlier autobiography was written.
Set in the small town of Borrego Springs in the Anza-Borrego State Park (just south of Coachella Valley in Southern California), Bell’s story is about a retired physics professor who moves to the desert.
In the desert, the professor has an “uncanny experience” with a chupacabra, a mythical creature from the Americas, and a character who appears to be a mysterious Native American shaman, but may be some sort of other mystical being.
This project started when Bell gave his creative writing class an assignment to write a six-word autobiography, develop a main character from that, and then go on to develop a full story.
“I wrote ‘Going to the desert after this,’ so I created a character who did that,” Bell said. “Why did I write what I wrote? I wrote about the Southwest because it just occurred to me. I taught my creative writing students just to write what came to them.
“It was near Halloween at the time, and I thought, ‘What’s spooky? A chupacabra!’ And then I went from there.
“I wrote the story and thought that it was fun, so I decided to write a series of stories containing these characters.”
Bell described the completed work as being something like an episodic novel with characters who pass in and out of each other’s lives, but so far he’s written only the first two installments, with the working titles “Chupacabra” and “Shaman and Professor.”
“It’s kind of focused on the identity of the mystery man,” Bell said. “Is he an actual Native American, a mystical being or a fraud? I haven’t quite resolved the plot yet.”
According to Bell, he’s had fun creating the characters and deciding how they interact because they come from many different backgrounds and cultures and have many different philosophies.
“There’s one guy who descended from the 1930s midwestern Okie migration, one guy whose ancestors are Californios (who are descended from early Spanish settlers) and, of course, there are Native American and Mexican-American characters,” Bell said.
“The main character is of Basque descent, which represents the ethnicity of the early conquistadors. It’s like a cross section of the different peoples who made up California.”
Bell said that he’s already studied the Native American culture of the Anza-Borrego area a bit for the development of his stories, but he plans to travel down there to learn even more.
But on top of going to Southern California to do research for his story, he’s going there because it’s where his daughter (Alexandra, ’07) and son-in-law live, and at the end of the summer he’s due to have a grandson, who will be named Theodore.
Bell is also quite optimistic about the future of his position at Country Day, which will be filled next year by Jason Hinojosa.
“I’ve already read Hinojosa’s novel (‘The Last Lawsons’), and I was impressed by it,” Bell said. “I thought it was quite good. I’m actually donating my copy to the library at Country Day.”
Bell said Hinojosa will likely have a different teaching style and focus on different material.
But this isn’t necessarily bad in Bell’s eyes.
“Hinojosa is coming here with an advanced degree in creative writing,” Bell said. “I would hope that he urges the school to allow him to teach a creative writing elective.
“Students here want to write, and I think that he could do it very well.”
Bell said that he has enjoyed teaching Country Day students because they are interesting people who are committed to learning.
“It felt like I was making a worthwhile contribution to come and share what I knew about certain things,” Bell said. “The students always gave feedback that was helpful.
“I also liked the atmosphere at Country Day. It was a very relaxed and jovial atmosphere, while still seriously learning about things. I enjoyed interacting with my colleagues to the extent that I did. The teacher community was interesting as well.
“A lot of people talk about communities, but I was never really attracted to a sense of community. I’ve always actually been more of a loner. However, I never minded being a part of this community.”
But as the end of this year comes around, this soon-to-be-retired professor will leave the community to explore a desert.
Hopefully he won’t encounter any mysterious shamans or chupacabras.
—By Quin LaComb