Category Archives: Twisted Road News & Events

Writing From Memory

How has the pandemic and its isolation affected people whose primary pursuits are creative – writers, artists, composers? Has it resulted in an absence of distractions that have heightened and amplified the creative process? Or has the resulting silence instead silenced the muse? Author Pat Spears shares her thoughts on writing during the pandemic.

Where the Proverbial Rubber Meets the Road

Mary L. Bailey

As the death toll rose in ever more tragic numbers, and we as a nation were advised to drink bleach, a frightened and confused citizenry was left to discover its own new normal within the context of a dysfunctional government. We were no longer able to turn to the familiar comforts of family and friends for fear of infecting or being infected by those we loved. Our human contacts were shut down to as few as possible, and those of us who were privileged to possess the necessary resources turned to online shopping and delivery to our doors.

In an absence of the familiar in my small universe, I turned my attention to a three-decade old practice of butt-in-chair, fingers-on-keyboard diligence, the mainstay of my approach to productive writing. But this time it was not enough, and I experienced a rash of debilitating self-doubt, and my fair share of self-pity. I kept at it, but largely failed to reengage that magical psychic space where the words seem to find their own way onto the page, and I feel as though I am simply along for the ride.

Instead, my writing was stiff, forced, flat on the page, though my stubbornness turned out page after page filled with words but not the right words. I had lost my sense of connectedness to my fictional characters. Their unique voices were drowned out by the extraneous noise and chaos that filled my head. I believed that I had lost the ability to honestly tell their stories.

In my funk, I shared a few beers with my most trusted, though masked and distanced, writer-friend. She listened while I ran a one-sided litany of possible causes. Was it the stress of the pandemic, prolonged isolation, or simply a creative slowdown? She smiled and answered that I had a condition she had named writer’s palsy. She recommended that I give my sore brain a busman’s holiday. Her suggestion was that I open a new document and begin a new, for-my-eyes-only piece, drawn from my memories. Forget universal and go personal.

Okay, I was desperate, so I was willing to try anything. I began a piece I thought of as a snippet and it grew into a number of short pieces from my best childhood memories. Many of these were centered around stories my sister and I had heard from our grandma during our two-week summer vacations. In the time we spent with her, alone, without our parents, she told spell-binding thrillers full of family, love, violence, wild animals, and ghostly creatures from the swamp behind her country trailer. Stories I believe to this day were her original creations. If there are genes for storytelling that are passed from one generation to the next, mine came from her, and, as I learned later, from my dad.

In my memories, my sister and I, along with a few other motley stray kids from around the neighborhood, perched on the wobbly steps to Grandma’s makeshift porch. The porch itself held barely room enough for Grandma to settle into her newly acquired second- or third-hand platform rocker, leaving a bit of space for her nearly rusted-out refrigerator. A gossipy neighbor woman had dared to tell a big fat fib as to how Grandma had come by the new rocker. Grandma countered that she had traded three of her best laying hens for the damned rocker and the woman should take a hike until her hat floated. Although that damned rocker was clearly not worth any three of her hens,

I totally believed Grandma, though the hens in question never left their nest until age and low production caught up to them and they graced her Sunday table, floating in a pot of her famous dumplings. Then, I was the same kid who believed Grandma when she had said my walking barefoot in the chicken yard explained my being the tallest fifth grader in my elementary school. I started wearing my shoes on future visits, and sure enough, by seventh grade a boy or two had overtaken my height. Still, I remained the tallest girl straight through high school graduation, so I figured Grandma was at least half right.

A few days ago, at a gathering of a small group of writers for our first lunch—outdoors—since the onset of Covid 19, one woman asked if I had written during the isolation of the pandemic. A second replied that her question was tantamount to asking if I continued to breathe through that time. I replied that except for time spent healing from a total knee replacement, a broken arm, and back surgery (which I had forgotten to mention earlier), I had.

I now have placed a complete manuscript for my proposed novel titled Hotel Impala into the wonderfully capable hands of my editor. I understand that book dedications are considered by some to be old fashioned, but I think I’ll dedicate this book to my grandma, Mary L. Bailey, who introduced me to oral stories, and my best friend who honestly saved my … bacon.

Learn more about Pat’s writing here

Buy a copy of her novel It’s Not Like I Knew Her here.

War of Roses and Weeds

It’s the first weekend of summer. Many of us are now vaccinated and we’re traveling again, seeing friends and family again – returning to normal in many ways. As we slowly emerge from isolation, like hibernating bears awakening, my question to some of my writer friends has been: have you spent the last year in metaphoric sleep, or have been like the panda, staying awake because you must? What has the pandemic meant for your life and your writing?
JAMES CARPENTER, author of No Place to Pray, shares his thoughts.

War of Roses and Weeds

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose tells of sending Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Five Men” to a friend whose fears about the state of the world were making it hard to write. The poem is about five men executed by firing squad, the speaker asking why he has been writing unimportant poems on flowers when he knows that such violence rages in the world. His answer: to “once again / in dead earnest / offer to the betrayed world / a rose.” Prose’s friend responds that that is the problem. How do we know that what we are offering is not a rose but a weed?

The United States was already in crisis when COVID struck, making broader the question about writing during the pandemic. As thousands of Americans were dying every day, we were also writing during an administration that came terrifyingly close to dismantling our democracy. We were writing during the elevation of racial animus to a place where it has laid claim to legitimacy as a political force and writing during a period of radical social polarization that breeds violence as dark as Herbert’s firing squad’s. Literary writing amid all this felt unseemly, a weaker cousin of Theodor Adorno’s, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”

For quite a while, I could avoid the question because I had a good excuse not to write. Through all of 2019 and early 2020, I was editing and revising the manuscript of what was to become my forthcoming literary comedy, Nineteen to Go. (By the way, Joan Leggitt, here at Twisted Road, was one of my early readers. We agreed that, as a comedy, the book was not a fit for Twisted Road’s catalogue. Still, Joan showed extraordinary generosity in helping me get it into shape to pitch to her competitors. No amount of thanks on my part can be commensurate to that degree of grace.)

I could do the work of revision because it is as much engineering as it is art, and though intellectually challenging, less emotionally demanding than writing new text, a less vulnerable phase of narration’s process. I could polish my mischievous little novel while putting off discovering if I could actually write through my imagination during these hard times. Then I found a publisher for Nineteen to Go, and it was time to find out.

Though I sat at my desk nearly every day and began at least half a dozen novels, none of them went anywhere, even though some of their openings sounded promising in the moment:

The day after the Sunday school lesson about Lazarus, Cindy found a dead squirrel in the yard and brought it back to life.

My sister Sharon started a lot of different clubs before getting to the dream club: the art club and the book club and the cooking club and a bunch more not even worth mentioning.

You could stand in the dust along the road and look eastward and see the road lying straight as a steel rail on the desert floor, and you could see its width fading to nothing where it rose like a vein of rust onto the low mesa twenty miles beyond where you stood.

 Before she was a preacher, Blessing McAllister ran a whorehouse out of an abandoned Baptist church she’d took over on a quit claim.

Though I had stories in mind when I composed these sentences, some that I’d even outlined fairly extensively, I just couldn’t get them to gestate. I had the most success with the dream club, making it to 25,000 words before the story up and quit on me. The desert line didn’t even make it to a second sentence. It was as if the dark world outside was swallowing my narratives as quickly as I could imagine them. Every story line seemed insipid, uninspired, and unoriginal. Given the times, not worth the telling. Weeds, not roses.

So then, what would a literary rose actually look like in these times? More and more, I’m thinking that my earlier turn to comedy was fortuitous, the right answer accidently stumbled upon. If comedy is at its essence a middle finger to despair, then perhaps to write funny is the most serious writing of all, and the most dangerous—a signal that the writer is not intimidated, that the author may be fearful but you will never see it, and that mockery has the power to not only neutralize hollow men’s threats but to lay them out cold.

Maybe I’ll start once more with something like this:

Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Marjorie Taylor Greene marched arm-in-arm into The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

To learn more about James Carpenter and his writing, click here.

To purchase a copy of No Place to Pray, click here.

My Way Through

It has been with both joy and relief that I’ve welcomed friends – all of us fully vaccinated – back into my home these past few weeks. Not everyone has made it through the crisis yet, but we’re getting there. My question to some of my writer friends has been: How did you get there? What has the pandemic meant for your life and your writing?
SUSAN RUKEYSER, author of Not On Fire, Only Dying, shares her thoughts.

Before Covid, I hosted the monthly Desert Split Open Mic in Joshua Tree, California. The focus was on feminist, queer, and otherwise radical prose and poetry. For me, it was vital community.

When Covid sent us home, I was determined to stay connected. I worried about those already stretched thin by years of combative, chaotic politics. Like me. I was also reeling from big changes in my personal life. I’d hoped that 2020 would be the year things calmed down, so I could finish my next novel, “The Worst Kind of Girl.”

I knew what I wanted to write about: bodies lost to the desert, missing people, sexual fluidity, and the ways every woman does it “wrong,” according to someone. I had a folder of false starts and dead ends: fragments, scenes, bits of dialogue, thousands of words that added up to not much. Maybe I wasn’t ready yet. And I always had something else to do.

I published some of the short, lyric essays I’d written for the open mic, including I Didn’t Mean to Write This (X-Ray Literary Magazine). I recorded myself reading my work and found ways to make it interesting, like performing Ingrown Rage in a scold’s bridle. I played with form and indulged my worst fears in dystopian, feminist science fiction, voicing my main character in The Ebb Somatic for the Simultaneous Times podcast.

The Desert Split Open became a Zoom author interview series, welcoming writers like Vanessa Veselka and L.I. Henley. (We return to in-person gatherings with The Desert Split Open Presents… Annie Connole.)

When a sixth conservative justice was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I knew I had to publish another title from my micro imprint World Split Open Press. And That Was That: An Abortion Memoir by Bonnie Brady was launched with a special Zoom reading and conversation.

I stayed busy to cope with the daily, anxious dread. I could no longer bear to write nonfiction. Or, not so directly. I retreated inward, and I sensed others doing the same, as the seasons changed, and we wrestled with our national grief and prolonged isolation. I surrendered to solitude, releasing more connections to the world—temporarily—so that I could figure out, once and for all, what this novel needed from me.

By the fall, I understood how the pieces fit together. I knew the story I was supposed to tell. “The Worst Kind of Girl” developed its own momentum, and I tried to keep up. One chapter was published in Cholla Needles #45, and they recorded me reading it: “Timeline for Decomposition.”

Now I am just a few pages from completing the novel. Words were my way through this terrible year. They were how I made sense of this time and what came before, personal and political. I wrote myself to readiness and then surrendered. Words are proof of my survival. They are how I will find my way back.

For more about Susan, click here.

For a copy of her book, Not On Fire, Only Dying, click here.