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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.

TALES FROM MY INBOX: Part I – Writing Your Passion

“Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style. I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.” Kurt Vonnegut

What are you writing now? A novel? A short story? A memoir? A journal? A letter to your best friend from college? Whatever it is, my question to you is: why are you writing it? To be a little clearer, why are you writing THIS story, journal, letter, etc.? What is it about this story that is compelling you to write it?

Memoirs and fiction based on writers’ lives are regular visitors to my submission inbox. It’s no mystery why we write them. We all have our own stories and we need to tell them. In truth, we all have many stories to tell, so when I read these submissions I often wonder, why THIS story?

Sometimes, the why is very clear: the writer has developed a passion for promoting something, or for changing something, that has altered or defined his or her life. A passion for gun control develops in the life of someone who has suffered gun violence; a passion for motherhood develops in someone who struggled to become a mother; a passion marine life develops in someone who grows up swimming in the gulf. When this passion is present, it almost always produces a good story.

If there is nothing to reveal the writer’s passion, and the story ambles from anecdote to anecdote to anecdote, there is generally very little that keeps a reader turning the pages.

The same is true for fiction of every genre: mystery, romance, family saga – you name it.

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago with a talented young writer who talked about the evolution of his writing focus. He said he once imagined himself writing conventional stories about corporate greed and governmental malfeasance, but was now thinking more along the lines of writing science fiction. I remarked that some of the best stories I’ve ever read used those conventional themes in very unconventional ways – science fiction, for example. His eyes lit with something I can only guess, but I imagined he had already begun creating a story in his mind – maybe a corrupt emperor on the planet Caligula who has learned to control the weather so that he can flood cities and enslave their inhabitants. What’s important is that if examining greed and corruption is what he cares about, he can tell it any way he chooses and still make it compelling. What matters is the passion.

Are you writing your passion? Feel free to share.

DEFINING RESILIENCE

In November and December, the US Postal Service ran television ads depicting delivery of packages (lovely surprises, no doubt!) to a variety of rural and urban homes – all of them clean, bright, and appealing – using “Home for the Holidays” as background music. For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home, right? Go back there (or at the very least have packages delivered there) and you will be happy. Convincing us to look backward is a great selling tool.

It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like if that green, grass of home we played in as children had been laid waste by war or multi-year drought or some other disaster; if, for whatever reason, our childhood homes had been made uninhabitable and we had been forced to flee for our lives. Someone whose homeland is under siege or has been destroyed by war or weather becomes a refugee. There are millions of refugees all over the world who can never go home again, so they struggle to make new homes. For some of them, refugee camps become home for years or decades. The fortunate ones have been allowed to resettle in host countries like the United States.

The media loves wreckage, so we frequently see images of ruined cities and tent compounds with no running water or sanitary facilities.  It’s painful to watch and we can find no end to it, so it’s understandable when, after months and years of seeing images of desperate families running for their lives, we start to look away. We imagine we’ve seen all there is to see.

But there’s more to it than that.

There are resettled refugees, in this country and many others, who can show us the face of resilience and hope. These are not terrorists in the making, nor should they be made objects of our pity. They deserve our respect, and they can help teach us, if we’re willing to learn, how to look to the future instead of the past. They can teach us to look past our differences and see our shared humanity.

I recently listened to a refugee who had fled the genocide in Burma (Myanmar). He made it across the border into Malaysia, only to picked up for being in that country illegally. He spent a year in a Malaysian prison before being allowed to enter a refugee resettlement program, then spent another two years completing the vetting process that would allow him to enter the United States. (“My friend went to Norway,” he said. “He only had to wait six months.”) When asked about the hardships he endured, he dismissed them, saying, “I was lucky. I’m here. I’m safe. I have a good life. Many were not so lucky.” He has started his own business, and is now employing others, clearly proud of the fact he can say he isn’t taking away anyone else’s job.

Resilience personified.

There are many, many stories like this. Now, more than ever, we need to understand refugee resettlement in terms of what such resilient people can offer us, and stop letting politicians with their own agendas tell us they are a threat to our country. We need more courage and resilience in our midst – not less.

Twisted Road Publications is partnering with a new non-profit organization, Refugee Stories, Inc. to collect, transcribe and publish some of their stories. Since Twisted Road is a small press with limited resources, we are asking for help. We need resources to be able to:
– Offer small gifts to individuals who are willing to share their stories.
– Reimburse the interviewers from Refugee Stories for their time and help their organization get established.
– Cover up-front costs for editing, designing, and publishing the finished stories.

Your support will allow us to collect and publish the first volume of stories. Proceeds from the sale of books will help both Twisted Road Publications and Refugee Stories, Inc., continue this important work. 

If you can help, please click here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/vaa5e-refugee-stories