Category Archives: Twisted Road Writers

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.


Soaring and Sinking in the Pandemic

Has it been easier or more difficult for very creative people to cope with the forced isolation brought on by the pandemic? I asked several Twisted Road authors about their experiences of writing during COVID. The response below is from Elizabeth McCulloch, author of Dreaming The Marsh.

I have an easy life, even during the terrible thirteen-months-and-counting of the pandemic. I don’t live alone, but with my husband and granddaughter, and we get along well. I have a garden, a swimming pool, the writing work I love, and no money worries. I don’t have a job that demands I spend most of my time virtually, nor small children whom I must help with virtual school. The only direct impacts I’ve suffered from Covid 19 are a minor one, being unable to dine out, and a major one, missing the annual gathering of family in Maine.

Even so, adjusting to the new world, with my own small troubles and the daily news of horrors, took some time. WHO declared a pandemic early in March. In my diary from March 2020, I see how the virus filled my thoughts.

March 16: I sat down outside with my book printed out with a wide left margin for revision, and many notes as to the direction I want to go. But Covid 19 overtook my mind. Over and over: deaths are high among those over 60 and those with an underlying medical condition. That’s me.

Like my mind, my life is cluttered, and my diaries are sprinkled with lists, as well as writing ideas, drafts of essays, and notes from encounters with businesses and bureaucracies. I found a list from that first week, a mixture of immediate tasks and more general pursuits to keep me contented though shut in at home: Sort recipes, Garden, Call plumber, Crochet, Tidy deck, Order backpack and underpants, Find Kindle, Find shoe, Minestrone

After a few weeks of floundering, I found a certain tranquility within my boundaried world. I couldn’t travel or run around with friends. Mostly confined to my house, I almost achieved the productivity of a writers’ retreat. I had submitted my third novel, Seeing the Edge, to Twisted Road in January, and Joan Leggett had recently suggested substantial revisions.

Here is a cheerful email I sent to Joan in spring 2020:
We are all three doing ok. A’s idea of bliss is never leaving the house (though even she is getting bored). Joe is Zoom teaching and meeting – pretty comical, as he sits with his laptop out on the deck wearing a blazer, oxford shirt and tie above, and a blue bathing suit with huge red lobsters below.

And I am beginning the day with writing, no miserable newspaper for me, followed usually by a walk in our wetlands reserve, where huge male gators are bellowing, 23 babies were crawling just outside a nest, and birds birds birds greet the day. I block the internet most of the day, and only look at the Times in late afternoon. I’VE MASTERED PIECRUST!! and thus far have made an apple pie, pecan pie, chicken pot pie, and Argentine empanadas. I won’t get fat, since the two family gluttons dispatch them within 24 hours.

But my big news is the revisions are coming along very well. I have it pretty much figured out and have written two and a half chapters. As usual, I am stimulated and embarrassed writing sex scenes, though I am anything but graphic. And I assure you it’s not 2 1/2 chapters of erotica!

Well into the summer I worked and achieved with desperate energy, but then it flagged. After that, manic periods alternated with gloom. I grieved the loss of three friends. Writing was like slogging through mud. My couch cushion and I both developed depressions. I drifted from chore to chore, gazed into space, read too little, watched Netflix too much. Still, during the good times, the writing flourished.

I published three personal essays and a book review on my website. I sent a query to an agent for novel #2, which Twisted Road doesn’t want. I wrote seven chapters of novel #4, an apparently endless saga of a 20th century marriage. I developed a tentative plan for poetry, stories and essays left in my charge by a friend who died shortly before the pandemic. And I revised and resubmitted Seeing the Edge three times. These were not minor tweaks, but a response to such Joan comments as We have to see your character’s dark side. The two major characters should have an effect on each other. It lacks a narrative arc. I (almost) always follow Joan’s guidance, because she knows what’s what; I knew nothing about narrative arcs.

The peaks and valleys continue. I’ve given up pie crust but taken up high protein bread. My garden is greening and blooming. And the two highest peaks: my granddaughter has been accepted at a college that looks like a perfect fit, and Seeing the Edge has been accepted by Twisted Road; it will be published in Spring 2022.

To learn more about Elizabeth McCulloch, click here.
To buy her book, click here: