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.