Guest Blogger Jessica Roth: Arcosanti and the Writing Process

[I met today’s guest blogger, Jessica Roth, at the Playa Artist Residency. While there I discovered that she had spent some time at Arcosanti, not as one of the Arcosanti “workshoppers,” but as a different kind of workshopper. I was eager to have her contribute to the blog because of this experience, but she was unsure what to write about. The stars lined up when the Liar’s League of London… well, I’ll let her tell it.]

“Mesquite”: One story’s journey from an Arizona mesa to a London pub

Earlier this month, the Liar’s League of London performed a short story of mine, “Mesquite.” It is always an honor to share my work and a thrill to know that somebody enjoyed a piece well enough to publish it.  But there is something bittersweet about seeing my words fixed on a page, too.  Publication marks a new phase in the life of a piece of writing, where dynamism and evolution are replaced by a certain inertia, or maybe an equilibrium.  The feeling this brings is what I imagine a mild case of empty nest syndrome might be like.  Because that is what I have been feeling lately, I have been thinking a lot about “Mesquite,” where it came from, and how it made its way across the pond.

Mesa across from Arcosanti
Photo by Wolfgang Held

I wrote the first sloppy pages that would someday become “Mesquite” during an especially mild January on the Mogollon Rim. I was a student at Prescott College, enrolled in a month-long creative writing workshop, and panicked because, already a third of the way into the course, I could not write. I told the professor about the long, futile hours spent at my desk and the crumpled pages that had begun to crowd my wastebasket. She suggested that I take a day off. Get outside. Clear my head. Try again. One aim of the workshop was to mimic the experience of a writer’s retreat, so for the duration of the course my classmates and I lived at Arcosanti. In the high desert of central Arizona, Arcosanti is architect Paolo Soleri’s “urban laboratory,” where his goal is to achieve an intersection of architecture and ecology that offers a sustainable alternative to the sprawling model of modern cities. Situated on a mesa beside the Agua Fria River, silt-cast concrete buildings are set against a dynamic, light-and-shadow landscape. It is beautiful, and sometimes eerie.

I took my professor’s advice and went walking. Down to the river lined with mesquite trees, whose winter-bare branches overhung a lush carpet of the greenest grass I had ever seen. Up the face of a basalt cliff to a cave where the histories of long-extinguished fires were written in soot across the walls. Towards the end of the day, I found myself on top of a mesa that rose on the far side of the scrub-choked flat that spread out below the studios. I sat on a ledge where I could watch the last light color the sky above Arcosanti. It was there that I pulled pen and paper from my backpack and felt my writer’s block begin to crumble.

“Mesquite” started as a stream of consciousness free-write. The story seemed to bubble up out of the ground, out of that place. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that “Mesquite” is rooted firmly in the landscape I encountered at Arcosanti. It is a character, in my mind, just as much as the narrator. I am transported back to that mesa every time I reread “Mesquite.” Had I not been exactly there, exactly then; had I not wandered the grounds and let the landscape sink in past my skin; had I not been falling for one of my classmates—a man whose demeanor rather resembled that of Tyler, the object of my narrator’s affection—I’d have never written that particular story.

“Mesquite” evolved differently from other pieces I had written up until that point. It developed slowly. It made me wait. Four years took place between first draft and published draft, with countless other drafts in between. It has had three separate titles and at least that many beginnings and endings.  “Mesquite” was the first piece to sell me on the process of long revision, of laying my hands on something over and over again. It demanded that I meet my work on its own time and commit to a larger process. I resisted this at first, because I am nothing if not stubborn and, at times, a little impatient. But I have since found tremendous value in this way of working. It has encouraged me to explore longer forms (including a novel-in-progress that, at the rate it’s going, I might finish before I retire from this earth), and it has allowed me to go deeper into the stories and essays that I write. These have been important lessons, and I hope that they translate into a more meaningful experience for the folks who read my work.

You can watch the performance and read “Mesquite” here.

Jessica Roth lives in central Arizona where she writes stories that should be poems and poems that should be stories, instead of working on her first novel. Her words have appeared in Alligator Juniper and CT Review. She will start her MFA at Boise State University this fall.

[cross posted on High Desert Mornings.]
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