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A writing session a day keeps the pandemic at bay. In a few months, you might even have a book.

When faced with shelter-in-place orders, most of us hunkered down to clean cabinets and watch Netflix. Not Armen Bacon and Phyllis Brotherton. They wrote a book together.

Pictured above, top left: Armen Bacon and Phyllis Brotherton got creative during the pandemic.

On the July episode of “The Munro Review on CMAC,” I welcome the local writers as my guests to talk about “The Words Between Us: A Pandemic Abecadarius.” It isn’t published yet, but I want to highlight the project because it is a great example of how creativity can keep us humming along even in times of crisis.

If you aren’t in the mood for video, here is a written recap:

First off, what the heck is an Abecadarius?

It’s an ancient form of writing that uses the alphabet as a structuring tool. The theme of the first section starts with an “A,” the second with a “B,” etc. “The Words Between Us” starts out with a section of musings on the subject of “Attention.” That’s followed by “Balance,” then “Crave,” and so on.

How did the authors end up writing an Abecadarius?



“My first idea about the book was to collaborate with Armen if she was agreeable — to do something together,” Brotherton says. “Then I had the idea of structuring it around the alphabet.”

Bacon loved the idea.

They knew each other well. Bacon, known for her memoir “Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship,” and columns for the Fresno Bee, was a mentor to Brotherton in writing classes at CSU Summer Arts. Brotherton left a job as CEO at Valley PBS, got her MFA at Fresno State at age 66, wrote a book she’s trying to get published and in general is embracing the writerly life.

Let’s talk logistics. Did they write the book together, word by word?

No. They wrote segments blind, working between four and six hours most days, but then they would confer with each other: mixing and nixing, gnashing and mashing words together. Most important, they committed to writing every day. The sections aren’t signed, and eventually the authorial voices blend together into sort of a literary duet. There is variety to the writing style, ranging from traditional anecdotes and hybrid writing to experimental form (and even images).

Did they map out the whole book, letter by letter, beforehand? Or did they make it up as they went along?

Here’s the shocking thing (for them, considering their personalities). They didn’t have it all planned out. Authors Gone Wild.

“Phyllis and I are both type A, organized people, both control freaks, and normally we have a vision of where we’re going to land,” Bacon says. “In this instance, we said no. We wanted it to be more free form. We never got too far ahead. It’s really a great lesson in staying in the moment.”

What kind of pandemic experiences do they write about?

How about this as an example, one of the short offerings in the “Attention” section.

In the beginning pandemic panic, Brotherton made a Trader Joe’s run. People are grabbing the last package of pasta, bottle of olive oil, bag of rice. She stands in the checkout line with a heaping cart:

“I spot the liquor section,” she writes. “Brandy! A bottle of brandy could come in handy in an isolation pinch. One bottle left, in the farthest reaches of the back bottom shelf. A young woman offers to snag it for me, getting down on all fours. I think about my skewed priorities and those who can’t afford anything but basic staples, also now impossible to find. I almost put the brandy back. Vow to donate to the local food bank.”

It is a light-hearted moment in the book, but there’s depth to the moment. Brotherton stopped and asked herself: Did she need that brandy? All these other people scurrying around the store, what do they need?

Later, as she wrote about the moment, she started thinking more about how lucky she was.

“My position was certainly one of privilege,” she says. “In the sense that I could bake a lot of bread and buy brandy and have fun and write — that certainly wasn’t everyone’s experience.”

(By the way, she still hasn’t touched that brandy.)


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Many of us have had more time to think and reflect during the pandemic. How did that work out for the authors?

Some of the book is in present tense, but comforting memories often drift in. So does speculation about the future.

“When you have time (to think), you fast-forward sometimes, trying to imagine what life will be like six months from now,” Brotherton says. “And you also fall back into time — lost and forgotten memories.”

The book paints a picture of a world that once was, a world that currently is, and what life might be like years from now.

What has helped get them through the pandemic?

“One of the things I learned early on was that I had this recurring vision of my mother and her cabbage soup,” Bacon says. “I needed comfort food. I had that sort of overarching, I-want-my-mommy vision. What would my mommy tell me now in this unheard-of time that we’re living? How would she comfort me? Phyllis and I both found ourselves doing a lot of cooking that we didn’t normally do before. There was therapeutic therapy in chopping vegetables.”

Tell us something funny from the book.

Let’s talk hair for a moment. Brotherton needed hers cut. Same for her wife, Denise. At first they told each other:

Phyllis: “You can’t touch my hair.”

Denise: “You can’t touch mine.”

But they got desperate. Brotherton ended up taking a big chunk out of her wife’s hair.

Has it grown back?

“We’re still working to make that right,” Brotherton says. “The epilogue is that she’s now been back to a professional to try to repair things.”

What’s next for the book?

So far they’ve submitted it to two publishers. The goal is to get it published by 2021. They want the turnaround to be relatively quick because it’s so timely. For now, you can read an excerpt of the book at Entropy magazine.

Living through a pivotal moment

And we’re still in it. (Especially this week, when it seems as if the state might go back into lockdown.) Bacon doesn’t want to take this opportunity for granted.

“Life is fragile,” she says. “Everyone is vulnerable. Let’s stay healthy and let’s stay creative. Let’s get ingrained that writing is a daily practice. If not now, when? Hopefully we’ll never have this kind of time where we’re stuck at home. Let’s take advantage. Let’s also chronicle this journey because this is a historic time we are in.”



Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

Comments (1)

  • Bernice Hostetter

    My Dear Armen! You and your friend wrote the book I want to read and would have enjoyed writing! Donald M. Thank you for your article about this very special book written by two special ladies! A book for the Ages!

    reply

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