Volume 14, Issue 78  |  September 30, 2022

Secrets and Sins: Third Street Writers returned to tell them


Photos by Jeff Rovner

A cat devours his owner’s eyes. A woman gleefully receives the news of her mother’s death, only to discover she killed her. A recently deceased man’s spirit visits on Halloween. A hotel, rumored to be haunted, contains surprises of a much different kind. These were a few of the sins and secrets revealed last Thursday night at the Third Street Writers’ Halloween Open Mic at the LCAD Gallery downtown. Twelve writers addressed the crowd, reading from standalone pieces, works in progress and some previously published material. 

While the public was treated to a small sampling of their haunting stories, Stu News discovered what happens behind the scenes. How do writing workshops actually work? Where do writers find their inspirations? How did they keep creativity alive during the pandemic? And where else can we read them in print? Several members of Third Street Writers shared the backstories behind their stories. 

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Third Street Writers Secrets and Sins Open Mic Night at the LCAD Gallery on Thursday, Oct. 28. (L-R) Lynette Brasfield, Cecile Sarruf, Rina Palumbo, Steve Fayne, Elaine Barnard, Susan Heiligman, Ellen Girardeau Kempler, Jenet Dechary, Suzanne Spinelli and Amy Dechary.

The secret lives of writers at work

Anyone can watch painters, sculptors or photographers at work. But writers? How do books happen? The how of writing can feel confounding, even for the writer. A supportive writing community provides much of the answer. 

After over a year on Zoom, Third Street Writers have reunited in person at the Susi Q Center to write together, critique one another’s work, host readings and craft lectures and resume the publication of their annual anthology, Beach Reads.

Before Third Street Writers got off the ground in 2015, a smaller cohort came together at the Susi Q Center when co-founder Christine Fugate brought local writers together for a weekly workshop. Amy Dechary (president), Rina Palumbo (vice president) and Victoria Kertz (treasurer) were Fugate’s first students and kept the organization going after she obtained a full-time teaching position at Chapman College. But the structural seeds Fugate planted allowed Third Street Writers to take off on their own. Since then, the group has met once a week to provide support, inspiration, feedback and opportunities for members to showcase their work in public readings and printed anthologies. 

The roughly 35 regular members have published four Beach Read anthologies, a regular column in Stu News Laguna (a 33-part series called “From Laguna with Love” whose final installment will print on November 12) and the COVID Chronicles

The group also hosts notable authors to teach writing workshops on craft and technique. Manuscript coach Cara Benson, local author and writing instructor Barbara DeMarco-Barrett and memoirist Mariah Summers all recently delivered lectures to the group. “We try to get someone well-known at least once a quarter,” Dechary said.

“Third Street Writers embody the kind of community every writer should have,” said Ellen Girardeau Kemper. “Welcoming to all regardless of age or experience, encouraging, focused on education and constantly growing as an organization. They fill a vacuum in our town, which has always promoted visual art and music above all. I would like to see Laguna’s arts organizations become more supportive of creative writing education and hybrid forms that incorporate writing, visual art and music.”   

Prompts and inspirations

Most writers report that inspiration can come from anywhere. Often, though not always, some kernel of truth is concealed inside the fiction. An obsession with a friend’s seahorse wallpaper might morph into a story about a woman who redecorates her powder room with a nautical theme, only to find herself transmuted into a mermaid. A humorous article can strike a personal chord. A beloved dog’s ashes, stored in the closet, may meld with the writer’s fears about climate change. Some stories are simply truthful recounts of actual events. 

For Third Street Writers, every workshop meeting begins with a prompt. “Sometimes people throw in different photographs or works of art as inspiration,” said Palumbo. “We’ve done smells and music. Another favorite is having each person write one sentence, then pass it to the left and that person writes a second sentence, and by the time it returns it’s a completed story.” The group also uses index cards (three per person) and jots down a person, place and thing on each one. Once shuffled around, whichever three you get is your prompt. “I might bring a book and have someone pick a page number. I’ll randomly choose a sentence from that page and that’s the prompt. We try to mix it up. But it’s a peer group, so whomever is leading gets to decide,” said Palumbo.

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Rina Palumbo reading an excerpt from her longer work “Pieces of the Sun”

Dechary’s “Powder Room” – the creepy story about the mermaids – began as a two-sentence prompt: “There was a light flickering inside the house. I was certain I had turned them all off before I left.”

Kempler’s “Dog Hauntings” was influenced by Edith Wharton’s ghost stories. Kempler also read her poem “Dog Dream in Drought Time,” which she wrote last spring while still in lockdown. “I have the ashes of two dogs in my closet,” Kempler said, while noting her friend has eight. “Even before the pandemic, I was struggling with what environmentalists have termed solastalgia, the distress caused by environmental pain. Witnessing the springtime of 2021 fail to blossom exacerbated my grief, which has seeped into my dreams. I remember past dogs running through puddles I don’t remember seeing in a decade of drought.”

“Radioman,” recently published in Terror House Magazine by Elaine Barnard, was inspired by a close friend. “He was a very passive guy who was a radioman in Vietnam and the Gulf War,” Barnard said. “His demeanor is so gentle that I could not imagine him being a killer. I was shocked to learn the brutal truth of jungle warfare when I asked him to dispose of a mouse. Of course, the story is fiction, inspired by fact and the writer’s license to make it a story.” 

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Elaine Barnard reads “Radioman,” recently published in “Terror House Magazine”

Theresa Keegan’s “Spirits of Love” arose, in part, after the recent death of her 50-year-old nephew. “There’s such an emphasis on spirits, especially in the pagan Celtic background, during Halloween,” said Keegan. “We all think we’re unique, but the death of loved ones is so universal that, for centuries, people have been seeking and welcoming the souls of loved ones who’ve passed. I wanted to draw attention to this tradition.”

Steve Fayne’s “Haunted House” is a true story about an illicit brothel. “We weren’t macho enough to try to stay in the hotel, but did try to get drinks,” said Fayne. “It was only after we were thrown out that we realized what kind of house it was. I later found out that it survived because there were several local politicians among its clientele.”

Suzanne Spinelli, who worked in the real estate industry for more than 12 years, understands competitive markets. That experience informed her story, “The Cottage on Blackbird Lane.” “The inspiration was a mishmash of Hansel and Gretel and a poem I loved as a kid about a spider trying to lure a fly into its web,” said Spinelli. “I thought it would be fun to go with an overeager Realtor as my protagonist and see where it went. Once I got into the story, the characters took it from there. This one ended up in a darker place than I expected.” 

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Suzanne Spinelli reading from her work “The Cottage on Blackbird Lane”

Lynette Brasfield, who teaches a novel writing course at Susi Q, said of the dead mother story, “I recently read an interview with David Sedaris in the New York Times, in which he opined that people do in fact think mean thoughts a lot of the time, but nobody admits to them, and that’s where humor often lies. I thought it might be fun to have a character who thinks such thoughts in contrast to her apparent sunniness.”

Palumbo says the workshop prompts are intended to be icebreakers to get people thinking about writing. “They’re not required. You don’t have to do them. But it’s fun,” she said. And, sometimes, those prompts can lead to publication. 

Keeping creativity alive during the pandemic

Artists seemed to fall into two opposing camps during the pandemic. For some, output soared. They had unexpected time and few social obligations, which gave them room to be productive. For others, the uncertain state of the world quashed their creativity. Third Street Writers fell into both factions, but all found the consistency of their meetings key to staying on track.

While the pandemic derailed their in-person meetings, the writers remained dedicated and cohesive. “Keeping it on Zoom helped,” said Palumbo. “It’s hard to manage the ups and downs of a creative life under uncertain circumstances. I personally like the energy of being in person because we could feed off each other. Being isolated, I wrote a lot of dark stuff – things that will never see the light of day because they were kind of out there.”

Dechary saw a few positives from the pandemic. “A lot of people joined our weekly Zoom call who normally couldn’t because they were working from home,” she said. “They restructured their schedules to join our group. That enabled some to start writing who otherwise couldn’t. And a lot of people got pieces published because they suddenly had time. I was one of them. I had a hard time writing new things, so I started digging out old stories and working on them. I got a couple published. That was a first for me.”

For others, the meetings provided some sociability and psychological comfort. “Even if people were only writing during our Zoom calls, it kept the machine oiled,” Dechary said.

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President Amy Dechary watches her colleagues from the audience

Keegan, a longtime member who also serves on the board, saw the pandemic as an opportunity to reevaluate the group’s routine and introduce fresh ideas. “It brought a new energy to the club,” she said. “We’re now offering salons, guest speakers and a dedicated writing time during Monday meetings. I’m not sure we would’ve shaken things up as much as we did if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. For now, we’re all thrilled with these new opportunities to foster a love of writing in Laguna Beach and beyond.”

Spinelli is a newcomer to the group. She moved to Laguna from Seattle in July 2020 and decided to leap into writing fulltime. She discovered Third Street Writers from a woman on the pickleball court and had a piece published in the “From Laguna with Love” column in Stu News last May. “I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and it’s been easy to do with their support,” Spinelli said. “I was pretty quiet at the beginning, but I’ve started to read some of my work recently and the feedback is really constructive and excellent.” 

“Third Street meetings were a real sanctuary during the pandemic,” said Keegan. “Every Monday we’d gather online, discuss the craft of writing, share our own writings and get constructive feedback from other members in the group. Fairly early on, Third Street produced the COVID Chronicles to document our experiences. We felt an obligation to record what was happening, living through this historical era.”

Although Fayne wasn’t an initial fan of Zoom, he came to see its benefits. “We’ll continue to use Zoom for those who cannot be in the room. We have a few part-time residents in the group. One guy is in upstate New York and one couple is in Northern California. We also have some people who aren’t driving anymore, so for all these folks, the hybrid structure works well.”

How Third Street Writers serve their community

Beyond their invaluable service to each other, several Third Street members advance the role of the literary arts in our broader community. 

Keegan developed a three-week outreach writing program for seniors that produced some amazing stories. “Hopefully they’ll be shared for generations,” she said. 

Kempler used her downtime during the pandemic to write a grant proposal to the City of Laguna Beach Arts Commission to fund a Poetry Trail featuring 10 poems inspired by public art on a prearranged route around downtown. “That project was funded, and I ultimately received 130 wonderful entries from community members of all ages. From those, I selected 10 poems. A talented designer volunteered to create signage, and I’m hoping to get approval from the Arts Commission to install the signs next to the art just before National Poetry Month in April 2022. I’m planning to lead poetry walks starting from our library to engage the public in the project. I’ve already created a Google Map of the trail, and plan to photograph the poets next to their signs and the artworks that inspired them. Three of them are young people whose parents or teachers got them involved with the project.” 

Kempler also assisted in judging the child and adult entries for the Laguna Beach Library’s Annual John Gardiner Poetry Contest. “It’s an experience I hope to repeat next year when the readings of winning works will (fingers crossed) be live and not on Zoom,” Kempler said.

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Jheri St. James

Third Street in print

The writing isn’t all fiction. Third Street Writers write and print across genres. “Jean Ardell published a book on women in baseball [Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey]. She has a column – “Left of Center” – in the Laguna Beach Independent, so she has a journalistic focus to her writing,” Dechary said. “We have people who write science fiction. I write historical fiction. We’ve got a memoirist, a journalist and other people who write columns. It’s a diverse group.” 

Barnard is the group’s flash fiction superstar. “I have been writing and fortunately getting published for several years now for my short and flash fiction. I always bring my stories to our Third Street workshops for critique before I submit them to literary journals. The feedback is so important,” she said. 

Although not a consistent member of Third Street Writers, Kempler is an award-winning nonfiction writer and poet. Her collection Thirty Views of a Changing World was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. 

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Ellen Girardeau Kempler reading her poem “Dog Dream in Drought Time” 

In the end, though, last week was about being back together and sharing stories. “I enjoy our reading events very much and missed not having any for so long,” said Fayne. “It encourages folks to continue (or to start) writing and that’s a good thing.” 

Not only was the theme appropriate for Halloween, “Secrets and Sins” spurred creativity in the writers and curiosity in the audience. “Every good story has a secret lurking somewhere in the narrative,” said Fugate. “If it’s a sinful secret, then even better!” 

To learn more about Third Street Writers, visit their website at The group meets on Mondays from 12-2 p.m. in the game room at the Susi Q Center located at 380 3rd St., Laguna Beach. 

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The LCAD Gallery hosted the event in downtown Laguna Beach


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