Finding Yourself as a Writer in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Remembering Amelia Blanquera's Writing, Research, and Curiosity
When Amelia Blanquera and I became friends in 2009, we were writers who hesitated over calling ourselves writers. Our familiarity drew us to one another. We wrote in the spaces unoccupied by our day jobs, we published, and we were ambitious, wanting books and bylines. She had a law career that demanded long hours. Our families, immigrants from the Philippines, wanted us to have financially stable careers. Famous writers didn’t look like us.
I looked up to Amelia, her risk-taking apparent as she questioned if she was a writer who practiced law or a lawyer who wrote, whether she could be both. Even before she left the career she’d worked in for more than 15 years and enrolled in an MFA program to dedicate herself to her writing, this questioning was part of her process.
In 2012, Amelia spent two weeks at a writing residency in New Mexico. “Truth or Consequences,” the essay that emerged from that time, illustrates the beginning of her artistic self-validation with the hallmarks of her writing and personality: honesty, kindness, curiosity, and understated wit.
Reading this essay almost a year after I last heard Amelia’s voice, I’m reminded as well of her courage and fierce integrity, and the project she was working on at the time of her death: a book about the fight to save New York City’s community gardens from development, inspired in part by her own work as a community activist. Her sharp inquisitiveness is what made her such a thorough researcher and interviewer. When I read her work, I can hear her asking: Why is it like this? And then: Isn’t that interesting?
I miss her often. I crave her levelheaded advice, her big heart and laugh. How she made room for so many possibilities, in the world and within herself.
Truth or Consequences
We dressed in whatever fiction each had created about the artist in the desert. There was Lauren in her spider web-like tops, handmade stone earrings, and moccasins; Vanessa in shirts and shoes with Native-American designs; and me, swathed in denim and silver jewelry. We had discovered the Starry Night Retreat in Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, aka TorC (pronounced TEA-or-SEA by the locals) on the New York Foundation for the Arts website.
A week before I left New York, I had been to a surprise birthday party hosted by Corina, a TorC native. “Why would you want to go there?” she asked. “For an artist residency. I’m a writer,” I told her and her husband. Although I had been writing consistently for three years, I didn’t earn my living that way. “Will you be there for Labor Day? Want to go to my high school reunion?” Corina joked. After a pause, she told me, “If you get bored, you can always hang out with my parents. They are retired.”
My decision to go to the retreat wasn’t impulsive, but I’ll admit to a hint of whimsy. The name of the town was intriguing: Truth or Consequences. I pictured a John Wayne figure policing a western outpost. My inner teenage romantic loved the name of the residency: Starry Night. I envisioned the night sky from the famous Van Gogh painting, the cosmos yielding secrets to be channeled through my pen. The ultimate factor, of course, was that my application was accepted: validation that someone took me seriously as a writer.
Truth or Consequences is located in the lower left-hand corner of New Mexico in Sierra County. According to the 2000 Census figures, the population of the county is about 13,000 people, with 7,300 located in TorC. The drive along Route 25 from either Albuquerque to the north or El Paso, Texas to the south offers miles of gorgeous red sand dunes. Though I arrived on an overcast night, I didn’t miss the town; the pitch black of the evening was interrupted by the ambient glow of stoplights and a giant Walmart sign.
TorC’s town center was an accessible walk from the Starry Night Retreat. Banks, a family-run grocery store, and a post office populated Main Street and Broadway. But most noticeable were the empty storefronts that beckoned entrepreneurs with “for rent” placards. Murals and other public art were scattered throughout town. I imagined Santa Fe must have had the same aura in the early 1900s when artists first traveled to New Mexico to experience “The Land of Enchantment.”
In the first half of the 20th century, the main attraction of TorC was the medicinal power of the water. In fact, the town was originally named “Hot Springs.”
A mineral water analysis, conducted in 1921 by the Department of Agriculture, was used to claim the water cured everything from chronic inflammation of the joints to asthma.
Hot Springs became a mecca for healing. The History of New Mexico, Sierra County published by the Sierra County Historical Society Inc. (1979) includes several testimonials:
We arrived in Hot Springs from Alexandria, Louisiana, August 3, 1938. I had come to Hot Springs with a crippled leg. I used a cane. In fact a doctor in Big Springs, had told us the mineral water here might help me. –Mattie E. Bush
However, not everyone was “cured.”
It was 1919, when my doctor in Rock Island, Illinois said, ‘Go West young man.’ He meant for the purpose of seeking my health after World War I. We started for Denver on roads that mostly led from one farmhouse to another. . . We pitched our tent about where the Geronimo Springs Museum is now. After two baths I knew they were not for me as they caused a temperature rise. –William H. Tieken
The town was so renowned for its “healing” water that the Carrie Tingley Hospital for Crippled Children was constructed there in 1937. The facility was for all children suffering from chronic physical impairments and developmental disabilities, regardless of race or income. From 1937 to 1941, the major diseases treated using water therapy were polio, tuberculosis, spastic paralysis, and arthritis, among others.
I’m not sure when the mindset about the medicinal value of the hot springs shifted but the brochures in my Starry Night Retreat guest binder suggested the hot springs were for relaxation. Pamphlets advertised spa amenities like facials or massages. There were at least a half dozen facilities to choose from.
I picked the Riverbend Hot Springs Resort & Spa. The five open-air public tubs had a view of Turtleback Mountain. The landscape and night sky provided a visual rest from the clutter of the New York skyline; the cacophony of cars, voices, and insistent clang of city life seemed far, far away. The Milky Way didn’t beckon but there is something transcendent about floating in warm water and witnessing shooting stars.
From what I could tell, Hot Springs, New Mexico was a thriving town in the 1940s. It had a famous children’s hospital and steady influx of tourists who came for a dip in the hot springs. So it seems odd to me its next incarnation, predicated on the success of, of all things, a television show.
Truth or Consequences was an American game show originally hosted by Ralph Edwards on NBC Radio in 1940 and then on television from 1950 to 1988. The host asked the contestant a question, and the correct response was called the “truth.” But the contestants were destined to fail because the “truths” weren’t facts. A typical question might be, “What should you do when you wear your clothes out?” The answer: “You should wear them back home again.” The unwitting contestant would not know the punchline and therefore suffer the “consequences.” Their fate was usually a slapstick sight gag like a pie in the face or another pratfall. The banter was light, and “losing” contestants were rewarded with Bulova watches, cartons of Old Gold cigarettes, a lifetime supply of Duz laundry detergent, or other giveaways from corporate sponsors.
“Like me, Truth or Consequences is in another phase of reinvention.”
In 1949, the show ran a publicity campaign to rename a town to celebrate the show’s 10th anniversary. Edwards, who was known for his philanthropy, and his staff chose Hot Springs because “the city had the inclination and the place for recreation, and the desire and means of helping one’s fellow man.” By special election, Hot Springs officially became Truth or Consequences on March 31, 1950. The votes were 1,294 in favor to 295 against.
There is a huge room honoring Ralph Edwards in the Geronimo Springs Museum on Main Street. The 14-room museum includes artifacts from prominent Native American locals like Apache leader Geronimo, prehistoric pottery, and early farming and ranching implements (like branding tools), and other memorabilia. Edwards, who died in 2005, was a loyal town son. He visited TorC from 1950 to 2000 to participate in a huge fiesta with a parade, beauty contest, rodeo, and other activities. A chorus of “Vaya Con Dios,” closed out the events.
“How’s camp?” my five-year-old nephew Rocco asked when I called from TorC to check-in with my sister. The concept of an artist residency was not one he comprehended. I explained I had gone to a Chile Festival in Hatch; visited the art galleries and studios in the monthly Art Hop; and spent an evening looking for ghosts at the Old Cuchillo Bar. He was pleased I was having a good time. “But are you writing?” my sister had to ask.
Did recording my daily observations count as writing? I thought so. My creative process includes writing down my experiences. I like to record overheard conversations or learn new words and phrases that interest me. I also obsessively research.
So for material I spent some time at the TorC library. I have a theory that you can judge a person by the contents on their bookshelves: business tomes belong to someone keen on financial advancement and career success, fantasy novels for those who liked to indulge in other realities. Arbitrarily, I extrapolated the concept to a town. The books would give me a better idea of who lived here, their interests, their hobbies or pursuits. It was a peak into the townsfolk’s interior thoughts.
I touched all six Bibles available for checkout. Although some households view the Bible as the literal word of God, I thought most had a Bible as a reference book, like a dictionary. Or had one as a legacy from relatives long dead. To not own a Bible, to me, seemed decisive. Next to the Bibles on the library shelves were copies of How to Read the Bible, Systematic Theology, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Bible (14 books in all), The Interpreter’s Bible, and All the Women of the Bible. In fact, there were seven shelves of books for biblical stories. Was TorC concerned about damnation?
The Black Cat Bookstore at the end of Broadway held a poetry reading once a month. The mean age of the 20 people assembled was 60. The median age was 55. There was Dhulkti, a slight woman with a beautiful feather tattooed on her arm. She read a poem written for a transgender friend who had committed suicide. It ended with a Navajo phrase, “donadogovhi” which means, “until we meet again.” Afterwards, I told her how much I enjoyed her piece and she invited me to a woman’s drumming circle later in the week.
I shared a piece of flash fiction. “We Keep Our Distance to Manage Our Closeness,” a story about the intimacy of a father-daughter relationship. I noticed a married couple in their eighties give each other glances as I read aloud. Perhaps the estrangement I described mimicked a situation they knew.
After everyone had a chance to read, we made small talk. I learned there was a lot of self-publishing in town. I met Stan, who had put together a book of sonnets. Maya showed me her compilation of poems and photos. I’m not sure if anyone considered herself a professional wordsmith. Not that it mattered: the group assembled at the TorC bookstore, it was obvious, was a community of writers.
Like me, Truth or Consequences is in another phase of reinvention. After a stint as a healing mecca and the namesake of a popular television show, more recently it’s been positioned as a gateway to outer space.
Spaceport America, the headquarters for Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, is located just 20 miles from TorC. Tickets on a Virgin Galactic rocket ship sell for $200,000 a seat.
On July 17, 2013, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and the state board of finance voted to allow the Spaceport Authority to seek $21 million in private loans to build a 23,000 square foot visitor center near Spaceport America and a 6,000 square foot visitor center in TorC.
Whatever the changes to TorC, I hope the daily rhythm doesn’t change too much, or lose local businesses like Paws & Claws, a thrift-store with sales donated to the animal rescue facility. One afternoon, Lauren, Vanessa and I rummaged through its wares while, a bit smitten with my younger colleagues, the 80-year-old clerk told us about a dress hanging from the rafters.
“See that Mexican dress? The Craigslist ad had three lines. “(1) Wedding dress—never been used, (2) Wedding ring—never been used, and (3) Gun—used only once.” It didn’t matter if we found the story funny, he roared in the retelling. Which, of course, made us giggle too.
After I left New Mexico, I was reminded of a one-day class I had taught earlier in 2012. It was called, “And you do what for a day/night job?” Artists have always held jobs unrelated to their creative pursuits. My class looked beyond writers to others like composer Philip Glass who drove a cab in the daytime while he wrote his early masterpieces.
We thought about the other factors that caused an artist to keep a day job. Were the decisions made just about paying the rent? An audio clip from a radio interview conducted by Brian Lehrer with artist and author Summer Pierre (The Artist in the Office: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week), volunteered, “It’s not just about money, it’s about being connected to the world and having a community of people.” The singer Adele offered another reason. She told 60 Minutes’s Anderson Cooper that she worked sorting and labeling compact discs at a record store after appearing on the Grammy’s because she was concerned about losing touch with new music. And the author Lysley Tenorio (
In my own life, my legal day job fulfilled many criteria: it connected me to the world, gave me structure, and paid my bills. Was there another reason why I was unhappy? Perhaps philosopher Alain de Botton’s take on “snobs” is the key. In his TED talk on success, he says:
A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery.
At the Starry Night Retreat, Lauren and Vanessa treated me as an artistic contemporary. The TorC community at the Black Cat Bookstore embraced me as a writer. So who was the snob? Me. I assumed that people would treat me differently if they knew I was a lawyer; think writing was my hobby and not my passion; believe that I lacked the seriousness of purpose of my colleagues at the residency. But none of that happened.
If anything my actions in TorC revealed my “truth.” At the end of my two weeks, I worked on three essays-in-process, one application to a writing seminar, one application to an artist’s colony, and wrote 3,000 words of a brand new piece.