Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #46 featured nonfiction writer Chelsey Clammer. Here’s what Chelsey had to say about drawing on intimate life experience for writing, her self-description as a “sound nerd,” her approach to editing, and more.
“The Shape of a Day” is such an intimate piece of writing. You bring readers inside a bedroom with an ex-lover who is freshly grieving a death that happened there. What sort of challenges did that present for you in the writing process and how did you navigate those?
There weren’t any challenges in writing it. It felt really relieving to write it, actually. For my writing, I dig into the experiences that hold a lot of meaning and that reveal the complexities of life and our relationships. It would have been hard not to write this essay—not to dig into that experience and realize that I was sleeping in bed with my ex-girlfriend from 20 years ago, but the context of that current in-bed situation was completely different than when we were 16. Those are the kinds of moments I look for in my life to write about.
At what point did you know that this was a story you wanted to tell? Is there a particular message you hope readers take away from it, or did something else drive you to share it?
When I write, I often start by getting a line stuck in my head, mulling over it for a while, and then finding an essay to follow it. The line, “I slept with my ex-girlfriend last night but not like that,” came to me when I was thinking about everything that was going on during this tragic event of me helping Courtney deal with her grief, and I just knew an essay had to follow it. For me, the essay is about the comfortability you can feel with an ex-lover when you’ve been separated from each other by 20 years of life. I hope that readers understand how relationships with people don’t ever end—they just continue to look different all throughout our lives. Also, sometimes when we’re facing the hardest moments in our lives, it’s the people who knew us from years ago who might be able to help with that trauma the most since they don’t have the current narrative in their heads of the people we are. They’re functioning from knowing who we were before the trauma and tragedies that life brought, and sometimes that’s a huge relief.
Many writers who draw on their life experiences have to face questions about whether—and how—to write about others. “The Shape of a Day,” for example, is not only about you but also about a friend and her mother. Is it hard for you to write about others? How have family and friends responded to your work? How do you handle their reactions and/or feedback?
I was sitting in the dining room as Courtney was doing some cleaning in the living room, and as I started to write an essay about all of this (a different one—it’s a super-short flash piece that will be published in a month or so by Lamplit Underground), I looked up and said, “So you know how I’m a writer?” Courtney said, “Uh. Yeah.” (She’s not a reader, by the way. I don’t think she’s ever read anything I’ve written.) “Well, I’m going to write about all of this, so do you want me to change your name?” “Nah,” she said. That was that. I usually don’t ask people when I write about them unless it’s a really specific and hard event, then I’ll have them read the piece and see if they’re comfortable with me publishing it. For me, you have to write first, then worry about what other people think later on in the revisions process. If you start getting wrapped up in the “can I say that?!?” thought, then you’ll never write the story you want to write. So, write first, ask for permission or change names later.
What are the complications of writing about memories that are hazy or incomplete? Do you have any particular methods you use to access or flesh out these memories?
I think what we don’t remember about an event can be just as enlightening as what we do remember. I’ve been sober for nine years now, and prior to that I was a terrible alcoholic with a lot of traumatic experiences. I don’t remember specific details sometimes because, you know, the drinking. So I’ll write something like, “I don’t remember if X or Y happened, but what comes to me most is the memory of Z happening.” Like, own up to what you don’t remember as a way to explore what you do remember. I teach a class about this exact issue. I’ll be offering it next fall through WOW! Women on Writing. It’s called “How to Make Meaning in a Memoir.”
I’ve heard that you refer to yourself as a “sound nerd.” Can you tell us more about what you mean by that, and how it shows up in your writing?
For me, it’s not necessarily the story that you have to tell that can be amazing, it’s the way in which you tell it that will affect readers the most. I mean, I could say, “It was hot outside.” Or I could say, “The sun scorched my skin as it sizzled along my cells,” and the second example is a lot more melodic and just sounds better but basically says the same thing. After I have a good draft of an essay, I record myself reading it, then I go back and listen to it and see where I think the sound could have more of an impact. And it’s not just about alliteration, but punctuation, too. If you don’t have a lot of punctuation in a long and run-on sentence then the pace of that sentence is going to rush by. But. Have a lot of periods. Well. The pace slows down. I use the sentence structure and sound as a way to lead the reader through the action and purpose of each sentence.
We explored your website, www.chelseyclammer.com, and were especially intrigued by a class you teach on essay craft. As we review submissions, our team frequently talks about our desire to showcase stories and essays with intentional craft decisions that support a larger purpose or meaning. What advice would you offer fellow writers about how to achieve this?
Take one of my classes! 🙂 Or hire me as your editor! It’s what I do. Or, you can easily teach yourself how to write more effectively in terms of craft by reading a bunch of craft essays. Also, read read read the authors who intrigue you the most. Really study how they construct a sentence to see how not one word is wasted. For essayists, read some poetry. See how rhythm and structure really change the reading experience.
Where do you find the well-crafted essays that inform your own thinking and writing? Tell us about one or two that you’ve seen recently.
Marya Hornbacher is an awesome memoirist, but her essays are even more phenomenal. “Dress Form” (published in Agni), “Rebecca,” (published in Gulf Coast), and “Whether to Brine a Bird” (which won the nonfiction contest with Bellingham Review a year or two ago) just blew me away. Those essays are all about seeing how you can weave together different aspects of a story or a narrative to create a larger impact on the reader. I just read Lily Hoang’s collection of lyric essays, A Bestiary, that does a great job showing how to write in a fragmented structure. And Lia Purpura’s newest collection, All the Fierce Tethers, is an awesome book of essays that really takes the act of looking and brings it to a whole new poetic level. Basically, any books that Red Hen Press (my publisher!) puts out or anything by Sarabande Books and Graywolf Press are good to read. Finally, read the literary journals! The Normal School, Black Warrior Review, and the online journal Brevity are three that all publish intriguing essays (and Brevity has a craft essay section).
As you may know, Mud Season Review grew out of the Burlington Writers Workshop. Do you participate in any writing groups in your area or have friends or colleagues who are dedicated readers for you? How important is feedback in the development of your texts?
I’m not a part of any writing groups. My mom reads everything I write. And my friend (who’s the director of the WOW! Women on Writing website), Angela Mackintosh, reads everything I write. Honestly, because I’m an editor, I kind of just stick to my own edits on things. I’m pretty good at looking at a piece of my writing objectively because that’s what I do all day—read things objectively from an editor’s point of view. “The Shape of a Day,” for instance, wasn’t read by anyone before I submitted it. I’ll send stuff out to friends just to share it if I think they’ll like the essay, but mostly I just edit my own work and really work on trusting my own feedback. If I get really stuck, I’ll send an essay to my friend and awesome essayist Melissa Grunow—she always gives me great feedback about what is working about a piece and what’s not. All of that said, I think it is super-important to have a strong group of writer friends. Even if you aren’t sending your work to them on a regular basis, having friends who understand how hard writing is, is super-important.
You have a long list of publications. Do you have a strategy for submissions? What advice do you have for writers who are submitting their creative work and vying for publication?
I submit everything I write. Even if it’s just a paragraph that I love. I’ll turn it into a flash essay and submit it. It’s not that publication is the point of writing, but it helps to keep you inspired and keep you going. Even if you’re rejected a bunch of times, it still means that you’re sending your stuff out there and others are reading you. When I have an essay I think is done, I’ll send it out to eight to 12 places at once, and usually it gets accepted by one place. I did have one essay, though (and it was actually one of my favorite essays I’ve ever written), that was rejected 33 times before it found the right home. I think the other thing that really helps you succeed with publication is to know who you are submitting to. Read the journals so you know what type of writing they like. Also, I used to write a monthly column for WOW! that was just about the submissions process. I think those columns are helpful.
What would you say to the writer who is struggling to be heard?
Simple answer: keep going. It’s hard, but you have to keep writing. Hire an editor to work with on an essay that you’re struggling with. That’s how I learned to write—I read all those craft books and then I also learned how to see my work differently when other people edited it. You just have to keep going with it. If you need some inspiration, then take an online class just to have a group of writers that can keep you going. There’s a phrase that I have on the back of my business card that I think is so important: “Fight like a writer.” That is, don’t give up. You write because without writing you’d die. So just keep at it. It’s your passion, so keep pursuing it.