“We do have a certain responsibility to be truthful,” an interview with Kelly Sundberg

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Kelly Sundberg, author of the memoir Goodbye, Sweet Girl, (Harper Collins) about truth, bravery, and authenticity.

Q: What is the project you are working on now? How does it different from your debut memoir, and how has your craft evolved since then?

A: I’m working on a collection of linked, lyric essays that is tentatively titled The Witching Hour: Essays From an After. This collection is very different from my memoir. My memoir was mostly narrative in terms of style, and though there were flashbacks, the story generally unfolded in a chronological manner. The Witching Hour, first of all, is essays because I’m writing about PTSD. I don’t believe that any narrative of PTSD can be told in a linear fashion, because PTSD doesn’t unfold in any linear way. The essays use form to mimic the obsessive thought patterns that accompany PTSD. There is a lot of repetition and circling back. One essay is an erasure of my ex-husband’s apologies that he wrote to me. Another one is about single parenting, and it’s written entirely in couplets. Accompanying the essays are artifacts and snippets from my life. It’s a weird book, but I think it’s good weird. I haven’t seen anything else quite like it. I think my craft is deepened and more sophisticated in this book. I’m really excited by what I’m doing in it, and it’s almost ready to send out. My biggest dream for this book is that it finds a publishing home where it’s really cherished and allowed to be the book that I dreamed it would be. I worried a lot about sales with the first book (even though folks advised me not to), and that worry didn’t serve me well. Worrying about sales forces you to completely project your hopes and aspirations onto something that’s out of your control.  I know now that all I can do is write the book that I want to write, then trust that it will find the readers it needs to find.

Q: You are known for being open and honest on social media. How does that relate to your work as a nonfiction author? Is that sort of radical honesty something that takes practice, like a tool to keep sharp?

A: I am known for being open and honest on social media, and though I’m not sure that’s always served me well, it is who I am. When I was in an abusive marriage, I had to keep a lot of secrets. I kept secrets to protect my ex, myself, my child, and because of shame. What happened is that my physical body got ill. I genuinely believe that secrets are like poison. Since then, I’ve committed myself to truth telling and to being my authentic self as much as possible. What that means is that I’m radically honest, even if that hurts me or puts me in a bad light. Ultimately, I’d rather have people in my life who like me as I truly am than people in my life who like a mirage of what I want to be. I mean, I’m not saying that I never lie. That would be completely disingenuous. What I’m saying is that I’ve identified honesty as a value that I care about, and I work very hard to live by my values.

I will say that the nonfiction world is small, and I think that all of us know of certain writers who embellish or are “truthy” or who outright lie, and that frustrates me a lot because folks in the community just kind of step aside and watch it happen. It’s easier to keep the peace than to speak out, you know? As nonfiction writers, I think that we do have a certain responsibility to be truthful, and if you’re not able to be truthful, then why not just write fiction?

I think it’s important to note that, because of my history, I have a genuine and sincere belief in accountability culture. I believe that folks should be held accountable, whether that’s through a call-out or a call-in, but I’m not some kind of vigilante. I’m someone who was harmed by an individual, then harmed even more by the people who covered for and/or defended him. I have a personal stake in this. I worry sometimes that folks think I’m inflexible or judgmental. I expressed this worry to a friend recently, and she said, “Kelly, you’re very generous and allow folks all kinds of room to be human. You just draw the line when it comes to liars and abusers.” I found some consolation there because I’m human, and I’ve harmed people in ways that sometimes keep me up at night. No one is perfect, and I’m not even close. But because of my history, I have to draw some lines for myself.

Q: Your essay and memoir topics often inspire others to share their stories with you, AND you’re a writing instructor who reads a lot of student work. How do you maintain your emotional boundaries and your empathy? How do you avoid burnout? 

A: Oh man, Wellbutrin? I don’t know that I have an answer for that question. The truth is that I don’t have great emotional boundaries. I cry in workshop when my students read something hard. I cry at home when I’m reading their essays. I feel for them. I wish that I could adopt some of them. I’m an instructor, and my job is to help their writing get better—not to fix their lives—because what I’m not is a therapist. Still, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel it all in my heart and deeply wish that I could step in and help. I do help in the ways that I can. I listen, I offer advice that’s within the realm of my experience, and I make referrals to mental health providers when necessary. My classroom environment is very safe and inclusive, and I know that my students would back me up on that. And for every sad story that I read, there is a story of joy or triumph. I also get to see most of these students at the beginning of their adult lives, and I know that they are not defined by anything that has happened to them. One of my greatest joys is getting to see a student thrive years after graduation.

And as for burnout, it’s not reading student papers or holding their stories that causes me burnout. It is a gift to hold space for all of those stories. What causes me burnout is the world that we live in where so many of my students are not born into circumstances that are designed to help them succeed. Watching them struggle in the face of capitalism, institutionalized racism, ableism, etc., etc., etc. (while I struggle alongside them in many of the same ways), that’s what causes me burnout.

Q: Finally, would you offer some advice for those of us who are working on personal essays or memoirs? 

A: My advice would be to trust yourself and your voice. The best writers aren’t afraid to take risks because they trust themselves. If you take a risk, and you fail, you’ve still grown as a writer, and every risk gets you closer to success. It was when I really trusted myself to explore and experiment and question in my writing that it bloomed into something I was proud of. And honestly, trusting yourself and your ability to fail and come out alive is good advice for just about anything.

Writing resolutions: yes or no?

We’re two days into the new year. We’ve all seen the memes–walk quietly, don’t claim this will be your year, don’t tempt fate, it can always get worse, etc. We thought 2021 would be better than 2020, and we were disappointed. So.

We’ve also all seen the range of social media posts about resolutions–why they are helpful, and why they are terrible, and the folks in the comment sections are really feeling some feelings. So.

Where do you fall? Are you making any resolutions this year, particularly for your writing or reading or research?

A while back, a friend of mine said she doesn’t call them “resolutions,” because she thinks there is a succeed/fail dichotomy inherent in the term. A resolution is a promise, and you either keep a promise or you don’t. Instead, she sets New Year “goals,” which are a little more malleable. You work toward goals, you make progress toward goals, and goals are adjustable. The “reaching for” is the whole point. I love that, and though I also use the word “resolutions,” I think of them as goals–as long as I make progress, I have nothing to beat myself up over at the end of the year.

This year, some of those goals are vague, and some are more specific. I want to write more, and I want to work on getting 100 rejections (and so submitting my butt off). Credit for that last idea goes to Kim Liao at LitHub. I also want to finish my story collection and start sending it off to whole-manuscript contests and publishing houses that don’t require an agent (I’ve heard from other writers that it’s an extraordinary feat to get an agent with a story collection; my energy is likely better spent elsewhere). I’m signed up for an awesome class in February (Feminist Horror with Lindsay Merbaum), and in June, I’m taking myself on a five-day writing retreat at a cottage near a lake. I want to read at least one book each month and lift up other writers whenever possible. I also want to post to each of my blogs twice per month, with one of those being an author interview or guest post. And I’ll keep tracking my submissions, fees, and responses, so I can compare 2022’s numbers to those of 2021.

I know now that I will reach some of those and not reach others. But that’s fine. I’ll be reaching all year.

When you can’t write or revise, read.

This will be a short one, because I’m feeling flattened and hollowed out. It’s the endless pandemic with its grief and worry; it’s the end of a tough semester throughout which I juggled too much and burnt myself out; its the approaching holidays with their stressors and reminders that my mom is dead and my family is scattered. Blergh.

So, now that I have some time to get a bit of writing and revision in before the start of the spring semester, I find myself with no energy to do so. Creative thoughts seem to run, head first, into a brick wall. My brain is a blank Word document, complete with blinking cursor. And that makes me feel like a bad writer–not the quality of my writing, but bad as in not dedicated enough to my craft. I don’t get up early or stay up late to write. I don’t have a day in the week set aside for it, though I keep meaning to do that, to make a schedule and stick to it.

Instead, I have been reading. Reading for fun (mysteries), reading for work (excellent manuscripts for Leapfrog Press), and reading my own works-in-progress. I’m feeding all of these words into my subconscious. Or that’s what I think I’m doing. Hoping that something will click, that I will come up with an idea for a way to remedy a problem in an existing draft (I’m talking about you, ghost story). And I think it’s a not-that-unlikely possibility.

I wrote a story in grad school that I loved and that hasn’t worked ever. I love the characters and the setting. I love the narrative voice and the dialogue. I even love the plot. It’s basically a one-sided conversation in the present moment, narrating events that are also happening on the same timeline, but a step behind; so on Monday, the speaker is explaining what happened Saturday, etc. It has always been clear in my mind, but on the page, it’s a damn mess, and no one knew what was going on. Recently, I read it again, just for fun, and got an idea. Why not give it a really obvious structure? Label the days? Indicate the speech of another character, the side of the conversation we don’t get to hear? And I may have solved it; I may have pulled this story back from the clutches of story death. Then again, maybe I didn’t; maybe it’s too much of a schtick, too gimmicky. Or too odd for the collection I’m working on, since it’s the only story with a weird structure. The only way to tell is to workshop it and find out.

Okay so this wasn’t that short. Oops. Back to my point, reading is always a part of writing, so if you’re doing that, you’re not doing nothing for your craft.

Here’s hoping that all those words I’m feeding into my soggy, tired brain will arrange themselves into good ideas I can put on a page, and soon.

So you think your story is done? Think again.

I have a story that I thought was done six months ago. I had read it again and again. Pinched and revised. Friends read it. I workshopped it. And I sent it out to contests and submitted it for publication–most recently, to a contest I felt pretty good about*. (Not that that meant I had a chance, but, you know how it is. Good feelings are worth something.)

Then, I was thinking about that story a couple weeks ago, and read it that night. I found myself making line edits. Little cuts–a word here or there. And then I realized that it had a couple bigger issues–it needed a change of dialogue here, a rearrangement of action there (“shuffled” instead of “stepped” type stuff). And the next day, while reading it for the 80,000th time, I was HORRIFIED to discover a major plot hole. Huge. A truck-sized plot hole that I had overlooked again and again.

It was a throwaway line on page two that got me–an offhand reference to a character’s son. He didn’t come up again. He didn’t matter. Except that he really, really did. Because–and don’t worry about the context–what kind of son leaves his 90-year-old mother to clean her own gutters if he lives close by? Why would he never come around? And that made the whole second half of my story kind of unbelievable. Not in a good way–I mean it lost its verisimilitude. It didn’t make sense.

The fix? Get rid of the son.

I laughed at all of this, along with nearly (but not) crying, because that same week, my Intro to Creative Writing students were focusing on revision: all the experiments a writer can do with their stories, all the questions they can ask themselves, all the possibilities they can open up.

I’ve always said to them, truthfully, that I practice what I preach, but that week, I lived it in real time. I told them all about my mistake and my dismay at its discovery–no delusions of grandeur here–and how it reminded me that sometimes, what we need most in the revision process is time. To let something sit for a while, in the proverbial drawer, until we’re ready to take it out again and see what we didn’t before.

Also, it made me think, “Damn. What else did I call ‘done’ too soon?”

I went back to my desk to find out.

*Update on this: After I first drafted this post, I decided there was no harm in reaching out to the editor of that contest, asking if I could swap the file for an updated one. He hadn’t yet opened the submission, so he allowed it! It’s still “in progress” on Submittable.

“I really need a deadline and accountability to be my most productive,” an interview with Heather Frese

Recently I had the chance to talk to my pal Heather Frese, author of The Baddest Girl on the Planet (Blair) about the challenges of writing while parenting and the importance of finding your “people.”

Q: What are some of your recent and current projects? What are you working on now?  

A: My debut novel, The Baddest Girl on the Planet, won the Lee Smith Novel Prize and was released in spring of 2021 (Blair). Prior to that, I’d published short stories and essays, and was shortlisted in the Pushcart Prize Anthology and Best American Essays. I’m currently working on, or trying to work on, a big revision to a novel that’s been sitting in a metaphorical drawer for a long while now. I’ve got a few essays underway and I have some ideas percolating for a new novel, but nothing has solidified yet.

Q: Recently, we formed a small writing support/workshop group. What does that do for you or your writing? 

A: I really need a deadline and accountability to be my most productive, and this group gave me that. And it was an extra bonus to have that accountability provided by some of my favorite people! 

Q: Including our workshop group and friends outside of it, why is it important to you to connect with other busy writers? 

A: I think for me, after I finished my MFA program and moved, I had a bit of an identity crisis that was compounded by my transition into the overwhelming-ness that was early motherhood. So connecting with other busy writers was a really vital way to remind myself that I was, indeed, a writer. Even when I wasn’t really writing (and I had a good chunk of years where I was intensively mothering and not really writing), that connection was so important to me in maintaining the idea of myself as a writer, and kept me holding on to a near future where I would write again.

Q: What else is competing for your time? What other priorities and obligations are you trying to write around? 

A: I’m the primary caregiver to three young kids. They’re awesome little humans. They’re sweet and smart and hilarious, and oh boy do they take up nearly everything I have, mentally and physically. I came to realize pretty early into motherhood that I couldn’t write while they were awake and/or in my near vicinity. You can catch tiny snippets of time that way, like a sentence or to jot a note, but the sustained flow of creativity and concentration to really dig in and shape something? No. And I give mad props to all those authors who wake up at 3 or 4 or 5am to write, or who stay up until 3 or 4 or 5am to write, but I can’t do it. I’m just too exhausted. This fall my youngest started preschool a few mornings a week, so I drop everyone off at school, dash to a coffee shop, and try to switch gears and slam myself into writer-mode for a few hours. And it’s working! I’ve been so much more productive in those few kid-free hours than I’ve been in years of trying to work with kids in the house.

Q: How has being a part of communities helped your projects come together in the past? 

A: Having trusted critique partners has made a huge, huge, massive, giant impact on my writing. Oftentimes when I’m stuck on something, a writing partner will be able to quickly see what needs to happen or have an idea of how to fix things. Without that help, I’d be struggling for months before figuring it out, if I ever did. It’s also so important to have moral support and to know that I have people in my corner who understand what I’m trying to accomplish and are giving feedback based on getting the project to the vision that I have in mind, you know? Feeling like I’m not alone in this often overwhelming and demoralizing process of writing, revising, and publishing is so helpful.

Q: What recommendations do you have for writers out there who want to find a community of their own? 

A: Honestly, connecting online through social media was really powerful for me when I was living far away from my in-person communities or hadn’t found local writing friends yet. I know Facebook can be problematic, but it’s been a big positive for me in staying connected with other writers. I’d also say that it’s really important to find people who connect with your work and get what you’re trying to do. You don’t even have to write in similar styles or genres, but feeling that sense of connection or gelling with where the other person is coming from helps a lot.

The skill of being rejected

Pic: This is how I keep track of submissions. Low tech but effective.

I have found, pretty recently, that being rejected as a writer is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it.

During lockdown, I got back to work on my own writing, spending more time and energy on it than I had in years. Instead of finding the creative well dry, as I had feared, a couple of stories seemed to write themselves. I joined four friends in a Zoom writing workshop (we still meet). I made appointments with an excellent editor-for-hire, and we’ll schedule another session soon. I wrote and I revised, and then I wrote some more. I went on a personal writers’ retreat, renting a cabin in the Catskills with my wonderful friend N. West Moss for a few days, and drafted two new stories. For a while there, I was kicking ass.

In that time period, I also got back to submitting my work to journals and magazines and writing contests. I realized that the process energizes me–everything sent out is a chance that it will find a place in the world. Submitting stories (and sometimes, essays and poems) makes the process more real for me–it makes me feel more like a “real” writer, whatever that is.

And wow, did those rejections roll in. And they keep rolling in. And honestly, yep, sometimes they stung, and sometimes they still do. But they sting less all the time. I shrug at them now, mostly. If I get two in a day, I laugh. It sucks, even now, if I get a rejection on a submission I thought was a good fit–like if my story matched the theme, or aligned with the goals of the publication.

A few came close. “Joiner,” a story, was a finalist in the New Millennium Writing Awards. A flash piece, “Rest for the Wicked,” got a lovely rejection from the Parsec Ink contest, saying it made the longlist. Fatal Flaw rejected two poems, but encouraged me to send more (I will!).

I’ve gotten acceptances, too. For the year of 2021, my record is 5 acceptances, 43 rejections, with a handful of submissions still out. Most recently, The Elpis Pages, a print collective (with profits going to Planned Parenthood), took my essay “What’s Left.” That will be out this month. Then, I got an email from Last Girls Club, saying my story wasn’t a fit for their magazine, but could they read it on their podcast, Blood & Jazz? (The answer of course was YES.)

A lot of what has gotten accepted from 2020-2021 had been in the works for a while. Like a long-ass time. A poem that Blueline Magazine took (“Bargain,”) had existed in various forms for over seven years. “Tourist,” a flash essay Anti-Heroin Chic published, was first drafted about three years ago. Every time those pieces (and others) got rejected, I would take another look at them. Tinker. Fiddle. Tighten them up. And, not surprisingly, they got better. And then they found homes.

I was inspired by the article “Why you should aim for 100 rejections a year” from LitHub by Kim Liao. I was also motivated by a Facebook thread posted by the editor of a small press, which turned into a big conversation about why women tend to submit less often than men. (Spoiler: it’s because patriarchy.) The main idea with both of those? Submit, submit, submit.

I look for opportunities on various Facebook pages, through Reedsy, Newpages, and Erica Verillo’s blog, Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity. I don’t mind submissions fees–publications are expensive to run and print, and need to pay for staff and software, etc.–but I don’t break the bank. I look for cheap and free submissions opportunities, too. I keep track of everything in a janky notebook–see photo. (I tried keeping a tidy Excel file, but that’s just not me–I’m a pen-and-paper gal at heart.)

In 2022, I hope to hit the 100 rejection mark. If I double my rejections, I might just double my acceptances, too. Who’s in?

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