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.