hobart logo
But I Was Talking About Lightning: An Interview with Chelsey Clammer photo

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian (October 2017). She has been published in The RumpusHobartMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyThe Normal School and Black Warrior Review among others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown and teaches creative writing online with WOW! Women on Writing. Chelsey received her MFA from Rainier Writing Workshop.

But know Chelsey from bookselling. We worked together in the late aughts at Women & Children First in Chicago, and I can honestly say it's my favorite job I've ever had. The store wasn't perfect, but it was a lovely little microcosm of people striving to do better: employees, volunteers, customers, and visiting authors. Chelsey was always challenging and generous as a coworker, and it feels totally logical yet thrilling to get to read her books now, and see all of that brilliance I encountered on a daily basis, spun into the challenging and generous essays in her newest collection, Circadian. 

Jac Jemc: One of my favorite things about essays are the opportunity they provide to be discursive. Essays seem to encourage digression and tangents, and you do such a great job of managing that - letting these essays wander, but, by the end, justifying that wandering and all of the places you arrived in the process. What does that look like in the actual drafting and revision process?

Chelsey Clammer: This collection was a blast to write, because I felt like I was just following the writing as I wrote it. I’d start with a very vague idea and just go from there. For instance, I had the line “But I was talking about lightning” in my head for the first line of an essay, but I had no idea what that essay was about. So I started to write about lightning and do some Wikipedia-ing, and eventually the idea of looking at trauma and human relationships through the metaphor of lightning started to emerge. From there, I just followed my brain around as the essay started to form.

Usually, my writing process is that I’ll find a word, thought, or concept interesting, and I’ll write about it for 10 minutes (by hand—I have to write everything by hand first or else I don’t feel connected to it). Then, if I find what I wrote to maybe be interesting, I’ll type it up and save it. From there, a ton of little bits of writing start to come together to form an essay. Which also means that there are tons of bits of writing that could be cool tangents, but didn’t totally fit in the essay by the time I have a solid first draft. So, a lot gets cut out of the essays. I’ll take what didn’t get cut and write and explore and then revise the hell out of everything dozens of times. Lately, I’ve started to record myself reading what I think is the final draft. When I listen to it, I’ll make notes about sound and if any line of thought feels too random and awkward to really fit in with the rest of the essay. Then, it’s back to revising the hell out of it before I send it off into the world!

JJ: When you were working on these essays, did you have the idea for this collection in mind? They work so well together as a whole, I imagine there had to be some that didn't make the cut because they felt too far afield from the rest? I want to hear about those. 

CC: I didn’t have any theme in mind as I started writing, but I did start to notice that I was loving the practice of doing some cursory research on something to use as a way to write about a personal story of my life. I think the research helped to give me a way to think about my experiences differently. As I started writing these “informed-by-other-stuff” essays, I also saw that they were in some way circling back on themselves—whether in theme, image, or phrase. By the time I wrote the title essay, I was starting to really get in the groove of research-write-revise-circle back. The original manuscript did not have “Re: Collection” in it (the essay you guys published called “Collection”). Red Hen Press had asked me to write one more essay about my father that would give the collection a more complete feel to it. I think that essay really brings everything together.

There was only one essay that didn’t make the cut—“Graftology.” (The Tishman Review published it a few years ago and it will be in my next collection I’m working on. More on that in a bit.) By the time I had 7 of the 12 essays that ended up in the collection, I knew what book I was writing and was able to write the remaining essays in that form and style, and to go for some of the themes I knew I wanted to be more enhanced in the collection. My editor with Red Hen, Keaton Maddox, did such a great job helping me to revise some of the essays so that they started to speak more to one another as a complete collection. I’m super-appreciative for all of the hard work he put into the manuscript!

Interesting side note: When I had what I considered a final draft ofCircadian, I gave it to a writer mentor of sorts to read. She read it and said that it was in NO WAY a book, and that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to turn it into a book. I disagreed and submitted THE EXACT SAME MANUSCRIPT to the Red Hen Press 2015 Nonfiction Manuscript Award. It won. So, basically, the entire book was “cut” by a writing mentor. I’m glad I did not agree with that.

JJ: When I've worked on personal essays of my own, I find myself returning to many of the same events and obsessions, and then I think, "I can't write about that again. I need to live more life or get a different distance from what I've lived to write nonfiction again." I love the way you reframe and revisit events throughout this book. It really woke me up to thinking about how it's totally worthy and valid to stay stuck on what's occupying your mind and to keep turning it over. Was it a process for you (like me) to come to this mindset or was it always obvious to you?

CC: When I first started writing back in 2011, I kept telling myself, “Chelsey, you can’t keep writing about your dad. You’ve already written an essay about your dad.” But then I realized that, at least for my writing, I try to explore different events rather than write about them, if that makes sense. So while there are a few main experiences in my life that I obsessively write about (suicidal father, sexual assault, alcoholism, mental illness), I finally realized that I could write about the same experience over and over again as long as I was exploring a different aspect of the event each time. I mean, “Outline for Change” is an essay where the form is what creates the “purpose” of it—putting a chaotic situation into a very structured and organized format. A lot of what I write about in that essay is either mentioned in or looked at in other essays in Circadian as well as in my first collection, BodyHome. But it’s the form and the way I approach those instances that make each essay different. So yeah, I’m writing about the same shit over and over again, but each time that I write about it, it becomes something different.

JJ: Many of these essays felt really hard to read because we knew each other quite well when some of this was happening, and I found myself having to put the book down and take a break. Clearly I wasn't experiencing an iota of what you were, but I remember feeling so helpless and angry. In the essay "Trigger Happy" you make a case for people setting their own boundaries, but for the value that can be found in pushing ourselves through the content that causes us discomfort. Are there books you've had to give up on because it felt like too much? 

CC: Can I just say that I love the fact that I’ve known you for so long?!? One of my favorite moments in life is when you were sitting at the computer near the front counter and you said, “Oh my gosh. My novel just got accepted for publication. Sorry that I’m checking my personal email at work.” It was such a calm and funny moment, and when I think about it now, I’m just like, “OH MY GOD I WITNESSED THE MOMENT YOUR NOVEL GOT ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION AND YOU WERE SO THRILLED YET ALSO CALM ABOUT IT THAT YOU EVEN APOLOGIZED!” (I’m laughing my ass off right now as I write this, btw.)

I don’t think I’ve ever given up completely on a book because it was too hard to read, but I have definitely had books that took me months to get through because it was too intense. Madness by Marya Hornbacher, for example, was a book that took me a year to read. I identified with what she was writing about SO MUCH that it was hard to read. It was like looking in a mirror, and because I was still drinking at the time that I first read that book, it was a mirror I didn’t want to look into. Now, whenever I sit down to revisit that memoir, I usually read it in one night. I completely engulf it because now Marya’s work speaks to me in a way that I LOVE to hear.

JJ: There are moments in these essays where the language and images take over and the essays seem to let logic be dictated by the words themselves, versus, say, the language being manipulated toward getting a fully formulated thought across. Do you know what I'm talking about? Those sorts of moves assume and trust the reader to make those leaps with you as the writer, but the ways readers might fill in those gaps (those famous white spaces of the lyric essay, too) might not match what you intend. What are you feelings on that space and its malleability?

CC: I love language and white space because it gives the reader room to explore. And that’s what I feel like is most astonishing about lyric essays—the reader doesn’t just read the work, she experiences it. I think reading authors like Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, Julie Marie Wade, and Maggie Nelson taught me that form and language can be, in and of themselves, what an essay is about. I love Jorie Graham’s poetry, but honestly I never have a clue what the hell she’s talking about. It’s the bits of phrases and the sound of her work that makes me fall in love with it. So, I concentrate on a theme in each essay, but I let the language drive it because I feel like sound and pace are almost more important than story. Every reader is going to interpret a piece of writing in a different way because of their own past experiences. So for my writing, I don’t want to tell the reader a story—I want to give her language to influence the way she experiences my essays which, I hope, inspires her to explore her own experiences. Maggie’s book Bluets does this to me—every time I read that book it takes on a different meaning. So that’s the type of experience that I hope to give my readers.

JJ: What's next?

CC: I have a collection of essays I’m revising right now and working on a few more essays to go into it. It’s called Human Heartbeat Detected and looks at the ways in which we are “human” to one another. I also have a craft book called Sound It Out that I’m working on. It has a lot of craft essays in it that are written in a lyric essay sort of way, plus a long and more academic essay on form and structure. It also has a section that consists of all the columns I’ve written for WOW! Women on Writing that are about the submissions process. Finally, I started writing an essay last year that was about my grandmother, swans, marriage, and the healing power of silence. Well, since the time I started that essay, my grandmother died and I got a divorce. That essay is now turning into a book.

image: Chelsey Clammer