Chelsey Clammer is the essays editor at The Nervous Breakdown, and as an essayist, she has examined her own life in surprising and unnerving ways. Now, she’s hoping to help other women writers find a voice and face their own fears. Through the website Wow! Women on Writing, Chelsey’s created an anonymous writing group that allows students to write about the tough subjects without fear of being judged, The class will begin in January, and I spoke to her about it (and her own marvelous writing).
Jen Michalski: I was really struck by your essay “Mother Tongue,” (runner-up, 2014 Black Warrior Review Nonfiction contest). In it, you examine the anthropology of language, like how certain names have fallen out of favor as the result of completely coincidental circumstances (ie, Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent decrease in the number of girls named Katrina), fads, and how other accepted names seem devoid of origin (ie, the lazy Susan). It’s so brilliant and thought-provoking and I’m wondering, since you’re a personal essayist, where your love of lexicon and nonfiction met. I can see how, as women or as “other,” we are continually searching for and reshaping words to affirm our existence, but I’m wondering at what point did you realize your experience as a writer required a complete overhaul of the words most of us grow up taking for granted?
Chelsey Clammer: Thanks for the compliments on “Mother Tongue.” I had such a blast writing that essay!
I feel like my love for language has always been there, right inside me—I just hadn’t accessed all of it yet. I’ve been writing in diaries and journals and notebooks my whole life, but it wasn’t until I went to college and started to think about gender and the power of language that I started to really value the actual ways that I chose to express my own voice. Seeing the impact that just one well-written sentence can make empowered me, and writing quickly became an essential tool in my life as I tried to figure out who I was as a human, and specifically as a woman. Every time I write, I feel like I’m learning something new about myself, because each bit of writing (even this sentence) is another instance of me figuring out what words I want to use in order to tell my own narrative. In college, I read books about reclaiming the words that have historically been used against us, so that we can shift damaging cultural narratives, and although I found these books interesting, I felt like there was more to look at in terms of how we approach and then use language for self-expression.
Enter: craft and technique.
Finding the right language to relate my life to someone is an exhilarating experience. But it’s more than just word choice. My love for writing doesn’t stem from what meaning I can try to make in an essay. When I write, I go for sound, pace, and rhythm before I try to locate meaning. Similar to how body language can say so much more than thousands of words, the feel and sound and experience of a sentence is, for me, where the purpose, intention, and meaning really begin. Where my narrative begins. Writing is an act of observation, a way in which we witness our world. And our experience of the world consists of more than just knowing vocabulary. We witness it through all of our senses, and then we re-witness it through the structure and sound of our sentences. So, I don’t know if we take language for granted, but I do think that we don’t always recognize or respect language’s potential. Yes, language is a form of communication, but for me—and for my writing—language is a form of experience.
JM: I love this answer! And I love that you are so involved in the community of writers as well, as the Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown and teacher at WOW! Women on Writing. How did you get involved in both of these great sites?
CC: A few years ago, when I started to submit my work for publication, I looked for literary journals and websites that had a style that would welcome mine. Because I often write about sex, trauma, gender, alcoholism, and mental illness—and usually in a style that’s an odd mixture of lyrical and bitchy, with a zest of wacky wordplay—finding the perfect home for my words took a bit of time. When I came across The Nervous Breakdown, though, I was like, oh hell yeah. They published an essay I wrote about ecofeminism and offensive rap music. A number of months later, I decided I wanted to be more involved in the lit journal world, and so I contacted the different editors from the lit sites and magazines I loved most and asked if they needed a nonfiction editor. Brad Listi from The Nervous Breakdown replied and said he needed an Associate Essays Editor. Then a few months later, when the Essays Editor needed to step down, I filled her position.
For WOW! I was just looking for journals that offered online writing classes. I had taught online in the past, and really enjoyed it. When my schedule cleared up a bit and I felt like I had time to teach again, I emailed the organizers with a proposal for a class, and they loved it! My class, The Women Writers’ Book Group, reads a memoir or collection of essays together each month and we use the book as a way to learn different craft techniques for writing a wide variety of creative nonfiction. I’ve taught two courses with them so far, and have another class in October. Then—and this is the one I’m super-excited about—I’m teaching a class in January, “Face Your Fears: Women Writers Anonymous,” that will focus on learning how to write about those hard experiences we never thought we were brave enough to write. And here’s the interesting thing about the class: all of the students will be anonymous to one another so that there is no judgment about content, and we can all just focus on craft.
JM: What do you look for in submissions at The Nervous Breakdown? What’s the most common reason you might pass on an otherwise-strong piece?
CC: Quality of writing and if the approach to how you tell the story is inventive. In other words, it’s not what you write but how you write. You might have the most fantastic story, ever, but if you tell it in a way that doesn’t complicate or bring something else to it, then it’s going to undercut the impact of your story. So what about the writing? I pay the most attention to how sound—pace, rhythm, word choice—interacts with the meaning and purpose of each sentence. Literally each sentence. Think of it like cooking: if you’re baking a cake and put in some unnecessary ingredients, it’s not going to be a good cake. People won’t want seconds.
Usually I’ll pass on something if the submission doesn’t fit our overall aesthetic or if it feels like the author is holding back in some way. That said, if I see a lot off potential in the essay, then I’ll work with the author on it if she wants to.
JM: What do you hope to impart to your workshop participants at WOW!, and what sorts of writers do you think will benefit the most from taking your class?
CC: That an essay and writing can be whatever you make of it. There’s no “correct” way to write. There are no standards of what an essay has to have in it or needs to achieve in order to be considered an essay. That an essay is never in final draft form, even if it’s published. We’re always learning and revising and growing. Writing doesn’t have any limits—whether that’s in terms of genre, form, or even concept. Your writing is your writing, and so make it what you want to or know that it can be. And, most important, have fun and challenge yourself to do something you’ve never done before. Let your writing surprise you.
I honestly think every writer would benefit from taking the classes. I say this, because the classes aren’t focused on one technique or one aspect of writing—they’re classes that get you to think about everything in new ways. Also, since the classes aren’t about one specific thing, that means that each writer is doing what she wants to focus on, and so there’s no sense of competition or jealousy. Everyone’s just doing their thing and encouraging each other. Any writer who is excited to see how she can do something that she has never done before, or take her writing to the places she didn’t even know existed will love these classes. Plus, I do line edits on every student’s writing once a week. I do this, because I learned how to write by seeing how someone revised my own work. The edits helped me to gain a different perspective of how I approached my work, as well as see what writing quirks I had—such as a codependent relationship with the em dash.
JM: Is there anything that still intimidates or frustrates/challenges you, when writing?
CC: It frustrates me when people conflate my writing with who I am as a person. Just because I wrote an essay about being super crazy and depressed, doesn’t mean I still struggle with that. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to write about it (at least not coherently).
JM: If you had a headstone, what would be inscribed on it?
Yo mourner! Check it out:
I’m dead and you’re still reading the shit I write. That’s called timeless, bitches. Timeless.
–Chesley Clammer, circa death date
Chelsey’s class “Face Your Fears: Women Writers Anonymous,” is open for registration. Classes run from Monday, January 2, 2017 – Sunday, February 12, 2017. For more information or to sign up, visit the WOW! Women on Writing.