We want to extend our gratitude to Chelsey Clammer for her generosity in reading our nonfiction submissions for our Summer Nonfiction Writing Contest, as well as answering questions regarding writing and craft. Many thanks to Chelsey, author of the new collection of essays, Circadian, for offering her insights and choosing our nonfiction contest winner.
We’re excited to announce that she chose Amy Bee’s essay, The Adult Section, published last week on our site. As the winner of our contest, Amy receives a $50 award from Sunlight, sponsored by an anonymous donor.* Congratulations, Amy!
About her essay, Chelsey wrote, “I could hear, literally hear the writer’s voice coming right off the page, and I felt like I could tell that the writer had a fun time writing this essay. For me, as a reader, that’s what I appreciate most about essays—when you can feel the writer thinking about and playing around with her own story on the page.”
Below is our interview with Chelsey about her writing process and what she believes makes a compelling essay.
Tell us about your new book, Circadian, out Oct. 3. Briefly, what are the essays about and how did they come together to create this book?
Circadian is a collection of 12 lyric essays that all weave different areas of knowledge with my own personal stories to look at the different cycles of our lives and identities. For instance, in the opening essay, “On Three,” I use math and numbers as a way to tell the story of what it was like to grow up in a household with an alcoholic father. The second essay, “Mother Tongue” (which was runner-up for Black Warrior Review’s 2014 nonfiction contest), uses language, vocabulary, and the story of my grandmother’s Lazy Susan to explore different aspects of gender and identity. In 2013, I started my MFA program at Rainier Writing Workshop, and had Lia Purpura (one of my favorite writers) as my mentor. I pushed myself to do really interesting things in terms of form and language with the essays that I turned in to her because she’s a rock star and I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Eventually, I saw that each essay was looking at different cyclical aspects of my life through mixing personal story with other areas of knowledge. I was having a blast writing these kinds of essays, so I just kept going!
What makes a memorable and effective essay? Do you gravitate toward essays with certain themes or structure?
For me, I tend to remember how an essay is written more than what the essay is actually about. An essay can be about one of the most fascinating topics, but I might not remember that one as much as one that uses a really intriguing form and focuses more on language than topic. Of course this isn’t true all the time, but most of my favorite essays are ones I feel close to because I was able to see how the writer’s mind was working itself out on the page through structure and language. That, to me, makes me feel closer to a writer than if I know different stories of her life. Structure and language just feel so personal to me—more so than any story.
What is your writing process? How did you come to write essays, or creative nonfiction?
My writing process is to write write write write write write write, etc. At least, it was when I first started to take myself seriously as a writer and I just wrote for hours at a time—I mean, like, 14 hours a day spent writing and revising my work. Now six years later, I’m more familiar with my voice and how my brain works, so I can produce work that I am proud of in less time—which is good because I have less time to write now! I’m a freelance editor and I also teach creative writing classes online through WOW! Women on Writing. Now, I only get about an hour a day to work on my own stuff. I write everything by hand first, then I type up what’s interesting to me, then I revise and revise and cut up and tape together and revise and research and write more and eventually I’ll have an essay. I came to creative nonfiction because that’s just how my brain works. I’ve written exactly six short stories. All six have been published, which rocks, but it’s really hard for me to just make stuff up. I like to start with “fact” and memory and then get creative with what I know. Taking tiny moments from life and exploring them through poetic language and weird forms is what excites me most about life. Yes. I’m a nerd. Go team.
Why did you choose this particular essay as the winner? What stood out for you?
What I liked most about “The Adult Section” were two things: I could hear, literally hear the writer’s voice coming right off the page, and I felt like I could tell that the writer had a fun time writing this essay. For me, as a reader, that’s what I appreciate most about essays—when you can feel the writer thinking about and playing around with her own story on the page. The voice is really fresh and has a smart sort of attitude about it, which I love, and the way she weaves around the different parts of this short essay to ultimately tell the story about her relationship with her mother and how reading is a part of that, was just a joy to read. The narrator felt very present to me on the page, and that’s what creates an unforgettable essay.
Where can readers find you?
You can check out all of my publications, news about Circadian, information about the classes I teach, and also my sliding-scale editing services by going to my website: chelseyclammer.com.
I gave book readings in Austin, Texas for Circadian on October 3 at Book Woman and on October 14 at Book People. I’ll be reading in Houston sometime in early November, and I’m looking into setting up readings in Chicago, Denver, and Seattle in the spring—and anywhere else that invites me!
* This year we held our first Spring Fiction and Summer Nonfiction contests, both sponsored by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous. We are very grateful for the support.