“Go to that place that frightens you the most and hang out there for a bit. Get really uncomfortable and write from that place…
Kill the vampire right at the beginning. Then keep writing.”
Chelene Knight is the author of a book of poetry, Braided Skin (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015) and Dear Current Occupant, a hybrid collection of essays and verse forthcoming from Book Thug in 2018. She is also the managing editor of Room magazine.
A bit of friendly backstory:
I first discovered Chelene’s poetry while browsing the shelves of my local library. I picked up Braided Skin, took it home and devoured it in one evening. A few months later an email appeared in my inbox from Chelene – a congratulatory note on my essay, “An Atmospheric Pressure”, which was selected as the winner of Room’s 2016 CNF contest. Your work is lovely and I’m so honoured that it will be in the issue I am editing, she wrote. She wanted tips on how to write an essay in the form I’d used, which she brilliantly coined “mixed-time lapse creative nonfiction”. From the moment we connected I was struck by Chelene’s warmth, generosity and commitment to her work. A little more than a year later I am delighted to call her a friend.
Last week Chelene and I had a lively chat about fear and truth telling, technique, and trolls. Enjoy!
NB: I want to talk about your recent Globe and Mail opinion piece, “Constantly proving my blackness is exhausting.” So many writers have to confront fear when it comes to truth telling. Did this article raise fear at any time as you generated it?
CK: I was anticipating a reaction because I’ve been writing on these kinds of issues for so long. So there wasn’t fear in the act of getting it out, but the response. And that is exactly what happened. Some people posted negative comments – but I also had a lot of good feedback on it. I was offered radio spots and was invited to speak at a human rights conference. That’s what happens when you tell your truth.
NB: How do you manage negative reactions to your work, personally? This is a big fear for writers who want to find the courage to tell their truth but fear backlash.
CK: I anticipated it. And I just took those comments and let them prove my point. Writers who are also people of colour understand. It reminded me that I always want my writing to be in the hands of people who want to read it. The people that wrote those comments are not from the literary community. Someone said I was having an identity crisis; someone else called it “another garbage race article”. That was really rough. But those people have no connection to my work and no understanding of what is going on in CanLit right now.
NB: Was there a time where you wouldn’t have written an opinion piece like this one?
CK: I might have written something similar in the form of a poem. I think reading the work of other writers really gave me permission to jump in. I read so many stories at Room that share personal truths. Writers really trust us with their work. It’s an unlocking feeling. By being truthful with me I can be truthful, too, and peel back my own layers. It’s a beautiful thing.
NB: You are a cross-genre writer – a poet, a fiction writer and a writer of CNF. Does one genre allow you to feel more free to tell the truth of an experience?
CK: When I write poetry I do feel as though I have more power to hide pieces of what I am saying – I don’t have to tell the whole truth. I can mold and shape and bend the words to suit. I can make my own rules, break my own rules, rewrite them and defend them. I feel as though when I am writing poetry I have a mask on, and when I write non-fiction I am completely exposed. How I feel about this depends completely on what I am writing and it’s less about the genre itself. Plus, I like to think that nowadays genres are bending, morphing, and merging into hybrid genres that cannot be easily defined or placed neatly into boxes.
NB: I wondered whether the “I” in your poem, “Dear Mama“, was written in the voice of you, the writer, or as a persona or character.
CK: Sometimes the “I” is indeed me. But sometimes the “I” can be anyone, much like in fiction when you are writing a character—even though most fiction writers will say every character is loosely based on someone they know. Sometimes these two voices (the character and the writer) morph and merge, much like the genres itself. I like to be free with this idea. I prefer to write by starting with a phrase or fragment and riff of it until I get it to where I want it.
NB: Does wearing the mask of a persona help you reveal a truth more easily?
CK: I don’t know if wearing a mask allows me to reveal a truth more easily, but it definitely allows me to reveal it more vividly.
NB: Do you have a favourite writer who tells the truth brilliantly?
CK: A writer who tells her story in a way that is simple and honest is Roxane Gay. I recently read Hunger and the way she wrote it is just, “Here it is. Here’s my truth and you can take it however you like.”
NB: I read Hunger and Bad Feminist this summer, too, and the word that comes to mind to describe her writing is “elegant”.
CK: Yes, and just to the bone.
NB: What struck me about Hunger is the use of voice. How do you find your true voice as a writer?
CK: One of the biggest compliments I ever received was that the way I wrote felt like the reader and I were having a conversation. That is a really cool thing.
I think it’s knowing the words that come out of your mouth. If you never use a word it doesn’t belong in your piece. I try to write in a simple way, with simple syntax. I don’t user fancier words or write in an academic way. My rule is to never use a string of words I would never say. You have to own what you write. And disregard half of what you learned about writing in high school.
NB: Exactly! What we do is heart to heart. We’re not writing to impress.
CK: Yes. If you have a sad story and want to affect your readers but you have to translate your work then you have to take a step back. Ask another writer to read it and then figure out what you need to peel away. I think that’s the key to good CNF.
NB: You talked about unlocking a story. I think of writing that way, too. Or getting down to the basement – that’s where the heart of the story is, the real truth. Like, maybe you start on the sixth floor with the first draft, and then you get closer, maybe the third floor with the next draft. But the real story is waiting way down in the basement for you to unlock it.
CK: I like that. And as a writer you really need someone on your side to take that journey with you. With my second manuscript I approached a publisher and they said there was too much work to do. And they were exactly right. They passed because there wasn’t enough time to get it where it needed to be. I worked and worked to get it to maybe the third floor and that’s when it was accepted. The publisher said, “OK, we can work with it now.”
NB: I’d love to learn a bit about your process writing your novel, Junie, which takes place in 1930s and 40s Vancouver. How has your research, digging for the facts about that particular time and place, helped you tell the story? Did it lead you to new truths about the story you wanted to tell?
CK: Actually the novel started from a piece in my first book Braided Skin, called “The Colouring Book”. I basically riffed off of that and combined it with my obsession with Hogan’s Alley and the folks who lived there “back in the day.” I haven’t really started the REAL research just yet (as Jen Sookfong Lee says “Don’t get too caught up in the research right away. Don’t get so caught up that you end up doing nothing but research and forget about the writing”). So the story itself is still in my head. I am getting it out slowly, in fragments. I am just trying to get it down however it comes out and I plan to worry about “getting it right” later.
NB: This is more of a craft question. I loved your segmented essay recently published in The Summer Book, “14 Things She’d Say Sleeping Next to a Picture Book”. It repeats the line, “She’d say the best things in the summer” and recounts time spent with your daughter, the wondrous emergence of her burgeoning personality. How did the piece came together? Did you start with that first true statement, and it worked like a prompt, triggering more and more memories?
CK: I started with a picture I had pinned to my wall. A photo of my daughter sleeping next to a picture book that was about penguins dreaming! I love this photo. She was four or five. I looked at this glorious photo and started to think about how different she is now compared to when she was a kid. Not necessarily better or worse, just different. I discovered that this tangible thing, this photo, triggered so many fragments of memories that I had forgotten about. Writing one memory trigged another and another and another. Each fragment acted as a key unlocking other fragments … until I had fourteen things she’d say! I find the essay itself kind of a sappy piece, and not the sort of thing I wanna write but I felt that it was important to document that particular moment in time. I didn’t want to lose those moments.
NB: It’s lovely. Is the number fourteen significant?
CK: It is. She was fourteen when I wrote the piece.
NB: I love how the structure sometimes comes together organically like that. Do you have any advice you’d give writers who have a difficult story to tell or feel compelled to explore a hard truth in their writing?
CK: Go to that place that frightens you the most and hang out there for a bit. Get really uncomfortable and write from that place.
NB: Kill the vampire right away. Like, don’t let it linger in the bushes while you’re trying to write.
CK: Exactly. Kill the vampire right at the beginning. Then keep writing.
Thank you so much, Chelene, for taking the time to talk writing with me — I’m looking forward to continuing our writer chats in the CNF Outliers forum this fall. (If you signed up for the current session, which starts today, you’ll soon be meeting Chelene — a fellow Outlier!).
Stay tuned for more conversations about truthtelling with Isaac Yuen and Karen Zey a bit later in the month!