A Conversation with Chelsey Clammer

By Ashley Reynolds

Chelsey Clammer is a fun and edgy writer who has the ability to add brash and humor to serious life subjects. Her story "Sarah" is the second story that we've published in The Coachella Review. She impressed us with writing so much that I had to sit down and chat with her about her life as a nonfiction writer. She received her MA in Women's Studies from Loyola University Chicago. In addition to The Coachella Review, she has been published in THIS, The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Sleet, and many others. She also manages her own freelance company at www.chelseyclammer.com. In the interview, we talk about how she writes her unusual life story to inspire women to accept themselves for who they truly are.

How did you get into writing nonfiction?

I was have been writing in a journal ever since I was nine. The entries were not fantastic or anything, but I jotted down what I did that day and what I was going to do the next day. Excerpt from diary when I was nine, May 3, 1992: "I went to school today. Mom made me eggs for dinner. I think Brandon likes me. I really, really like him. Oh! And I could smell my armpits today. I'm going to be a woman soon!" In high school, I wrote highly emotional poetry, as most hormonal teens do. I will not torture you with an excerpt of it, but poetry didn't feel like it came naturally to me, so I stuck with my journal. As I continued to journal all through college, I eventually started to concentrate on writing about things I thought others would enjoy reading. My junior year of college I attempted writing a novel about a drunk lesbian in college, and I was a drunk lesbian in college when I wrote it. I got through the first draft, and realized I was just trying to write about my life. I didn't take any writing classes in high school or college, so I just blindly started to try and explain the events of my own life in writing. I kept at it, then started reading a lot of memoirs, and by the time I graduated from grad school, nonfiction started to feel so natural to me. It was the type of writing in which I could best describe myself, and so I really started to focus on it.

My favorite author is Marya Hornbacher (author of Madness and Wasted), and I had a chance to do an independent study with her one winter. And although I wasn't even enrolled in college when I saw online that she was about to start teaching in Chicago, I contacted her to see if I could sit in on the class. The class was full, so she offered to do an independent study with me. By the time I started working with Marya, I had enough writing practice due to all of my journalling, that I was at the point where I was ready to learn the craft of writing, to turn the memories from my journals into essays and eventually a memoir. Marya helped to teach me craft techniques, to help me more eloquently express what it was I was trying to get at, and she encouraged me to always stick with it, to continue to tell my stories. Telling my own stories feels natural to me, and so I go with it.

Can you explain what the phrase "finding the concept of home in my body" means?

When I was a kid my family moved around every three years or so following the business career of my father. I never had a physical place that I could really claim as my home. For instance, when I visited my parents during breaks from college, it was at a different home than the ones I grew up in, and so it never really felt like I was "coming home." After I graduated from grad school in Chicago, I had a friend who was living in Minneapolis, and I would visit her every three weeks or so. I slept on her couch the whole time I was there, and I started to realize that I had a lot of moments in my life in which I slept on other people's couches. I always felt comfortable in these spaces that were not mine, and I couldn't explain why.

But the more I visited Minneapolis, the more I started to think that if my idea of home—a cozy, welcoming place you can always return to—was in my body, was in fact my body itself, then I would always be at home in the world, that I would always be carrying my home with me. Through writing many essays I have tried to explore this concept. I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an eating disorder, and PTSD. I started to ask myself, "how can I feel at home in a body that has felt so traumatized, a body in which my mind has felt unstable, and a body I have tried to do away with by not eating?" I found that through my recovery from these various disorders, my body had always been there for me, waiting for me to come back to it no matter how much I tried to push it away. So the body is a type of home, a place that will always be there for us, a place we can always return to, and a place that will always welcome us back, because it is a space that feels safe and cozy inside of it.

I have a tattoo of the word "home" on my arm to remind me that my home is always with me.

You have an MA in women's studies. How does that specific point of view affect your writing?

For my thesis I wrote about how the body can help to express our mental states, how our different emotions speak through the body. I also started to look at how bodywork—such as yoga, or Alexander Technique—can help us to better express what is going on in our minds. I have always been interested in the body, and through Women's Studies I started to read disability theory. It was these two fields of study that have helped me to express what my body means to me—both theoretically and emotionally—which is what most of my writing is about.

Also, women's studies gave me the opportunity to incorporate my own stories with the academic writing I was doing. I was allowed to ask how my own life had been affected by race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. Unlike other fields of study, women's studies encouraged me to bring this personal point of view into my writing. I continue to do that as I write about my body, as I write about what my body and my relationships mean in relation to some of the larger topics of life.

Through women's studies, I also found that there is power in a woman—or any minority in this society—telling her story. To speak out about what has pissed her off or tried to cut her down is a very radical thing. I take this idea with me into all of my writing, to give my stories a voice, to finally express to the world what I have experienced—whether that be oppression or amazing connections I have made with different women.

As a nonfiction writer, do you ever find it difficult to open yourself up to vulnerability? If so, how are you able to get past it?

One of the best writing practices I have ever done is to make a list of the most embarrassing things that have ever happened to me, the things that I would NEVER write about. Then I wrote about them. Doing this challenged me to get past what I thought I could not write about because I was so vulnerable to those stories. The practice encouraged me to just say it—to finally get those words and events that I had been hiding from the world out of me. I have had numerous friends tell me that they know more about me from reading my essays than from actual interactions we have shared.

At first I would try to put humor into all of my work, or to skim the surface of the topics that felt too hard, too exposing, but writing that skims the surface is never as enjoyable to read because it doesn't really bring you into the story. I have a writing friend who tells all of her students that when they write they need to just, "Roll up your sleeves and dive in." This is how I approach all of my writing. Just dive into it, get everything out of me. And yes, I feel embarrassed or shy after I put a very vulnerable piece of writing out there (such as the "Sarah" piece about bulimia, or a piece I wrote about my adventures in masturbation called "Objects of Desire"), but what keeps me going is knowing that I am putting words to experiences that other people are having, that I'm speaking up about cutting or bulimia or mental illness or even that I am a runner and a smoker, and people are reading it, knowing that they, too, can tell their own stories.

A lot of people ask me what I hope for readers to get out of my writing, or why I would write about such vulnerable things. I always say that I write about such personal things in order to hopefully inspire someone else to share their own story.

You are very involved with reviews and blogs. In what ways do social media help or hinder you as a writer?

Writing a weekly humor column for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg review has really helped me to learn how to write short, humor pieces. Though at first I had doubts that I could do it. During the time when the editor approached me about writing the weekly humor column, I was in the throws of trying to write very lyrical and emotional writing—quiet essays that felt more like reading poetry than nonfiction. I have always thought that when I try to write humor, it sounds like I'm pushing it too hard, that I'm not allowing the reader to make her own connections with the events.

Doing the weekly humor column has really made me start to trust myself and my readers. That I can put a really embarrassing event on the page, or a weird experience I have had, and that I can play with it, can use a quirky voice and outlandish language in order to write it, and that I can just trust that the readers will get the humor of it. It is also great that I have to push myself to write a new short essay every week. From that, I have learned to trust my brain, to just keep writing because something will come of it eventually.

On the other hand, once I get into the flow of the kind of witty writing I do for Eckleburg, I have sometimes found it hard to get back into the rhythm of the lyrical and poetic voice I yearn to use for my essays. It's a hard transition, and sometimes I just have to tell myself to take a break from trying to come up with Eckleburg columns, and work more on the lyrical writing. With that practice, I have come to learn that whether what I'm writing about is interesting or not is not the point. The point is to keep pushing myself to write for a couple of hours every day, to use that lyrical voice in order to get into the habit of it, to make it feel more natural again.

Writing for a lot of blogs and journals is also wonderful, because I get to meet so many interesting writers and editors. And while I have never met any of them face-to-face, I at least know there are other writers and editors out there who are working towards similar goals as I am. It helps me to not feel as lonely in my writing.

Aside from the reviews and blogs that you do, have you ever dabbled in other writing genres? If so, how was it different from writing nonfiction?

I've written exactly one short story. And I wrote one fiction book that I will never do anything with, because I wrote it so long ago and the writing is terrible. Sometimes I wished that I did write more fiction, because more than a dozen times a day I stare at my notebook and say to myself, "I have nothing to write about. I've written about everything in my life already." I get stuck trying to find new things to write about. Thus, I want to try and write fiction in order to expand the topics I think I can write about. I'm still trying to get the hang of fiction, though. For some reason it's hard for me to come up with things that did not happen to me. The one short fiction piece I wrote is this really absurd and quirky story about a woman who is eating a pair of her underwear in public. When I write fiction, I feel like I have to make the events so extreme from my own life in order to not mix fiction with nonfiction.

I have also written a few poems. Really, though, they're pieces I originally wrote as short lyrical essays, then ending up changing the lining and spacing of them to make them into poems.

I have no idea how to write plays. Dialogue can be really challenging for me, so I've never even wanted to attempt that genre. It scares me.

Since you obviously have a very full plate, how are you able to manage your time with all of your projects?

I make writing my full-time career, or at least I view it in this way. Very rarely do I get paid for my writing, so I always refer to it as "the career that doesn't pay." But by approaching it as a career, I make sure that I write for at least forty hours a week, which sounds like a lot, but if you prioritize it, then it is easy to do. Not everything I write has to be interesting or "good," because writing is all about practice. It always astonishes me how I will write and write and write about random little things for weeks, then suddenly one day I will tap into an idea for an essay. So it is imperative that I give myself the time to meander around my thoughts for hours, days, weeks even. And while usually nothing comes out of me for days at a time, suddenly I'll hit a memory and an essay will come flooding out of me in one day. The essays can only come out of me if I write, if I make time for myself to practice writing daily.

All of this is to say that I make writing the most important thing in my life. I write first thing when I wake up. I write whenever I can during the day. And I write for a few hours before I go to sleep. Yes, my brain eventually starts to knot up and I have a hard time getting words out of me, but I keep pushing myself, keep going after it. A writer friend once told me that writing is like riding a bike, "You'll never forget how to write, but if you don't do it often you'll get rusty and your writing muscles will be limp." I agree with this. Writing is a sport. You have to practice it in order to be conditioned for it.

Thus, if you make writing the most important thing in your life, then you will find that you have tons of time to write.

Also, I got sober. Instead of sitting in bars for at least four hours every night, I now have all of this free time to write.

You have a couple of projects at the publishers now. Can you explain a little bit of what the projects are?

I have a collection of essays called BodyHome. It started out as a collection consisting of 260 pages, but I dwindled it down to 150. These essays all approach the idea of finding the concept of home in the body. The title essay (which won Revolution House's Editor's Pick Award for 2012) concentrates on understanding how I have tried to push my body away from me because of the trauma it had experienced, but how I started to accept my body as a safe space, as a home. There's a wide range of topics in the collection that all wrestle with this concept, such as: an essay about my sexuality and my dreadlocks, one about using the five senses in order to pinpoint memories that made me feel like I was growing into a woman, one about experiencing grief in the body, another one about sexuality and friendship ("Sabrina" which was published in The Coachella Review in the fall of 2012), and one about bisexuality ("I Have Been Thinking About" which won the Editor's Pick Award 2012 from Cobalt).

I have another collection of essays called There is Nothing Else to See Here, which consists of about 15 essays that move beyond the surface of a situation, and zooms in on specific moments. In other words, just when I thought there was nothing else to say about some topic, I dive into it even further, look at the small details that profoundly affect the larger situation, such as what my mother's hands did after she found my father dead in their bedroom. By zooming in on the smooth motions of her hands as she discovered my father's body I was better able to understand her quiet, calm response to the huge life-changing event of my father's death.

Currently, I am tinkering around with a bunch of essays about the women in my life. My hopes are to one day have a book about how women have influenced my life.

Finally, I just wrote a memoir this summer about mental illness and sexuality. I have always dated women, though whenever I started to get manic, I would desire penetrative sex with men. This memoir, titled Again, looks at how I always felt that my sexuality was being dragged around by my mental states. Then, a year after I finally got steady in my mind with medication and therapy, I started dating a man and wondered if I was going manic again because of this shift in my sexuality. The book weaves the themes of addiction, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder with different facets of my sexuality.

All of these books are under consideration at publishers.

Fingers crossed.

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