In “Goodbye, Sweet Girl” (Issue 4), Kelly Sundberg brings us inside one (of her many) summer(s) as a wilderness ranger, a bad night at a Motel 6, and slowly her healing heart. In this interview, Sundberg discusses music, writing about sex, and her current state of mind.
Kelly Sundberg‘s essays have appeared in Guernica, Quarterly West, The Los Angeles Review, Mid-American Review, PANK, and others. Most recently, her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was selected by Ariel Levy for publication in 2015 Best American Essays anthology. She is a PhD candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University where she is also the Managing Editor of Brevity Magazine: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction.
What inspired you to create this piece? This piece was inspired by a workshop prompt from Dinty W. Moore in my PhD program. He challenged us to write a piece loosely based on the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times that tries to present a love story with some kind of unique and modern element. I had just returned from my summer in Idaho, and the pain of my divorce was still very raw. I wasn’t in a place to be writing a typical love story, so I decided to tell the story of my girlfriends who stepped in and helped me put the pieces of my life back together after I had left my husband. The “love story” is really a story of friendship.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts). I wrote the first draft of this piece in one afternoon. It was one of the fastest drafts I’ve ever written, but the revision for this piece was surprisingly slow. Even though the first draft was written in an afternoon, the essay took almost a year to complete. I wasn’t sure how to end it. Everything I wrote felt trite and tidy. I wanted to find an ending that offered the reader closure, but also demonstrated that the process of healing from divorce, or any life changing event, is ongoing.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? I’m very influenced by music when I write. I don’t like to write in silence. I wear headphones and listen to music, and what I listen to undoubtedly affects the tone of my writing. While I was writing this essay, I was listening to a lot of the album High Violent, by The National. I listened to that album on repeat while I was making my long drive across the country, and the music was both melancholy and hopeful in a way that I think influenced how I crafted this essay. I wrote another essay just before this one, “The Sharp Point in the Middle” which was published in PANK, and I listened to the album Civilian, by Wye Oak, while I was writing that essay. That essay is more visceral and angry than this one in a way that clearly reflects my choice of musical accompaniment.
Where do you create? I used to do a lot of my writing at my dining room table because I’m a single mother. But lately, I’ve been finding it difficult to write at home because I keep finding myself distracted by other things I think I should be accomplishing. There is always something in a house that needs to be done, and I think a lot of women writers, particularly mothers, struggle with trying to find a balance between their domestic and writing life. Lately, I’ve been going to a bakery in town while my son is in school. They have bottomless cups of coffee, good light, and never give me the side eye if I’m there for a few hours at a time.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? I was one of those lucky people to have a truly inspiring and talented high school English teacher. Her name is Helen Bertram, and she was exacting, challenging, and supportive. She had high expectations, but she showed me that high expectations garner high rewards. I’m lucky to still be close to her now. We have coffee, talk about life, writing, books we’ve read, just anything. She’s one of many mentors who have turned into friends. My MFA advisor, Kevin Oderman, was and continues to be hugely influential on my writing. He showed me how to use structure in ways that are unexpected and sophisticated. And my PhD advisor, Dinty W. Moore, has helped me take my writing to another level professionally. It’s under his mentorship that I’ve actually started to call myself a “writer.”
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I don’t know that I have an answer for that. I’m currently struggling with a creative block right now. I’ve been working on a book proposal that has zapped a lot of my creative energy. The other day I sat down to write an essay, and everything that came out felt terrible. It’s not an experience that I’ve had before. So, if someone does have a good answer to this question, I’m all ears, and in need of advice.
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? I’m a huge fan of Rebecca Solnit’s work. In particular, I’d recommend A Field Guide to Getting Lost and The Faraway Nearby. Her writing is always so well-researched, astute, and smart, but it’s the lyricism of her language that truly captivates me. I’m also very interested in the natural world—how the natural world affects us as humans—and how we, in turn, affect the natural world, and I think that’s one of the broader themes of her writing.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about this piece, in particular, or about your creative process, in general? It’s always difficult to write about sex, but it’s necessary sometimes. I worked very hard to address sex directly and honestly. I didn’t want the language to be overly sentimental or maudlin.
Why do you think this was one of the fastest drafts you have ever written? Readers of my other, recent work will know that my marriage was abusive, and I had written quite a bit about the abuse when I started this piece. I wanted to write about divorce in a way that dealt with loss rather than trauma, so I made the decision to never explicitly mention that my marriage had been abusive. What I discovered was that taking the abuse out of the equation freed me up to write about my feelings of sadness in a way that was liberating and made the writing happen quickly. I also use humor in this essay more than is typical for me. I’m a funny person, but not usually a funny writer, and although I wouldn’t call this a “funny” essay, I enjoyed having some opportunities to access that side of myself.
What genre of music do you most often listen to when you write? When I write, I’m partial to music that is melancholic, instrumental. I listen to Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, M83, even George Winston, the pianist, sometimes.
We asked Kelly to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer.This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? I had a day on the Salmon River where I was relaxing on a boat while waiting for a co-worker to GPS some noxious weeds. A group of otters swam up to the boat and played. They were so playful and seemed at such ease. I’m not really that kind of person, but I strive to be, and I’d love to come back that way.
When and where were you happiest? The moment in the essay where I was sitting in the water with Emily is right up there. It was a simple moment, but I had been unhappy for so long that my newfound happiness felt so sweet. There’s nothing better than realizing happiness can exist in the wake of deep sadness.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Like,” I’m a child of the nineties. I use the word “like” too much.
What is your greatest extravagance? Bottled Kombucha. I should start making my own, but I’m too lazy.
What is your current state of mind? Hopeful. I’m heading back for another summer on the river in a few days [and, as this interview is published… Kelly is finishing up another summer on the Salmon River]. My life has changed significantly since that summer with Emily, but only in the most wonderful ways.