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Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel Q/A

Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel, author of Fear Icons, Q&A with students
from BYU on October 11th, 2019

KLS: Thank you all for coming. I’m really excited to be here. I hope
that you will just see me as a resource. And I’m very glad there’s a baby
here. It’s going to help me feel a little more mellow, distract me a little
from my nerves. You (students) probably know this book better than
I do at this point, so I would love to hear your questions. What can I
answer for you?

Student: I’m interested to know when you started writing, why you
started writing, and when your first publication was.

KLS: The big question: how did I get here? I appreciate this question
because we often hide how many different paths you can take before
becoming a writer. I graduated from Texas Christian University a
thousand years ago with a degree in social work. I was going to be a
very helpful person in the world, and I worked at Habitat for Humanity
for about a minute (hardly at all), because I just couldn’t do it. Being in
the office was absolutely soul crushing for me. I couldn’t find a way to
be myself while also doing work that was also “helpful.” I did not feel
helpful, so, I quit that job, even though I love Habitat for Humanity,
and I started doing outdoor education for low-income, at-risk youth all
along the West Coast. I started out in Washington State, then moved to
northern California, then southern California, and did that for about
three years. Now, all the while, I was secretly writing. At night, I’m in my
room, hiding, writing novels and stories and whatever, just completely
hiding it, even from myself—not taking it seriously, not respecting that
part of who I am, because it didn’t feel important enough. What the
heck could I have to say that would matter? I continued to do outdoor
education until I burnt out, and then I moved to Missoula, Montana,
which is an incredible literary community I lived there for seven years,
and it just felt like home. There were so many people writing, just sharing
their work and connecting with each other through literature. It was
invigorating for me. But, even then, I denied it in myself. So, I enrolled in
the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, thinking
I could do some good for the environment. Long story short, I ended
up just taking a bunch of creative writing classes, and my professors
finally said to me, “You’re actually just writing creatively, and that’s fine.
Could you please just do that thing?” I wrote a triptych of essays about
farmers and ranchers in the Bitterroot Valley that won the Richard J.
Margolis Award, an incredibly big award for social justice journalism.
You should all look into it. It came with a fellowship at Blue Mountain
Center in New York, a month-long writing residency that changed my
life. I decided that for one year, I would write seriously, and I applied
to two programs for creative writing; one was Iowa, and I got in. From
Iowa, I went to Whitman, where I’m now a professor. So, my road was
long and winding, and a lot of it was me hiding from myself. Once I
started to take my own work seriously, that’s when I really was able to
do the things I really wanted to do. Am I doing any good? I don’t know.
That’s still a really important question, but the writing does me good, so
that feels right. At this point, I’m okay with that.

Student: Why the essay? You mentioned that you started writing
stories and novels. When and why did you switch to essaying?

KLS: That’s a good question. I had a really strange experience with
essays. Back when I was writing fiction, I applied as well to the University
of Montana’s fiction program and did not get in. I don’t know if this is
an experience that others have shared, but for me, as a woman, when
somebody tells me no, it can really shut me down and make me think
that I can’t do that thing. I actually listened to the gentlemen in the
room who told me, “No, you’re not able to do that,” and I thought, “Oh,
well I guess I can’t write fiction.” At almost the exact same time, a good
buddy of mine, Chris Dombrowski, who writes nonfiction and poetry,
handed me John D’Agata’s Next American Essay. I started to read it and
thought, “Oh, wait. This is actually what I’ve been doing all along, this
kind of ‘essaying’.” That book gave me a new way to understand what
the essay was—that it was no longer that five paragraph perfunctory
high school nightmare that I had actually been very good at. I got a 5
on the AP exam, but that kind of writing never introduced me to what
the essay could actually do. D’Agata’s book was my introduction to it,
through a friend, again, through community. At that point all the lights
went on. Everything opened up for me. That was my jam. I was in love.

Student: So, you mentioned the five-paragraph essay. I feel like most
students don’t know what a personal essay is. They’re not familiar with
the genre of creative nonfiction. It took me a really long time to wrap
my head around it, to be honest, so I’m curious, how do you introduce
your students to the genre and help them understand what an essay can
be, break these barriers of what they thought it was?

KLS: I do lots of different things, but I’ll just talk about a couple. And
it’s not just students who struggle with the term “creative nonfiction,”
right? It’s the whole world. When I first arrived at Whitman—which is
a lovely place (I have lovely colleagues; don’t let this story be indicative
of your perspective of it)—I was at a cocktail party, where all the
professors were introducing themselves, and I was so nervous, you
know, dressed up and so excited. A professor in a nice suit walked up to
me and said, “Hello, who are you? And what do you do?” I said, “Oh, I
write creative nonfiction. I’m here to teach creative nonfiction,” which
was a brand-new position at the school as well. And he goes, “Ha ha
ha! Isn’t that an oxymoron?” He turned on his heels and walked away.
I thought, “Yes, and that’s the beauty of it!” It is, in fact, an oxymoron,
and there’s this beautiful tension between that which is creative—
our imaginations, the way we perceive the world, the metaphors we
use, even our memories which are actually very creative—and the
nonfiction of our life experiences. So, I thought, “You missed it!” This
whole genre, because he had already defined it as ridiculous. I tell that
story to my students, and then we talk about the ways in which creativity
and the work of nonfiction are not separate things. That, in fact, any
time you write, you are engaging your creativity. Any time we have a
discussion, we’re engaging our creativity. The word creative is often
misused as “false” or as fiction, and then we use the word nonfiction to
try to separate our own lives from that which is false. But fiction comes
from a word that means “to shape,” and in nonfiction, we’re shaping just
the same. I guess that’s why I also prefer the word essay, which had a
long tradition even before Montaigne, where folks were thinking on the
page, trying to understand something about the experiences of their
lives, and giving words to it. For example, what are we doing right now?
You’re trying to find some words, and you’re smiling at me, and you’re
being creative as you interpret your experience. A lot of the work of
the essay is to move and be responsive, and that also is a creative act.
It doesn’t mean that we make it up, but it does mean that we’re paying
close attention and using our descriptive facilities in order to actually
name that which has happened to us. That’s creative. But I still prefer
the word “essay” because of its ability to name for me what I think this
genre can do, which is to attempt, try different ways, different forms,
but also, to weigh. That part of the etymological definition is really
interesting, what it means to weigh ideas or experience. So that’s just
one way I help my students. We also take a walk, actually the exact same
walk, and then I have them write about it. What they start to recognize
are the ways in which we can never take the same walk. The moment
they start to write about it, they’re engaging their creativity to help
them understand what walk they took. What was their journey? That is
also the work of the essayist. What’s your journey?

Student: Does your background in environmental studies influence
your work now?

KLS: The poet Camille Dungy is really right when she says that all
writing is ecological. This is especially true for me, personally. In some
of the essays, like “Liberace and the Ash Tree,” and of course, with the
horse—that horse still gives me nightmares—the environment’s very
present. My work is now turning more towards what it means to write
in the Anthropocene, toward what ways of reading and writing we
might engage now that we are in this new epoch, in which the impact
of humans is actually being recognized and named. I also studied with
writers who prioritize the environment in their writing. That was very
helpful for me and informative.

Student: Thanks for your work. I had a question about translation:
there are two areas in the collection where you talk about translation,
one in your Trump essay and then in the acknowledgements where
you say that you read through translation (as in reading is a type of
translation). I was just wondering if you could maybe explain a little bit
of that translation process as you are reading and writing.

KLS: When I’m thinking of translation, I’m thinking about the root
of the word, which is “to move across.” I’m interested in what it means to
move across boundaries that might exist for us. I am constantly living in
translation. For example, right now, I have a thought and I’m very clear
on what it is but moving that thought into language is in itself an act of
translation. We engage in that difficult and complex act every time we
write, every time we speak. I talk about this a lot with my students who
get so frustrated with themselves when they can’t write something down
very easily. “Why doesn’t it just come to me? I know what I’m thinking.”
But there is something about moving that thought onto the formalized
space of the page that can actually complicate the thought, and make us
think about our reader—whoever that is, that amorphous being, right?
All sorts of things are happening related to reception, how my idea will
be received. And that, to me, is also very much about translation. But I
think for me as a creative writer, I’m mostly thinking about the idea of
moving across. So, how am I moving across from my own perception to
another way of seeing, or another way of being? Or how am I moving
through language in order to expand on my understanding? It really
is that idea of moving across any sort of boundaries that have been
delineated as mine but not named by me. These boundaries are lines
that have been given to me or I have been told, “Those are your lines.
Those are your boundaries.” Those are the ones that I’m very interested
in exceeding—because I’m angry, right? I don’t want to be told that
that’s the limit for me. So, I’m interested in moving across those, even
translating the physical space, and what that means for myself.

Student: There’s a section at the very back of the book which
acknowledges several shadow texts that you’ve used. I’m curious about
that, how that plays into your process. Were you inspired by those texts,
or were they part of your research, or a mix of all that?

KLS: A mix of all that. I am a thief, evidently. This term, “shadow
text,” comes from the writer Maggie Nelson, who I heard talk about
shadow texts at a reading once. She said whenever she’s writing a book,
she will always keep another one on her desk that functions for her as
a shadow text, something she can turn to whenever she’s stuck or can’t
find the words or if she’s lost momentum and needs to find it again.
When she said that, I understood what I was doing in this book. A lot
of the time, these quotes would kind of just come at me in the midst
of writing. For example, the very first essay is called “Jesus.” I read a
quote in Harper’s Magazine while I was in the midst of writing “Jesus.”
(Writing Jesus sounds so strange to say.) While I was in the midst of
writing that essay, I felt stuck, but I happened upon this particular
quote and thought, “Oh, okay, that’s it!” Then I was able to weave that
quote into the text in what I hope was an effective way. That is how most
of these shadow texts functioned for me—they were discovered during
the process of writing. As I’m reading through them, very few were
initiators for the essay except for “Wild Things Are,” of course. In that
case, the shadow text was also the writing prompt that I carried with
me while writing that particular essay. What I think is really cool about
the shadow text idea is that it becomes a helpful companion during the
writing process. Even today, when I was thinking about what I wanted
to talk about with y’all in the next hour, I ended up turning to another
writer, Elena Ferrante, and reading her work and using a quote from
an interview of hers. I am always in conversation with the writers that
are beloved to me, those I consider literary kin, who are around me as
I’m writing—those who allow me to keep going, allow me to feel less
alone. They are also a source of inspiration and fuel for creativity. These
writers remind me, too, where I’m situated aesthetically. They give me a
clue as to where an essay is going and who I might want to lean on. Am
I leaning on poets for an essay? Or those who are writing articles and
critical work? It just depends, you know?

Student: I was intrigued with the formatting of some of your essays,
like in “Wild Things Are” where you’re down to a paragraph or less per
page. How much of that was your insistence as opposed to perhaps an
editor helping you format?

KLS: The great thing about Mad Creek Books is that they really
trust their authors. Essentially, I submitted this book and it won the De
Gournay prize and then I said to the editors, “I don’t think it’s done.”
And they said, “No, I think it’s done.” They had accepted the book
on its own terms, but when I said again, “I don’t think it’s done,” they
allowed me to make changes and gave me space and freedom. So, all the
formatting and form that you see here is mine. I couldn’t really tell you
why that essay in particular ended up being so fragmented except that I
really wanted to follow the shape of the original book. And that the way
in which that book was written there are some pages even where there
are no words, just images. There’s a lot of space between the prose, and
so you have a lot of space to digest all the variations of thinking that are
happening in that book. That was part of what I wanted to enact in the
brevity of the sections and also the compression of the imagery in those

Student: Along those lines of formatting the book and how
everything being situated how you wanted it to be—obviously there’s
this theme of fear throughout the essays and we see that in the title—I
was curious what the intention is behind the ordering of your essays in
this collection?

KLS: Great question. They were in a somewhat different order
when I submitted the book, but then a switch went on for me when
it was accepted for publication. I’ve talked to other writers and they
have echoed a similar experience—where the book gets picked up
and suddenly you’re like, “Oh, this is getting real.” People are actually
going to look at this. It allows you to see the work in a slightly different
way. I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but you write a draft
of something and then the second you email it to one of your readers
that you really trust you’re like, “Oh, no, no, no. I need to fix this, and
I need to change that!” Because you’re suddenly allowed to see it in
a different way, as they might see it. When this book was accepted, I
started to rethink the order of it and the trajectory, and I wanted to
really understand for myself what that trajectory was. I had a wonderful
teacher at Iowa named Susan Lohafer, who once told a student, “Print
out all of the essays in your collection, and then find a very, very big
table that feels a bit like a large dining table. Place each essay at a seat,
as if they are at dinner. And then put them in conversation with each
other during this dinner that you’re holding in your mind for them.
Who’s talking to whom? What are they saying? Who’s expanding on the
other person’s essay ideas?” That allowed me to start to map out some
resonances and see a sort of pattern. I wanted to shape the collection
as a movement from essays that felt very experiential (in which the
feeling of fear was most present) towards essays that highlighted love,
allowing that fear to ebb away. So those final essays are really radiating
around love more than the fear. But all the while, both are tethered
to each other. I’m trying to modulate the volume between the two. I
wanted to have the fear louder in the beginning. And then toward the
end, have the ideas around love and the feelings around love to be more

Student: While I was reading, I noticed that some stories were in a
more typical form, some of them were letters, some felt like a picture
book that had no pictures, and then in “The Dalai Lama’s Sharks” I
constantly got lost because it had no formatting. How do you decide
which style fits with which essay?

KLS: That’s such a good question. It’s a question of how do form and
content come into conversation. So “Wild Things Are” resembles the
form of a children’s book. It is interesting that you say, “I felt very lost”
in the “Dalai Lama’s Sharks.” What do you notice about the form of
that particular essay? There’s no white space, no paragraph breaks, no
paragraph indentations. In fact, the whole is just one long paragraph,
and not just that, it is justified to both sides of the page. So, it’s no
wonder you feel lost. It is like a long column. That is part of the form—
it makes you feel that swirling, lost momentum of what’s happening.
And that’s very much being discussed in the essay. To be in the water,
to not know where the boundaries of your body are, to not know what’s
happening around you because it’s getting darker the deeper you go.
There’s actually less to visibly describe the deeper you go, and that’s
definitely part of what I wanted to have happen in that essay. So, what
you’re naming there is a specific relationship between form and content.
I also wanted that essay to feel very meditative. And so, the thoughts
there are intended to come as they come; you allow them to come—
this is the idea of meditation. There’s no judgement, or at least some of
the meditation that I have read about and tried to practice with great
failure, is based on the idea that you let the thoughts come, and you
don’t tell them they’re good or bad. You just let them move through
you. That’s part of what that essay is trying to accomplish—to welcome
the thoughts as they come.

Student: I noticed in your essays that you use a lot of dialogue, which
I thought really helped drive the narratives as well as make your ideas
clearer. In my own writing, I’m always very hesitant to use dialogue
unless I can remember exactly how it was said. So, my question is, how
do you conceive of dialogue in nonfiction writing, particularly in this
collection, and what role do you feel it plays?

KLS: This is a really great aesthetic and personal question, one that
you’re entering into for yourself. What’s great about the essay is that
everything is allowed. It is the great open field where we all get to make
our decisions about what works for us and what ethically resonates with
us. So, for me, part of the work of dialogue is that it is coming through
me; these are, on the whole, very personal essays that are—I hope—
showing you that everything comes through my perception. That what
I’m revealing to you is what I remember, even if that is not correct. That
being said, there are quotes from, we could call them “more famous
people,” and unless I’ve said, “I imagine,” then those were actual quotes.
So, I don’t think I really have a good answer for your question, because
I feel that as an artist I’m really open to using dialogue in ways that are
functional for the narrative that I am telling. However, if I were to write
a profile, a portrait of an individual, and that is not necessarily about me
or about my perception, then I’m going to want to stay very, very close
to those quotes and actually check them with the person before I ever
publish it. So, I have kind of different standards, even for the different
forms of essays that I’m trying to engage.

Student: Along that same line, I noticed that with the Trump essay,
you have specific dates and conversations that happened on those dates,
are those guesses, or do you keep a journal, or something else?

KLS: Concerning, the dates in “Trump”—I was taking notes while
that was happening. That essay is derived from a very active journal
that I kept, so I didn’t go completely crazy trying to process what was
happening. That event was definitely trapped in time, if you will, so I
recorded it very carefully.

Student: You use this technique of addressing people in your essays,
of writing to people, and I’m curious what the rhetorical and stylistic
effect of that move is?

KLS: What I think is interesting about the epistolary essay—I love
that word, epistolary, it’s so fancy, but it just means letters—is that you’re
addressing someone who might never actually get the letter, which is
actually called a dead letter. Or you’re addressing someone, especially if
they’re famous, who might not ever respond, probably, even if they do
get the letter. So, the question rises, “Who are you even talking to?” So,
there’s this void where the letters enter into, that I think is very linked
to fear, of not being heard, of not being able to communicate, of not
being able to use language. But, at the same time, there’s that void that
gets to live right next to, or maybe even inside of, the intimacy of a
letter. What happens the minute that I put “Dear” on the page? Dear,
x. That “Dear” immediately starts to invoke a beloved–“Come along,
dear.” There’s an intimacy that builds through that epistolary mode that
can then allow the writing to come—how do I want to say this—not
more easily, but just with more tension and nuance. I mean, if ever you
are stuck with writing, just start writing a letter to someone, especially
someone you’re angry at, right? The writing will just start coming.
Even if you’re stuck writing an essay, that’s not addressed to a person
or about a person, just start writing to someone you trust. If I’m stuck
with an essay, I might write it to my husband. “Dear Rob, here’s what
I’m thinking about. I’m really stuck on this essay—” and then, there
it goes. It will often start from there. So, part of the work of the letters
is to, I hope, create that feeling of intimacy, but also that feeling of
“This may never be responded to.” A third effect, of course, is that the
reader is sort of a voyeur, so there’s a discomfort there as well that can
be really useful in devising some tension. It creates a different kind of
tension around the communication. Should I be witnessing this? How
is this for me? An open letter, which is a letter specifically written for
the public to read, is very different from a letter that’s private. There are
entire books and theses written on the role of the letter in literature,
and I’m just touching on a few of the aspects, the ones that are most
interesting to me, and which show why I wanted to use them for the
“Dear Phoenix” letters. I actually went a little bonkers and was able to
find his address, which is way too easy to do. It’s someone who’s super
famous, but I could find him on Google maps and actually see the roof
of the house. I thought, “This is getting really weird.” I could only see
the address on the mailbox next to his, so I was going to send the letter
to his neighbor, but then I thought, “Why would I send these? What
would be the point of that?” It was just becoming very performative,
and I don’t actually want him to read them. In fact, they were letters to
me, not to him. It’s not a book about the icons I’m addressing. The icons
become the lens through which I’m able to think about “x,” whatever
that thing is. That’s really what icons are for in these letters—to give
an image that allowed for connection to that which was unintelligible.
A moment of connection with something concrete and physical, that
could lead to abstractions, and help people actually start to think about
those abstractions. Whether they work or not for you is different, but
does that answer your question?

Student: Definitely.

KLS: Letters are boss. It’s the best writing activity. I ask my students
to write letters for almost everything now, because they immediately
start to listen for themselves rather than worry about who’s going to
read them. Because they know who’s going to read them; they know
who’s going to get that letter, in their mind at least. We could write to
this lovely baby. What is this baby’s name?

Student: Ella.

KLS: Ella? Dear Ella, right? Immediately, your brain starts to open
up. You’re warm, you feel good, you’re like, oh I have space for thinking
now! This baby’s going to hear my letter. She’ll read it eventually, maybe.
What else can I answer for you?

Student: How has your writing impacted or changed your family?

KLS: My extended family—they don’t really know what I do, which
is totally fine with me. My mom was a high school English teacher for
thirty-five years, and so she’s super interested in literature. She has
definitely read my book, but she’s never said a word about it, which is
also fine. She still talks to me, so that’s great, but I don’t know what her
response was at all; she’s a very reticent person. She doesn’t talk a lot
about herself, so it’s not like it’s a surprise that she wouldn’t talk about
my book. I’ll say something that’s a little different than what you are
pointing to, which is less about the impact of the publication of a book
and more about the actual process of writing and the impact of that on
my immediate family, which includes two kids under the age of nine
and my husband, who’s also a poet and a writer.

The writing of the book has impacted me—and I explore this a little
bit in this book—because I had to make choices to take time away from
them. I’m not with them right now—right? —so I have to make these
choices to separate myself from them in order to do the work. That
has been very tricky, especially during the years when my son was very
little, when he was this age (pointing to the baby), it was the hardest
thing I have possibly ever done. And not just because I thought, “Oh,
I’m so sad, I’m leaving my baby.” Yeah, that was true, but also because
I wanted to leave my baby. If I didn’t, I was going to go bonkers. So,
having that dynamic, the tension between those two poles—which
weren’t two poles at all, they were just very nested inside each other,
these two equal desires—of wanting to be with and not wanting to be
with so I could be with myself, were very, very intertwined. And they
continue to be. It gets easier as they get older because they don’t want
to hang out with me quite as much. But it’s still a very difficult question,
and there is a different answer for every writer in how they mitigate and
deal with that. It has deeply impacted the shape of my family; you can
ask me in ten years how that worked out. I’ll ask my kids, but I know
that for myself, if I did not take the time away from my family to write
and to do things like this, I would not be who I am. And then who am
I to my kids if I am not who I am? So, at some point, I feel like I’m
forty-frickin-two years old, and I need to at least honor and respect the
person that I know myself to be at this point, while also doing my best
to be there for my family in the ways they need. But that’s a really big
tension; it’s hard to do both. I don’t know that I have found exactly the
way forward, but you just try.

Student: So, going along with your family, I loved the essays in this
book where you talked about your children. I think “San Andreas
Fault” was one of them, and “Darth Vader” at the end. What kind of
techniques or processes do you use to write about something like that,
like your children, your family, without being cliché?

KLS: Oh, yeah, that’s a good question. I think clichés are treated really
poorly in our culture. I think clichés are a portal; they’re the first draft.
I think that whenever you write a cliché, pay attention to it. Don’t let it
stay if it’s not the one you want to keep, but just notice it, and then allow
yourself to write into it. Because what are clichés except shorthand
for emotions? They allow us to very quickly move past an idea, so we
can get to the next one, which could be just as equally important. So,
especially for first drafts, don’t deny the clichés. Don’t treat them poorly,
just welcome them. And then as you’re going back through the draft,
find those clichés and pull them out, really highlight them, and then
you can think more deeply about what it is that is specific to you, what
you’re trying to say about that experience. They really are doorways,
portals. I feel the same way about mistakes in writing, like whenever
we make grammatical errors, or misspellings. Like in this book, I wrote
s-i-t-e instead of s-i-g-h-t. The editor was like, “Do you mean sight, or
do you mean site?” And I said, “Oh, I meant site.” But I didn’t—in the
beginning. I meant sight, but the meaning of site changed the essay.
Fireworks went off. My mind had a little secret that it was telling me
through the misspelling. I feel the same way about clichés and most