Working Writers: Amber Shockley
Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Amber Shockley.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I just received my MFA from Queens University of North Carolina at Charlotte this past May. I’ve received a handful of publications, and with the help of my thesis adviser, Alan Michael Parker, as well as Sally Keith and Cathy Park Hong, I’m currently working on submitting my thesis, now manuscript, for publication. Cathy Smith Bowers and Jon Pineda both served as readers.
My manuscript is a memoir; I use three classic texts: Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and Homer’s Odyssey (Book XII, where Odysseus passes by the sirens), to write about the incest and domestic violence that occurred during my childhood. The title of my manuscript is “Seafarer.”
I perform burlesque on occasion. My stage name is “Miss Cheeky Boom.” You can see a performance here.
I have a blog where I discuss the trials and tribulations of working with the public in a restaurant format as well as living as an undercover gay (most don’t guess unless I tell them), an undercover disabled person (I have several so-called “invisible disabilities”), an undercover poor person (I try real hard to keep my clothes clean so people don’t know I’m wearing the same pair of pants over and over again), and an undercover (not famous) poet with burlesque tendencies.
You say you often have to reconcile your identity as a Southern queer woman. How does this play out in your fiction? Is it helpful to write about it?
Regardless of the genre I choose, my goal every time I write is to hit some truth. That’s pay dirt for me. Unfortunately, as a Southerner, I know the truth is that people in my region are often incredibly small-minded, religious beyond reason, and so hopped up on the sandy brown-haired version of Jesus that they can’t see God in anything, or anyone, else. Sometimes I’d like to wrap my hands around the South and wring its neck. Or move. Look at how much fun Dorothy Allison is having out in California. But the truth also is that in the South you will find some of the sweetest, most self-sacrificing people you will ever meet. Believing that a man willingly died on a cross for your sins really softens (some) hearts. Plus, the food here. Plus, the smells. The smell of our flowers in springtime will knock you on your ass in delirium. Now, as a member of the queer community, I happen to know the truth is that gay people raise families, balance their checkbooks, take care of their aunt when she is dying, and swerve their cars so they don’t hit a squirrel in the road. The queer community has some of the most passionate, talented people you will ever find. Fighting the belief that you are wrong for most of your life really strengthens (some) hearts. But the truth also is that gay people, like all other people, are monumentally, tragically, maddeningly flawed beings who drink too much some nights, cut in line at the grocery store, think about sex all the time, and make mean, petty comments behind their friends’ backs. They cheat on their spouses. They are selfish. When I write, I feel driven to show all these truths about my region, about my queer community, even the truths that hurt, even if I fear that someone will stress only the less savory truths. I honestly believe that the whole truth, rather than creating judgment, is the fastest, surest connection between people — writer, reader, and beyond. So does it help to write about it, to tell these truths? Yes, it helps me, and I hope it will help others.
How has writing helped you cope with personal trauma? We don’t need to go into specifics, but I’m curious how you approach such uncomfortable topics in a public way (by having to share your work with professors and publications)? Are you ever hesitant or does it help you to cope/heal?
Writing about trauma was, for me, also about seeking truth. When I was four years old, I was interviewed by a social worker as part of an investigation into whether I had been molested by a close male relative. Social services determined that I had been sexually abused, and steps were taken to prevent further incident. I do not remember the interview, nor do I remember much of what I explicitly detailed to the social worker. I do, however, remember the first time I ever felt hollow. Clearly, there is a memory block, which is a trauma in and of itself — the frustration of not being able to access your own mind, especially concerning an event so important. The manuscript I ended up constructing while I was at Queens is a product of me working that out, of me answering these questions: How do you write lack of memory? How do you write the maybe space? For me, the answer was to give what facts I could, but to ultimately honor feeling over fact, to recognize that feeling is truth too, as well as fact, and to bring in other characters from other stories to fill in the narrative. Finding that I didn’t have to have all the facts in order to write the poems, especially if I acknowledged in the poems that I didn’t have the facts, was immensely helpful, and released a bit of a knot. Sharing those poems isn’t a problem because it isn’t so much sharing my trauma as it is sharing my triumph.
Have you always been a poet? What draws you to the form? Do you think poetry allows for more artfulness or alternatively a better way to explore the truth than other genres?
I’ve always liked coming up with little stories — to clarify (the truth for myself), to explain (my truth to others), and/or for sheer entertainment. The stories have to be small so that I can finish them in one, or a few, sittings. I still have a box full of stories I started writing when I was a kid, but never finished. Right now, and by right now I mean for the last seven years, I have a novel that I’m working on. Apparently, I have a short attention span. Poems are the only stories that I’ve been able to finish, so far. After I finish them, I like to torture them and myself by going over and over them again, wiggling a word here, a line there, like a loose tooth that won’t come out. Apparently, I am a perfectionist. So, poetry just happens to be a perfect match for my particular set of shortcomings, fetishes, and neuroses as a person. I love them, I love writing them, I love singing them, I love hearing them sung. Poetry, read well, can have a seductively hypnotic affect. Get into poetry, and you’ve jumped down the rabbit hole of language and meaning. It’s a tight rope act, balancing sound and sense, clarity and abstraction. Poetry demands that you come out onto the stage perform. You can’t read poetry in a monotone; you’ll seem ridiculous. Poetry is the drama queen of the genres, even when it is quiet and gentle. Essentially, I’m a shy woman who likes to flash a little leg from time to time. Poetry lets me do that.
Do you think the ideas that stick are the best ones? Does your writing process benefit from the chaos? Similarly, how do you fit writing in with all of your other jobs and hobbies?
Some ideas that stuck have been the best ones, but others have stuck like raw egg on a wall. I’ve looked back at lines or even whole poems I’ve written and ended up having to pinch my nose to re-read them. Real stinkers. I should’ve baked a cake that day instead. My wish, or hope, is not that I have time to write every poem I get the idea to write, but that I take the adequate amount of time to write any given poem well, including the incubation period where you leave it to rest then come back to check and see if it’s still breathing. I do have a chaos of ideas from which to choose, and thank the Lord for that. Writer’s block hasn’t been an issue.
I appreciate that chaos, but at the same time, that writerly way of thinking, or over-thinking, over-imagining, can also be a curse. I’m a bit muse heavy, and I have a fair amount of melancholia in my system. I’m generally an upbeat, vivacious sort of person, but I do become incredibly sad from time to time. If I’m writing, I’m deep in my head and sometimes; unfortunately, I shouldn’t stay there too long. I have to do things to balance that. While my job and hobbies do take away from the amount of time I spend thinking and writing, they serve as weights on the scale. If I didn’t have my job, or my interest in burlesque, or something to pull me out of my head and into the world, I feel sure that I would’ve gone down depression’s drain to the death sewer long ago. Sometimes I have to get out of my brain in order to recharge my brain —hold a hot cup of tea in my hands, see how small and thin a dime is, hear another person’s laughter. The best thing I can do as a writer is live a full life, including work and hobbies. Muse screams at me, runs me off the road, cuts off the television, hides all the cookies in the house if she really wants something written. That’s the deal we have so far.
Your muse sounds quite influential to your writing process, but is it ever detrimental? Do ever wish she were less powerful?
For my writing process, more muse — better. I feel I can handle it, because the influence balances out how controlled I tend to be when writing. I think it’s when I get locked into ruts, habits, concepts, plans or formulas that I’m more likely to produce poor material. Sometimes when I snap, or snap out of it, I get something better. I’m thinking of a certain scenario where I latched on to this idea I had about the way my titles should be for individual poems in my manuscript. It was a great idea I think, and I may still use it down the line, but at a certain point, I realized that I was muzzling muse that way, and frustrating myself to no end. You’ve got to let muse keep talking, even if she changes the subject. I don’t think my writing suffers from a powerful, talkative muse so much as my personal life does. Imaginative people do tend to be your more high-strung ninnies. I can conjure up wickedly horrific scenarios for myself, or those I love. I can dream up expectations so grand that reality is disappointing. Is that muse or madness? In any case I’d like to keep my level of creativity, even if it comes with complications. Never, never do I wish it away, or less. As far as I can ascertain, writing was the thing I was given when my addled little soul sauntered up to the front of the line to receive a parting package just before being born. Perhaps as a consolation prize. I have nothing else. Beauty? No. Leadership skills? Certainly not. I doubt I could guide much more than a sandwich out of a plastic bag. I’m not athletic, or punctual or particularly skilled with machinery. I am imaginative. I am sensitive to language. So, a writer. And a poet, to boot. A poet is a writer who’s gone so cuckoo they can hardly speak in complete sentences anymore. Honestly, I’m proud of that. As far as writing goes, I try to feed it and let it fly as much as I can.
From your response, it sounds like you’ve been infected with the writing bug from a very young age. How long have you been writing, and when did you decide to devote your life to it? Was there ever any doubt you’d be a writer?
My grandfather was a preacher for the Church of God of Prophecy, and my mother was raised in that church. No bikini swimsuits, jewelry was frowned upon, but speaking in tongues was encouraged. My father was a Lutheran, and felt strongly enough about it that he sort of kidnapped me, for lack of a better word, and had me baptized in the Lutheran church without my mother’s blessing and against her wishes. I give you that extraneous information as a backdrop to tell you this: I was a horrible Lutheran. I make that proclamation as a preface to this: There were these small, blue sheets of paper labeled “For Little Lutherans,” along with very stubby pencils provided at the back of every pew in the Lutheran church that I attended as a child (mama came around, eventually, for a while). On several sheets of that paper, I constructed my first story, “Red and Blue are Friends,” which I also illustrated. Soon thereafter, I created a publishing company, actually a succession of several publishing companies, under which I produced many unfinished works. Ambition has never been a problem. Fruition has been more of an issue. I may or may not have had a brief existential crisis after reading Harriet the Spy and thought for a while that I would be a journalist, but still a type of writer. I declared in both a Hello Kitty themed diary and a New Kids on the Block bedecked notebook that I would be a writer. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t devoted to writing, or at least to the idea that I would either be a writer, or nothing much at all. I’ve doubted the level of success I would have from time to time, thus I’ve entertained various ways other than writing to support myself financially (none of which have been very entertaining), but I formed pretty quickly, and have yet to be disabused of, the thought that writing was the way for me.
What are your writing goals for the future? If you could make a full-time career out of writing, would you or do you like having the balance between work and poetry? Also what writer’s career most inspires yours?
My goal right now, aside from continuing to write and to improve my writing, is to find a home for my manuscript. I know that there is a lot of debate presently regarding the merit of the MFA, but I can say that I absolutely grew and benefited from attending the program at Queens, by leaps and bounds. Not only did I leave that experience with a writing group of friends that helps me meet my goal of continuing to write, but I was also privileged enough to learn from bonafide poets that operate at such a high frequency, it astounds me. Alan Michael Parker was my thesis advisor, and continues to encourage me in publishing my manuscript, even after I have now completed the program. His generosity is an amazement. It would be my dream to make a career out of writing. I would love to travel, to teach. Both of those. I have a problem with airplanes. Buses, trains could be involved. I want to spread the good word about words. One poet I admire, and I must stress that this is just one out of a multitude, is Kim Addonizio. Her poetry is fierce, detailed, dirty, substantive. Often, in form. She has a broad portfolio, including a collection of short stories, novels, even a CD. She has tattoos. If I’m not mistaken, she plays harmonica. She seems to be in good relationship with other poets. I think of her as a poet’s poet and that, too, is my ultimate goal.