Working Writers Series: Melissa Chandler
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 Melissa Chandler
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m 33, and I live in foggy-summered San Francisco. I have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, which is an amazing low-residency program in a gorgeous location. I highly recommend it! To pay the bills, I manage the office of a nonprofit wellness center that focuses on heart health for elderly people.
I’m currently working on a YA novel. The full manuscript has been read by two agents who passed on it. I know that two is a small number when it comes to rejections in the writing world, so I look forward to many more in due time, but I’m putting a hold on the submitting and am back in the revision process right now.
I also write poems fairly often, and non-fiction essays here and there. I’ve discovered fairly recently that I enjoy writing memoir-ish essays as much as, or more than I enjoy writing fiction. It’s an interesting novelty for me right now, because I’ve always focused on fiction. It’s a whole different process. I’m navigating questions of whether or not it’s okay to blur the lines between truth and fiction when it comes to writing about your own life, such as when recording memories and stories you’ve grown up hearing, family rumors, etc. I guess there’s really no right or wrong, when it comes to writing, but I’m never quite sure if what I end up with is non-fiction or fiction. Probably it’s both.
Writing about my own childhood, and about my family is something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember wanting to write, because my family life is a bit complicated. I currently have a close relationship with both of my biological parents, but they only raised me until I was seven, and after that I was in foster homes, adopted at the age of nine, but removed from that home by the state at the age of fifteen, and then back in foster care. I reconnected with my biological mother and father (separately) in my early twenties, and they’re great. I often write about my parents. My relationship with each of them (and the years of not knowing them) have affected my way of being in the world and thinking about what family really is, and this is at the heart of a lot of things I work on. This, however, brings dilemmas when it comes to putting my writing out there in the world. I have had a few pieces that deal with very personal things involving family members. I appreciate hearing other writers’ takes on how much you should allow yourself to let go and write the painful things, the personal things regarding family, knowing that those you’re writing about may see what you’ve written and be affected by them not only on emotional levels, but in terms of privacy, as well. It’s a difficult thing to approach, or at least it has been for me.
How have you negotiated being as honest as possible when writing about family members (or others who are close to you) while knowing that they may well read the work? What have their reactions been so far?
At first I wasn’t sure if honesty was the best policy. For example, when a widely read site said they wanted to run a story that centrally involved my mother, I was happy they had accepted it, but I immediately starting thinking to myself, “Oh no. Can I really put this online? It’s so personal. I hope my mother doesn’t ever Google me and find it.” Obviously the piece didn’t mention her name, but I was still worried, because the subject of the piece was a painful incident. I needed to write about it, though. I asked the editor of the site for her best advice: should I use a pen name? Should I use my real name and hope my mom wouldn’t stumble upon it? Should I just tell her about it?
The site’s editor advised me that in her experience, being open and honest was usually the best way to go, so I (nervously) called my mom and told her that I would let the piece be published if I had her blessing. Her response surprised me. She was wonderful about it. She said, “I want you to do anything and everything you can with your writing, and not worry about how it would affect me.” She reminded me that, even when what I’m working on involves others, it’s also about me, about my life, and I should have the freedom to write it all down. I was so grateful that her response was so positive. (She also said she probably wouldn’t want to read the piece when it ran, and that was understandable.)
I love that my mother sort of set me free to write about “us” and I’m lucky she’s so supportive, but I still stress about it. It doesn’t just go away. But I’m guessing that’s the norm for writers who delve into writing about real people. It’s interesting. For me, it allows me to figure things out and put them into perspective, but then it also becomes this very public thing, if I’m able to place my work anywhere. The end result is that strangers are reading what I’ve written — I want them to, and I’m hoping they connect with it. But I also worry about whether I’ve done it fairly, and how it will affect people I’m close to.
How much of your novel is autobiographical? Do you separate yourself from your fiction, your poetry, or does it all intertwine?
One of my novels in progress is, I’d say half-autobiographical. It’s about a move from the west coast to the east coast that I made while in high school. It’s set in the rural Massachusetts town where I lived at that time. The frame of it is autobiographical, but the plot is not.
I place some version of myself in most of my fiction. I’ve heard it said more than once that for many novelists, the first novel may very likely have to be about your childhood, and once you’ve gotten that out of your system, you’re free to go beyond it. I haven’t gotten past that part yet! On the flip side, I sometimes feel like I’m forcing my fiction to fit into a glove it doesn’t want to fit into, when I use an autobiographical frame and add plot lines that I haven’t experienced myself. I wonder, should I put fiction aside for now and write memoir? That idea seems to beg the question: am I important enough for memoir? No, I’m not important at all! But I do know that I’ve been through some things that readers would be able to connect with. So then, it all comes down to how well I tell the story. That’s where the importance lies, I think.
So yes, to more succinctly answer the question, the work I’m doing with my novel and with poems is largely autobiographical, and it all intertwines, whether fiction or memoir or somewhere in between. There’s a girl growing up shuttled between six different families, and she wants her story, and the stories of the people she grew up with, to be told. Her story is about what “home” is, maybe? And when I write about her she’s being placed in a lot of different scenarios, for better or for worse. At some point, I’ll know (I hope) which one is actually her story.
Changing tracks a little bit, did you work during your low-res MFA? How did you balance the time?
While I did the low-res program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was managing a cafe here in San Francisco full time. It was a bit of a time juggle, but it really was the best possible scenario. I worked early mornings, was out by afternoon, so I had days and evenings to work on my writing plus the reading and critical work that the program required.
I think that because I was working in customer service and handling the on-your-feet sort of tasks that a cafe requires, I had a lot of the right kind of energy left in me when it came time to switch gears and sit down and be a writer, and read and think critically about craft.
Even now, I’m glad to have a job that, for the most part, has nothing to do with creative writing. When I write, at this point, it’s for me. I don’t know what it feels like for that to be a job. Of course, I’m sure it would feel wonderful if someone was paying me for it, but at the same time, while I explore where I want to go with what I’m currently working on, I like that it’s separate from anything anyone’s telling me to do. It makes me feel kind of reassured that even though I have an unrelated job to pay the bills, I have this drive to be producing creative work on the side, whether I’m finding success with it or not. I’m not sure why that drive stays in place, even while I’m working full time and trying to just survive in (what is becoming scarily-expensive!) San Francisco. I think maybe it’s from being blown away by what so many writers have done and are doing, and thinking, ‘I want to be a part of that. I want to do that, too!’ And I think, even for those of us who haven’t had a lot of publishing success, when we sit down in the chair and three hours go by in what feels like ten minutes, because we’re really in what we’re working on, the feeling we we’re left with when we come back up for air, that’s kind of a reason enough in itself to keep working.
What are your literary inspirations?
I’ve been lucky to have been taught by some great writers, so when I think of inspirations, I think of them first. When I was seventeen, I met Norma Fox Mazer at a summer writing camp put on by the National Book Foundation, and she was a mentor to me for years. She used to tell us about how she and her husband decided when they were quite young and had toddlers at home, ‘We’re going to be writers. Let’s figure out how to make that work,’ and they would take turns giving each other time and freedom to write while the other took care of the kids and the household. They began by publishing short stories in pulp fiction magazines, gradually eeking out incomes, and they went on from there to become pioneering YA writers. So when I complain about not being able to find time to write, I think of Norma (and the fact that I’m toddler-free!).
Also, for inspiration I think of Kathi Appelt, who is a magical writer and a wonderfully nurturing teacher. People say all the time that writing is such a solitary pastime, but it’s not. I’ve never met a great writer who didn’t display a love for teaching what they know about how to do it, and basking in the successes of their students.
Aside from teachers: Lorrie Moore is a genius at combining humor and heartbreak (pretty much all the world is made of). My weekly workshop group introduced me to George Saunders in the past couple of years, and…well, you know. He’s George Saunders. Everyone can just quit writing right now. No, not really. There’s no end to the amazing things we’ll be seeing from people who have figured out, or are still in the process of figuring out how to do it well.
You can follow Melissa Chandler on Twitter @melchandler