“I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are…they are going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places, and ask daring questions.” —Alicia Elliott
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer and the new Creative Non-Fiction editor at The Fiddlehead magazine. She is also someone both daring in her writing, and solid in her beliefs. (Links to her essays appear below, or check out her Twitter feed.)
She talks to Lit Mag Love Podcast host Rachel Thompson about the craft of creative nonfiction, editing your own work, and how to write about trauma without having to really write about a traumatic event. She also shared what happened when she took a year off to write. (The answer may surprise you!)
The Fiddlehead is published four times a year at the University of New Brunswick. (First published in 1945.)
Links Related to the Episode
On Seeing and Being Seen, by Alicia Elliott
CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire, by Alicia Elliott
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Interview with writer Canisia Lubrin (CBC)
Canadian journalists support ‘appropriation prize’ after online furore (The Guardian)
Rachel: [00:00:02] I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are, they’re going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places and ask daring questions. Now that’s a quote from Alicia Elliott a Tuscarora writer and CNF editor at The Fiddlehead and she’s someone who I believe is certainly daring and solid in her beliefs. And in my upcoming interview with her, I ask what I actually see now as a kind of dumb question and that is to muse if the controversy in CanLit in the past year or so helped her find her voice and she very kindly informs me that she has always had a voice one that she had to hone for a long time. And it turns out that I (and we) are finally listening.
Rachel: [00:00:47] Lit Mag Love is co-presented by Room magazine. Canada’s oldest feminist literary journal. Room has published fiction, poetry, Creative Non-Fiction, art, interviews, and book reviews for 40 years and could be found at roommagazine.com. And the co presenter is my course by the same name, Lit Mag Love.
Rachel: [00:01:08] So it also turns out that I’ve been learning from Alicia Elliot’s thinking since she came onto my radar last year. So one of her essays called “On Seeing and Being Seen” really helped me break some notions that I held about how simply the act of writing makes us more empathetic. And it came at a time when powerful people in Canadian media were saying really flippantly and harmfully that cultural appropriation is cool. And in the essay Alicia talks about how it’s actually love that is needed. As she says in her upcoming interview, the difference between empathy and love comes in because when you love someone you love them for who they are with empathy sometimes who we empathize with and why is imagining that they are exactly like us. And they aren’t. So in spite of such little evidence of love in the online discourse around the raging CanLit dumpster fire and I’m alluding to another essay Alicia wrote on the subject. And I’ll link to all of these in the show notes up on Lit Mag Lovepodcast.com. She continues to share her love with us and with writers. Now as the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at The Fiddlehead. So welcome Alicia.
Alicia: [00:02:37] Thank you.
Rachel: [00:02:37] We met to my delight when you joined my course Lit Mag Love last January. And this seems so long ago to me in particular because when I started the course, for me a guiding principle was that the act of writing and reading creates empathy, and that writers by virtue of being willing to invest in a deep examination of society and individuals made the world more compassionate and in this difficult year in CanLit, I saw the light. I feel like that empathy is just not enough and one thing that became a touchstone for me was your essay “On Seeing and Being Seen,” because it really articulated why this was so. In it you said writers need to write, not just with empathy but with love. There’s a question in here! That is: how did you come to writing with so much love, when you also wrote in the essay that you weren’t seen in any of the writing that you read while growing up.
Alicia: [00:03:33] I think that I as a reader, you only have what’s offered to you I guess. And in a publishing industry where everything is, I feel like the attention is on primarily white women readers because they do most of the book buying. But those metrics and most of the editors in publishing houses are white women. They have a very particular idea of who wants to read and who they’re selling to. The problem with that, of course, is that if they’re continually producing same work, then they’re going to have the same buyers. So they’re automatically cutting off certain people from having those experiences you know. And with that in mind I feel like I definitely felt that when I was younger because there just wasn’t anything for me to read. Or if there were indigenous writers particularly indigenous women writers, their work was not published by big houses. Their work was published by smaller independent houses that made it more difficult for me to access it. And it was harder to get into the hands of the people who really needed to read it. So with that in mind, I remember reading, I don’t know if you know of the Dear America or Dear Canada series that’s a young adult kind of historical book. Anyways I remember reading one that was supposed to be from the perspective of an indigenous girl and just some of the stuff about it, it just didn’t ring as true to me and I think that is a result of thinking like, how do I write about an indigenous girl. Well I’m just going to write about her like she’s a white girl but then just like basically slap her race on her and then that’s how we show empathy. But that’s not showing empathy that’s privileging a certain kind of experience and saying that in order to be empathetic we have to imagine that these people are having the exact same experiences as opposed to appreciating how they have different experiences and they have different viewpoints. And that’s where I think the difference between empathy and love comes in. Because when you love someone you love them for who they are or you should be loving them for who they are. And not who you want them to be. With empathy I think sometimes ideas around who we empathize with and why is imagining that they are exactly like us when the reality is they aren’t. And that should be okay. You should still be able to appreciate and love that person or love their point of view and stuff especially if you’re writing. So I guess that’s kind of how I came to thinking about these things very critically and trying to differentiate between whether empathy is enough essentially.
Rachel: [00:06:19] Yeah and I got that. And I did think you said that so well in your essay and I like what we’re saying about how they just slap a race on her and there’s this presumed white reader.
Rachel: [00:06:28] It’s like this kind of narcissism really. Like oh I just have to see myself in this person instead of appreciating who they are. So thank you for articulating that. Because I think it was a thrill. It really was part of a big epiphany for me because of, sort of all this stuff that was happening in CanLit to be going, “Oh ok.” Actually a lot of these writers are not as empathetic as I thought they were. To bring them to that level of understanding of the other. And like those other people. Right?
Alicia: [00:06:58] Uhum.
Rachel: [00:06:58] So I want to talk about giving some advice to young writers in the interviews that I read to research for our interview. And he said to take the books you love and figure out why you love them. Read them with an eye towards how they’re working on a craft level. Can you talk about any books that did that for you? We’re talking about love again which I think is true.
Alicia: [00:07:19] I think that at a certain point I was kind of reading everything and and trying to figure out why I liked it. And what it was about it that brought that feeling up in me. And I remember, I feel like I talk about me Leanne Simpson far too much but also not nearly enough. But she wrote “Islands of Decolonial Love” that was the first book that, of hers that I came to. And I remember reading it and just being in awe. And I didn’t understand anything like how she was creating this effect. So I remember reading it and just immediately wanting to reread it as soon as I was done. It’s fairly thin for a book you know, it’s not like a 300-page book or anything like that. But when I went back and reread it and thought about, okay. What is she doing here? How is she conveying this information? Why is it effective for her to reveal it in this way at this time? What character details are there and what kind of impression are they giving? So kind of just going through and you know really critically reading that kind of work. I feel like helps you so much as a writer in a way that you know just writing doesn’t. Because if you’re just writing but you’re not also reading and trying to figure out how to make your work better. Then you’re kind of, it’s kind of like, you’re hoping that luck will kind of just come down upon you and you’ll strike gold essentially. Which is so difficult because especially as writers we all are also editors. And so you know, whatever you end up writing, you’re going to have to edit to make it better and you won’t have those tools unless you know what works and what doesn’t and why. So yeah Leanne Simpson’s book. Quite recently I read Terese Mailhot’s book “Heart Berries” which is incredible and I still don’t know how she does it. Her writing is tremendous and unlike anyone else’s books I’ve ever read. I remember talking about it with another person who had read it and I was just like “How does she do that? Even just the connections between sentences. I don’t even understand.” And she’s like “I don’t know!” So still trying to figure that one out. That one was really good. I really loved Chelsea Rooney’s book Pedal. There’s so many great writers that are doing really great stuff. I feel like you, if you love something you should and you want to also write something that other people love or that even you will love that it’s important to know how to do that.
Rachel: [00:09:46] Yeah that we don’t write in a vacuum too. That literary writing is about making connections and you want to connect with your reader. And so to do that you need to also be connecting with other writers through their work.
Alicia: [00:09:57] Oh yeah! For sure.
Rachel: [00:09:59] You shared some reading advice you got early on. That as a writer you just have to accept that you’re going to portray everyone. Which I think is such a great definition of CNF in some ways. Can you talk about the responsibility you feel as a creative nonfiction CNF writer? You also said something like sometimes the hardest things to write are also the most important.
Alicia: [00:10:22] I wrestle with this a lot as a writer of creative nonfiction. Who pulls alot from my own life. Because sometimes I feel like there’s, especially in this day and age. I feel like when you know with social media and like Instagram and all these other things. There’s this idea that you have to give everything that everything should be up for consumption. And I don’t think that, especially in writing that that’s necessary. I think that you can get across what you need to get across without necessarily spilling your guts on the page every single time. So in terms of figuring out when to betray everyone I think that you don’t, you’ll never know how someone is going to react to being written about. Because it’s a really strange experience to kind of see yourself the way someone else sees you and not have any control over that. So in that sense I feel like yes there is sort of an active betrayal when you write about someone. But I think that if you’re very conscientious when you’re writing about them, that they will probably read this and not like, not in terms of like, I’m writing this thing about someone that’s difficult and about something they did to me that was bad. I’m not saying you should keep that from, keep yourself from writing that. But I think that thinking about why, what you’re writing is important to you and what you need to get across with it will help inform everything. I think that if you know exactly why then I think it helps guide how you write about the situation so that it’s not necessarily exploitive. I think that in terms of like deciding kind of, what was the second part of that question? It was something about ummm.
Rachel: [00:12:07] The hardest things to write are also the most important so in some ways, I mean, those two pieces of advice contradict each other a bit too.
Alicia: [00:12:15] Yes.
Rachel: [00:12:15] You don’t have to spill, spill it all out and I get what you’re saying it’s like we’re kind of in this age of the confessional essay that is sort of all over the Internet and sometimes ends up being kind of harmful to the young often younger women who are writing the essays and haven’t. I’m like, a little bit exploitative let’s say. That editors are just looking for, okay who can tell, you know, who can bleed this one out for me? So I get what you’re saying there too. But then you’re right there’s also that other thing where if you have something really difficult you’re having trouble writing, it might be the very thing that you want to be writing.
Alicia: [00:12:49] Yes I think that the way to kind of differentiate between those things is just to. I was actually talking with some friends about writing about trauma and this incredible coed who everyone should read, Canisia Lubrin was saying that you know I said basically that like to make sure that you protect yourself it’s not like sometimes your reader doesn’t have to know everything to understand it. And she said something that I thought was just so profound and so perfect. And it was that the traumatic act itself is not necessarily what you need to write about. It’s like what you glean from the traumatic act and therefore in that way you can talk about how this impacted you without necessarily having to go into all of the nitty gritty detail, you know. And so I think that that’s an important distinction is most of the time I feel like when people have to write about trauma or have to write about something very difficult. It’s because of the emotions that are surrounding it. And to mine that you don’t necessarily always have to, you know, or like you can write it but you don’t always have to leave it in all of the stuff that you don’t want to share with people in terms of like the exact specific details of something awful that happened to you. You can allude to it. You can give them enough information so that they can get an idea and that can be enough because that isn’t the most important thing anyway. I think that when I say that you know the most difficult things are the most necessary, it’s usually talking about things that you need to work out for yourself. And you know things that are difficult to come to terms with about yourself or about the world or about other people. And to do that you need to write about the emotion. You don’t always necessarily need to write about you know with like documentary detail about traumatic experience.
Rachel: [00:14:37] Oh yeah that’s really resonating with me. I spent a lot of time thinking about that myself. And I love that you’re sharing advice that you glean from Canisia too. So that’s cool, to bring her in there too. I’m just emphatically nodding my head (laughter). Because it’s true. I mean a lot of writers they find that they want to talk about trauma like especially in CNF you want to talk about probably pretty difficult things sometimes. Maybe most of the time. And then it’s like that balance between what you want to share and also even reliving the trauma through writing it. And then the difficulty of writing that. And there’s sort of a myth sometimes that writing about something traumatic is actually cathartic when often it can be re-traumatizing too.
Alicia: [00:15:21] Yes. Definitely stuff that I feel like I’ve written around but I was like I’m definitely not equipped to write this in any kind of detail now. I don’t know if I ever will be able you know. So it just depends. I think that it’s important to know how much distance you have from the event emotionally not just like temporarily or physically but like emotionally so that you can talk about it without hurting yourself.
Rachel: [00:15:49] More emphatic head nodding here. (laughter) So I want to shift gears a little bit to talk about your experience with lit mags and we’re going to talk about The Fiddlehead specifically but I want to start by talking about you and the first lit mag that you published with. And what did that mean for your writing at the time.
Alicia: [00:16:09] I feel like I have a piece published online which was really exciting. But the first lit mag that I published with, was The Malahat Review for their creative nonfiction issue. I believe it was edited by Lynne Van Luven and at that time I was very very nervous because I kept rereading what is creative nonfiction and then they’re saying things like “It has to be more than just personal. It has to speak to a universal nature.” For me the piece that I was submitting was about my teenage pregnancy. And so I was like, “I don’t know if this is too personal or if there is something universal about it. But like they haven’t obviously experienced this exact same thing.” So it was it was kind of hard for me to even tell myself that this was a story that was worth other people reading and like that other people would be interested in it. But I submitted it anyway. And when it got accepted I was pretty much over the moon because I was just like, “oh my God this thing happened” that I wasn’t even given the chance to reject me because I was rejecting myself. (laughter) So it was really really important to me and being able to work with an editor on your work from a literary magazine. I feel like was very very special to me because it’s something so different when someone comes to your work with admiration and with curiosity and they’re trying to work with you towards making it the best piece possible. They already know it’s good because they accepted it for publication. They’re like “let’s just make sure that it’s polished as much as possible so that we can send it into the world that everyone can be awed by everything.” And that is something that is so special and something that is so unique too I think literary journals in particular for emerging writers. It was it was a very very lovely experience.
Rachel: [00:18:02] Oh that’s just awesome. And so what have you learned by editing other writers or even what what about that experience of publishing the Malahat do you bring to editing? And then what have you then in turn learned by editing other writers that informs your own writing?
Alicia: [00:18:18] I think that editing is interesting because when I’ve been edited before there I’ve had good experiences and I’ve had experiences where it felt like like we didn’t have the same ideas around what was important in the piece and that can be a little bit difficult sometimes. So I find that for me sometimes the best thing for me to do when I’m editing someone’s piece is to make suggestions but tell them why I’m making these suggestions or asking questions and giving them my impression because sometimes even for myself sometimes it’s something I think is important or in need to explain. Another writer will read it or an editor will read it and say well I mean you didn’t really need to explain this, it doesn’t really add anything. And that’s surprising to me but it’s good to know because then if you cut it then the piece can be more concise. It can get more done and quicker. So when I edit someone’s work I want to make sure that I always tell them that you know my work is not final. If there’s something that I’m telling you that you feel uncomfortable with, please let me know. Because you know your work better than I know it. I’m just telling you my impressions. So you know sometimes if there is something that’s super important that I don’t realize, then once someone tells me about it, I’m like oh okay that makes so much sense. Let’s emphasize that. And so then that gives you a different way to edit it. So that you know any reader can come to it and get what the writer wants them to get out of it. In a very controlled way. So I think that that’s for me it’s kind of like a facilitator role when I’m editing another writer’s work trying to ask them questions around like what they meant with this what certain things mean to them and why it’s important to them and what they want the reader to leave their piece with.
Rachel: [00:20:12] Yeah wonderful because you’re just helping them with their own and intention and intentionality around their writing. For me those are the best experiences with editors and the experience that I try to bring to writers too. So I want to talk to you about your DIY MFA. (laughter) Because you’re talking about how you took a year out from work and you spent it reading and writing and learning all you could about craft and how was that? And what do you think that has meant for your writing? Like how did that payoff in the long run or the semi long run?
Alicia: [00:20:45] I talk about this a lot. It’s like I didn’t understand at the time but now I understand it. When I was in my undergrad at York I had a professor of creative writing who in the intro class at the very end was very dramatic. So at the very last lecture he was like “I’m done teaching creative writing because none of you know how to read. And so I’m going to go to the English department and teach students how to read.” And I was like what are you talking about? I know how to read. And it was only so I was like this man is ridiculous. (laughter) It’s only now and after I had done my own kind of like DIY MFA program where I was primarily doing a lot of reading and also a lot of movie watching actually. Because I feel like there’s so much to be gleaned from screenwriting and character development and stuff like that in movies because they work in a different way than fiction. I won’t get too much into that but.
Rachel: [00:21:45] I did notice that you in another interview were recommending Robert McKee’s Story book.
Alicia: [00:21:50] Yes.
Rachel: [00:21:51] …all About screenwriting…
Alicia: [00:21:53] Yes it is very good.
Rachel: [00:21:55] It had me for the first time really interested in picking it up actually I was looking at it. (laughter)
Alicia: [00:21:58] Yeah I always had a problem with structure and I couldn’t really get my head around it. Screenwriting is very structured and it’s easier I feel like because it’s such an easy investment to read something about screenwriting that talks about what they’re doing. Why this is the act break this is you know and like this is what the purpose is of the act break. So when you have someone explaining to you craft in a very very specific detail and then they’re like now watch this movie and like we’ll talk about how this works. It really helped me in a way that I feel like lot of books on writing that don’t revolve around screenwriting like fiction or creative nonfiction. They don’t really get into the nitty gritty of why and how. And so like it’s almost like oh well you know you just follow your heart and (laughter) and maybe it’ll be good enough. And so it’s almost like sometimes it’s very abstract. We’re talking about literary writing in a way that it isn’t when they were like by page ten you need to have your inciting incident. And so it makes you think about things differently. Anyways I would very much recommend reading that book or Amnon Buchbinder’s The Way of the Screenwriter. They go in into craft and this is where to me when I read those books that made me start thinking about what I could glean from other writers of literary works. And that’s where I kind of like okay so I’m going to like. I did not get that much actual writing done that year. Most of it was spent reading, analyzing. You know really trying to understand how things worked, why they worked, you know, what what were the pros and cons of first person narration, what were the pros and cons of third person narration, you know. And like really thinking about these things so I could figure out what was the best way to tell stories that I wanted to tell. And I think that if I had just spent the whole year writing and not reading I would have been wondering how to do these things and someone would read it and be like “it’s not really working” and then I’d just be sitting there scratching my head be like “well I don’t know what to do or how to get it to work.” And that’s when I find reading is the most important thing you can do as a writer because if you’re stuck and you know you’re writing something and someone has written something either with a similar kind of perspective or with a similar point of view or similar structurally then you can be like “Okay well what did they do” and then figure out why it worked for them, if it would work for your piece. And if not at least you have those wheels turning in your head thinking around “well that won’t work for me but maybe something else will.” And so I think it’s just like a shifting in perspective and because of that I feel like I have so much more control in my writing. And it totally changed the way that I write. So it kind of makes it so that when I’m writing like I’m yes I’m in the moment and stuff but I think a lot as I’m reading what I’ve written about what the impact is of what I’ve just written and whether it’s the right time to reveal this or whether it’s the right narration style. Like so it makes me more critical of my work as I’m writing so I can kind of edit as I work and instead of just writing something and then being like “I don’t know if this is all working” and then having to rewrite everything. So it definitely has helped me a lot. And I think it could help a lot of emerging writers because I think we’re all like oh well to be writers we have to be writing which is true. But I think that you know if you’re not reading at least as much as you’re writing then you know you’re really really putting yourself at a disadvantage. And definitely like you have the power to kind of even the score a little bit in that sense so that you have this knowledge of craft that you can draw from like a well. So. Anyways I just encourage everyone to read very very widely and often. So.
Rachel: [00:25:51] Yeah it’s kind of like a shortcut to development and sounds like that’s how you spent the year too is just understanding and reading like a writer. That’s the title of a great book as well by Francine Prose about how to approach your reading to understand the craft and what’s working what’s not.
Rachel: [00:26:09] Ok so I alluded early on to the year in CanLit and it’s aactually going to be something else I’m going to talk about in other podcast episodes too. So I’m not going to get into in detail and I’m not going to ask you to rehash exactly what happened. But essentially I was alluding to finding gaping holes where I thought empathy existed and you have come out as such a strong voice on this and as someone I’ll turn to many times to get your take in real time through the lovely social media that we have available. That is that double edged sword but it’s been great to see things that you’re bringing attention to. And I’m wondering how has being vocal about this, about CanLit accountable and other issues impacted your writing in terms of your own voice of finding that voice. Maybe more I’m guessing but you’ll tell us and also in just like practical things like your time to write and your energy.
Alicia: [00:27:05] I think it’s a hard balance to strike and I have at times where I’m just like I can’t go on social media today. It’s just not happening. (laughter) Because there’s just, it seems like there’s always something happening. And you know sometimes you can deal with it better days than others. So I’m becoming more aware of when I need to step back when I need to take breaks and whatnot. But I think that one of the things that really hit me in particular when UBC accountable letter went up is that like it seemed to me like a lot of writers were, it was almost like they were alluding to it but not like engaging with it. Like high profile writers and I found myself wondering like this is the industry I want to get in to, these are the writers that I would hope to be like working with or getting to know. So I find myself wondering like why are they saying anything. And then realizing oh yeah they have a lot to lose in this. So as it we’re opposed to I did not have very much to lose because I was still at the bottom of everything. So for me it did allow me to have a little bit of freedom in the way that you know other writers don’t because the people that they’re criticizing are their friends or their co-workers or you know people that they have to see in literary festivals and stuff. So I found it was easier for me to say things that were critical without worrying about how it would immediately impact me. There was a fear that it would impact me in terms of people denying me opportunities or you know or whatever. But as I was rationalizing I was like well I mean if they do do that, I won’t know about it. (laughter) So it’s fine as far as I know. Like I’m as far as I’m ever going to go in this industry so why not. And so I don’t condemn anyone who hasn’t spoken out about these kinds of things there’s always so many different factors and some people aren’t comfortable sharing those opinions and that’s totally fine for me probably because of my dad. (laughter) I’ve always had really very strong opinions and finding a voice has never really been a question for me because I feel like I’ve had a voice for so long and had to hone it for so long through various things in my life that you know it seemed very natural for me to speak about these sorts of things. And so I feel like it was kind of OK for me to do this in ways that it may not have been comfortable or okay for other writers to do it.
Rachel: [00:29:42] I really admire how you speak out and the way that you speak out because it is sometimes, I don’t know if I feel like I’m risking something by saying something because I’m kind of like you, I feel like an outsider in the CanLit establishment.
Alicia: [00:29:55] Yeah.
Rachel: [00:29:56] But at the same time you know there was definitely real fear at some point when people were like I felt fearful at some point maybe of being targeted online and I know other people who’s spoken up have told me that they were targeted. So yey you! (laughter). That’s what I’ve been trying to say I guess.
Rachel: [00:30:13] So I want to turn to your back to your writing and that’s why we’re here too. So I want to ask you what you’re currently working on and what’s next for you in terms of publishing your writing?
Alicia: [00:30:24] Ok! (laughter) I was working on a book of short stories but then that kind of got shifted because I realized that I had written a lot of essays. And I was like I could probably finish this but before I could finish my fiction book, because I find it for me it takes much longer to write fiction than it does for me to write creative nonfiction. So I’m currently working on finishing up a book of essays. I still want the title to be the title of the main essay I think in the collection, A Mind Spread Out On the Ground, but maybe they’ll talk me into changing it. I don’t think so but maybe. I always want to leave a little bit of room for doubt because maybe they’ll have something really big. Okay fine. So I’m working on that right now. I’m trying to finish off the essays I need for that by March 15th is when I’m supposed to submit my manuscript. (laughter) So I’m trying to like hunker down and really get it all done. So that book is tentatively supposed to be coming out next spring. That’s what I’m working on now and then after that I’m probably going to go back to my book of short stories that I’ve been very very slowly hammering away. Every time I was like, I’ll definitely get my book of short stories done by this time. It never happens. (laughter) We’ll see how it goes. But in the meantime I’m working on my book of essays and that’s the main thing but I’m sure other things will pop up.
Rachel: [00:31:57] Great! So we’re going take a short break right now. And after the break I’m going to ask you about your role as an editor and what you’re looking for in submissions from writers. So we’re going to talk about in particular what qualities of CNF that you like to read that you would want to publish in a journal.
Rachel: [00:32:13] Lit Mag Love is co-presented by Room magazine, literature, art and feminism since 1975. Room has published fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, art, interviews and book reviews for 40 years and can be found at roommagazine.com. Room publishes writing by women who are cisgender and transgender, transgender men, two spirit and nonbinary people. And we specifically encourage writers with overlapping underrepresented identities to submit their work. And the other presenter of Lit Mag Love the podcast is We Right, We Light. So whether you want to publish your writing, polish your work in progress, or just get set up with a writing routine you’ll stick to, I help you and your words shine. You can sign up for my free five-day challenge that invites you to take daily concrete actions to help you create a writing routine you will keep. You can find out more at WeWriteWeLight.com.
Rachel: [00:33:04] So I read researching for this interview that you told Prism there is a difference between a writer who puts their ego into the story and a writer who puts their heart into the story. Can you tell writers listening what you mean when you say this and when you say also do what’s right for the story even if it’s not what you originally had in mind?
Alicia: [00:33:24] I think it’s very tempting to kind of think of writers as this god type figure and so everything that we’re creating comes from us because it does. But I think sometimes I, anyways, I’ve had whenever I find whenever I go into a story with a preconceived notion or an essay with a preconceived notion, I end up having a very difficult time writing it because I find that as I’m writing it I’m trying to force it to be this thing. It’s really trying not to be. And my subconscious is kind of like pulling me in another direction that’s more interesting but I’m trying to force it to stay in this direction because that was what I originally conceived up. So I think that you know that is a result of privileging your ego and saying like well this was my original idea so I’m going to stick to it. Instead of allowing yourself room to kind of breathe a bit in you work and allowing yourself the ability to change your mind. You know look you may have went into something thinking you were writing about this and realized that you’re actually writing about something completely different. That is also interesting and that process of discovery I think when you’re writing is thrilling as a reader because you can see that a writer is following their own interests. And it definitely reflects in the writing in a way that doesn’t if they continue to stubbornly force the story that they had originally thought of. So I think that’s kind of what I had in mind when I was talking about writing with your heart versus writing with your ego. And further I kind of touched on this I think a little bit before but I think that sometimes as writers it’s very easy to kind of not examine ourselves at all because we’re like well we’re examining the world and we’re doing very good work. But I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are not just around writing but around the world the good things in the world, they’re going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places and you know ask daring questions. And I think that you can always tell a writer, for me anyways. I feel like I can always tell when a writer is holding back because they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about themselves or they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about the world things that they would rather not know. And that’s unfortunate because sometimes I find that when I’m reading a piece of creative nonfiction it’s good and I’m excited about it. And then as I continue okay so I kind of see where you’re going here. I’m excited to see where they end and they stop pushing themselves and allow themselves to end in an easy place that doesn’t require critical thinking on their own part. And so disappointing. I feel like the thing that I’m constantly saying and my constant critique of I wouldn’t say not even just creative nonfiction writers but just writers in general is go deeper. If you came to this answer very easily there’s probably more there that you’re not getting to. You know you could make it richer. You could make it more interesting, you could make it more difficult, more vulnerable. If you’re going somewhere very easy that you have to ask yourself why is it so easy. It shouldn’t be this easy. And if it is this easy then is it because I chose for it to be easy. And I feel like many times the writer must choose for it to be easy and in pieces that are quite working. And that’s where the difficulty comes in because if they were to allow themselves space to be a bit messy then they would lead themselves to more interesting places and it would be more revelatory literary writing in general. Yeah.
Rachel: [00:37:06] I love that. Allow themselves the space to be messy. It feels like there’s often fear involved when a writer does that, where they kind of just exit early and like ok, I’m geting out of here as fast as possible. So I think what you’ve said is really helpful for writers to think about their work before they submit to you like is it messy, have they taken the easy road or have they really gone deep into the work. And what should a writer expect from you when their work is accepted by you? Do you make developmental suggestions? How do you work with a writer?
Alicia: [00:37:36] It always depends on the piece. Sometimes there will be a piece that is requiring very little editing because it’s very polished. And sometimes like I’ve accepted a piece where you know as I’m reading it I’m like Okay this is very good. But I think that they’re doing themselves a disservice by starting in the wrong spot or not having as clean of an introduction or you know some of the prose can be just kind of cut here and there and we get a really tight piece. So I don’t want people to think that they necessarily have to submit perfect drafts. I’m looking mostly for good work. And so for some pieces I might have to do a little bit more work with them to get that in to where we’re both really happy with it and ready to publish then I’m willing to do that work. As I said earlier I want to make sure that the writer is happy. I don’t want to come in as an editor and say this isn’t working and you have to change it or I’m not publishing. I want it to be a very nourishing mutual relationship where we’re learning from one another to train what’s best for the piece. And so I try to keep my ego out of it although obviously if you make a suggestion and someone says that’s stupid and you’re like (sighs). But I’m pretty good at like waiting and then being like okay let’s talk. (laughter) So I don’t want people to think that you know it’s gonna be terrible to work with me as an editor. I’m pretty good at managing things and trying to make sure that they’re the most important person here, they know their story. They know how they want to tell it and it’s up to me to help manage that and help them figure out the best way to make sure that the readers read it that way. So I will work with writers to get a piece where it needs to be. But you know I think that the main thing is I’m looking for writers doing something that is brave. That is interesting. There’s so many different pieces that I really love. I’m not looking for anything in particular in terms of form or content I just really want to see that passion on the page. That you know this is a story that you feel is very important and you know why you’re writing it. And I just want to see that reflected in the work. And you know if there’s little nitty gritty things that we need to work out or work through I’m willing to do that with a writer because I don’t know I think the work is worth it. I think the writer is worth it.
Rachel: [00:39:59] Can you tell us about a recent piece that you did select for publication that was worth it and why you chose to publish that writer?
Alicia: [00:40:07] Yeah. Okay so this wasn’t for The Fiddlehead. The New Quarterly did a We are Listening Series and they kind of let me do whatever I wanted with it which was kind of great. So I spoke with Angela Wright who’s a writer and I believe a journalist.
Rachel: [00:40:21] She’s also one of my students actually she told me about her acceptance to Fiddlehead. That’s great (laughter).
Alicia: [00:40:25] Oh oh my gosh yes! I ended up accepting another one of her pieces for The Fiddlehead issue. She’s a really great writer. But anyways, her piece that we published for the new quarterly the place that is supposed to be safe talks about her experiences as a black girl going through the schooling system and it starts with her talking about the first time that she had an indigenous teacher talking about residential schools and the ways that schools are not always safe. And then from there it talks about the ways that she was basically criminalized for being black in sense is not like she was necessarily arrested but she was seen as the angry black girl and she was always the one who is being sent to detention and stuff like that and being treated like she didn’t belong there that the school was not a safe place for her. By teachers, by the principal and staff. So it was a work that was very brave and also I really really loved because I’m a sucker for some Black-Indigenous solidarity. I thought that the way that she compared the experiences was very clear and careful about how they were different but they were parallel was very very well done. And at the end of the piece you know she’s standing outside because she’s just had this fight with the principal where this white supremacist little piece of shit was saying stuff to her on the bus and was very smug, expecting not to get in trouble. And you know even the principal who ends up defending her kind of undermines her experiences and whatnot. So she goes outside and she’s just thinking about her indigenous teacher and reflecting on that. It was just such a powerful moment for me in the writing and she’s such a brilliant writer who is willing to be vulnerable and you know go places that other people I don’t think would be willing to go. Her other piece in The Fiddlehead is very brave and I think it’s a very important piece. I don’t want to talk about it too much just because I feel like it’s not fair to talk about it without you being able to read it but it’s very good. And it’s along with somewhat similar lines that she’s just willing to mine these experiences and figure out why they’re important and what they taught her. And situates herself not just within like it’s not just an individual thing but she situates herself within a context and that’s just very rich to me because it shows me that she’s thinking about these things and deeply. She’s a very talented writer. I love her very much. (laughter)
Rachel: [00:42:54] Yes my feelings are the same for her and it’s interesting because I find that what you’re saying now is going back to what you said at the beginning too about writing from that personal experience but making it universal too. And so what you’re saying about how she situates herself it’s like this personal story but then it has this bigger implications.
Alicia: [00:43:11] Yes yeah.
Rachel: [00:43:14] I think we’ll end there. I think it was just such a great description. I think what I love about your response too is it shows that enthusiasm and energy you will bring to writers who submit their work to you. And they can still submit. I think at the time this episode comes out they can still submit to The Fiddlehead special CNF issue and then after that they can submit CNF to The Fiddlehead any time throughout the year?
Alicia: [00:43:37] Yes yes. I just want to say that you know I am super enthusiastic about our writers. So I think that that will be reflected in when I, obviously when I work with you is I’m excited about your work and I want to be excited by your work. So if you’re excited about it then please send it. Or even like if you’re questioning yourself just send it because like if I didn’t send it then it wouldn’t have been published in The Malahat Review my piece. And so just trust yourself and you never know what’s going to happen.
Rachel: [00:44:05] I think that’s a great lesson to learn because you almost lost sense of yourself there. But here you are now!
Alicia: [00:44:11] Yeah. (laughter)
Rachel: [00:44:13] Great! Well thank you so much Alicia.
Alicia: [00:44:16] Yeah thank you! It was a pleasure.
Rachel: [00:44:19] So that was my interview with Alicia Elliott. She’s the new Creative Non-Fiction editor at The Fiddlehead which is published four times per year at the University of New Brunswick. And The Fiddlehead was first published in 1945 and it is known as a who’s who in CanLit according to their website. And so I wanted to talk a bit about things we can glean from my conversation with Alicia and a couple things. One is to look for her book of short stories that is coming out next year. But the other to think about what she’s saying around going deeper in your writing. So she talked about how as I said at the top of the episode I think when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are, they’re gonna lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places. And she says you can always tell when a writer is holding back because they’re scared about what they’re going to find out about themselves or about the world. So they stop pushing themselves and allow themselves to end in an easy place. And that’s her constant critique of writers is to go deeper in general. So if you came to this very easily she said there’s probably more there that you’re not getting to. So I think that’s a great invitation for every writer to go deeper in your writing and she wants you to allow space to be a bit messy. That would lead you to an interesting place in terms of working with Alicia she wants this to be a nurturing relationship and so she tries to take her ego out of it and is pretty good at managing things and making sure that the writer feels like the most important person. So she’s really excited about seeing work and looking forward to seeing submissions of creative nonfiction from people. And speaking of creative nonfiction I think also another part of the conversation that is helpful for people who are writing CNF Creative Non-Fiction is her reference to the conversation she had with Canisia Luprin talking about how you don’t have to write about the traumatic act but about what you gleaned from that experience. And there is definitely stuff that she says I’ve written around and I’m not ready to write about in some detail now. She invites writers of creative nonfiction to also be conscientious about writing about someone and really understanding why they do and that comes again. There’s that deepness you want to explore in your writing but even just your deep self-knowledge that’s also required to do this kind of writing.
[00:46:32] The Lit Mag Love podcast is co-presented by Room Magazine, literature, art and feminism since 1975. And by We Write, We Light online courses in order to help you polish and publish your writing. Sound editing for this episode is done by the marvelous Mica Lemiski, host of Fainting Couch Feminists, also presented by Room. And you can find us online at Lit Mag Love podcast.com or on Twitter or Instagram @Lit Mag Love.
Host: Rachel Thompson
Sound Editor: Mica Lemiski
Transcript Editing: Monica Calderon
Produced by Room magazine and Rachel Thompson