Writing, Healing, and Going Viral
Writer and domestic-abuse survivor Kelly Sundberg speaks with ESME Writer Ali Stine about her writing process
Q: Can you talk a little bit about your book?
A: I’m working on a memoir that begins in my childhood in my small, isolated mountain town. It’s a place of deep contradictions, a place of ranchers and back-to-landers, and growing up there influenced who I became. The memoir culminates in my decision to leave my abusive marriage and begin returning to the home I had left.
Q: Do you write about a particular place or time more than any other?
A: In the past, I wrote a lot about my childhood, and that is how the first incarnation of my memoir was born. I’m very interested in writing about childhood as filtered through an adult lens. I think there is a lot of menace, foreshadowing, and beauty in the childhood experience. I’m also a place-based writer, and even though I’m living in the Midwest, much of what I write about takes place in the American West. I grew up in Idaho, and I think that region—the isolation, the mountains, the rivers, and the valleys—really affected who I turned into as a person. I’ve rarely written about anywhere else because I’ve never felt that I had the same kind of intimacy with any other place.
Q: Where do you write? Describe your workspace.
A: I used to write at my kitchen table, but I recently moved into a little house with a loft that I turned into an office. My mom suggested that I turn it into a playroom for my son, but I said, “Nope, this is mine.”
I have a desk that looks out a window at a beautiful tree, and I have three Nikki McClure prints on the wall by my desk that say, “Survive. Witness. Voice.” That’s what I hope I’m doing with my writing, and this little office makes me feel like I am. I didn’t have a voice when I was married, but I have a room of my own now, as well as a voice.
Q: What’s your writing process like? Do you have specific habits or customs or superstitions?
A: I can’t write in mess, so I love my office. I no longer have to clean the house before I write, and as a Solo Mom, housework can be quite limiting. It’s important to be a little greedy about my writing time—to decide that the dishes are going to stay in the sink, for example—but I’m not as good at that as I would like. Daily life distracts me from my writing practice.
To try and shut out that daily life, I put headphones in and listen to music while I’m writing. I find that whatever I’m working on at the time tends to take on the tone of the music, so I kind of have a soundtrack to each individual piece. I’ve been listening a lot to The National and Sigur Rós while I’m writing.
Q: How do you find time to write? How do you make it work at as a single working mom?
A: Finding time to write as a single working mom is difficult. I’m lucky that my academic schedule affords me some flexibility, so I do a lot of writing during the day when my son is at school, but this means I’m doing graduate work and teaching preparation at night. I don’t have much of a social life, I’m afraid to say. That’s a sacrifice I’ve had to make.
Q: How important is community to you? Do you have a writing community?
A: Community is the most important thing to me. Writing is naturally a solitary practice, and so is being a Solo Mom, so I seek out community in every aspect of my life. After my divorce, my friends kept me sane. I have lots of friends—writers and nonwriters—but I do have a special appreciation for my writer friends. I love to go on what I call “writer dates” where we take our laptops to a coffee shop and write across from each other. I love getting text messages from a friend at 10 at night about his or her own writing. I love having friends who understand my love of writing, as well as the inevitable disappointments.
Q: What was it like to have a piece go viral? How did you find out? Has it changed your life at all?
A: Having a piece go viral was an awe-inspiring experience. My essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was released in April 2014, and there was a great response then, but in July, I was sitting with my friends at a Demolition Derby in Idaho, and I looked at my phone. One of my friends had written to me, “This one time Cheryl Strayed shared and tweeted your essay!” I went and found Strayed’s post, and she has a lot of influence. The comments were pouring in. From there, I started getting messages and emails, and one of them was from the executive editor of a major publishing house. She was so kind. She helped me find my agent whom I love working with and whom I see as a great champion of my work. I also received tons of messages from other survivors of violence; and in the past few months, I’ve become part of this unexpectedly wonderful community. I’m incredibly grateful for this experience. It’s indescribable, really.
Q: What’s the greatest wish or hope you have for your writing?
A: I hope that I never stop loving it, that writing never feels like a chore. I hope that my writing continues to nourish and heal me, and I hope that it can nourish and heal others as well.
Q:Your essay "It Will Look Like a Sunset" was just selected for 2015's Best American Essays. Congratulations! How did you feel when you found out and what does this mean to you as a writer?
A: I was ecstatic when I found out that my essay had been accepted for Best American Essays 2015. I wrote this essay about surviving domestic violence and leaving my ex-husband, so the inclusion of this essay in such an esteemed anthology shows me that I was able to turn the darkest period of my life into something meaningful. I was able to take that darkness and make it into something empowering, which gives me a lot of hope for my future, both as a writer and as a person.
You can read more about Kelly's story and what it means to be a Courage Fellowship Award Winner here.
Photo Credit: Kelly Sundberg
Alison Stine, ESME’s Showcase Writing Curator, is the author of the young-adult novel Supervision, three books of poetry, and numerous essays. A Solo Mom, she lives with her son in the foothills of Appalachia. You can follow her on Twitter at @AlisonStine.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.