Excerpts A Conversation with Kelly Sundberg
“I don’t feel fear when I write about the abuse; I just feel that the writing is necessary.”
Kelly Sundberg is currently a PhD Candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Ohio University and the author of many essays, including “ It Will Look Like a Sunset ,” which was originally published in Guernica and then selected for Best American Essays 2015 by Ariel Levy . Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl , will be released by HarperCollins in June 2018. In anticipation of her upcoming book, Kelly and I chatted about her sources of inspiration and her experiences writing about abuse and trauma.
Hannah Rozenblat: Writing about abuse and trauma is often difficult because of pushback from those who defend abusers, as you have written about in your blog. What have been the ramifications of writing about this subject (personal or legal), and how do you deal with them?
Kelly Sundberg : Writing about abuse has been an intensely difficult process. I’d love to say that I’ve developed a thick skin in response to the pushback, but I haven’t. I’m still very tender, but the only response I can have is to move forward despite my wounds. I don’t feel brave. To me, bravery is when someone feels fear, but does the thing that they’re afraid of anyway. I don’t feel fear when I write about the abuse; I just feel that the writing is necessary . I spent so many years silenced and now that I’m no longer silenced, it seems that I can’t shut up. My life would be easier if I could shut up, but I’m not really sure how to live in a different way at this point.
During this moment of #metoo, I’ve been seeing a lot of survivors who have previously been silenced themselves reacting in less than supportive ways towards those who are now speaking out. My feeling is that so many women have buried their feelings, and those feelings are now erupting. In some instances, the feelings are erupting towards other survivors.
I don’t want to be that woman who keeps my trauma inside of me for years, then resents the autonomy of other survivors. That said, I understand the necessity for some survivors to remain silenced, and I would never pressure anyone who didn’t feel safe to speak out.
In regard to the legal aspect, the legal review of my memoir was, for lack of a better word, re-traumatizing. The lawyer who was assigned to me was supportive and kind, and I will always value her for that. She was invested in making sure that the book was safe legally, and so, I had to sift through documents and correspondence with my ex-husband, and that process was painful. I think the hardest part was finding the tender correspondences. When things were good with my ex-husband, we were loving and respectful of each other. By the end, our correspondence was tainted with contempt on both sides. Reading those correspondences and watching that evolution unfold was rough, but I’m glad that the lawyer tasked me with that responsibility.
Writing personal nonfiction can be tricky in the best of circumstances. How do you balance writing honestly with the knowledge that your family (including your son) might read it?
The short answer is that I try not to think about it. The longer answer is that I’ve made the decision to write these things, and I’m willing to live with the consequences. Though my parents are wary of how open I am, they’re also very supportive. They’re proud of me and let me know that in many ways. I’ve tried to always be honest and kind to everyone in my book, even to my ex-husband.
I don’t really worry about my son’s response. My son and I are very close. Single parenting creates a special kind of bond, and my son trusts me. He still sees his father, and though he loves his father, he’s under no illusions about the kind of man his father is. My son remembers how our life was when we lived together as a family, and he makes it clear to me that he’s happier with the home we have now. I don’t think there will be many surprises in the book for him when he’s old enough to read it.
What was the revision process like for this book, both in response to the process with your lawyer and otherwise? Were there things that on second thought you decided to leave out?
I started this book years ago, though at the time I didn’t realize the writing would turn into the book that it did. A lot of the stuff about my childhood was actually written when I was still married. Looking back, I realize that even then, I had a very dark perspective towards childhood because I was seeing my childhood as a prologue to the abuse that I was experiencing in the marriage.
The book is nonlinear, and it was a challenge at first to figure out how to structure it, but at some point, I just relaxed. I stopped looking for some kind of narrative formula and integrated lyrical elements. My editor, Gail Winston, was reading as I was writing, and she would send back chapters with wonderful line edits, but she never tried to wrangle me. When I sent her a chapter that was entirely a “Would I rather?” quiz, she just line edited it and sent it back. She let me write the book I wanted to write.
In terms of the legal stuff, fortunately, I was able to document most of what I had written in the book. I did obscure some details and language to protect the privacy of others.
One of the things that happened during my legal review was that I found emails I had been writing through the years to my best friend, Kelly Morse, who is a poet. Because we’re both writers, the emails discussed in detail what I was experiencing, and these conversations with Kelly were loving and thoughtful. We were both grappling with what was happening, and Kelly was grappling with how to support me. I sent those emails to the lawyer, and at the end of the process, the lawyer commented that our friendship was very beautiful. It was this moment of grace at the end of a terrible process.
Are there any specific books or authors that have informed your writing process or your approach to this subject?
When I started my book, I didn’t feel like there were many literary memoirs about spousal abuse, and I wanted to try and help fill that lack. Regardless of subject, I wanted the book to stand on its own merit. I wanted it to be beautiful and artful. Since I started my book, there have been some really great literary memoirs about spousal abuse released. I think that we’re now in a moment of speaking out, and I’m grateful to be a part of that moment.
Which authors inspire you in general?
I tremendously admire Rebecca Solnit. Her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost hypnotized me when I first read it, but she inspires me in ways beyond writing. She inspires me to be a better person. She’s been a big supporter of mine, and my friendship with her has taught me the value of supporting and empowering other women writers. I’m also inspired by Maggie Nelson, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay, Bonnie Nadzam, and so many others.