“I didn’t intend to make some BIG, IMPORTANT statement. Mainly, I wanted to share my discomfort in the world in order to make others who relate feel some comfort in relating.”
Pathetic: Essays on Enumerated Social Failures (Etchings Press, 2016)
Does your writing target a specific audience? If so, why is that audience important to you?
Anyone who has ever felt pathetic – and I guess those sociopaths who’ve never felt pathetic, too. They could stand to learn some empathy.
Are there places you go or tracks you listen to that help you through writer’s block?
I like to write at libraries and coffee shops – or outdoors, when possible. I don’t often listen to music while I write because I’m easily distracted. When I feel stuck on one writing project, I typically move on to another. That’s the advantage of working on multiple writing projects at a time.
What is your most helpful revising technique?
The thing that helps me most is taking a break from my work after I’ve completed a draft or a new round of edits. That way, when I return to the work, I have “fresh eyes” and can more easily notice issues. I’m often unsuccessful revising a piece I’ve just finished because I’m too attached to the work as-is.
Your website states that you teach in Southeast Michigan. How has that influenced your writing style?
I’ve lived in Southeast Michigan my whole life. I grew up on the border of Detroit in an inner-ring suburb where the further north you traveled, the wealthier the surroundings, and the further south, the more depressed. It kind of felt like living on the edge of two worlds. That experience has definitely developed my interests in issues of class and inequality.
You also lead a lot of creative writing workshops. Do the settings and characters of those workshops leak into your own writing?
I used to organize workshops in a women’s prison. The majority of the women who opened up to me about their crimes had assaulted or killed their abusive partners. I’ve tried writing about female prisoners. I find it an interesting topic, but I always hesitate since it feels somewhat exploitative. I think I’d rather just feel grateful to have met people with a very different reality than me, instead of pretending I know anything about what they’ve gone through.
Why did you decide to post “The Shannon Book” on your site? Does it have special meaning for you?
I must have made “The Shannon Book” when I was 5 or 6 (based on the creative spelling). I found this relic in my basement around the time my chapbook came out. It seemed serendipitous to revisit a “book” about feeling pathetic as a small child. The story is about being mistaken for a boy at McDonald’s and feeling ashamed of my short hair. I thought it was funny. I guess I added it to my website because I felt uncomfortable with how stuffy the site was otherwise.
Is there one piece in Pathetic that inspired the rest of the chapbook or at least got you started? What do you remember about writing that piece?
The piece I wrote most recently was “Learning to Tap Dance in Adulthood,” and it’s kind of the crux of the collection. As I was reading it, I noticed the piece connected to a lot of the themes and ideas I write about in other essays. So it inspired me to collect these related pieces into a single manuscript. I wrote the majority of this essay on a car trip from my in-laws in Ohio. During that trip, I had gotten it into my head that I wanted to learn to tap dance. My excitement brought up all these ideas about why I needed to embrace the parts of myself that I’ve always been ashamed of: being awkward, gangly, and tall.
Were there essays that didn’t make it into Pathetic? If so, why did you discard them?
I didn’t write these essays with the intention of publishing a chapbook. It wasn’t until last winter that I thought, “Hey, I think I have enough essays for a collection now.” Once I found the thematic thread, “pathetic,” I was surprised to find that I had written more essays connected to the topic than I could fit in a single chapbook. I had a general idea of how I wanted to structure the collection. I wanted the chapbook to begin and end with pieces that felt more distant, for example. I discarded a few that didn’t fit when I realized the pieces should all take place in my teens to early twenties – the times in my life when I’ve felt the most insecure.
“Non-Refundable” reads as a cautionary tale about quick fixes and con artists. Did you mean for it to turn out that way?
Being involved in this particular brand of self-help was not worth the financial sacrifices for me. And I certainly think people should be skeptical of those who say they will “transform your life” if you can front their exorbitant fees. But I did meet women who found direction and meaning from this organization. It didn’t “work” for me, but it works for some people. Religion works for some people. Scrapbooking works for some people. Roller derby works for some people. I would caution people to be careful of anyone who makes big promises of self-discovery, though – especially if they have no formal training in psychology.
“Bad Thief” ends with the statement, “Bad guys don’t drink lattes.” How did you come up with this criterion for being a bad guy?
It’s an absurd criterion. I wanted to say something about the arbitrary signifiers we use to determine whether a person is a threat or not. The entire dichotomy of “good guy” and “bad guy” is overly simplistic and harmful. It cramps empathy and distorts our view of the world. The interaction with the guy in the essay was strange because I couldn’t automatically categorize him as a “bad guy.” I will never be sure if his halfhearted attempt at robbery meant he was really a thief or was just trying to screw with me.
I was calling attention to the fact that my (irrational) gut reaction was to move him away from the category of “bad guy” in my mind when I saw him at a cafe with a college-age girl, like me (at the time), because we are less afraid of those we can relate to. And we decide whether a person is “like us” based upon silly traits – like a fondness for lattes.
In “Bad Mentor,” you imply that you do not consider yourself an artist, but you are a writer. Would you not classify writing as art? If not, how would you classify it?
I have a hard time calling myself an artist, or even a writer, because I have a hard time taking myself seriously – and an even harder time thinking anyone else would. I have no problem with other people calling themselves artists, and I definitely believe writers are artists. It’s basically imposter syndrome, I suppose.
In the Entropy book review of Pathetic, the reviewer states that, “Shannon doesn’t come to big, giant conclusions with Pathetic, but she doesn’t need to, and honestly, probably doesn’t feel like it.” Is this an accurate interpretation of your chapbook?
Sure. I think I come to some conclusions for myself in the chapbook, which may feel like conclusions for the reader. It depends on who’s reading the essays. I didn’t intend to make some BIG, IMPORTANT statement. Mainly, I wanted to share my discomfort in the world in order to make others who relate feel some comfort in relating.
Do you have plans for any new publications? Is there a writing genre you would like to explore in such a project?
I’m working on a few different projects right now. I am currently writing a linked short story collection about a teacher who has been scarred by a car accident. One of those stories was recently published in Necessary Fiction, and you can read it here. This past year, I experimented with playwriting, and my one-act play was performed at the Allegan One Acts Festival. I’m also revising a novel about a spiritual commune in Northern Michigan that faces community backlash when they begin fracking on their land. My dream is that the novel will be published by Two Dollar Radio, because I love their books, but really, I’d be happy if anyone reads it.