@lethal_heroine: “Love the way this book by @PoetChelene is structured. Each chapter is an apartment or hotel room she & her mother lived in. I felt those mattresses, looked out those crummy windows, gave new boyfriends the stink eye, kept packing my suitcases and garbage bags, trying to keep up.”
When Heather O’Neill tagged me in this tweet, I was thrilled that the first thing she noticed and commented on, was the structure. So often we as writers feel like we have to write to a template. The work we produce needs to do the work it’s expected to do, while still pushing boundaries. What does it mean to turn a blind eye to a list of rules handed to you? If someone tells me they want me to cook, but insist they outline the recipe for me, then what’s the point? I don’t work like that in the kitchen or with how I parent, so I was totally fine with taking this same approach to writing. It was only natural.
Lately I’ve been concerned about the confines of genre and the claustrophobic-ness of predetermined form. I find that when I write, the structure and genre fill themselves in as needed—I let the writing decide where it wants to be and how it wants to be seen. I am one of those writers who is easily distracted, quickly discouraged, but fast to break the rules. But who’s to say there’s anything wrong with this? Why can’t we flip the script and bust some stitches?
Heather’s tweet not only validated the way that I work, it spoke truthfully about how intense the reader’s experience can be if we take a few risks.
Here are the risks I took with Dear Current Occupant:
Risk 1: abandoned the initial manuscript (all poetry) and said yes to writing it as memoir.
Risk 2: took the memoir form and spun it on its head by throwing in photos, maps, lists, poetry, and essays.
Risk 3: I wrote about traumatic experiences. I wrote about traumatic experiences surrounding my family. I wrote about traumatic experiences surrounding my family and I worried about how I’d be viewed once these stories were out there. Not sure if that’s a risk or a fear, but it’s something I thought about as soon as I let go of that final draft and sent it back to my publisher.
Since the launch of Dear Current Occupant, people continue to ask how my family felt about me writing these stories, but no one asked me how I felt living these stories. An interesting thing to think about. But that’s the rule. How will writing affect others? Right?
The structure that I used allowed me to tell my stories authentically. This meant more to me than fitting a template, following dusty rules, or worrying about the risks of busting a few seams along the way.
During my time as Open Book Writer in Residence I promise to write authentically. Some posts will be bursts, some will be rants, some will just be whatever comes to mind. Each post will be based on a tweet and expanded upon. There’s a skill attached to writing and getting your point across in a way that grabs the reader’s attention and this is especially true when you only have a minute or limited space. The same can be said for marginalized writers navigating the CanLit terrain. How much time do we have? What can I say in 280 characters or less? With these posts I break the rules as I know them to be true. I hope you enjoy reading as I bust the seams of character limit, if only for a moment.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling.
Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.