Unique, odd, and beautiful beings: A conversation with Chelsey Clammer
By Audrey Fong
In Chelsey Clammer’s second book with Red Hen Press, Human Heartbeat Detected, Chelsey explores how we are both wonderfully and terrifyingly human. Her collection of essays touches on topics such as trauma, emotional abuse, marriage, mental illness, and grief, while maintaining that no matter how we might make each other’s hearts shatter, our hearts continue beating. We survive.
Chelsey is the author of the award-winning essay collection, Circadian (Red Hen Press 2017), and BodyHome (Hopewell Publications 2015). She teaches online writing classes with WOW! Women on Writing and is a freelance editor.
Audrey Fong: Your first essay collection with us, Circadian, dealt with experiences of trauma and mental illnesses. Your new collection, Human Heartbeat Detected, also deals with these issues in addition to emotional abuse, marriage, and grief. What draws you to these topics?
Chelsey Clammer: I’ve been through a lot of hard experiences in my life, and I find that a way to heal from them is to share my stories with other people. For me, writing is a way to take the difficult, painful life situations we all face and concentrate on looking at them through a different perspective — to see a type of beauty or art within all that pain. Plus, I’ve had many readers tell me they appreciated an essay I wrote because they connected with it. So, I think that through writing about the hard stuff we can create a sense of healing and community.
AF: These topics are heavy and can be difficult to talk about. How do you care for your own wellbeing while writing these essay collections?
CC: I had a friend once who said that I only write about trauma, which isn’t true. What gets published is all of the essays about trauma. For every traumatic essay I write, there are about 50 pages of handwritten material that aren’t about the trauma but rather me just writing something funny or reflecting on what I’m writing about. The finished project might seem to be very difficult to read or sit with, but the process of writing the essay is one of self-care. Giving myself space and time to write about the subject and allowing myself to step away from it when I need to and just write about something lighthearted or funny is a way to take a breather. Also, I allow myself to just feel my feelings — if I need to cry while writing something, I do that. Or, if I need to insert a funny line into a serious essay to have a little comedic relief, I do that too. Writing is an act of self-care for me, regardless of what I’m writing about.
AF: This collection is deeply invested in the experience of being “human.” How has the meaning of “human” and conditions for being human evolved for you over time?
CC: I used to think that being “human” meant that you had to be violently alive — that is, you had to go through terrible experiences or constantly be struggling to show that you were human and alive. Now, I think that being human is a type of self-compassion in which we share our lives with other people and help each other to face the struggles and to thrive beyond them. Being human means that we can be messy and terrible, but it also means that we have the opportunity to evolve beyond that and become the unique, odd, and beautiful beings that we can be.
AF: In an interview with Where By Us (above), you mentioned that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was one of the first books that made you feel like you could be a writer. Could you share what other books have inspired you?
CC: On the Road made me feel like there was a writing community out in the world (even if that specific community existed before I was even born), and that I could be a part of it. I’ve read other books that inspired me and made me feel like I wanted to and that I could be a writer and share my experiences. In particular, Madness by Marya Hornbacher, On Looking by Lia Purpura, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson all inspired me to become a writer and to figure out how to relate my experiences in a way that would engage the reader.
AF: Lastly, what do you hope readers will take away from Human Heartbeat Detected?
CC: I hope that readers see that as human beings, we aren’t perfect and that we can make mistakes and own up to the trauma that we have caused. At the same time, I hope readers see that to be a human means having a lot of self-compassion and to support our fellow humans who, like us, are just trying to figure out how to make it through this crazy world. I also hope that the writing and the book’s craft inspires people to pick up a pen and write down their own experience of what it means to be a human.