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A Conversation with Chelsea Bartlett

Recently, I met Chelsea Bartlett. I wish that I could say I’ve known her for years, because she’s just that cool, but I know her now and that will have to be good enough. Chelsea is a short story writer, currently working on a novel, (you can already see how much we’ve got in common!) and she runs a blog, Princesses, Pirates, and the Pen (which all of you should definitely go follow). 

Q: What led you to decide to start writing?

Writing is something I’ve always done.  Even before I could do the writing itself, I would dictate stories to my mother and she wrote them down for me.  Since high school, it’s something I’ve done consistently.  I knew I wanted to learn more about it, so when I went to college, I only applied to creative writing programs.  I guess what I’m saying is that I never really decided to write, it’s just something I’m compelled to do.

Q: So, what are you working on now?

I’ve recently graduated from an MFA program, so right now I’m mostly working on generating new material and submitting my more polished short stories to literary magazines.  I’ve also been working a lot on my blog (chelseadgbartlett.tumblr.com) where I post a mix of things ranging from personal posts about my life to writing advice articles.  

In particular, I have my “Are Writing Rules Legit?” series that I’m posting every week.  In the series, I talk about some of the more common writing rules and explain why they’re so widely spread (because I think oftentimes people recite the rules but don’t explain why they’re important), as well as when it makes sense to break them.  Closest to my heart right now is the novel I’ve been drafting for the past couple months.  I like to keep busy!

Q: So I love your “Are Writing Rule Legit?” series – I really recommend anyone who hasn’t seen it to check it out. What’s inspired this series? What "rule” first made you question them all?

I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about writing lately to help keep me motivated, and so many of them are based around the ideas of these writing rules.  And you never really know what you’re going to get when you watch them.  Sometimes people talk about why the rule is important, sometimes they tell you that the rule doesn’t matter at all.  Very often, I found, they didn’t explain the rule as thoroughly as I felt someone just starting out might need.  My series is pretty subjective – it’s very much based on my own opinion – but I thought hey, I’ve got experience in writing, I’ve got a lot of education in writing.  I felt I was qualified to really thoroughly explain the rules, and if I was going to do that, I figured why not also talk about why I think the rules make sense and when I think it makes sense to break them?

Q: Do you have any pre-writing rituals? Candles you need to light, drinks you need to concoct, and so on before you start writing?

The only thing I need to write is a way to do it – preferably my laptop, but a pen and notebook will do in a pinch.  That said, most of the time when I write, I want a cup of hot tea, and I can’t be too distracted, which usually means that I can’t hear someone else’s words while I work.  I can listen to music, but the more words I hear and recognize, the harder it is to write my own.

Q: How do you go about starting a new project? Do you sit down and plan or just start writing?

Normally, I let a project incubate in my mind for a little while, and then I just jump right in.  I don’t have an exact science for it.  I’ll get an idea or two, usually small ones, and just think about them for a bit, almost subconsciously.  At some point, I’ll feel like I’m ready to get started.  When that happens, I sit and do it, and the story unfolds as I work.  I believe outlines are incredibly useful, but for me, they work better as a second step than a first step.  

Q: So you let your work ‘incubate’ – I love that term when it comes to planning a novel. It makes so much sense, so what does that incubation process look like for you? Do you take notes? Write short scenes? 

At first, I just try to let a new idea live in my head for a little bit.  I let it sort of sit on the back burner in brain for a bit.  I think about it in spare moments, imagine little flashes of scenes or dialogue or prose.  Some ideas never make it out of this stage, because if the idea isn’t strong enough for me to keep thinking about it without consciously making myself do it, then it’s probably not strong enough to become more developed.  Once an idea reaches the point where I know enough about it that I’m afraid I’m going to start forgetting things, then I start writing the ideas down in note form.  Usually this is messy – a Post It note on my desk at work covered with hasty scribbles, a document in my phone’s memo pad with a few disjointed thoughts typed into it.  Then, once I feel like I have a decent understanding – not necessarily that I know what’s going to happen, but when I feel like I have a good sense of a piece – that’s when I start writing.

I will say though that I don’t really do much conscious planning before I start writing.  I used to outline everything thoroughly, but I found that, for me, so much of the fun of the process was figuring out how to do things, or figuring out what happened next.  So I when I planned everything out in advance, I had a ton of fun doing it, but the writing itself ended up being less fun because there wasn’t really anything new left to figure out.  I don’t want writing to feel only like a job.  It’s hard work, but I want to enjoy it too.  So I don’t really plan anymore.  I would rather end with a messier first draft and do extra editing later.

Q:  What kind of things inspire you to write?

I’m always so inspired by beautiful prose and compelling character relationships.  I’ll read about anything if the language is gorgeous enough and the relationships are weird enough.  Reading stories that incorporate both of these elements always makes me want to sit down and try my hand at creating something just as moving.  I’m inspired by other beautiful things too: images and music especially.  But definitely what inspires me most to write is reading.

Q: So, since we talk a lot about advice on Lizard is Writing, what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out and trying to learn more about the craft?

My best advice, if you’re interested in learning the fundamentals of the craft, is to follow the rules.  Learn what they are, and no matter how much you disagree with them, just try to incorporate them.  I think we all have ideas of how writing works when we start out, but so much of what writing does really happens at a subconscious level for the reader.  It’s easy to hear about a rule and think it’s ridiculous.  My advice is to let that thought pass and just give the rule a try.  Chances are, you’ll find that your writing is stronger because of it.  Once you know and understand the rules, you’ll be able to tell when incorporating one makes your work either stronger or weaker.  But until you’re able to recognize the difference in your own writing, you shouldn’t be assuming that all the rules are nonsense.

Q: I’m a big reader so I can’t help but ask, what books or authors have had an impact on you as a writer?

Alice Munro absolutely changed the way I think about writing.  I completely switched gears when I discovered her.  Ernie’s Ark by Monica Wood is a book of short stories that I think is masterful and that I think about often.  I’ve worked with some incredible writers as my mentors during my MFA: Aaron Hamburger, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, David Anthony Durham, Sarah Braunstein.  They’ve taught me so much, both in their capacity as mentors and through their own writing.

Q: Alice Munroe definitely can have that effect, I know when I read her book Dance of the Happy Shades I was moved, but I’m curious, what was it about her stories that you connected with? Is it something that explore in your own work as well? 

The thing I’ve always wanted to accomplish in my writing – even before I really understood that this was what I was going for – was to move people.  Affect people.  I wanted to make people feel things.  Alice Munro made me realize that I didn’t have to write these huge, melodramatic scenes and situations in order to do that.  She made me see how effective – in fact, in many cases, how much more effective – it could be to write much smaller moments, much more mundane situations.  I learned that if I focused in on the quiet, simple things, and if I did it right, then I could reach right into someone and pull at their emotions like puppet strings.  It was definitely a eureka moment for me and it completely changed how I write.

Follow Chelsea on Tumblr and Instagram @chelseadgbartlett.

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