“I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are…they are going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places, and ask daring questions.” —Alicia Elliott
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer and the new Creative Non-Fiction editor at The Fiddlehead magazine. She is also someone both daring in her writing, and solid in her beliefs. (Links to her essays appear below, or check out her Twitter feed.)
She talks to host Rachel Thompson about the craft of creative nonfiction, editing your own work, and how to write about trauma without having to really write about a traumatic event. She also shared what happened when she took a year off to write. (The answer may surprise you!)
The Fiddlehead is published four times a year at the University of New Brunswick. (First published in 1945.)
Resources Mentioned in the Episode:
On Seeing and Being Seen, by Alicia Elliott
CanLit is a Raging Dumpster Fire, by Alicia Elliott
Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
Interview with writer Canisia Lubrin (CBC)
Canadian journalists support ‘appropriation prize’ after online furore (The Guardian)
My Lit Mag Love course will help you find a warm writing community while you get a big “YES!” for your writing.
Join my community! Start by signing up for my Writerly Love Letters, sent every-other Thursday.
[00:00:01.055] – Rachel Thompson
[background music playing] Welcome Luminous Writers to the Write, Publish and Shine Podcast. I am your host, author and literary magazine editor Rachel Thompson. This podcast explores how to write and share your brilliant writing with the world. In each episode, we delve into specifics on how to polish and prepare your writing for publication and the journey from emerging writer to published author. Hi, lovely writers [background music fades]This is a replay episode and it’s an interview I did with Alicia Elliott. And honestly, her words have stuck with me both from this very specific podcast interview, but also from essays I read before our interview and now her book of essays A MIND SPREAD OUT ON THE GROUND. Alicia released this incredible touching book. And as she puts it, the book is an analysis of her own life, joy, shame and vulnerabilities situated within the wider context of extractive capitalism and colonialism. Alicia is a writer who is so solid in her beliefs and conviction, and this is really important for writers to really understand where they stand, as she says in the interview you’re about to listen to, I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are, they’re going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places and ask daring questions.
My guest today is Alicia Elliott, who is the editor of a CNF issue at The Fiddlehead and also will be joining them as the CNF editor at The Fiddlehead. So welcome, Alicia.
[00:01:44.355] – Alicia Elliott
[00:01:46.695] – Rachel Thompson
We met, to my delight, when you joined my course Lit Mag Love last January. And this seems so long ago to me in particular, because when I started the course for me, a guiding principle was that the act of writing and reading creates empathy and that writers, by virtue of being willing to invest in a deep examination of society and individuals, made the world more compassionate. And in this difficult year in CanLit, I saw the light. I feel like that empathy is just not enough.
And one thing that became a touchstone for me was your essay on seeing and being seen because it really articulated why this was so for me. And in it you said writers need to write not just with empathy, but with love. [laughing] So how did you come to writing with so much love? When and then you also wrote in the essay that you weren’t seen in any of the writing that you read while growing up.
[00:02:41.175] – Alicia Elliott
As a reader, you only have what’s offered to you, I guess.
And in a publishing industry where I feel like the attention is on primarily white women readers because they do most of the book-buying by those metrics and most of the editors in publishing houses are white women. They have a very particular idea of who wants to read and who they’re selling to. The problem with that, of course, is that if they’re continually producing the same work, then they’re going to have the same buyers. So they’re automatically cutting off certain people from having those experiences.
With that in mind, I feel like I definitely felt that when I was younger because there just wasn’t anything for me to read or if there were Indigenous writers, particularly Indigenous women writers, their work was not published by big houses. Their work was published by smaller, independent houses. That made it more difficult for me to access it, and it was harder to get into the hands of the people who really needed to read it. With that in mind [laughs], I remember reading the Dear America or Dear Canada series.
That’s a young adult kind of historical book. Anyways, I remember reading one that was supposed to be from the perspective of an Indigenous girl and just some of the stuff about it, it just didn’t ring as true to me. I think that is a result of sort of thinking, oh, well, how do I write about an Indigenous girl? Well, I’m just going to write about her like she’s a white girl, but then just basically slap her race on her.
And then that’s how we show empathy. But that’s not showing empathy. That’s privileging a certain kind of experience and saying that in order to be empathetic, we have to imagine that these people are having the exact same experiences as opposed to appreciating how they have different experiences and they have different viewpoints. And that’s where I think that the difference between empathy and love comes in, because when you love someone, you love them for who they are, or you should be [laughs] loving them for who they are and not who you want them to be.
With empathy sometimes ideas around who we empathize with and why is imagining that they are exactly like us when the reality is they aren’t and that should be OK. You should still be able to appreciate and love that person or love their point of view and stuff, especially if you’re writing. So that’s kind of how I came to thinking about these things very critically and trying to differentiate between whether empathy is enough essentially.
[00:05:32.145] – Rachel Thompson
I got that and I did think you said it so well in your essay. Feel free to carry on.
I like what you’re saying about how they just slapped a race on her. And there’s this presumed white reader. It’s like this kind of narcissism, really, like, oh, I just have to see myself in this person instead of appreciating where they are. It really was part of a big epiphany for me because of sort of all the stuff that was happening in CanLit too going, oh OK, actually, a lot of these writers are not as empathetic as I thought they were. [laughing]
I like to bring them to that level of understanding of the other and there’s other people. So I want to talk about some advice. And you said to take the books you love and figure out why you love them, read them with an eye towards how they’re working on a craft level. Can you talk about any books that did that for you? We’re talking about love again, which I think is great.
[00:06:31.215] – Alicia Elliott
I think that at a certain point, I was kind of reading everything and trying to figure out why I liked it and what it was about it that brought that feeling up in me. And I remember, I feel like I talk about Leanne Simpson far too much, but also not nearly enough. But she wrote Islands of Decolonial Love. And I was the first book of hers that I came to. And I remember reading it and just being in awe. And I didn’t understand how she was creating this effect.
So I remember reading it and just immediately wanting to reread it as soon as I was done. And that’s fairly thien for a book. It’s not like a three hundred page book or anything like that. But when I went back and reread it and thought about, OK, what is she doing here? How is she conveying this information? Why is it effective for her to reveal it in this way at this time? What character details are there and what kind of impression are they giving?
So kind of just going through and really critically reading that kind of work, I feel like helps you so much as a writer in a way that just writing doesn’t, because if you’re just writing, but you’re not also reading and trying to figure out how to make your work better. It’s kind of like you’re hoping that that luck will kind of just come down upon you and you’ll strike gold, essentially, which is so difficult because especially as writers, we all are also editors.
Whatever you end up writing, you’re going to have to edit to make it better. You won’t have those tools unless you know what works and what doesn’t and why. Quite recently, I read through my Terese Marie Mailhot’s book, Heartberries, which is incredible, and I still don’t know how she does it. Her writing is tremendous and unlike anyone I’ve ever read. I remember talking about it with another person who had read it and I was just like, how does she do that?
Even just the connections between sentences, I don’t even understand. And she was like, I don’t know. So still trying to figure that one out, but that one was really good. I really loved Chelsea Rooney’s book Pedal. There’s so many great writers that are doing really great stuff. I feel like if you love something, you should and you want to also write something that other people will love or that even you will love, that it’s important to know how to do that.
[00:08:51.615] – Rachel Thompson
Literary writing is about making connections. If you want to connect with your reader to do that, you need to also be connecting with other writers through their works, too. So you shared some writing advice. You got early on that as a writer, you just have to accept that you’re going to betray everyone, which I think is just a great definition in CNF in some ways. Can you talk about the responsibility you feel as a creative nonfiction, a CNF writer?
[00:09:18.915] – Alicia Elliott
I wrestle with this a lot as a writer of creative nonfiction who pulls a lot from my own life, especially in this day and age. I feel like when, with social media and like Instagram and all these other things, there’s this idea that you have to give everything, that everything should be up for consumption. I don’t think that, especially in writing, that that’s necessary. You can get across what you need to get across without necessarily basically spilling your guts on the page every single time.
So figuring out when to betray everyone [laughs] you never know how someone is going to react to being written about, because it’s a really strange experience to kind of see yourself the way someone else sees you and not have any control over that. Yes, there is sort of an act of betrayal when you write about someone. But I think that if you’re very conscientious, when you’re writing about them, that they will probably read this and not in terms of, I shouldn’t say anything, that I’m writing this thing about someone that’s difficult and about something they did to me that was bad.
I’m not saying you should keep yourself from writing that, but thinking about why what you’re writing is important to you and what you need to get across with it will help inform everything. So if you know exactly why, then I think it helps guide how you write about a situation so that it’s not necessarily exploitive.
What was the second part of that question?
[00:10:55.125] – Rachel Thompson
The hardest things to write are also the most important. So in some ways, I mean, those two pieces of advice contradict each other a bit too saying you don’t have to spill it all out. I get what you’re saying. It’s like we’re kind of in this age of the confessional essay that is sort of all over the Internet and sometimes ends up being kind of harmful. Often younger women who are writing the essays and are a little bit exploitative, let’s say. The editors are just looking for, OK, who can tell who can bleed this one out for me?
So I get what you’re saying there, too. But then you’re right. There’s also that other thing where if you have something really difficult that you’re having trouble writing it might be the very thing that you want to be writing.
[00:11:34.905] – Alicia Elliott
Yes, I was actually talking with some friends about writing about trauma and the incredible poet who everyone should read Canisia Lubrin, was saying that basically to make sure that you protect yourself, sometimes your reader doesn’t have to know everything to understand it.
And she said something that I thought was just so profound and so perfect that the traumatic act itself is not necessarily what you need to write about. It’s what you gleaned from the traumatic act. And therefore, in that way, you can talk about how this impacted you without necessarily having to go into all of the nitty gritty detail. And so I think that that’s an important distinction is most of the time I feel like when people have to write about trauma or have to write about something very difficult, it’s because of the emotions that are surrounding it and to mine that you don’t necessarily always have to write.
You can write it, but you don’t always have to leave it in all of the stuff that you don’t want to share with people. In terms of the exact specific details of something awful that happened to you, you can allude to it. You can give them enough information so that they can get an idea and that can be enough because that isn’t the most important thing anyway. So I think that when I say that the most difficult things are the most necessary, it’s usually talking about things that you need to work out for yourself and things that are difficult to come to terms with about yourself or about the world or about other people.
And to do that, you need to write about the emotion. You don’t always necessarily need to write with, documentary detail about traumatic experience.
[00:13:16.765] – Rachel Thompson
I’m just emphatically nodding my head.
I mean, a lot of writers, they find that they want to talk about, especially in CNF, you want to talk about probably pretty difficult things sometimes, maybe most of the time. Then it’s that balance between what you want to share and also even reliving the trauma through writing it and the difficulty of writing that. There’s sort of a myth sometimes that writing about something traumatic is actually cathartic, when often it can be traumatizing, too.
[00:13:50.335] – Alicia Elliott
Yes, definitely stuff that I feel like I’ve written around, but I was like, I’m definitely not equipped to write this in any kind of detail now. I don’t know if I ever will be. So it just depends. I think that it’s important to know how much distance you have from the event emotionally, not just temporarily or physically, but emotionally, so that you can talk about it without hurting yourself.
[00:14:20.725] – Rachel Thompson
More emphatic head nodding here. I want to shift gears a little bit to talk about your experience with lit mags. We’re going to talk about The Fiddlehead specifically. But I want to start by talking about you and the first lit mag that you published with and what did that mean for your writing at the time?
[00:14:38.845] – Alicia Elliott
I had a piece published online which was really exciting, but the first lit mag that I published with was The Malahat Review for their creative nonfiction issue. I believe it was edited by Lynne Van Luven. At that time I was very, very nervous because I kept rereading what is creative nonfiction. And then they’re saying things like it has to be more than just personal. It has to speak to a universal nature. And the piece that I was submitting was about my teenage pregnancy.
And so I was like, I don’t know if this is too personal or if there’s something universal about it, but they haven’t obviously experienced this exact same thing. So it was kind of hard for me to even tell myself that this was a story that was worth other people reading and that other people would be interested in it. But I submitted it anyway. And when it got accepted, I was pretty much over the moon because I was just like, oh my God, this thing happened that I almost didn’t do.
I almost didn’t even give them the chance to reject me because I was rejecting myself. So it was really, really important to me. And being able to work with an editor on your work from a literary magazine, I feel was very, very special to me because it’s something so different when someone comes to your work with admiration and with curiosity and they’re trying to work with you towards making it the best piece possible. They already know it’s good because they accepted it for publication.
They’re like, let’s just make sure that it’s polished as much as possible so that we can send it into the world, that everyone can be awed by everything. That is something that is so special and something that is so unique to literary journals in particular for emerging writers. It was a very, very lovely experience.
[00:16:30.585] – Rachel Thompson
What have you learned by editing other writers or even what about that experience of publishing in The Malahat do you bring to editing and then what have you learned by editing other writers that informs your own writing?
[00:16:43.725] – Alicia Elliott
Editing is interesting because when I’ve been edited before, I’ve had good experiences and I’ve had experiences where it felt like we didn’t have the same ideas around what was important in the piece. And that can be a little bit difficult sometimes. So I find that for me the best thing for me to do when I’m editing someone’s piece is to make suggestions.
But tell them why I’m making these suggestions or asking questions and giving them my impression, because even for myself, sometimes it’s something I think is important or I need to explain. Another writer will read it or an editor will read it and say, you didn’t really need to explain this. It doesn’t really add anything. And that’s surprising to me. But it’s good to know because then if you cut it, then the piece can be more concise, it can get more done quicker.
So when I edit someone’s work, I want to make sure that I always tell them that my word is not final. If there’s something that I’m telling you that you feel uncomfortable with, please let me know, because you know your work better than I know it. I just am telling you my impressions. So sometimes if there is something that’s super important that I don’t realize, then once someone tells me about it, I’m like, OK, that makes so much sense.
Let’s emphasize that. And so then that gives you a different way in to edit it so that any reader can come to it and get what the writer wants them to get out of it in a very controlled way. So I think that for me, it’s kind of like a facilitator role when editing another writer’s work, trying to ask them questions around, like what they meant with this, what certain things mean to them and why it’s important to them and what they want the reader to leave their piece with so that I can try and, help sharpen it so that it does exactly all of those things.
[00:18:40.375] – Rachel Thompson
Those are the best for me. Those are the best experiences with editors and the experience that I try to bring to writers too.
[00:18:50.575] – Rachel Thompson
The Write Publish and Shine Podcast is brought to you by my course Lit Mag Love. Lit Mag Love is the five-week course that will help you get a big yes for your writing from a lit mag and then another and then another. You work in a small cohort of other writers who start building that writing community. We cover everything from cover letters to how to format your submission, to how to research and find the right journals that will love to publish your writing. In the course, we also have special guests who come editors from literary magazines to tell us a little bit about their journals and get some behind the scenes from each magazine. If you’d like to learn more about the chorus and register, you can do so at Rachel Thompson dot com slash Lit Mag Love.
[00:19:43.315] – Rachel Thompson
So I want to talk to you about your DIY MFA, because you’re talking about how you took a year out from work and spent it reading and writing and learning all you could about craft. How was that? And what do you think that has meant for your writing? How did that pay off in the long run or the semi-long run?
[00:20:04.885] – Alicia Elliott
I talk about this a lot because I didn’t understand it at the time, but now I understand it. When I was in my undergrad at York, I had a professor of creative writing who in the intro class at the very end, it was very dramatic. And so he at the very last lecture, he was like, I am announcing that I am done teaching creative writing because none of you know how to read.
And so I’m going to go to the English department and teach students how to read. And I was like, why are you talking about I know how to read. So I was like, this man is ridiculous, but it’s only now. And after I had done my own kind of like DIY MFA program where I was primarily doing a lot of reading and also a lot of movie watching, actually, because I feel like there’s so much to be gleaned from screenwriting and character development and stuff like that in movies because they work in a different way than fiction. Anyway, I won’t get too much into that.
[00:21:04.645] – Rachel Thompson
I did notice that you in another interview were recommending Robert McKee’s Story.
[00:21:10.015] – Alicia Elliott
[00:21:10.309] – Rachel Thompson
[00:21:12.265] – Alicia Elliott
Yes, it is very good.
[00:21:14.875] – Rachel Thompson
It had me for the first time really interested in picking it up, actually.
[00:21:19.865] – Alicia Elliott
I had always had a problem with structure and I couldn’t really get my head around it. Screenwriting is very structured. It’s such an easy investment to read something about screenwriting that talks about what they’re doing, why this is the act break. This is what the purposes of the act break. And so when you have someone explaining to you craft in a very, very specific detail and then are like, now watch this movie and we’ll talk about how this works, it really helped me in a way that I feel like a lot of books on writing don’t revolve around screenwriting like fiction or creative nonfiction.
They don’t really get into the nitty-gritty of why and how. It’s almost like, oh, well, you just follow your heart and maybe it’ll be good enough. So it’s almost like sometimes it’s very abstract. And we’re talking about literary writing in a way that it isn’t when they’re like, no, like page ten, you need to have your inciting incident. And so it makes you think about things differently. I would very much recommend reading that book or Amnon Buchbinder’s The Way of the Screenwriter.
They really go in into craft. This is where to me, when I read those books, it made me start thinking about what I could glean from other writers of literary works. That’s where I kind of like was OK, I did not get that much actual writing done that year. Most of it was spent reading, analyzing, really trying to understand how things worked, why they worked.
What were the pros and cons of first-person narration? What were the pros and cons of third-person narration and really thinking around these things so I could figure out what was the best way to tell stories that I wanted to tell? I think that if I had just spent the whole year writing and not reading, I would have been wondering how to do these things. Someone would read it and be like, that’s not really working. Then I’d just be sitting there scratching my head, why?
I don’t know what to do or how to get it to work. And that’s when I find reading is the most important thing you can do as a writer, because if you’re stuck and you’re writing something and someone has written something either with a similar kind of perspective or with a similar point of view or similar structurally, then you can be like, OK, what did they do? Then figure out why it worked for them. If it would work for your piece and if not, at least you have, those wheels turning in your head and thinking, well, that won’t work for me, but maybe something else will. So I think it’s just a shifting in perspective. Because of that, I feel like I have so much more control in my writing. It totally changed the way that I write. So it kind of makes it so that when I’m writing yes I’m in the moment and stuff.
But I think a lot as I’m reading what I’ve written about what the impact is of what I’ve just written and whether it’s the right time to reveal this or whether it’s the right narration style. It makes me more critical of my work as I’m writing so I can kind of edit as I work instead of just writing something and then being like, I don’t know if this is all working and then having to rewrite everything. So it definitely has helped me a lot.
And I think it could help a lot of emerging writers because I think we’re all like, to be writers, we have to be writing. Which is true, but I think that if you’re not reading at least as much as you’re writing, then you’re really, really putting yourself at a disadvantage and you have the power to even the score a little bit in that sense so that you have this knowledge of craft that you can draw from like a well.
So I just encourage people to read very, very widely and often.
[00:25:08.545] – Rachel Thompson
It’s kind of like a shortcut to development and sounds like that’s how you spent the year or two is just understanding and reading like a writer. That’s the title of a great book as well by Francine Prose about just how to approach your reading to understand the craft and what’s working, what’s not. Someone I’ll turn to many times to get your take in real-time through the lovely social media that we have a bit is a double-edged sword, but it’s been great to see things that you’re bringing attention to.
I’m wondering how is being vocal about this, about CanLit accountable and other issues impacted your writing in terms of your own voice? So finding that voice maybe more, I’m guessing, but it will tell us and then also in just your time, like practical things, like your time to write and your energy,
[00:25:58.975] – Alicia Elliott
I think it’s a hard balance to strike.
I have times where I can’t go on social media today. It’s just not happening because there’s just there’s always something. And sometimes you can deal with it better days than others. So I’m becoming more aware of when I need to step back, when I need to take breaks. One of the things that really hit me, I find myself wondering like this, is the industry I want to get into. These are the writers that I would hope to be like working with or getting to know.
So I find myself wondering why aren’t they saying anything and then realizing, oh, yeah, they have a lot to lose in this. As opposed to I did not have very much to lose because I was still at the bottom of everything. So for me, it did allow me to have a little bit of freedom in the way that other writers don’t, because the people that they’re criticizing are their friends or their coworkers or people that they have to see in literary festivals and stuff.
So I found it was easier for me to say things that were critical without worrying about how it would immediately impact me. There was a fear that it would impact me in terms of people not denying the opportunities or whatever, but I found that as I was rationalizing it, I was, well, if they do do that, I won’t know about it. So it’s fine as far as I know, I’m as far as I’m ever going to go in this industry.
So why not? I don’t condemn anyone who hasn’t spoken out about these kinds of things. There’s always so many different factors and some people aren’t comfortable sharing those opinions. And that’s totally fine. I think that for me, probably because of my dad, I always had really very strong opinions. And finding a voice has never really been a question for me because I feel like I had a voice for so long and had to hone it for so long for various things in my life that it seemed very natural for me to speak about these sorts of things.
So I feel like it was kind of OK for me to do this in ways that it might not have been comfortable or OK for other writers to do it.
[00:28:16.435] – Rachel Thompson
Absolutely. I think it clarifies for me that you had the voice and I just started listening. So I’m really glad that I tuned in finally. So I read researching for this interview that you told PRISM there is a difference between a writer who puts their ego into the story and a writer who puts their heart into the story. Can you tell writers listening what you mean when you say this and when you say also do what’s right for the story, even if it’s not what you originally had in mind?
[00:28:45.025] – Alicia Elliott
I think that it’s very tempting to kind of think of writers as this God type figure, and so everything that we’re creating comes from us because it does. But I find whenever I go into a story with a preconceived notion or an essay with a preconceived notion, I end up having a very difficult time writing it because I find that as I’m writing it, I’m trying to force it to be this thing that it’s really trying not to be. And my subconscious is kind of like pulling me in another direction that’s more interesting. But I’m trying to force it to stay in this direction because that was what I originally conceived of. So I think that is a result of kind of promoting your ego and saying, well, this was my original idea, so I’m going to stick to it instead of allowing yourself room to breathe a bit in your work and allowing yourself the ability to change your mind. You may went into something thinking you were writing about this and realized that you’re actually writing about something completely different that is also interesting.
And that process of discovery, I think, when you’re writing is thrilling as a reader, because you can see that a writer is following their own interests and it definitely reflects in the writing in a way that doesn’t if they continue to stubbornly force the story that they had originally thought of. So I think that’s kind of what I had in mind. Let’s talk about writing with your heart versus writing with your ego. And further, I kind of touched on this, I think, a little bit before.
But I think that sometimes as writers, it’s very easy to kind of not examine ourselves at all because we’re like, well, we’re examining the world and we’re doing very good work. But I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are, not just around writing, but around the world like good things in the world, that they’re going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places and ask daring questions.
And I feel like I can always tell when a writer is holding back because they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about themselves or they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about the world, things that they would rather not know. That’s unfortunate because sometimes I find that when I’m reading a piece of creative nonfiction, it’s good and I’m excited about it. Then as I continue going, I’m like, OK, so I kind of see where they’re going here.
I’m excited to see where they end and they stop pushing themselves and allow themselves to end in an easy place that doesn’t require critical thinking on their own part. It’s so disappointing. The thing that I’m constantly saying and my constant critique of so many, I would say not even just creative nonfiction writers, but just writers in general, is go deeper. If you came to this answer very easily and there’s probably more there that you’re not getting to, you could make it richer.
You could make it more interesting. You could make it more difficult, more vulnerable. So if you’re going somewhere very easy, then you have to ask yourself, why is it so easy and should it be this easy? If it is this easy, then is it because I chose for it to be easy? Many times the writer does choose for it to be easy and pieces that aren’t quite working. That’s where the difficulty comes in, because if they were to allow themselves space to be a bit messy, then they would leave themselves to more interesting places and it would be more revelatory writing in general.
[00:32:26.335] – Rachel Thompson
I love that. Allow themselves the space to be messy. It feels like there’s often fear involved when a writer does that, where they’ve kind of just exit early and like, OK, I’m getting out of here as fast as possible.
[00:32:39.835] – Rachel Thompson
I think what you’ve said is really helpful for writers to think about their work before they submit to you. Is it messy? Have they taken the easy road or have they really dug deep in like they’ve gone deep into the work? What should a writer expect from you when their work is accepted by you? Do you make developmental suggestions? How do you work with a writer?
[00:32:58.615] – Alicia Elliott
It always depends on the piece. Sometimes there will be a piece that is required, very little editing because it’s very polished. Sometimes, I’ve accepted a piece where as I’m reading it, I’m like, OK, this is very good. But I think that they’re doing themselves a disservice by starting in the wrong spot or not having as clean of an introduction or some of the prose could be just kind of cut here and there and we’ll make it a really tight piece. I don’t want people to think that they necessarily have to submit perfect drafts. I’m looking mostly for good work. And so if that means that for some pieces, I might have to do a little bit more work with them to get them to where we’re both really happy with it and ready to publish, then I’m willing. Do that work, as I said earlier, I want to make sure that the writer is happy.
I don’t want to come in as an editor and say this isn’t working and you have to change it or I’m not publishing. I want it to be a very nourishing mutual relationship where we’re learning from one another to try and do what’s best for the piece. So I try to keep my ego [laughs] out of it, although obviously for everyone it’s like you make a suggestion and someone’s like, that’s stupid. And you’re like this kind of reaction. But I mean, I’m pretty good at just doing that and then waiting and then being like, OK, let’s talk.
So I don’t want people to think that it’s going to be terrible to work with me as an editor. I’m pretty good at managing things and trying to make sure that they’re the most important person. They know their story. They know how they want to tell it. And it’s up to me to try and help manage that and help them figure out the best way to make sure that the readers read it that way. I will work with writers to get a piece to where it needs to be.
But I think that the main thing is I’m looking for writers doing something that is brave, that is interesting. There’s so many different pieces that I really love. I’m not looking for anything in particular in terms of form or content. I just really want to see that passion on the page. This is a story that you feel is very important and you know why you’re writing it. And I just want to see that reflected in the work. If there’s little nitty gritty things that we need to work out or work through, I’m willing to do that with a writer because I think the work is worth it. I think the writer is worth it.
[00:35:33.945] – Rachel Thompson
Can you tell us about a recent piece that you did select for publication that was worth it and why you chose to publish that writer?
[00:35:42.495] – Alicia Elliott
This was for The New Quarterly We Are Listening series. They kind of let me do whatever I wanted with it, which was kind of great. So I spoke with Angela Wright, who’s a writer and journalist.
[00:35:55.435] – Rachel Thompson
She’s also one of my students, actually. She told me about her acceptance to The Fiddlehead. That’s great.
[00:35:59.745] – Alicia Elliott
Oh, my gosh! So I ended up accepting another one of her pieces for The Fiddlehead issue. Her piece, The Place That Is Supposed to Be Safe, talks about her experiences as a Black girl going through the schooling system. It starts with her talking about the first time that she had an Indigenous teacher and talking about residential schools and the ways that schools are not always safe. Then from there talks about the ways that she was basically criminalized for being Black in instances not like she was necessarily arrested, but she was seen as the angry Black girl and she was always the one who was being sent to detention and stuff like that and being treated like she didn’t belong there, that the school was not a safe place for her by teachers, by the principal and stuff.
So it was a work that was very brave. Also I really, really loved because I was a sucker for Black and Indigenous solidarity. I thought that the way that she compared the experiences, but it was very clear and careful about how they were different. But they were parallel, was very, very well done. At the end of the piece, she’s standing outside because she’s just had this fight with the principal where this white supremacist little piece of shit was saying stuff to her on the bus and was very smug, expecting not to get in trouble.
And even the principal who ends up defending her undermines her experiences and whatnot. So she goes outside and she’s just thinking about her Indigenous teacher and reflecting on that. It was just such a powerful moment for me in the writing. She’s such a brilliant writer who is willing to be vulnerable and go places that other people I don’t think would be willing to go. Her other piece in The Fiddlehead is very brave and I think it’s a very important piece.
I don’t want to talk about too much just because I feel like it’s not fair to talk about it without people being able to read it. But it’s very good and it’s along similar lines. Look, she’s just willing to mine these experiences and figure out why they’re important and what they taught her. Like, it’s not just an individual thing, but she situates herself within a context. That’s just very rich to me because it shows me that she’s thinking about these things and deeply. She’s a very talented writer. I love her very much
[00:38:27.375] – Rachel Thompson
My feelings are the same for her. It’s interesting because I find that what you’re saying now is going back to what you said at the beginning too about writing from that personal experience, but making it universal, too. So what you’re saying about how she situates herself, it’s like this personal story, but then it has this bigger implications.
[00:38:46.455] – Alicia Elliott
Yes, I just want to say that I am super enthusiastic about all [laughs] writers, so I think that that will be reflected obviously, when I work with you is I’m excited about your work and I want to be excited by your work. So you’re excited about it, then please send it. Or even if you’re kind of nervous about it because you’re like, I don’t know, you’re questioning yourself, just send it because if I didn’t send it, then it wouldn’t have been published in The Malahat Review my piece. Just trust yourself and you never know what’s going to happen.
[00:39:17.475] – Rachel Thompson
Great. Well, thank you so much Alicia.
[00:39:19.875] – Alicia Elliott
Thank you. It was a pleasure.
[00:39:23.905] – Rachel Thompson
So that was my interview with Alicia Elliott. She is the new creative nonfiction editor at The Fiddlehead, which is published four times per year at the University of New Brunswick. And The Fiddlehead was first published in 1945. It is known as a who’s who in CanLit, according to their website. So I wanted to talk a bit about things we can glean from my conversation with Alicia.
So she talked about how, as I said at the top of the episode, I think when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are, they’re going to lack the conviction in their writing to go daring places. And she says you can always tell when a writer is holding back because they’re scared about what they’re going to find out about themselves or about the world. They stop pushing themselves and allow themselves to end in an easy place.
And her constant critique of writers is to go deeper in general. If you came to this very easily, she said, there’s probably more there that you’re not getting to. So I think that’s a great invitation for every writer to go deeper in your writing. In terms of working with Alicia she wants us to be a nurturing relationship, and so she tries to take her ego out of it. And is pretty good at managing things and making sure that the writer feels like the most important person.
So she’s really excited about seeing work and looking forward to seeing submissions of creative nonfiction from people. Speaking of creative nonfiction, I think also another part of the conversation that is helpful for people who are writing CNF creative nonfiction is her reference to the conversation she had with Canisia Lubrin talking about how you don’t have to write about the traumatic act, but about what you gleaned from that experience. There is definitely stuff that she says I’ve written around and I’m not ready to write about in some detail now.
She invites writers of creative nonfiction to also be conscientious about writing about someone and really understanding why they do. And that comes again. There’s a deepness you want to explore in your writing, but even just your deep self-knowledge that’s also required to do this kind of writing.
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