Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Catherine Klatzker’s nonfiction piece, Sleeping Together
Sommer: One of the reasons why I chose this piece, besides the gorgeous writing and pacing, is because of how masterfully you write about aging and being older in all its realness, sadness, and beauty. We live in such a youth-forward society, and I often find myself longing to hear from those older voices we’ve pushed to the margins or simply ignored altogether. Because in those voices is a lot of wisdom, experience, liveliness, and freshness. What are your thoughts on how writing and publishing today reacts to and embraces (or doesn’t) pieces whose characters are older and whose topics verge on the “elderly”? In what ways do you think we can diversify what we read in this regard?
Catherine: I agree that my age is seen as a disability to editors. It seems that many writing retreats may also interpret aging as disability, and elder writers are generally ineligible for Emerging status, regardless of how Emerging they might be, with few exceptions. Even so, the topic of sleeping apart or together is of interest to people of all ages and genders. Memory lapses affect everyone, just as everyone relates to loss. I myself am not on the lookout for stories about aging all by itself, other than informational books like Being Mortal (Atul Gawande). Which brings up the related topic of writing about death—since to quote Sigrid Nunez, “Most people are in denial about aging, just as they are about death.” Perhaps the pairing of these two realities is inevitable.
We have to want to read about what we deny. In addition to attracting readers with interesting sub-topics, I believe there is a self-selected audience for storytellers like Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Who Dies, and Irvin D. and Marilyn Yalom, A Matter of Death and Life. The best works that include aging in a central way bring a freshness to their stories when their approach is one of curiosity, grounded in the present, and not predominantly in reminiscences of the past. Present-centered writing about aging from a place of repeated discovery is more likely to resonate with readers of all ages. Aging surprises me every day. That said, I read younger writers with gratitude and excitement for the expanded vision they open up with their modern awareness.
I love these lines: “I feel. How lucky for me, to find my feelings, to claim my disowned emotions […].” Sometimes I wonder if this sentiment is precisely the difference between writing fiction and creative nonfiction: writing fiction allows the author to perhaps evade or come at strong emotion with a bit more protection, and writing nonfiction asks the author to face the truth of strong emotion more courageously head-on. Do you write both fiction and nonfiction, and if so, how do you approach writing them? Is there a significant difference for you?
I like your thoughts about the differences in writing fiction and creative nonfiction. So far, I do not write fiction, although I do write poetry. From the very beginning, poetry has allowed me to go deeply while remaining anonymous. Since a poem isn’t necessarily true, I can drop myself into both dreadful and joyful expression, shielded from the vulnerability of nonfiction. Creative nonfiction requires details that are optional in poetry. Put another way, poetry has an added implicit weight, and creative nonfiction is more explicit. Expanding on a moving turn of phrase demands an even deeper dive for me in creative nonfiction.
“I feel. How lucky for me…” refers to my whole life of putting aside my feelings, learning, ironically, to feel just in time for heartbreak; Sleeping Together is a different kind of love story. Also, I think a flash piece lends itself to a more poetic form.
And on that topic, how do you approach crafting plotline and pacing when writing creative nonfiction? How do you write and maintain that forward motion considering that you are not manufacturing reality?
Because it’s creative nonfiction, I write the story as if it’s fiction, and the events guide my forward motion. The actual writing shares much with fiction: description, setting, conflict, white space, dialogue, and suspense, but I don’t have to make it up. I keep in mind that creative nonfiction essays are generally about the questions, not the answers. Writing about my sister’s sudden death, for example, I dropped in and out of my sister-stories and my childhood trauma stories, and wove them around the central event. My actual experiences are transformative in ways I could never imagine or invent.
What advice do you have for writers on handling rejection, and do you have any tips for staying motivated?
Wow, what a good question. After hundreds of rejections, I red flag the personal notes, as they may want to see more of my work. I make a Plan B anticipating rejection. Does the piece need to be fine-tuned? Where else can I submit? Who wants this story? Where might it be topical? Before I open the rejection email, I remind myself of my plan, (and sometimes it’s an acceptance!). I allow all the rejected feelings, the derogatory inner voices, then I write something else, a short poem, or even a journal entry, which always makes me feel better. Writing itself often stimulates motivation.
Do you have any writing traditions or superstitions when it comes to your writing habit?
I always begin a story in longhand. Then I go back and forth between the keyboard and handwriting, editing along the way. The words sometimes write themselves with pen on paper, and they always look and sound different in the two styles, which clarifies a lot for me. I often put it aside then, and go back to it with fresh eyes sometime later.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you, Sommer. This has been a joy. I’m delighted to tell people I have something in The Forge.