On transforming the personal into the universal
By Katya Ellis
Kayleigh Wanzer sees writing creative nonfiction as a cathartic process. From drafting and revising to editing, “the experience becomes less about what I went through and more about what is on the page.”
Wanzer’s creative nonfiction piece “Thirteen Weeks” is part of the Santa Fe Writers Project’s latest book release, the inaugural SFWP Annual, an anthology of fiction and creative nonfiction collected from SFWP’s online journal the SFWP Quarterly. “Thirteen Weeks” navigates the difficulties of passionate break-ups and the social fallout of abortion. Wanzer describes writing such a deeply personal story as more about “regaining control over my body and everything related to it.”
Wanzer grew up in Schenectady and Syracuse, New York, completing undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature and creative writing at Binghamton University. Wanzer now resides in Boston, where she works in education. Though she had always planned on getting a PhD in creative writing, Wanzer “fell in love with teaching teenagers” while teaching a college-level English class to high school seniors in Zhenjiang, China after finishing her master’s degree.
“I decided to go because I desperately needed a new setting and scenery. Everything that I wrote about in ‘Thirteen Weeks’ took place over a few months’ time during the previous spring, and I decided to go to China about a month after it was seemingly over,” she explains. “Traveling abroad and doing so alone was very necessary in coming to terms with myself and everything that had occurred.”
She adds, “I hate the Eat/Pray/Love narrative of ‘going abroad changed my life’ so I’d never say that, but I will say that this experience was integral in not only my career path but also in shaping who I am today.”
Upon her return from China, Wanzer spent two years teaching at an all-girls middle school in Boston before starting in her current position as a high school English teacher. “One of the biggest impacts of being in and then leaving academia has been finding space for my writing without dedicated time,” Wanzer says. “That was probably one of the best parts of attending graduate school for creative writing – not only having set time to work, but also a built-in audience to critique that work and push you to send it out for publication. I finished my grad work in 2014, and that’s still been an adjustment for me, especially being in a field that requires long work days and a lot of work from home.”
When asked about whether teaching English to others has affected her relationship with writing and literature, Wanzer is reflective. “One important thing I think it has done is force me to think outside of myself,” she says. “It’s tempting, especially when writing memoir, to really live in your own head. Teaching pushes you outside of that. I will be the first to admit that I sort of fell into education, but I really love it – even when it drains me and I hate it. There’s also of course something to be said about teaching others writing and literature and watching them get excited about it and start their own journey. I find a huge amount of fulfillment in that.”
I wanted to show that people who have abortions are allowed and should be encouraged to have a wide spectrum of whatever emotion they want to have.
She mentions writers like Nick Flynn and Maggie Nelson as points of inspiration. Both have had an important impact on her writing, she says. “In my dreams, my writing would have the same emotional resonance of Maggie Nelson. In reality, I think I’m still reaching toward that,” Wanzer says. She describes her writing as “as leaning toward the poetic prose, pretty rich in description and imagery,” and believes that there is “a lot of power in specificity.”
“I’d say what interests me is going back to my own experiences and making what was only mine universal,” she says, noting that she often writes about her childhood and early life. “Thirteen Weeks” is one of the few times she’s focused on something more recent, and it may potentially be the start of a larger project.
“It’s weird to write a piece about such a loaded topic, and even weirder to write it about my own experience,” Wanzer says. “I write a lot about super-personal stuff, but ‘Thirteen Weeks’ is the first piece I’ve felt weird about showing some people. In this way, I’m glad that I wrote it, because I think it’s about time that we began erasing the stigma surrounding abortion. I wanted to show that people who have abortions are allowed and should be encouraged to have a wide spectrum of whatever emotion they want to have.”
Although Wanzer “held out” submitting “Thirteen Weeks” anywhere for some time after writing it, she realized that the SFWP Quarterly would ultimately be a good home for it as a literary journal in the heart of a small press. “I’m a great admirer of independent presses in general,” she says. “The wide range of voices and topics makes space for personal stories like mine to be shared with the world.”
Currently, Wanzer is doing a lot of editing, reworking some older drafts with fresh eyes and focusing on her relationship with body image, about which she’s wanted to write “for a long, long time.” But wanting to write is not the same as writing, she notes, and advises other writers to repeat the mantra which she claims to need most herself:
make time for your writing make time for your writing make time for your writing
Learn more about what Wanzer is up to on her blog. Read “Thirteen Weeks” in the SFWP Annual, which is available in both electronic and print formats everywhere books are sold. Keep up with literary happenings by following SFWP on Twitter @SFWP.
Katya Ellis is a fall intern for the Santa Fe Writers Project and is currently studying English literature at Durham University in the UK. She is an avid lover of coffee and cats and writes book reviews for The Atticus Review in her spare time.