Andrew Stancek: Chloe, your story “Flame” is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I’ve read in years, and I am thrilled you offered it to us at r.kv.r.y. I have just reread it and wept again, and my palms are sweaty and my heart is in my throat and once again I am yelling “yes.” I wish I had hours to talk to you, and we were able to discuss writing and therapy and hurt children, future and past and despair and hope. Maybe someday. For now, just a few questions.
Chloe Ackerman: Thank you so much! Your experience of reading “Flame” sounds rather a lot like my experience of writing it. When I finished, I felt like I had scooped my insides out and put them into the story. It was a hard thing to write because it felt so deeply true that I had to access something fundamental and visceral in order to get it onto the paper. I suppose this is where our best work comes from, isn’t it?
AS: You have a doctorate in clinical psychology and this story is clearly rooted in that milieu. Can you tell us about the genesis of this story, and how your professional background influences your writing.
CA: Flame started out as a retelling of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, which you can still see in the shadows, but I think Mouse and Fiametta both bucked against the idea of being saved. They wanted to save themselves. I wrote this story before I decided to become a psychologist, but that idea of redemption remains true in my work – people save themselves, and some of us like Dr. Hernandez are lucky enough to help them along. I also feel very strongly about the power of story in recovery. Fables around the world recognize the power of naming something, and I know from personal experience and clinical work that to tell our stories, to speak our traumas out loud, gives us power over them and dispels shame. It’s a deep part of why I am both a writer and a psychologist.
AS: Continuing our conversation, in your or my living room, after a wonderful meal, sipping our wine, and enjoying each other’s company (I am a man of imagination), here is the follow-up: I love your answer, and the immediate reference to the power of story, to fairy tales and fables. The longer I write, the more I find myself returning to my basic texts like Grimm fairy tales, Homer, Aeschylus and other Greeks, fables. Do you have a fairy tale which reverberates with you? For me a key fairy tale is a relatively unknown one about seven brothers who are turned by their mother into ravens, and the quest of their sister to get them “unravened.” Rejection. Evil. Mother issues. Quest, quest, quest. Flying. Rescue. Those are so much a part of my psyche. Can you talk about your basic texts.
CA: Ah! The first fairy tale I fell in love with was The Wild Swans, which I think is the same story! I read it as a child in a school library, and as an adult spent several years trying to track down the edition because the illustrations by Anne Yvonne Gilbert were captivating. It will come as no surprise that Rumpelstiltskin is also a cornerstone tale for me. I use this one often in my clinical work to open the conversation about why telling our stories is healing – names have power. But my house is littered with books of fables and fairy tales, myths and American legends. I’m knee-deep in trickster tales at the moment, probably because I love deeply flawed and chaotic characters trying so hard to be selfish despite their good nature.
What my fascination boils down to is the magical realism of these stories, which seek to take those things we struggle to understand and pin them down with clear explanations. There’s a local legend near where I grew up about a peculiar rock formation near a cliff. The story is of a young Spanish nun who falls in love with a soldier and is condemned to die for her indiscretion. In her grief she prays that God will turn her to stone. An earthquake shakes down the walls of the mission, and in its place stands the five hundred foot stone tower that can be seen from miles away, the kneeling nun. There’s nothing particularly captivating about the story itself, but it’s so true, and it offers a clever explanation for a piece of everyday life that feels just a little bit surreal. I love the way these stories weave the mundane with cultural mores and the preternatural to map the world.
AS: Can you tell us about your journey, how you came to be an analyst, and a writer.
CA: First, to clarify – I am not an analyst, though it’s a common assumption. I’m a postdoctoral resident in clinical psychology, meaning I’ve earned a doctorate in a clinical psychology but have one more step of training (completing my post doc) to finish before I get licensed and can call myself a psychologist (in September!). Analysts receive further training in a postdoctoral psychoanalytic school. But to answer the question!
I have always told stories. When I was little, I told my sister stories to put her to sleep. When I got to elementary school, I “published” my stories, stapled together in a binding of construction paper. My fifth grade teacher gave me a note in response to a story I wrote requesting a signed copy of my first novel, which cemented my career as a writer, to my mother’s chagrin (my original intention was to be a pediatrician, so she’s thrilled I turned out to be some flavor of doctor anyway).
In a parallel way I pursued psychology. I remember being in third grade, sitting my two best friends down on a bench at recess to mediate a disagreement, forcing them to talk out their anger and resolve it. Over time I’ve learned about how Rumpelstiltskin mirrors life. I’ve learned from my own experience of speaking my trauma or shame to the people I trust most — confessing, as it were — has been the first step to finding power in my own story and healing. Being able to give other people the space to do the same is pretty much the best thing I could hope to do with my life, and I can’t even begin to say how thankful I am that this is what I get to do every day. (And when a writer says she can’t find words to express something, you know it’s kind of a big deal.)
AS: How do you divide your days, your routines? Do you have a firm aim, like so many words a day for writing, or is it more a flying by the seat of your pants approach?
CA: Oh absolutely fly-by-the-seat! I would like to blame the demands of graduate school for this, but the reality is that I am just not a disciplined writer. I am also a terribly slow writer, feeling very accomplished and exhausted if I get 800 words in a day. I’m just terrible at structuring my days outside of work, always starting out with the intention of writing a certain number of hours (or at the very least minutes!) and following through maybe 10% of the time. It’s easy to compare oneself to the structured writers, and to think, “If I can’t be that disciplined, I’ll never be successful.” I’ve found that the more I turn my attention from comparing myself to others and back to accepting my own chaotic pace, the more I actually produce. Surprisingly, there’s more than one way to write a story.
AS: Who are the authors you admire?
CA: Robin McKinley is my author crush. I think if I met her, I’d cry like a Beatle’s fan. She unravels tales that belong to our collective consciousness and reweaves them around characters that can only be described as treasures. I know these characters recognize them in the people I love most. I’m currently trying to read everything Brian Doyle has written – every page of Mink River was like a long drink and a prayer, and I would be lucky to write like that. There is nothing like reading a complex, multifaceted character-driven story – it mirrors the people I work with every day. My rule is that there are no bad guys. In reality, everyone is just doing the best they can.
But to be honest, so much of my literary consumption has been just that in the last few years – consuming stories to check out from an exhausting day. I hate consuming stories like fast food or television, and so have recently been mindfully searching for the type of writing that I want, as you say, to model myself after. I want stories about true people who do terrible things to each other because they don’t know how to do anything else, because they’ve been so hurt by life. We do terrible things because it’s the way we’ve learned to survive. My philosophy of writing is to mirror that painful reality in a way that may point towards hope, to a better way of being-in-the-world.
AS: Do you have a novel in the works, or are you thinking about one?
CA: I do have a novel in the works! I’ve fiddled about with novel-length stories since I was fourteen years old, never exercising any planning, research, or organizational skills in the process because I believed firmly in allowing the story to tell itself. I still firmly believe in this, but I’ve learned that sometimes planning, research, and organization can facilitate rather than hinder the creative process. All that to say, so far so good, and I can’t wait till it’s done!
AS: Where do you hope to be with your writing some years down the road: bestsellerdom? Serious reviews by prestigious pubs? Having stories in collections like Best American Short Stories? All of the above? 🙂
CA: Oh, this is a good question. I’ve never thought about this. I think my dream is to one day have a private practice down the garden path from my house, where I work maybe 20 or 30 hours a week, then spend the rest of my time in my writing shack sitting down another garden path, maybe facing a lake. In this dream, I look a lot like Dr. Hernandez, so I suppose this will be after I turn fifty. But in the meantime, I suppose where I hope to be in five or ten years is moderately successful. There’s a couple of anthologies I’ve been reading since I was in middle school that I hope to someday have a place in, and it would be pretty exciting to have a stranger approach me to tell me how my work affected them. Otherwise, I don’t know. I think I just want what I write to have a positive impact on people, to guide them towards whatever recovery they’re seeking.
AS: What does recovery mean to you?
CA: I’m sad we’re coming to the end of this – it’s been such an enjoyable experience.
Last year I faced a near-fatal illness and lost one of my best friends suddenly. I remember this pall over everything, a gauze between myself and the world. I felt so disconnected from my former self. Six months after my diagnosis, I returned to my grandmother’s house where I first got sick, and I remember just staring at myself in her bathroom mirror. It felt surreal that my face was the same as it was in the summer before everything happened. It seemed wrong that I looked the same when my whole personhood had shifted dramatically. This new person was a stranger, a sick and broken person whose life centered around tests and appointments and medication side effects, and I hated her.
Irvin Yalom writes about death as a boundary experience, “urgent experiences that jolt us out of ‘everydayness’ and rivet our attention upon ‘being’ itself.” My recovery, both physically and emotionally, both in my own health and walking through grief, was about recentering myself in being. I had to accept my sick, broken, grief-stricken self and find a way to be those things well instead of trying to pretend to be well. What the hell does that even mean? We get caught up in the narrative sometimes, forgetting that what’s important – what we are made of – is the themes. Mouse’s recovery was not about forgetting the bad things that happened to her, but voicing them in order to have power over them, walking the shadow path to her true self. Recovery to me is about recentering ourselves in what we find valuable, accepting (and maybe even loving) our wounds and imperfections, and holding everything else lightly. (Yalom, I. (2002). The Gift of Therapy. Harper: New York, NY.)
AS: Chloe, this has given me enormous pleasure. I am so thrilled to have had the honor of reading “Flame” and that we had a chance to talk. I hope we will meet in person soon.