The Unsettled Form: Melissa Stephens
in Conversation with Kelly Cooper

Kelly Cooper

Malahat volunteer Melissa Stephens talks with Kelly Cooper one year after winning the Open Season Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2014.

 

Click here for full details on submitting to this year's Open Season Awards!

 

Read the original announcement page for Kelly's 2014 Open Season Award win, with a link to her initial interview.

I was profoundly moved by your memoir, “Ten Easy Steps,” which received the Malahat's Open Season Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2014. In your initial interview with Rachel Lallouz, you said you felt both “flattened and triumphant” after finishing the piece. There must have been so much energy and emotion invested in the writing process. Have you re-read your work since you won? How are you feeling now as you reflect back on the experience of writing it?

I have not spent much time with “Ten Easy Steps” in the months following the contest. I am glad I was able to write it, but it is still painful to read it.

Particularly striking about the piece is how it mobilizes the genre of “instructions” to address what you have called “the limitations of the traditional obituary form.” Having written obituaries and eulogies for both of my parents, I can relate to the difficulty of writing publicly about the loss of two people who I knew so intimately. Could you tell me about the responses or reactions to your work that you’ve received from readers, friends, or family?

It is my experience that grief is a very particular thing. As a writer, I choose to explore my feelings on the page. “Ten Easy Steps” was a way of sharing my brothers with readers, a way to say, “Look at these two men. Do you see how they were loved?” When I am with my family, we are more apt to share our memories by telling stories around the kitchen table in the house where we grew up.

I think that your piece interrogates issues of truth and representation, as you address the impossible accuracy of the obituary form, particularly when obituaries are published by newspapers that charge by the inch of space you take up on a page. To me, your work speaks not only to the inexpressibility of loss, but the way in which an intimate relationship may be beyond representation; thus, you unsettle form by sharing intimate details and memories that conventionally may not “belong.” Since writing this piece, have you gained any additional insight into the relationship between creativity, memorialization, and healing?

Creativity has been very important to me as a way to survive loss. In the months immediately following the accident, I found it hard to think, let alone write. So I painted. Slashes and fragments. The colour of the sky as I imagined it the day the plane went down. All that. After some months had passed, I started writing again.

You’ve said that “a writer can mix image, narrative, facts, lists, instructions, whatever is needed to explore the thing that demands to be explored.” What creative strategies do you find most useful for working against the constraints of a particular genre? Do you see genre mixing as a crucial way to work against the convention of genre itself?

I would say that genre mixing inspires me. I am in the middle of revising a poem that includes text from the dress code at my daughters’ school. My impulse is not only to write a poem about the gender politics inherent in the dress code, but to use the words of the dress code itself in a subversive way.

You used the second-person point-of-view in “Ten Easy Steps” to distance yourself from the subject matter. Do you continue to find this point-of-view to be a useful in your writing?

Yes, I find it effective for shorter pieces. I have written short fiction and poetry that also uses the second-person point-of-view. The choice is not conscious; some material just seems to lend itself to that sort of direct address.

What creative projects do you currently have underway?

I am still writing about my brothers. The form changes, but the subject doesn’t. I have written a number of poems that have marked stages in grieving and healing. This week I am revising a children’s story set on a ranch. The main character is a horse. At the time of his death, my brother, Cam, owned a herd of bucking horses; that herd has been kept in his memory by my father and my remaining brother. I live in New Brunswick, a long way from the ranch where I grew up, but my writing allows me to feel connected to that place and loved ones who still live there.

“Ten Easy Steps” captures a complex emotional response to loss. You’ve noted your interest in the pursuit of laughter for future projects. What is your process for communicating this emotion in your writing?

The last word in my children’s bucking horse story is Joy.

What are the benefits of submitting your work to a literary contest?

It is especially satisfying, of course, to have your work recognized if you are lucky enough to be a finalist, but there are benefits beyond the opportunity to win. I am a person who is uncomfortable moving out of the revision stage with a piece of writing. A contest deadline forces me to end, at least temporarily, the editing process. If the contest entry fee includes a subscription, as the Malahat’s does, then at the very least you get a year’s worth of great reading. I’ve encountered writers whose work is very inspiring, writers whose work I would have missed, had I not entered contests I didn’t win.

What advice do you have for writers aspiring to submit their work to an Open Season contest?

Take a risk.

Melissa Stephens

Melissa Stephens

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