By Justin Crawford
Kelly Sundberg and I met in 2008 as we were both finishing up our degrees in English at WVU, and I was immediately drawn to her attentive conversations, kind and informative critiques for creative work, and open kindness. Although we have shared in some of this journey of undergraduate and graduate studies, Kelly’s path to this point has been filled with the life experience that has helped shape her nonfiction and other creative work. She first attended University of Montana and Boise State University. During those years and after, she worked as a barista, ski lift operator, and wilderness river guard. After some needed time off from school, she returned to her undergraduate work at WVU, finished, and enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts/Creative Writing program for nonfiction in 2009. She’s in an incredibly loving marriage and has one son.
Kelly has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction. Her most recent publication is forthcoming from Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment at Iowa State. She has been nominated for the AWP Discovered Voices Prize, the AWP Intro Prize, and the Pushcart Prize.
Her writing is wrought with true emotion that saturates the work. The people that inhabit her stories are full, sometimes garish, yet always real and illusively treacherous, tragic, hilarious, or heartbreaking (sometimes all of the above). She crafts immense landscapes that roll off the page, and the environment seems combative with a mind of its own. When I’m done reading a Kelly Sundberg piece, I always want to go to the place she is writing about, but then I realize that I’ve already been there, lived there for years, am neighbors with the characters, and am looking out a window into a world so strangely familiar.
I got the chance to sit down with Kelly to ask her a bit more about her life and writing.
1. Why do you think you started writing personal essays? Was there a particular moment or an evolution?
I had always been a storyteller. As a teenager, I would spend hours crafting tales to tell my family and friends. At the time, I was usually just trying to be funny, but I was never afraid to make myself the butt of the joke, or to be self-deprecating. When I took my first nonfiction class from Karen Uehling at Boise State University, she encouraged me to develop that voice, but to also look for the meaning underneath the joke. My writing evolved from there. It’s not always funny anymore. In fact, it’s often sad, but I still try to be fearless about exposing myself, even if it makes me look bad, while try to be discerning about what I expose. I’m working on reining in my detailson only choosing the most important aspectsso the writing doesn’t get cluttered. If an essay is a collection of artifacts, then I would prefer it be like a nicely presented antiques store, rather the junkyard at the end of the street.
2. As a writer of nonfiction, you craft deeply profound and passionate tales of your life that are meaningful in a larger scope. Do you find that you draw most of your influence or inspiration from the outward world or the inward?
So far, my writing has been pretty inward-looking. In the program, I haven’t really been crafting journalistic-style pieces or research-heavy pieces, although I would like to do more of that in the future. My current project is a collection of linked essays that, hopefully, will unfold in the direction of a memoir, and although it’s inward-looking, it’s very place-based. I rely a lot on observations of the outside world to inform what’s going on in my inner life. For example, I have an essay about a demolition derby, an essay about working in the wilderness, and an essay about babysitting. They seem like different subjects, but they are all, ostensibly, about the complex relationship between people and place. I grew up in an extremely insular towna town of 3,000 that was hours away from anything largerso I think that made me hypersensitive to the unease that often lurks underneath everyday interactions.
3. What have been your biggest challenges in the MFA program? Your biggest rewards?
Definitely, my biggest challenge in the MFA program has been negotiating the work/home life. I have a five-year-old, and he was three when I started the program, so he obviously takes up a lot of my physical and emotional energy. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to find the space to create. I have a new understanding of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own now. I have a tendency to be hiding in my office in Colson on Sundays. Still, the rewards definitely make up for the struggle. I love the WVU MFA program. It has been so supportive. There is just a warmth and inclusiveness in our program that I’m convinced is unusual. I’ve loved being part of a community that encourages and supports me in writingone of the most private activitiesand I’m going to be sad to move on when I graduate.
4. What advice do you have to offer current or incoming MFA students in this program?
I would advise to have a plan when you start the program for what you want to achieve over the next three years. Those three years fly by, and you don’t want to be scrambling in the third year to make something meaningful out of the experience. If you don’t have a project idea or specific aesthetic when you’re starting, then it might be better to wait a few years until you do.
5. In closing, what do you think is next? Where would you like to go from here? Feel free to be as theoretical or philosophical as you like.
I’m trying not to think of the future right now, because I have a tendency to worry or ruminate too much, and that can stifle my creativity. Right now, I’m just focused on making my syllabi for my Fall courses and completing a thesis draft. I’ll worry about the rest next May!