Interviewed by Sommer Schafer
Read Claire Polders’ nonfiction piece, The Gravity of Air
Sommer: I’ll admit, at first I wasn’t sure I could interview you about your beautiful essay. It is just too heart wrenching, and deserves to exist in silence. But then I realized that you do something with this piece that few do: instead of evading the pain and sadness (with humor or denial), you go right to it. You don’t turn even the slightest from the utter tragedy of what is happening. Did anything help you, technically or otherwise, through this process of writing about something so incredibly sad?
Claire: I really wanted to write about this experience, not necessarily to share it with others, but to make myself better understand its meaning in my life. Having such a motivation helped. I don’t believe that all writing is self-expression. This essay, however, began as such, and because of it, I let myself work in a flow, without a pre-planned structure. At the time of the funeral, I felt I was not entirely present, as though I kept myself at a distance from the pain. And I wanted to know why. Was the pain not mine? Did I fear the grief? I’m used to needing time and analysis to know my emotions, and in this case writing became my tool. The essay has given the pain the attention it deserves.
Writers often hear about the dangers of writing too sentimentally when it comes to death and tragedy. What should writers watch out for in this regard? And in what ways do you think writers can avoid writing too much into sentiment?
I tend to make a distinction between emotionally charged prose (which I value) and sentimental prose (which I dislike). In the first, the author describes a specific scene with specific emotions that, in the best cases, can surprise people who have not lived through that specific event. The emotions lived by others (fictional or real) can broaden the experience of readers and enhance their empathy. Sentimental prose uses platitudes as tearjerkers that only stir vague memories of the readers’ own emotions. Clichés confirm instead of startle. I prefer prose that takes me out of my lived experience and makes me feel something new.
How and why did you decide to write this as nonfiction and not as fiction? Do you usually have a clear sense of this before starting a piece?
I usually know what genre I’m writing from the start, although it has happened that a nonfiction piece turned into a short story because I was taking too many liberties with the truth. This time, I knew I wanted the piece to be an essay. Probably because that would be the most difficult for me to write: I needed the challenge for the reason of self-understanding mentioned earlier. I think I’m not done with it, though, and the event will likely also feature in my fiction later.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?
Write the piece you keep postponing, and start writing it before you are ready. Write what you wouldn’t want your parent/child/ partner to read. Write what you fear.
Do you have any advice for writers on handling rejection?
Don’t take it personally. That’s really it. Most of the time a rejection doesn’t even relate to the quality of your writing. It’s just timing and circumstance. To think that a particular rejection says anything about who you are as a writer is a fallacy. Although a rejection is often a disappointment, it is not a verdict.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with me, and congratulations!
Thank you for your interest and your thoughtful questions!
Sommer Schafer is a senior editor of the Forge Literary Magazine.