Interview with Tess Kelly: Q2 2024 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest Runner Up

Sunday, June 09, 2024
Tess Kelly

Tess’s Bio:

 Tess Kelly’s work has appeared in Cleaver, HerStry, Dorothy Parker’s Ashes and Sweet Lit, among other publications. Her essay, “Woman in the Covid Bubble” was the first place winner in the Women’s National Book Association 2021 writing contest, in the category of flash prose. A former public school teacher, Tess lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

----- Interview by Angela Mackintosh

WOW: Welcome, Tess! I'm thrilled to interview you today about your beautifully written, award-winning essay, "Facade." What was your initial spark or "way in" to writing this essay?

Tess: First of all, thank you for this opportunity!

There wasn't an initial spark for the writing—it was more like smoldering embers. I spent a long time struggling to leave someone who could no longer suppress her desire to transition. I had grappled with the dilemma for years so the story had plenty of time to percolate. It was just a matter of re-reading pertinent journal entries and clarifying my thoughts in essay form. It was the second piece I'd written on the topic. The first was "Last Week," about our last week together, but I wanted to dig deeper into what it meant to be involved with someone whose attempts to be true to herself ultimately drove us apart.

WOW: Oh wow, thank you for sharing "Last Week"! I love the daily format, and it's so great to see the different ways we can write about a topic. With "Facade," I also loved your structure and pacing, and I was moved by your honesty. You've written a well-balanced, complete story arc—with rising tension and a climax—in so few words. And your theming is tight—how it starts and ends with the image of your partner's face and how it had changed, which also emphasizes your title. How long did it take to write, and how did it change over time? Did you have to cut a lot?

Tess: Over the course of a year and a half I went through about a dozen rewrites. This was a piece that didn't change much over time. The content was mostly the same, I just played around with the language. I actually added a little volume to it, instead of cutting. That's not how it always works, but it did in this case.

WOW: It's nice when that happens! So I looked up your essay, "Woman in the Covid Bubble," which won first place in the Women’s National Book Association 2021 writing contest, flash category. It really captures what life was like during Covid, and the use of second person amplifies that feeling for the reader. Well done! The structure is sharp, too. I can tell you study CNF forms. Who are some of your favorite creative nonfiction writers?

Tess: There are so many inspiring essayists to learn from! A few that I especially like are Eula Biss, Poe Ballantine, Samantha Irby, Heather Sellers, Brian Doyle, and Jamaica Kincaid.

WOW: Great essayists! I'm a fan as well. You've had your work published in a lot of wonderful literary journals. Do you have any tips or resources you can share with our writers for targeting potential publications for your CNF?

Tess: If I read an essay that resonates with me or seems to be similar to my style of writing I'll see where else the writer's work has appeared and research those publications. I use Submittable as a means to see who's looking for CNF or flash submissions. If I've never heard of a publication I'll check it out and read at least a few pieces to see if it's a good enough fit. It's a numbers game, as far as I'm concerned. I know writers who are far more accomplished than me that only get about one in ten pieces published. There's a lot of competition, especially with the better-known journals, but it's important to consistently submit in order to get accepted occasionally.

WOW: Agreed! It's very competitive out there, but we've got to keep submitting. What's your favorite piece of writing advice?

Tess: I don't know if I have an all-time favorite. I just finished reading Stephen King On Writing and one of the things I found fascinating is that he said he puts his first drafts in a drawer and lets them sit for six months before looking at the writing again. Six months! Apparently it gives King a perspective he wouldn't have otherwise and gives him the ability to more easily cut what doesn't belong. I've never waited six months after a first draft but I do sometimes put a piece aside for a few weeks. It definitely helps to give me the detachment I need as an editor.

WOW: I actually read On Writing for the first time last year, and I remember that piece of advice. Six months is a long time! So what are you working on right now?

Tess: I've been working on an essay on getting older that explores my fear of death. Fun stuff!

WOW: Ha! Sounds incredible, and I hope to read it when it publishes. Thank you, Tess, for chatting with me! Congrats again on your placement in the contest and for writing an incredible essay. It's such a pleasure to read your writing. 

Find out more about WOW's quarterly flash contests here:


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