I first encountered Chelsea Biondolillo’s work several years ago when I read the essay “How to Skin a Bird” and it’s been on my creative nonfiction syllabus ever since. It is a piece striking in both content and form, and my students often react with an excited sense of what essay writing can be.
So I was thrilled to learn that Biondolillo was on the cusp of releasing her essay collection, The Skinned Bird, and have the opportunity to read an advanced copy for this interview. In keeping with its ornithological nature, the essays are divided into the four birdsong learning stages: Critical Learning Period, Silent Stage, Subsong, and Song Crystallization. The trajectory of these divisions—and the placement of text and images on the page—reveals a compelling exploration and unearthing. This is not your typical essay collection. ~Dorothy Bendel
Dorothy Bendel: “The Skinned Bird” differentiates itself through experimentation. Were you concerned with how an essay collection like this would be received by publishers?
Chelsea Biondolillo: I sure became concerned when they said they loved it but couldn’t market it! At first, I got several encouraging rejections and some runners-up/finalist mentions in book contests, but after a couple of years of also rans and thank you but no’s, I’d put the original manuscript away thinking it would live in a drawer.
After I wrote the essay which is now the first one in the collection, I began to percolate on a different kind of organization, one that focused more on how our flawed selves grow out of a process, and that inspired me to pull it out of its drawer. I added a couple of new pieces and took a couple out that didn’t fit the new structure and was lucky to find in KERNPUNKT Press a willingness to experiment along with me.
DB: What first led you to nonfiction that experiments with form?
CB: My first semester of graduate school, the nonfiction workshop was taught by Jeff Lockwood–a former entomology professor, turned philosophy professor and nonfiction writer who I had expected would help me become a great environmental journalist. He wanted to have some fun in the workshop, instead, as he put it. He’d called it “short form nonfiction” but rather than simply writing compressed essays–he wanted us to write essays as death certificates, essays as dress codes, essays as checkbook registers. I’d never heard of such a thing. Two people dropped the workshop after the first class, and I went to the program director with my doubts. I’d come there to do serious writing. She suggested I ride it out, said that practice was an important part of any creative skill, and so I did, and that class ended up teaching me so much!
Lockwood had a specific process we had to follow for each form: we analyzed it as it usually appeared (for example, a “regular” recipe sometimes has a brief contextualizing intro, then a list of ingredients, and the bulk of the text was usually prep instructions written in second person imperative), then we found essay-ified versions, if any existed, and came up with a list of ways in which the form could be subverted to useful effect. Only after all that did we draft our own essays. One of my all-time favorite hermit crab essays came out of that class, Lauren Trembath-Neuberger’s “Drug Facts” (published in PANK 6.16, December 2011).
DB: When I teach students interested in experimental nonfiction, we spend a lot of time discussing the relationship between form and content. How does that relationship develop in your writing process? Is the process consistent, or does it differ depending on the material?
CB: It really differs. The last essay in my collection was originally conceived of as a sestina after I read Heidi Czerwiec’s essay on poetic forms on the Assay blog last November. I mapped out the constraint and then had a helluva time making it work, but during that helluva time, I was writing—so as more words piled up, the possibilities for what shape they’d end up taking became easier to see—in that case, the final form was a braided essay with a conventional form.
When drafting “How to Skin a Bird,” the braided essay from which the book takes its name, I knew I wanted to tell these two stories: literally how to skin a bird, as I’d recently learned, and why having a relationship with my father was not a priority for me. As I wrote fragments, I tried organizing them with headings (inspired by Annie Dillard’s structure in For the Time Being), or numbering schemes (after seeing Ander Monson’s “Outline Toward a Theory of the Mine Versus the Mind and the Harvard Outline” in BJ Hollar’s anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction). I finally printed the fragments out and moved them around on a table until I decided that alternating the braids was the most effective.
Sometimes I assign myself a particular constraint, for example “Pyrology” came about after “Phrenology,” because I wanted to try out the same floating text boxes, footnotes, and borrowed text that I’d used in “Phrenology,” but in a more condensed space.
I wanted to be a fine artist when I was young, and went to an art school for my Bachelor’s. I find that the physical processes of drawing, painting, and collage—like, sketching or painted studies, adding and subtracting elements, erasing and painting over, trying out several versions of the same idea–this is closer to how I approach experimental forms.
DB: How does your photography inform your writing?
CB: My undergraduate degree is in photography, and photos, more than anything, are how I take notes. I keep running out of space on hard drives and phones because of the volume of photos I take. When I am researching or in the field, photos are an excellent way to capture environmental and physical details, or a series of photos, after a month or so, say, gives me an idea of what ideas and concerns were prevailing–sometimes it’s my lunch, sometimes I’m outdoors more, sometimes I screen grab a dozen silly memes in a week–which like The Little Prince’s sunset watching, is often an indication of melancholy, sometimes it’s selfies. In the last year, I’ve taken a lot of photos as my partner and I have been renovating the house. It is an excellent record, in the absence of a regular journal (which I am terrible about keeping).
I have more recently started to explore the use of photos directly in my writing, and am excited to have three essays in the collection featuring them.
DB: These essays often explore what we tell and what we hold back—and I appreciate how you face those questions head-on (sometimes visually). How do you decide what to reveal?
CB: Well, I always start out by telling way, way, way too much. You can ask anyone who’s met me. A writer friend even gifted me a sash that says “Oversharer” (after I asked for it). I can’t help it–every story is a thread that is being pulled from a whole sweater of my life and my in-the-moment response is to default to ‘it’s all important.’ But I’ve also always had a great deal of shame about “talking too much.” It got me in trouble in class when I was in grade school, then it got me scolded for being on the phone too long as a pre-teen. (Remember when being on the phone meant no one else in the house could use the phone?!) It was also not a quality most young men appreciated in a date… So, part of the process of revision for me is trying to silence the voice that wants me to take it all out until I’m down to a 140-character tweet-length essay. So far, my success rate there is debatable: I’ve published more of those than any other kind of essay. (Remember when tweets were only 140 characters?!) Sometimes I cut too much and a trusted reader has to jump in and say, “wait, there is only one bird in each of these cages? I was picturing a dozen.” One of my rounds of revision is always a read-through out loud, and when I hear myself speeding up in a section, or wondering half-way through why I’m talking about this in an essay about that, out it goes.
I also think that there is power in not revealing everything, in refusing to perform every detail of one’s pain or triumph, just because certain readers won’t believe it otherwise. Not as an exercise in shame, but as an exercise in regaining control, in choosing not to speak.
DB: Much of your work here is concerned with excavation—of relationships, of memory, of meaning—and how “discovery could be a graceful, shining thing.” What did you discover when assembling this book, when seeing these texts and images as a whole?
CB: What a great question! At first, when I pulled the collection out of the proverbial drawer it was in, I was not excited about it. That sounds terrible, but it’s true. The writing was strong, but the arc that “The Critical Learning Period” lent the collection felt weak in spots. Worse, I didn’t know how to describe it; I used the word “weird” too much when practicing my elevator speech. But after the book was accepted for publication, the editor asked me to cut two essays (they featured color photographs which were outside of the press’s wheelhouse) and write a new final essay. I ended up adding four more pieces, scattered throughout the sections, and the result was a much more cogent collection. So, from a craft perspective: I learned what a long process revision can be. This book started during my MFA, which I finished in 2013, but the published book only contains a handful of those original essays. And the revision process revelation bleeds into my writing practice, and the content of my essays, too—sometimes it takes a lot of drafts to figure out what an essay is trying to say. Sometimes it takes setting it down next to another essay for the direction to be clear. While this is definitely a collection of essays, it is also true that it can be read as a fragmented memoir of my childhood, first marriage, and divorce. When I started writing these essays, I thought I was just writing about birds, you know? That’s hilarious to me now.
DB: What do you hope readers take away from “The Skinned Bird”?
CB: The medical term for a bruise is an “ecchymosis.” I am a big poker of my bruises, and I figured that was just one of the weird things that probably only I do. However, if you google “Why do we poke” the first result is “bruises” (the second result is “holes in potatoes” so this is obviously not a scientific study I am conducting, here, but bear with me). There is a technical answer to the question, having to do with pain versus pressure receptors—but the long answer isn’t the point. A bunch of people poke their bruises, and we do it to gauge our pain and our healing.
A lot of the writing in this collection pokes at bruises, and I might have thought they were unique bruises in the moment of writing my first drafts, but my goal while revising these essays (about holding grudges, keeping secrets, falling in and out of love perhaps too efficiently) was to reach outside my experiences to find universal hurts—most small, but some large. I don’t want to pretend I don’t cry and don’t pine—I celebrate it. I build lyric palaces to my pettiness and melancholy, because those feelings are just as important to my own sense of self as my optimism and my fortitude. In this way, I hope to lead by example. It is also true that I look outside of my broken-heart at the natural world, and find comfort there, and that is one way to do it. These bird and rock metaphors can create a space for readers where they might recognize some of themselves, pining or googling away in hopes of feeling less singular.
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. Her work has been collected in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2016, Waveform: Twenty-first Century Essays by Women, and How We Speak To One Another: An Essay Daily Reader, among others. She is a former Olive B. O’Connor fellow at Colgate University, and her work has been supported by Oregon Literary Arts, Wyoming Arts Council and the Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes/NSF. She has a BFA in photography from Pacific NW College of Art and an MFA in creative writing/environmental studies from the University of Wyoming. She lives and works outside of Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram.