What Serena Shipp Loves Most About CNF

Interview by 
Alissa McArthur

ROOM: First of all, congratulations on winning Room's 2015 Creative Non-Fiction contest! How does it feel to be selected by judge Ayelet Tsabari?

SS: Thank you for the cheers. I feel entirely honored and inspired that my essay “Fishing” was selected to win this year’s CNF contest. It was a huge boost for my writerly motivation. The first thing I did when I found out I’d won the contest, after calling my mom and squealing incoherent excitements to her, was to sit myself down and write.

ROOM: Have you won any other prizes for your writing before? How does winning the Room contest compare?

SS: This is the first prize I have received for my writing, so I have nothing to compare it to. This was, in fact, my first time submitting my work to any publication. I think I was nervous—about rejection or about sharing my work with the world—but it isn’t that intimidating after all. So, from now on, I’ll start submitting my work more willingly, seeing the good results that come from it!

ROOM: Do you mainly work in Creative Non-Fiction, or do you write in other genres as well?

SS: Creative Non-Fiction is my genre of choice, although I write poetry as well, and often find myself blurring the lines between the forms. I’ve just graduated from the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, where in a third-year writing workshop, my professor Melanie Siebert introduced me to the lyric essay. This changed my life, because when I started writing in this fashion, everything began making sense, not only in my writing but also in my life.

ROOM: How does your poetry writing inform your essay writing, and vice versa?

SS: There are elements of writing that I know belong more to poetry than to prose, such as metaphor, playing with form, alliterations, slant rhymes, etc. I have adopted these poetic tendencies for my essay writing. I have also borrowed poetry’s way of making the mundane feel fantastic, the ugly look ravishing, and the tragic appear humorous.

When I do write poems, they are often blocky and always lean towards prose anyway. My poems often always threaten to become multi-sectioned, and in the end turn into full-length essays.

ROOM: Can you give us some insight on your process of writing “Fishing”?

SS: I have been writing this essay since I was six years old, you might say, collecting memories and details from the intimacies of my family life.

This essay is about my brother. So, step one was to describe him, every detail of him, to make the reader become entangled in his handsome charm, as I have been entangled my entire life. Then I continued to mentally shuffle through memories and instances of our lives together and capture the ones that seemed significant to this specific essay topic. Isn’t it odd, isn’t it insane, how physical the weight of a memory can be?

I decided to write this in a letter format, which could have been a risk, because it already covers a hearty-heady topic of love and of loss, and I dare not dance too near the line of sentimentality. But it seemed the only way to allow myself to plunge into the depths right away, imagining that I am writing to someone who already knows the gist of it. I relied heavily on metaphor to carry out the true depths of my writing and to keep me away from clichés and gooey misery of it all. I’ve littered this essay with metaphor. There are micro-metaphors dotted throughout, and there are overarching metaphors, sweeping the themes of the essay and making it feel whole, even though it is broken up into segments. Just as life is.

ROOM: “Fishing” covers very personal terrain, exploring your relationship with a brother whose charisma and self-destructiveness loom large. How did you navigate writing about intimate family dynamics?

SS: I wrote the first draft of this essay in one night—starting around 10 p.m. and finishing around 6 the next morning. I suppose it came flooding out of me as it did because it was something I so desperately needed to share. I went back with a toothpick later, and got out all the nasty bits of food from my essay’s toothy bite—flicked out the tit where I wrote too much about my brother’s lover, spat out the tat about details of my father’s death. Then I got the floss out; edited away the sections about my other brother, removed most details of my beloved mother. In keeping tight focus to the piece—one big brother, one big problem—I allowed myself space to explore that in depth.

I refused myself the privilege of shallow answers or hasty judgments. My goal in writing this essay was never to judge. Rather, I wrote this to better understand the situation. And with that in mind, navigation came naturally. This is, of course, a sensitive subject. It still remains to be one of the more challenging things my family has lived through, but we are not so sensitive towards it that we can’t take the remains of an awful situation and transform them into art.

ROOM: Were you worried about revealing too much?

SS: I never really fretted over revealing too much. Of course, I left out elements of our story that might be detrimental to the wellbeing of any person involved. And I trimmed away the fouler aspects and grittier scenes, because the story comes across fine enough without including every detail of the past. I hope I haven’t written too much grime for comfortable reading … but then again, sometimes it’s good to be a little unnerved. And as for my family, they are not easily offended. I believe them to be proud of me for speaking my own truths and for finding art and somehow poetry in this mess.

ROOM: The setting of Hawaii, and especially the ocean, is integral to your story. Can you tell us about how place informed your writing of “Fishing”?

SS: It’s true. The ocean has flooded this essay. It has seeped into every scene with water, with salt, through fish, or by boat. With marine metaphors and aquatic language, even the cadence of this essay seems to have been manipulated by the ocean’s pull. When I began putting the puzzle pieces together, the theme that linked all the separate segments most fluidly was, indeed, the ocean.

As for Hawai‘i, well, I had no choice but to use it as the setting, as Hawai‘i is home. I found it challenging to avoid cliché when writing about the beauty of the landscape. I had to make Hawai‘i believable to the reader, and to do so I first needed to break any illusions one may previously hold about the place; making a place seem real by highlighting the dirty scars and humbling blemishes that even “paradise” has on its skin. As it is in all art, juxtaposition is essential.

Here we have paradise as one may imagine it—beaches, waterfalls, fishing, etc. —contrasted with narcotic abuse, family disarray and life’s ugly tragedies. One of Hawai‘i’s better-kept secrets is the amount of narcotics produced and consumed there. If you know where to look, hard drugs are everywhere in Hawai‘i. It is a misfortune few consider when dreaming about paradise.

ROOM: Can you speak about the depiction of your brother’s drug use? The narrator observes his intense relationship with drugs without being overtly judgmental.

SS: If there is anything I have learned through being the kid sister of an addict, it is that judgment is pointless. I love my brother. And I want him to know I will always be there for him; when everyone else has backed out, he needs to know someone will still be there. I see him in layers; that is how I separate the man from his actions. 1. There is the man I have always/will always love, and 2. There is the drug-worshipping derelict whose primary concern is slithering to his next fix. These two identities have to be separated in my mind; I have done this in an effort for self-preservation. The first time I watched my brother shoot up, I found myself removed from the scene, floating above it and narrating it. Perhaps that is a method of endurance as well—even as it is happening, trying to find the poetry within it all. Because life can be brutal, but we may choose to translate that brutality into beauty.

ROOM: Which writers would you say influence your work?

SS: Firstly, I’d say Annie Dillard, for her strong use of metaphor, and heightened attention to detail. Dillard is the queen of detail. And of finding metaphor in every aspect of life, be it an inchworm or a fallen leaf. She has inspired me to view the world through the eyes of a writer, to be writing constantly, even when you are without a pen. Recently, Susan Musgrave’s writing has been inspiring me. She often writes about life’s heavier topics—drug addiction, life imprisonment, death and dying—but her words move with a certain grace that makes even the dingiest of topics brighten up. She inspires a new insight in all who read her work. I can’t help but look at things with new eyes after reading her work.

ROOM: Are you working on a manuscript at the moment?

SS: I am currently collaborating with an artist friend, writing a children’s book. The story takes place on Moloka’i, and is a mixture of Hawaiian mythology and personal, oceanic fantasies. I am really enjoying the process of dropping off into fictional realms and leaving real-life stories behind for a while. Aside from that, I am continuously adding chapters to a CNF book I began a few years back. The one-day book will be a series of letter lyric essays—such as you have seen with “Fishing”—all on the topic of drug addiction and its limitless effects on the user, the family, etc.

ROOM: Do you have a blog, or a place where readers can find more of your work?

SS: I do have a website. I’ve put a selection of my work there, and I’d be honored if readers wanted to check it out: serenashipp.com

ROOM: Do you have any advice for writers who want to submit to Room’s contests?

SS: Oh, only to be brave enough to submit your work in the first place, because there is little to lose, and so much to gain. Everyone has a story to share; I suppose that is what I love most about Creative Non-Fiction. And it feels so good to share.

Serena Shipp's winning story will appear in Room 38.4, out in December 2015.

Find out more about Room's contests, including our creative non-fiction contest.

Alissa McArthur is a member of the Growing Room Collective.

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