April 8, 2019KR BlogNewsletter

Associate Spotlight: Charlotte Freccia ’19

Charlotte FrecciaCharlotte Freccia ’19, from Columbus, Ohio, is an English major with a creative writing emphasis in fiction. She’s one of the Kenyon Review‘s social media interns, and in this interview, which took place shortly before Kenyon’s spring break in early March, she discusses the necessity of making radical revisions, the importance of self-advocacy for one’s work, and writing a narrative that “walks a lot of lines.”

You’re doing honors this year in English. Could you tell us how that experience has been?

I had never considered doing an honors project before. I frankly didn’t know a lot about the program and I wasn’t that into it at the time. When I returned from my semester abroad, I met with my faculty advisor, Professor [Kim] McMullen, and she said, “Had you thought about doing honors?” And I felt like I had been hit with a frying pan, because I was like “No, I hadn’t!” But the fact she asked me was very flattering. It felt like a suggestion, a vote of confidence. I texted my mom and sister, asking, “What should I do?” and they both said “You should do it, absolutely.” Whenever I’m faced with a decision—big or small—I always go to my mom and sister, as, say, “Mom and sister, should I have a bagel or cereal this morning for breakfast?” I thought about honors some more that spring semester. I knew if I was going to do a project, it was going to be creative—though I had an idea for an analytical project that was about nonbiological paternity in Frankenstein and Lolita, and how the gender of the child impacts the psychosexual dynamic, very Freudian. I played around with that and went “No, no, no, no, no, that’s not me.” So I went back to a creative project idea I had when I was a freshman at Kenyon of a novel about a young woman who comes to a liberal arts school much like Kenyon, but distinctly isn’t Kenyon. She experiences sexual assault and then has this radical body transformation where she becomes kind of animalistic and eventually unrecognizable to herself. That was the kernel of the project that I started thinking of four years ago. I thought, “That could really be my project; I could really see this through.” So I went back and forth and I was very daunted by the time commitment. I talked to alum Robyn-Phalen Rayson [Class of 2018], who also did honors and wrote a novella that ran along somewhat similar thematic lines. I just decided to do it. I ultimately thought that I had always wanted to produce a novel and that I’m never going to have another opportunity for someone to be guiding me this closely, to have this much room to grow. I decided to do it.

This year I’ve basically put it all on the line for this project. I’ve really back-burnered a lot of things for this project. This year, all that really exists are my friends and my project, and I think that’s fine. It’s senior year; I’ve been doing fine in all my classes, but they don’t mean so much to me because I’ve been so myopic on this project. I completed a first draft—that was full of holes—in January. Since then I’ve been working on a second draft that condenses the first draft and fills in all those holes. I just finished that second draft—we can call it a first-and-a-half draft—and my project for spring break is to complete, or to make significant headway towards working on, a final draft. It’s crazy it’s almost complete because I just don’t know what I’m going to do with myself when it’s done. I don’t have any hobbies any more. I’ve been so full-steam-ahead on this. It’s ultimately been very cool, and very fulfilling.

You’ve done a lot of short story writing, so how does revision change when you’re working with a longer project? And how does revision change when you’re working closely with a mentor?

Both good questions, and both hugely on my mind. To the first question, I am or have been a short story writer mostly because that is the Kenyon fiction creative writing model. We’re not encouraged to work on longterm projects in our creative writing classes, though I know plenty of people who are able to do that work independently. Frankly, I’ve never really made an attempt to do so, because in “Advanced Fiction Writing” you’re submitting three or four fifteen-page short stories in a semester and I got pretty okay at that. The feedback I always got was that my stories were too wide in scope for the page count, so it seemed like a natural transition to try to move on to the novel. A couple of the short stories that I wrote in my last fiction class I’m keeping in the back of my mind as germs for novels, because I think that’s what they are, why they weren’t, frankly, as successful as short stories. My process with short story writing is very different because I am somebody who polishes and revises as I go, so, ultimately, revisions haven’t been such huge projects. I’m always arriving at the best way to say a thing, or the best way to get a character to do something, as I go. With the novel it’s been really hard to resist the impulse to go back and do line-edit after line-edit, and to resist doing something new—because that’s what I’ve been good at. The first draft was so, so drafty. I almost shudder to think about the huge lapses of narrative judgment. But I feel so good about the second draft because I’ve been so relentless about chopping paragraphs and pages and chapters in half. There’s been very little rewriting—just a lot of rearranging and tweaking and cutting.

My work with Professor McMullen, which has been uniformly inspiring—we’ve never really had a significant conflict. We’ve been speaking the same language about this project since it began. She’s more than an editor—she might even be a co-author at this point. Lately she’s been doing line-edits, saying, “Cut this, cut this,” and, you know, it’s easy for me to tell myself to “cut this,” but when someone else says it, it’s not so easy. It’s been an interesting exercise in advocating for myself and my work, and getting her to trust me on what I think is important, and what I think is crucial, what I think is working. She’s made a lot of suggestions that would have totally enlivened the text in some way, but just for the sake of space or time have not been pursued—but would have made great subplots. In other cases I’ve really run with her suggestions. It’s been incredible. Like I said, I knew that was going to be the most rewarding part of this, and it turns out it was. I feel really lucky because I know it’s not always like that. The other student in the creative writing program is not having the same experience. He’s not having that same emotional obsession with his project—and I think mine has been stoked by Professor McMullen.

Has honors helped you develop a writing practice?

Not really. It’s funny because, in the past, when I’ve worked on short stories for class or for myself, I always needed to be in a very specific mood to write fluidly and I’ve sometimes been able to cultivate that mood by just thinking about certain things or setting my mind on certain things and free-associating or playing a certain song or being cozy or whatever. This year I haven’t had the luxury to do that, so I just set aside tons of time in my week and I use that time to write. I just have to get into it in a way I’ve never done before. I was speaking to a professor candidate for the Thomas Chair [the Richard L. Thomas Chair in Creative Writing], a mom with two young children, a wife, and all these other things—she’s had to negotiate her identity as a writer. She says she just writes catch-as-catch-can, which is a silly phrase, but I appreciate the utility of it. I’ve adopted that as my own philosophy—prioritizing it, getting my work done so that I can prioritize it, having these long stretches of time to really get into it. I think if I’d been stealing thirty minutes every day the work wouldn’t be as good. It’s certainly radicalized my writing process, I’ll say.

With the theoretical foundation of the honors program, what have you been reading? And how does it feel to put the theoretical and the generative in conversation?

That’s something I’ve been negotiating with this project, because it’s pretty hard to put in conversation, as you say, literary theoretical texts and original work. Certainly it’s been done—Zadie Smith, but obviously I’m not her. It’s been hard. A lot of people have a lot of suggestions. My friend Ethan, who’s also doing honors, said, “It’s smart you set your novel on a college campus, because now the characters can talk about theory,” and I was like, “I don’t know.” She only goes to class two times in the novel. The parts of college I’m representing in the novel are, like, doing drugs and gross undergraduate heterosexual sex. They’re not doing Foucault. But I think my philosophy with the theory arm of the project was that it was never going to be literary theory for my project. It was always going to be feminist and postfeminist theory.

The theoretical texts that I have read include a lot of work by Maggie Nelson and her foremothers in her critical genre like Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry. Right now I’m reading Against Our Will by Susan Brownmiller, a history of rape in the Western world, which I was really daunted by because it’s obviously really grizzly, and there have been some problems presented by the text in the like third-and-a-half or fourth wave feminist sense, but I’m actually really loving it. Her writing style is so pithy and almost bratty, like your cool unmarried aunt who’s definitely a second-wave feminist and definitely problematic but she still kind of rocks. I’m reading about the aesthetic theories of violence, how aesthetic theories of violence interact with human experiences of violence and the very, very fine, almost invisible, moral and ethical line you’re walking when you engage with violence in your artistic practice. Nelson writes a lot about performance art in the late nineties, these women performance artists like Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic who would do these exhibitions where they would allow strangers to hurt them in explicit ways. And films by these twentieth-century European artists of really graphic but also really euphemistic depictions of violence against children. Nelson’s talking about gender distinctions and gendered violence, and queered or sexualized distinctions. Overall, I’m walking a lot of lines in my project—how much is to be revealed about the assault, what does it mean to bear witness to an experience of violence in aesthetic or narrative form, minding the gap between salaciousness and truthfulness. I guess the formal theoretical base of my project as I proposed it was looking at the dynamics between narrative objectivity and narrative subjectivity in retellings and memorializations of trauma, inspired by how the brain itself interprets and classifies traumatic experience.

Besides in your English major, what is the best class you’ve taken at Kenyon?

Well, I would say that I maybe should have been a sociology major—or a double major. Though I guess I couldn’t do honors if I was a double, or it would be more difficult. I love sociology. I’ve taken a sociology class every semester, including when I was abroad, actually. The sociology curriculum has been incredibly influential in my Kenyon experience so far and—like in the answers I’ve been giving so far—a pretty influential framework for how I think about my work more broadly. The two classes I’ve loved the most outside of my English major have been “Sociology of the Body” and a class called “Gendered Institutions,” which was a seminar taught by the Yarborough fellow at the time, Professor [Gillian] Gualtieri, who was twenty-eight years old, very “with it.” She was really capable of getting us to incise and critique the social culture of Kenyon in a really interesting way. It was about gendered institutions, it was organizational sociology, confronting gendered dynamics in corporate America, the U.S. military, sex work in Southeast Asia, all of which are institutions. But it became a very real and a very helpful way to critique the institution that we were all commonly a part of. She was a woman, a biracial student at Kenyon not too long ago, so she had a lot to say about the race, class, and gender dynamics of her social life. It was a really fruitful class. I wrote a paper on race, class, and gender in the hip hop industry, and I talked about Frank Ocean. That was really cool. It was cool to be able to talk about investigating Frank Ocean as a cultural phenomenon. That was a great class. “Sociology of the Body,” also really cool. Got to read a lot of classical social theories, lot of Foucault, who I love. That was an incredibly rewarding class. And I think I learned about commodity feminism for the first time in that class, which became really important.

Has working as an intern at the Kenyon Review changed the way you view working in the literary community?

I think I’ve understood just how much writers have to use digital media to promote their work in 2019, which was something that never occurred to me before. It’s astounding to me how active you have to be on social media to get name recognition. It’s certainly true in every industry, but especially in this one, where getting your work picked seems like going through a sieve and your clump was the one clump that lasted. I’ve had some friends recently abolish social media in their lives, and they say, “You should do it too, it’s so healthy.” And I actually don’t know if next year, when I’m no longer a full-time student but a full-time something else, when I’m pursuing writing as a career—when I’m trying to get my name out there, or even make money—I’m going to need to be active and use some of the skills I learned doing social media for KR. Certainly it’s been disheartening in a sense, but also very empowering. You can have some control over the narrative about your work in the ether in the wide magazine world. One thing I will say I admire about KR—what we pick, we don’t pick for “pull quotes.” I’m not sure if that’s true uniformly. I think the commercialization of short-form lit-mag literature is troubling, but I think the Kenyon Review is on the front lines of not engaging in a total commodity culture.

Why did you become a Kenyon Review Associate?

I become an Associate my sophomore year after not applying my freshman year—everyone had told me that I need to apply for this program. I remember when my mom found out that I didn’t apply she was so upset with me, and all I could say was, “Sorry mom.” I felt like it was something I needed to do as a creative writing student. I didn’t have the same engagement with the Kenyon Review that everyone seems to have when they come here—young writers and everything—because I just didn’t have that same interest at the time. I thought I might as well do this. I am just someone who hopes to and tries to follow opportunity, and I thought this was an incredible opportunity. I wish I could say it was a more specific or spiritual reason. It was just, “I’ll try it,” then I did.

What makes you say yes to a submission?

I’m a bit of a notoriously mean submissions reader. I think in three years of reading submissions, I’ve upped two or three pieces. For some reason, I think I get sent a lot of the stuff that isn’t a good fit for our magazine, so I get some easy nos. Like I said, I’m a vulture. I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m just waiting for mistakes. I don’t know why. I hope the people who read my stuff at other magazines aren’t nearly as spiteful as I am. I think the ones that I have taken a second look at have been things I’ve never seen before. Our editor, one of the things he says make good KR submissions—having surprise, delight, and mastery—out of that, I’m really in the surprise camp. I don’t really care about being delighted, which is maybe why I’m reading so many works for my honors project about terrible things happening to women over and over. I don’t need to be delighted, but I do need to be surprised. If you’re doing something with language or world-building or speculation or character or dialogue in a way that I have not seen before, that you’re pulling off, that’s when I become interested. If the story begins in a way where I think we’re going in a specific direction and then swerves in another direction, that’s a great way to pique my interest. I’m not necessarily interested in “MFA fiction” about Americans living in the Midwest doing their thing, though I do love Lorrie Moore and that’s a lot of what she writes. I’m just interested in something different, a willingness to experiment, to engage in a more probing way.

What’s something you’ve read recently that you can’t stop thinking about?

Well, on Tuesday we were treated to a reading by three incredible contemporary writers, Hanif Abdurraqib, Eloisa Amezcua, and Emily Jungmin Yoon, and I just felt like I had been hit by a frying pan by Emily’s poems. I have to get my hands on her book. I can’t stop thinking about the line “I wanted to run and be loved at the same time,” which is from the poem she wrote about a young boy in her elementary school class who asked her a question about Korea in a pointed and racist way, but the interest in her that that remark expressed said a lot about her being a young woman negotiating her otherness. It was beautiful. Can you put in the chef kiss I just did?! I’ve been thinking about that a lot, but it wasn’t something that I read so I’ll try to think of something else. I’m in Professor McMullen’s James Joyce seminar right now and I just finished a paper on Dubliners, which I love. And, you know, I studied abroad in Dublin so I have an attachment to the city of Dublin, and I was literally just rereading the last story in the collection, “The Dead,” and I think it has some of the most beautiful lines in all of English literature. The snow falling universal across Ireland, across the living and the dead. Just returning to good old Joyce, that passage makes me tear up a little bit.