Chantal Ryan is coming all the way from Australia to “Write Wild” with Kathy Fish and I in Costa Rica this January! We chatted about intimate rituals, overcoming distractions, the wilds of the forest and the lyrics of Eminem:
Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?
Chantal Ryan: I have a three year old who I watch over all day every day. We call him “The Hurricane” for a reason. I’ve often read writers who are parents talk about how they always wake before their children in order to get some interruption-free work time in. Not me! Not even a hurricane can get me out of bed before eight in the morning. Instead, I know it’s time to punch the clock right after I tuck him into bed for the night. I guess you can say my solution to art and life is to work the night shift!
I do make an effort to read throughout the day, which I always think of as writing-adjacent. Sometimes when I’m doing chores I perform thought experiments on my stories, trying to solve problems I’ve encountered during the last writing session.
Nancy: Yes, as a mother I can relate! Can you tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?
Chantal: I’ve always written flash fiction – I’ve been writing it far longer than I knew there was a name for it! I’m partial to mood and atmosphere – anything that can move me, make me feel something different, take me to some other place for even a moment in time, it’s a special thing to me, and it’s the only thing I ever really want from a story. Make me feel. Of course, in kind, I seek to do the same for others. A few broad brush strokes of colour, some stark suggestive lines… that’s all we need. The rest can be so much fluff. I like things that go for the throat.
Nancy: “Going for the throat”: I love that. What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Chantal: My answer will probably change depending on the day, the struggle. But I’ll put a lyric from Eminem here – a true artist, a profound storyteller – that so succinctly demonstrated to me what it is to tell a story. The song is called Difficult, and it’s a tribute to his best friend who was murdered:
“And this may sound a little strange but I’mma tell it—
I found that jacket that you left at my wedding
and I picked it up to smell it
I wrapped it up in plastic until I put it in glass
and hang up in the hallway so I can always look at it”
And right there, that’s so real. That really happened, and it’s those tiny moments that are where the stories are, where the humanity lies. A grown man smelling the shirt of a man he loved and had to bury. The mundane becoming sacred because of what it represents. Our small, profound rituals. Those five lines remind me about everything present in good writing – saying so much with so little; invoking the senses; laying bare the intimate motions of our lives. Flash fiction, right? Going for the throat.
Nancy: I love that you quoted Eminem! What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?
Chantal: Hm, it’s a good question. You know we don’t like to assign favourites to our children. There’s a flash piece I wrote called “Hegira” that means a lot to me, for a lot of reasons. It’s full of everything I want from a story. Something that can be read straightforwardly, but reveals a different tale when the symbolism is interpreted. It ends with an uplifting message, which is rare for me – in my stories, someone or everyone always seems to die at the end. In this story, the death is at the beginning, so maybe that’s the trick.
I haven’t published the story. Though some who have read it told me it helped them find solace, or touched them to tears, and that’s all we ever really want, right? For a piece of us to touch a piece of someone else in some shared numinous space. A stranger wrote me an amazing message about that story and how it had moved them. When I finished reading it my hands were shaking. Art, man.
Nancy: Wow. It’s so special when readers take the time to reach back to us. So on that note, react to this quote by Toni Morrison: “We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such a big A-plus for that.”
Chantal: It’s interesting you bring her up, I’m actually reading Beloved by Toni Morrison right now! It’s so wonderful. It’s been a while since I read a novel that moved me so. Her mind, it’s a scalpel that moves with perfect grace.
When looking at our society as a whole, I believe she’s correct. Art is work as much as play, it contributes as much, it should not be relegated to second fiddle. But our western society undervalues art and encourages, or even forces, us to spend our time doing all sorts of busywork, sending unending obligations our way. Our communities are fractured, we don’t help each other as much as we could or should, and as such we’re all bearing a lot of burden, especially burdens of time. I don’t begrudge people falling by the wayside in terms of allowing their creative hearts to wither when we’re under such a cascade of distractions.
But as a society, certainly, creative work should not be “slipped in between”, like a naughty bit of play. It should be as much part of our survival work as meeting physical needs like hunger and shelter. So many of us have forgotten how to use our hands and our hearts. We need to encourage each other to keep them active. Take pride in our soulwork.
Nancy: We will be using our “hands and our hearts” in Costa Rica for sure. Now you are coming all the way from Australia! Have you been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?
Chantal: I am! And I haven’t been to Costa Rica before, but it’s one of the places my spirit lies, I’m sure. I’m a dendrophile, so the notion of visiting such a biodiverse place makes my heart swell just to think about it. Throw in an ocean I can swim with the sea creatures in and a group of people whose minds manifest just like mine and I’m probably going to be so overjoyed I’m just going to go supersaiyan. So I guess I’m looking forward to the spiky white hair.
Nancy: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Chantal: Some defining fact, huh? When I was five my favourite movie was Child’s Play and my favourite toy was a Chucky doll I carried around with me everywhere. Five year old me delighted in throwing it in the bath with my younger brother to scare him. I guess you could say horror runs in my blood. Funny thing about that doll – my mom swears she got fed up with my brother-traumatizing antics one day and tossed the doll in the trash. Says she left the room and when she came back, it was on the dining table, facing her. Now, I obviously can’t vouch for this story as I wasn’t there, but I will say my mom is not the jokester type.
I will say I think the world is a more interesting place than we give it credit for.
Nancy! Ha! Anything else you want to add?
Chantal: Please recycle!
Nancy: Yes! I’ve enjoyed getting to know you so much here, Chantal, and I can’t wait to meet you in person!
Chantal Ryan would rather be in the forest. But when she’s not, she settles as a letter-witch: words become incantations, prayer-attempts get to those thudding places amongst the roots–and maybe take you with.