We had the good fortune of connecting with Chelsea Sutton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Chelsea, is there something you believe many others might not?
“Write what you know.” This is one of the oldest pieces of writing or creative advice out there and it is both completely damaging and completely true.
The damaging part: writing and creating is really centered on questions. A question leads you into creative exploration; if we expected scientists to know all the answers before they did their experiments and research, then we would never move forward. It’s a chicken or the egg thing. If you feel like you must know all the answers before you begin something, then you will never begin. How many ideas and innovations have we lost because someone felt like they didn’t know enough at the onset? Do your due diligence, get experience, absorb knowledge and lessons, of course – but you will create your most exciting things when you allow yourself to question and be open to your curiosity, be open to being surprised and finding solutions. Some of the most exciting projects I’ve worked on were ones when we legitimately had no idea how we were going to accomplish a thing.
The true part: “write what you know” can and should encourage you to write from your unique and specific self. I’ve told my writing students before to write what is most true for them, not the thing they think I want to read. “Don’t write about divorcees being sad on a beach,” I told them (I’d been forced to read On Chesil Beach around that time and just couldn’t deal.) “If you want to write about wizards, do it. If you want to bring in your own cultural heritages, languages other than English, please do. If you want to explore an unusual point of view or structure, wonderful. Write what makes YOU happy.” I think we’re often taught that our personal, unique experiences aren’t good enough, aren’t “main stream” enough, are alienating or silly. I grew up in Southern California but I avoided writing about it for the longest time because I thought no one would care. I thought I had to write stories that fit into an Upper East Side apartment in New York. Let go of the creator you think you “should” be. It never works out.
So maybe I’d rewrite that advice to be: “Be specific. Be excited about questions. Be the writer you already are.”
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I write magical realism stories (slipstream, fantasy, science fiction, etc) for theatre, film, audio, and new media, as well as short and long-form fiction. Most of my stories are “dystopias with a sense of humor” and can be characterized as ghost stories, even when ghosts may not be literally present, especially as they interact with the landscape of the American West and women’s stories in particular. I’m most interested in plays and fiction whose tendrils reach outside the walls and the page; I want plays to have a universe that audiences can interact with in multiple ways both before and after the actual show. My work is immersive-minded and I consider the interactive and direct audience connection possibilities of stories whenever possible. Theatre and stories are an opportunity for reflective and thoughtful engagement between artist, character, and audience; the audience should be activated directly or indirectly through the work.
Most recently all these things have manifested in a strange collection of projects: a ghost story interactive experience on your phone with Rogue Artists Ensemble (https://www.kaidanproject.
Reading and writing were natural havens for me from an early age. As someone with an overwhelming shyness and anxiety when I was younger, I found solace in storytelling on the page, yet I was equally as comfortable on stage. I began to dance at the same time I learned to write, so words and the body have always been intertwined in my mind. And while interpersonal communication and self-confidence in social situations were hard-earned skills for me, public speaking and performance were natural ways of connecting. My artistic practice started here: where the written word and physical expression overlap and intertwine.
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that teachers and mentors have profound effects on you; they can often teach you a kind of self worth that is vital to functioning as a human, but is something you don’t notice you’re missing until you find it again. But, ultimately, teachers cannot and were never meant to be the bearers of all the knowledge and skills you need. They are human and cannot be everything to all their students. I have always learned more from my peers and from just doing and trying and failing than I ever have from a lecture. Learn and value your teachers, but invest in your community. Ultimately they are the ones you are rising up with, who are inhabiting the same world as you and can help you navigate it.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
My desire is always to find the weird and the unusual in a city, but that’s not everyone’s taste, so I’d probably start with a hike in Griffith Park, starting at Fern Dell park, hiking up to Griffith Observatory to see the Planetarium show (it has always been a secret dream of mine to be the storyteller/narrator of that show!) And then we’d walk back down and get lunch at the Trails Cafe. That night we’d grab drinks at Idle Hour in North Hollywood (the bar shaped like a big barrel).
The week would definitely revolve around what live readings, music and theatre we’d want to see. I’d be checking out what is happening at the Pasadena Playhouse or Center Theatre Group, or some of the companies who don’t have spaces but make amazing work like Chalk Rep or Rogue Artists Ensemble, or dive into the immersive theatre world of LA to see what crazy weird shows are playing that week – No Proscenium and Everything Immersive are good sources for that info. We’d definitely have to check out El Cid in Silverlake for drinks and music, hopefully Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles is playing somewhere (the world’s first LGBTQ mariachi band and are phenomenal). In downtown LA we’d have to check out the LA Flower Market in the morning, get breakfast at the Grand Central Market, walk Olvera Street, admire the architecture of Union Station (and get a drink at the Imperial Western Beer Company), visit the Last Bookstore (maybe catch a reading there in the evening) and get food/drinks at Clifton’s and The Edison.
I love a good walking tour, and there are some great true crime/ghost story tours in downtown LA and Hollywood. Ghost tours are ALWAYS the way to get to know a city – you get a little history and a little heart all in one. A visit to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery is never NOT on my list.
Little Tokyo has amazing restaurants and a ghost tour itself, and the Arts District is always interesting to walk through after you get a drink at Angel City Brewing Company.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City would be the absolute must-not-miss spot. It is the weirdest place on Earth and the most magical. Round out your stay by visiting a beach (Santa Monica Pier is obvious, if you want to go to Malibu be sure to get some fish at Malibu Seafood), and grab some kind of drink you can set on fire at one of the many Tiki bars across the city. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Alright, so let’s jump right in! The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there a person, group, organization, book, etc that you want to dedicate your shoutout to? Who else deserves a little credit and recognition in your story?
In the world of theater, I’d shoutout the core artists at the now defunct little black box theatre I joined when I first moved to LA. Laura Lee Bahr, Taylor Ashbrook, Jeff Folschinsky and many other welcomed me in, mentored me, let me make weird little art that often failed. Do not underestimate the power of having a safe space to create. Laura Lee is also a brilliant novelist now (http://www.lauraleebahr.com/), Taylor Ashbrook is a prolific director and writer, and Jeff Folschinsky is a sound designer and writer whose consistent outpouring of work is mind boggling. He has a podcast coming out soon: https://meaninglessminutiapodcast.com/ And of course everyone at Rogue Artists Ensemble (https://www.rogueartists.org/) who brought me into the fold.
In the world of fiction, everyone at the PEN America Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2016 made me into a prose writer. I credit them for getting me to a point where finishing my book felt attainable. Novelist and teacher Alex Espinoza (https://www.alexespinoza.com/) and writer/inspiration Amanda Fletcher (https://www.amandafletcher.me/) especially…all the love.
Spite and Malice: photo by Molly Rice Scare LA: photo courtesy of Scare LA