Author Q&A with Chelsea Yates
by Christine Nessler
November 16, 2023
Chelsea Yates is originally from northeast Nebraska. She now lives in the Pacific Northwest and is a writer for the University of Washington. Her essays have appeared in HerStry, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Hear Nebraska, and more.
Tell us about yourself.
As a teenager in Nebraska in the early 1990s, my dream was to sneak onto Pearl Jam’s tour bus, charm Eddie Vedder, and move with him to the Pacific Northwest, living out our days in a cabin in the woods when we weren’t touring the world. Things didn’t work out that way, but I did end up moving to Seattle 12 years ago, and my husband and I have been here ever since. I have a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Nebraska and a master’s in American Studies from the University of Kansas. By day, I’m a content director at the University of Washington.
I began writing personal essays shortly after relocating to Seattle. A lot of my writing explores my Nebraska upbringing and my connection to music. I will forever be indebted to Hear Nebraska, a platform celebrating Nebraska’s arts and music, for giving me a chance to share my early essays with readers and get comfortable telling my stories.
Each piece of nonfiction calls to the writer for one reason or another. What made the story Radio feel important to tell?
My dad died of a stroke in 2008. It was sudden and shocking, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about him. He often shows up in my storytelling. My dad wasn’t the easiest person to get along with, but he always supported me in my writing. In grade school, he took my sister and me to a statewide Young Authors contest, and he’d help me with writing assignments. He would drive me to his office after dinner so I could type my stories on his computer. Sometimes he’d chime in with suggestions. We co-wrote a Choose Your Own Adventure-type story this way. It’s still in a box at my mom’s house.
Our last conversation was a phone call a few days before his stroke. I was interviewing for a job at a Houston art museum and was waiting at the airport to fly back home. The interview had gone really well, and my dad was so excited for me. He made me feel on top of the world that day. I am grateful to have that memory to hold on to.
How did your experience with Hurricane Ike change you?
Looking back, the initial fear and loneliness I felt during the hurricane mirrored the grief I was grappling with. I had relocated to Houston shortly after my dad’s passing, and I didn’t know anyone there. I thought that the change would make the sadness go away, but it didn’t.
Once the hurricane passed, I witnessed so much generosity in my small circle and across the city. New colleagues checked in with me regularly, I got to know my neighbors, and I started making new friends. In this way, Ike helped alleviate my loneliness at a time when I really needed it. I eventually started talking about my depression with a friend, which led me to seek help from a grief counselor—one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What do you hope your readers take from Radio?
I hope Radio reminds us of the inevitability of sudden change and life’s fragility, but also of the power of love. And maybe it will inspire a few readers to call their parents to say, “I love you.” That would make me smile.
How do you incorporate writing into your daily life?
I do a lot of writing and editing for my day job, which is great but can make it difficult to have the energy to write for myself later at home. I try to remind myself that work writing is writing—it allows me to practice writing and build skills pretty much daily. As for personal writing, I used to pressure myself to write daily, but these days I try to give myself grace. Some days even ten minutes of freewriting feels like an achievement. When I’m feeling really burnt out, I’ll try to do “writing-adjacent” activities—reading, exploring new literary magazines, reviewing calls for submissions, organizing drafts, or cleaning up my online portfolio—anything to keep me in orbit if I’m not feeling particularly creative.
What words of advice can you give to anyone interested in writing nonfiction?
Make time for writing and writing-adjacent activities as much as you are able. If you wait to find time, you never will. There’s something magical in the action of pen on paper, so if you can, practice freewriting by hand. Lynda Barry’s techniques from her book What It Is are my personal favorites for freewriting about memories. The idea for Radio stemmed from one of her creative exercises.
And find a writing partner or group—someone (or people) you trust who also writes, who understands the thrill of rushing from the shower to jot down the perfect opening sentence for a new story, and who knows how humbling it feels to send out submission after submission in the hopes of getting published. Offer feedback on each other’s work. Take walks and talk about writing. Get together to sit at the kitchen table and write. Celebrate each other’s successes. Once a year my writing partner and I rent a cabin (not unlike the one I imagined Eddie Vedder and I would share), and we write. Neither of us can really explain why, but we both know that writing is something we need to do to feel complete.
What do you think of when you hear the term, “The Good Life?”
Pulling over somewhere between Omaha and Norfolk on Highway 275 to watch a Nebraska sunset. They are my favorite sunsets: they remind me of family and home.
Chelsea’s creative nonfiction “Radio” is available in Issue #13 ~ Autumn 2023.
Thank you, Chelsea, for allowing us to share your story with our readers and for taking the time to answer our questions. We wish you the best!