For this third installment in the “Writers in the Trenches” series, I interviewed Massachusetts-based essayist Cindy Zelman, author of the CNF chapbook What’s in a Butch’s Purse? I met Cindy when she sat down across from me in one of the Creative Nonfiction workshops at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. I was attending my second residency, and Cindy was a new student. Within minutes of the workshop’s start, I could tell that Cindy’s wry, no-nonsense comments were going to shake up the group, in a good way. She pulled no punches. I would have been really afraid of her if I hadn’t detected that she also has an incredibly warm heart.
My biggest misfortune in my now 10-year friendship with Cindy occurred the day I was scheduled to read after her at a library in Springfield, Massachusetts. I sat in the audience, nervously clutching a copy of a poignant personal piece that was included in my book, and listened while Cindy read a joyful, riotous essay about one of her romantic escapades with women. Maybe it was the one that talked about U-hauls on a lesbian’s second date, or the one in which a well-known violinist who had caught Cindy’s eye confessed to eating an entire bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups in one sitting. I don’t remember. What I do recall is that many members of the audience were laughing so hard that tears were pouring down their faces, and some were almost falling out of their chairs. When Cindy finished reading, applause echoed around the room.
And then I had to get up and read something about letting go of life’s pain, or whatever.
Without further ado, meet Cindy Zelman.
FRD: Cindy, you work full-time as a business analyst, you head a household, and you are the mom-servant to two cats. Where does writing fit in?
CZ: Sometimes writing doesn’t fit in, at least not in the way we usually think about writing: the activity of sitting down and making words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs and those into essays, stories and books. Often, when you’re this busy, as so many of us are, you need to consider your daily experience, whether mundane or exotic, as the basis for your future writing.
I’ve worked as a business analyst full-time for many years. Everything I experience at work expands my knowledge, not just of the job, but of our time and culture. The experiences also expand my perspective on my personal story and how that connects to the world. In a folder on my computer and in a file in my brain, a book called Cubicle Dweller resides and waits for me to add stories, scenes, characters and dialogue.
I consider the time not writing as research. I think it counts. I hope it’s not cheating.
As for being a cat-mom-servant, well, if Timmy and Mia asked me to stop writing all together, I would. You know as well as I do that whatever a cat wants is what a cat gets.
FRD: You received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2010. Did the MFA program help you focus on your writing life?
CZ: Sometimes you must write to feel like a writer. When I was a student with you at the Solstice MFA program, I wrote daily. I was paying tuition, so I had incentive beyond my desire to become a better writer. Money talks (to me — it was the way I was raised).
FRD: Did that focus last after the program ended?
CZ: I was able to carry the writing motivation for a few years after graduation. During that time, I found myself having essays published, as well as my chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse? But even when I was productive publishing work I’d completed, my productivity related to new material was on a downslope.
Lifestyles change. I was back at work full-time. My mother became ill, and she became the focus. I experienced inevitable writer’s block for a year or two. During those “lean years,” I became lazy, lying on the couch with my cell phone, reading Facebook and the news. Writing was too much effort.
A year ago, things changed again. I have a new job, I’m remodeling the house, I’m not in constant mourning over my mom. I’m in the process of working my way back to my writing self. I’m not producing the quantity of work I did ten years ago as a student, but I keep at it, keep writing in my mind as a goal, actually sit upright at the computer typing words. Throw the cell phone in another room.
FRD: Do you attend writing events or participate in workshops?
CZ: I find connecting with other writers a motivating activity. I went to a one-day writing retreat hosted by The International Women’s Writing Guild this year. That was a great day; it made me feel as though I still belong in the world of writers. Everyone was so welcoming and talented, and they saw me that way, too.
FRD: Your computer is about to die. It’s flashing all kinds of warning signals and you have time to send just one writing file to yourself before you know the hard drive is going to bite the dust. What file do you send, and why?
CZ: Well, first, it’s very stupid to have only one copy of your writing on a hard drive. Print it out. Save it to the cloud, buy an external drive. Don’t be a dumb ass.
FRD: Uh-oh, I think the Cindy Zelman I know on the page has arrived.
CZ: A co-worker once gave me a hard copy of a fantasy story he was writing. I think it had to be twenty pages long. I took it home. At some point, I moved out of the apartment I was in and to a different town. I had forgotten all about his story. A few years later, he asked if I could give him back the copy as it was his only copy. Oh my god, HIS ONLY COPY. I couldn’t find it. I never found it. I told a friend what happened, and she joked, “You lost his opus.” Yes, I lost his opus. Don’t lose your opus because you didn’t back up.
FRD: So, about that file you would send…
CZ: I have purposely procrastinated because this is a difficult question. It’s difficult not because I love all of my work so much, but because it forces me to think about my priorities as a writer. Do I want to save something “serious?” Something humorous? Do I want to save a long essay? Do I want to save one of the few short stories I’ve written that has a sliver of merit? I don’t know.
But give me a minute, let me choose. Ummmm….Well, I would save the short pieces that tend to end up on my blog, The Early Draft. I know you said “one piece” but since these are short pieces, I’m taking the liberty of saving all of them. Why? Because more than anything, the short pieces I write on the fly have more potential to become a book or achieve a quality of writing that is reader-worthy than anything lengthy that I write. I think the quality of my shorter pieces is more consistent. If you must pin me down to one piece, it would be one of the short pieces about my mother, one that shows her in a good light, which means I am more mature than I ever was when she was alive.
FRD: You and I are out having coffee. I push my mug away from me, drop my head down on the table and say, “I’m so discouraged. I can’t write anymore.” Besides telling me that the table is really dirty, and I shouldn’t put my head on it, what do you say to me?
CZ: Okay, before I even answer this question, you got the image of putting your head down on the table from a recent essay I read to you. Don’t deny it!!!!! You remember the one where a date of mine has her head on the table for the entire meal? Thanks for reminding me.
This is what I say to you: Faye, you were born to write. Faye, look at all you have accomplished as a writer. You may be going through a dry spell, but write one sentence for me, then another. Just get out one paragraph. I will do the same on my end. We will encourage each other as writers, because writing can be such a solitary venture. We need friends, and readers, and supporters. Now open your damn laptop, Faye, and write….
FRD: And I’d respond, “I would, Cindy, if you’d stop letting me chat and stop showing me photos of your cats.” OK, back to the interview. The title of your contest-winning chapbook, as we’ve mentioned, is What’s in a Butch’s Purse? So tell us, Cindy. What IS in a butch’s purse?
CZ: I entered a chapbook contest in 2013 that said winners’ books will be published, so since mine was published, I’ve always assumed I was one of the winners. Looking back on it, I never was told I “won” anything, so perhaps I’ve been living in a deluded state of “winner” since the book was published in 2014.
“What’s in a butch’s purse?” you ask. Well, at the time of the writing, I was ten years younger and full of myself because I was super fit (muscular, sinewy) and many women found me attractive. At that time, you’d find things like jewelry my girlfriends had given me (butchy jewelry, not femmy stuff), Chapstick to make sure my lips were soft and luscious (it’s okay to gag here), and ten pounds of loose change (I still used cash in those days). But these days? In my fifties, mostly you will find nasal saline bottles to address that pesky nosebleed issue of mine, Tums for the spicy food issue, Xanax for the anxiety issue, and multiple sets of house and car keys so I don’t get locked out of my house and so I’m never stranded anywhere because I can’t start the car. I don’t feel so sinewy and desirable anymore.
FRD: I might be sorry I asked this question…
CZ: The thing about the butch’s purse is that the phrase is essentially a contradiction. A true butch lesbian doesn’t use a purse. I think I wrote the essay to explore my experience of being caught between two worlds – the world of femininity that women are socialized into versus the authenticity of who I am. The essay is about acceptance of myself as not all that feminine, yet as a gay woman who wants to hold onto some vestiges of femininity. It’s okay to be that kind of woman. There is more than just the purse that I hold onto — I have my hair colored every eight weeks to get out the gray, and I wear dangling earrings to offset my short hair. I dangle like my earrings between two worlds.
FRD: There you go, you have yourself a simile, and I got it out of you. I’d say that qualifies us as writers. Where can readers get your book?
CZ: As for the book itself, it’s now out of print, so I will take the liberty to say What’s in a Butch’s Purse is currently a “rare” book. I have twenty copies or so at my house, plus an e-copy. I also have the file, so I can re-publish the book if I want. The publisher didn’t bring my chapbook along to her new publishing house, which seems to specialize in poetry and lyrical prose, not humor. If anyone is interested, they can leave a comment on my blog and I’ll get in touch.
FRD: What are you working on now?
CZ: My current writing project is to expand that book with additional essays that I’ve written, sort of a Butch’s Purse – Redux. I want to publish a longer book, and I want to see the design of the book utilize a more readable font and a better physical size. I’m nearly done with the content. I’m trying not to rush it, though, because I want a quality book and not something that gets published too soon.
I’m thinking about a hybrid publisher or self-publishing. I think readers will enjoy the expanded version. There’s a new essay about a younger woman in a femmy dress who pins me down on the couch and as butch as I am, I can’t get her off of me.
There’s another essay about four disastrous restaurant outings while I searched for the love of my life. I’ve added some funny essays about my parents, but generally speaking, the book is mainly about my dismally funny romantic escapades.
FRD: I’ll be one of your first readers. I want to thank you for doing this interview, Cindy; I look forward to our next writing coffee and to the expanded version of your book.
CZ: Thank you, Faye, for the opportunity to be interviewed on your blog! I’ve really enjoyed answering your questions.
Cindy Zelman’s Blog, The Early Draft, can be read online here: https://cindyzelman.com/