Cynn Chadwick—Can’t Help Telling Stories

by Marie Hefley

Cynn Chadwick

Scarf trailing and hair flying, Cynn Chadwick blows into the Asheville Book Exchange, a place she wears like a comfy old sweater. The two-story space, equipped with both wine and coffee bars, is filled with book-lined shelves and groupings of overstuffed and under-stuffed chairs and sofas. These cozy nooks are well loved by the writers, book club members, computer users, and folks who hang out there over a cup or glass. We hug, she smiles and orders a white wine. Her cheeks are pink from the crisp winter air.

“No snow,” she says, visibly disappointed. Cynn loves snow, and Christmas. And the New York Giants. And painting landscapes. And storytelling. She believes that “stories are our one true universal truth, our connecting point. Everybody’s got a story.”

At one time instantly identifiable on the UNC Asheville campus by her long, blonde Janis Joplin curls and blue jean/button-down cotton shirt ensemble, Cynn, now past fifty, still wears the blue jeans and shirts, but sports a soft, sophisticated, wavy do, set off by a chic scarf and reading glasses that beg a second look. She has grown into herself and accepted the confidence and sense of peace that come with finding her place in the world and feeling more than OK with it.

Cynn exudes, more than anything, a sense of intimacy, a sense that whatever she says has no artifice or filtering or concern for political correctness, or worry about how the listener will receive it. She doesn’t blurt, but reveals herself and her innermost thoughts without measure, yet with a sincerity and sense of truthfulness that makes you believe every word and want to hear even more.

No matter the question, her answer sounds like a story–not a fake or fantastical story, but a narrative that starts slowly, builds, and ends with a more than satisfying dénouement. Every thought, every reflection on writing or the literary world, is a gem of a tale, with a character, usually herself as a cautionary figure, venturing forth through uncharted territory, finding a nugget of truth, and moving on.

Stirring Splenda into my decaf, I lean forward in my straight-backed, pay-attention wooden chair and listen as Cynn takes me along on her journey into the world of writers and writing.

We tell stories because we can’t help it. We tell stories because they save us.

— James Carroll

For years, these words have been Cynn’s touchstone. They describe her essence and raison d’être. Stories have been a part of her life for as long as she can remember. They fill her up, make her happy, inspire her, complete her.

“I’ve always been a storyteller in my head. My Barbies acted out my stories,” Cynn tells me. “What happens in my mind now is like what happened when I played with my dolls. The only difference is if I were doing that now I’d be in a home.” She laughs. “Storytelling was always part of my consciousness even though writing came later. You have no idea how many stories I have in my head. I’ll die before running out of stories.”

From childhood, Cynn was a voracious reader. “Dad read to me when I was growing up. Not kid stories, but Last of the Mohicans, Drums Along the Mohawk, Wind in the Willows.” Hearing books such as these convinced Cynn that she, too, could make up and write down stories that were credible and compelling—stories that others would want to read.

At age thirteen, when her mother gave her a blank journal with a suggestion to write down her ideas, Cynn began filling it with “lofty things, like poems about war and a fly dying.” She kept writing, even into her ill-fated early college career.

Cynn describes the bumps in that road. “Instead of going to classes, I used to go to the track and play the ponies with my college guidance counselor. He weighed about four hundred pounds and smoked cigars.”

After flunking out, she married an Army man, had two sons, got divorced, and struggled through a series of jobs to raise her children alone. At age thirty, she went back to college, earning a B.A., M.A., and M.F.A. In her typical off-the-cuff way of making a point, she says, “Otherwise, I would have become a homeless, crack-addicted prostitute in Weehawken, New Jersey.” College gave her the skills to make a living, but, even more, empowered her. “College opened doors, presented opportunities, focused my attention, made me brave.”

Prior to her M.F.A. days, Cynn was an essayist and short story writer and published several pieces in small literary magazines. As she continued working on stories during her M.F.A. program, she completed a series that “started leaning on each other.” She adds, “I realized I had something beyond the ‘collection’ I was working on. [I had] my first novel, Cat Rising.”

She also learned a lot about writers and writing. She now generously shares her insights with young writers. “They are terribly vulnerable, in the dark. Their ego is in the way. They want it fast and won’t take advice.” Being Cynn, however, she goes on to give advice anyway. “I always give a caveat: it’s hard, have patience, it takes a long time, you’re going to get a lot of rejection. The obvious advice is true. Listen and save yourself the heartache. Listen better to your mentors.”

Another epiphany from her M.F.A. days is “don’t fight editors. You should listen to every comment. It may not be right but you should consider it. There is no one way, no right path. Listen and make your own choices.”

Cynn both applies and teaches these lessons with great energy and enthusiasm at UNC Asheville, where she has been a member of the Literature and Language Department since 1996. Her classes include academic writing and poetry, but her first love is fiction. She teaches all levels from Freshman Composition, one of her favorites, to a Master’s level course.

In her teaching, Cynn emphasizes craft. A former carpenter, she sees craft, whether in words or wood, as an essential set of tools, “the cool stuff” she can use to build the framework that supports the characters as they play out their–not the author’s–story.

She outlines how she builds onto that framework. “The most important part is to be able to start with an idea and know when it’s the idea. I’ve had ideas that stopped, but I have to trust that the idea is there and it could be something.” To help find that something, she asks herself one question: “And then what happened?” That leads her where her characters want to go. “For me, it’s like a movie in my head. I write it as it happens. Sometimes I hear a voice that’s clear. It feels mystical, makes it feel cliché, but it’s the only way I can describe it. It was always more intentional before, but now I really feel I hear the characters speak.”

The characters determine their story, even if it’s different from the one Cynn pictures. “This happens,” she said, “when you write for a long time or have been in the story for a long time. You just give it over to them.” She tells me about working on a scene in one of her books. “In my mind, a young woman’s uncle would be on the other side of a tree, but instead, it was a young guy with red curls, like a lumberjack. I didn’t expect him. I didn’t know who the hell he was. There was no uncle, just the young man. What inspired it was mostly the female character. She doesn’t need an old man–she needs a young lover. It was her dream, not mine, coming through.”

Cynn draws inspiration for her characters and stories from real life, either hers or someone else’s. “I don’t spend time talking about the ‘rising of the Muse’ and writer’s block,” she says. Stories “just appear during magical, mystical times.” Such as? “I get up in the middle of the night…I get a vision or a voice. Those kinds of things always happen to me.”

When asked what she thinks is the most important part of writing, without hesitation she says, “Editing. Once the story is down on the page, it’s time to make everything perfect. I edit and edit. My manuscript is done in the third or fourth draft. I read my last chapter before writing again, like Hemingway.” She then summarizes her writing process. “I need an idea, I edit, I need someone to bounce things off of, even if it’s voices I hear in the shower.”

In earlier years, Cynn wrote from 4:30 to 6:30 every morning and edited at night, revising and revising again until she got the pages as perfect as she could. She needed “giant chunks of time…all summer, over a break. I always had writing times, in blocks, but now I feel like Stevie Wonder at the keyboard. I sit there and just go.” She laughs in that cackle familiar to those passing by her office at UNC Asheville. “I always say something in these interviews that I wish I hadn’t.”

Cynn can write at any time, but needs to be in her home office. Her favorite time is “in the middle of the night, in dreamtime. I used to think I could step away and come back but now I know I can. I can be cooking dinner, get an idea, go write a scene down and then go back to cooking again. I know I’m not going to lose anything.”

Along with Cynn’s changed writing habits, she’s also changed her view on publishing and being published. A veteran of the traditional publishing process, she has embraced the worlds of self-publishing and e-books as a new, liberating way to bring her work to the market.

During our conversation, she reflects on her experiences with traditional publishers. “It takes so long, so much time. It consumes me. Everything’s about the book. I don’t make [a lot of] money, but it won’t let me go.” She smiles broadly. Her eyes light up. “My paintings make me happy. I can do one in a day. I feel creative. But when I finish this book I’ll be working on another. I have two more waiting to be edited. I want to say, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care.’ People I know do things…go hiking…but I’m not good at balancing.”

While believing that traditional publishing gives “a credibility, credentials” and pronounces a “work worthy of publishing,” it is a grueling process. “I’ve never had a New York Times bestseller,” Cynn says, “but I have had the experience of what anybody who’s published traditionally has. I’ve been with two different houses, have done book touring, readings, all the marketing stuff you do for a publisher.”

Cynn’s first publisher, Haworth Press, went out of business. Other houses wanted to pick up Babies, Bikes and Broads, the third book in her Cat Rising series, but, because she had already published the first two books, she wanted all three to go as a package. She found a publisher, Bywater Books, who was willing to do that, but Haworth held the copyrights.

“I had to get the copyrights back,” Cynn says. “Negotiations, threatening back and forth. I got the print copyrights back and republished the first two books and then two more. I asked Bywater Books about Kindle. They didn’t know. I knew we were all losing a lot of money. They didn’t own my e-copyrights, only print. I started investigating.”

What she found out was startling. “Royalties are important. Print royalties are usually eight percent. I get sixteen. E-royalties through my publisher would have been twenty-five percent, and the publisher would set the price at about $12.99.” She shakes her head. “Who would buy that? Especially for authors like me? I’m not prominent.” Cynn found she could publish her own e-books and keep seventy percent of the price she set.

She couldn’t pass that up. She took her e-copyrights, hired back the team of copywriter, typesetter, and cover designer from Hayworth Press, and in January 2011 published all five of her books as e-books. When she had enough money, she formed her own publishing company, Napping Porch Press, and self-published her books as Print on Demand hard copies. In six months, she sold three hundred hard-copy books on four titles and twenty-three hundred e-books on five titles.

Cynn says she feels much happier now that she has control of publishing her books and is making some “real money” from her work. Getting there, however, took her through her lowest point as a writer. “I was spending all my time writing about other people,” she says, “doing what a publisher wants, driving to see people in Atlanta, and making jackshit. I got a handful of great things, and got to do cool things, but wondered why. Now I don’t care because I’m making money–not a lot– but it’s gratifying. It shouldn’t be about the money, but now it is.”

It’s also about recognition. Cynn grew pensive. “I write really happy books, with happy endings. I want everything to work out OK.” She shakes her head, smiling. “But when I look at what books win awards…”

She tells of being nominated for a Lambda award. With only two minutes allotted for her reading, Cynn chose a scene of two parents talking about their gay son, a scene she thought the audience would relate to, and they did.

Next, a female novelist competing against Cynn for the award took the podium. “She read the word ‘vagina’ about seventeen times.” Cynn laughed raucously. “This is really funny. She described it, what it looked like. I said ‘I’ll never win the award. She will.’  And she did, because certain kinds of seriousness, of intensity when talking about sex or coming out–this is what gets literary awards.”

Cynn goes on, “I write from the inside world out, not the outside world in. My story didn’t have horrible things in it, but books about horrible things get awards. I’m afraid to write them. I don’t want to write them. I want to write books that make me happy because life can be hard and we go through stuff.” She looks up at the paint peeling off the patched ceiling. “I won’t work for a clever way to say a terrible thing or a terrible way to say a clever thing. My fear is that as an educated, story-oriented lover of language, hardworking and vigilant, I will never be as successful because I won’t approach those subjects that scare me. Or so I think!”

Hours have passed. Cynn wraps the scarf around her neck and stuffs her coat under her arm. I follow her, winding through a small alcove filled with well-stocked bookshelves to a steep staircase with too-tiny steps. Once again back down on the first floor of the Book Exchange, I join her in ordering another glass of wine to savor along with a leisurely free-form discussion, interrupted only to run out to feed the meter. More about writing, vacations, snow, Christmas—and being happy.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Program and Managing Editor of this publication, first studied creative writing in 2006 in a class taught by Cynn Chadwick in the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC-Asheville. Like Cynn, Marie is a Jersey girl and was a non-traditional student, starting graduate school in her fifties. Cynn’s enthusiasm, openness to new adventures, and gentle guiding hand have inspired Marie to continue on with her writing and to dare to begin writing a novel born of her Master’s thesis, a project mentored by Cynn.