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on religious anger, authorial archives, & the magic of writing longhand: kelsey mckinney in conversation with jeanna kadlec
You may know Kelsey McKinney as one of the group of staffers who famously quit Deadspin after being told to stick to sports by their private equity owners.
You may also know her as the author of God Spare the Girls, a novel featuring a sister relationship which tackles hypocrisy in an evangelical megachurch.
I know Kelsey from ex-evangelical Twitter, and also because we are, as folks in these parts say, “agent siblings” (we are both represented by the illustrious Dana Murphy). But it’s more the small town, church lady shit neither of us can quite shake that sparked our friendship: in response to my tweets about how much I loved Cool Whip, Kelsey slid into my DMs with the offer of a recipe for her favorite Cool Whip pie.
Kelsey joined me over Zoom from her home in Washington D.C. to talk everything from how growing up evangelical informed her creative process to the necessity of writing community to her astrological synastry with her book baby.
This interview has been edited for length
Jeanna Kadlec: So just to kick us off, I love to ask folks to introduce themselves to the newsletter readers. Kelsey, my friend, how would you introduce yourself?
Kelsey McKinney: I’m Kelsey McKinney. I'm a co-founder of a site called Defector.com, which is a sports blog, but I almost never write about sports for it. I'm the author of a book that just came out called God Spare the Girls.
JK: Short and sweet. I have been so stoked to talk to you about this book for so long. But to set us up first: What is spirituality to you now?
KM: I knew that this question was coming, and it's still hard for me to answer. A lot of my upbringing was heavily religious, and what I mistook as spirituality was actually emotional manipulation. So there's a weird space in my brain where I view this kind of extreme emotional response as a quote-unquote “spirituality” when I don't think now, as an adult, I actually believe that at all.
I think, for me, a sense of awe is what I consider to be the feeling of spirituality — like when you turn a corner and the whole world is laid out before you and you let out this deep breath, that is what it feels like for me. Then, in practice, my communication with greater beings is much more flexible than it's ever been. So I don't have a super solid and tight practice.
JK: Which also sounds like a very healthy and healing response, not to put those words on you, but like a very reasonable response to what you’ve described as the rigidity that you grew up with.
KM: Right, and it's been interesting. I think when I started working on this novel four years ago, I had a lot of resentment toward the church and a lot of fury — this kind of deep seated anger. My therapist told me I needed to focus on it and work through it throughout the process, and I got to the point where I could say, this was a really terrible space for me in these five ways. But it was also really humanizing and helpful for me in these other separate ways, and I think that that has helped me a lot, to be more open about who knows what truth is.
JK: That makes so much sense. To set the stage a little more explicitly, could you say just a little bit about the religion that you explicitly grew up in?
KM: I grew up non-denominational Christian, which is a nice way of saying evangelical, but not Baptist, in Texas.
JK: Yes, oh my god, it is a nice way of saying evangelical, but not Baptist!
KM: It’s the only way I've ever thought of to explain it to people where it's like, most of the beliefs are the same as Baptists, but we were fine with the dancing?
I grew up believing a lot of really conservative things. [We had] really strict doctrinal beliefs — like, if you don't believe these exact things, you won't go to heaven. I feel like for me, my relationship to the church in general was almost academic. I was obsessed with the Bible and, as it was a denominational church, we were constantly like close reading everything.
JK: I want to go back to what you mentioned about anger. We share a lot of the same kind of evangelical background, and I wanted to ask what the process was like to get to the point where you felt like that anger toward the church was something that could be a catalyzing space for creativity. Like, how did anger connect to your creative process? Was it even a conscious thing?
KM: I’ve never been a cannonballer at a pool party. I take steps, always. I’m slowly easing myself into the pool. In a lot of ways, I also slowly eased myself out of the church and Christianity. I kept making decisions that weren't conscious, but that were slowly taking me further and further away. I would say I wasn't, like, [aware that I was] standing outside of the pool of Christianity until I was in late college. And at that point, I felt really dumb in a way that I felt like I had made a lot of decisions that I wouldn't make now. I looked back and I thought, oh, I was just in this pool and I had no idea I was in there. Now that I'm standing up here, how do I know that I'm not in a different pool? Once I was outside of it, I immediately felt a lot of anger because I felt like I had been betrayed. I also felt really frustrated because I didn't know what to believe, and every coping mechanism I had was: Talk to a pastor. Pray. Use the Bible. I was like, I'm fucked.
I had no idea what to do. I was like that for a few years, just spinning around in a circle. Then I started going to therapy, which was very useful for me. I’ve had clinical depression my whole life. I also was medicated for the first time, and those two things were extremely helpful to me, to be able to move past direct anger and into processing.
When I started working on God Spare the Girls, I started it just from a place of pure creativity and not one of capitalism or commercialism. I was thinking, OK, this is just a way to become a better writer and to think differently about my work. In non-fiction, a lot of my work is about communicating information and not necessarily about creating feelings or building out spaces. So I started practicing doing those things, and then the more I practiced, the more I was like, oh, this is getting out of hand, right? I was like, I have three yellow pads and now we have something going on here that is untenable for me to just continue doing without a plan.
KM: I'm trying to think about how to answer your question about transitioning anger into creative work, because I think there's a lot of pressure when you're angry to use it. Right? Like in the same way that coaches do in sports. They're like, oh, you're having a terrible time, really going through something, like put it into your sport —
JK: Redirect it, transform it.
KM: I think that's really valuable when you can do it. I don't think I could.
For me, to get to the point that I was able to work creatively in this space, I had to [be able to] hold the anger in my hand safely [so] that it was not destroying me. It was also just time.
JK: That’s a really excellent point, is the pressure, the cultural discomfort with anger, the church's discomfort with anger — especially women's anger — and this idea that It has to have a productive function. That’s not necessarily true.
KM: I think I'm going to be angry maybe forever, you know? Like there’s a very primate aspect to anger, but it is not as controllable as some of the more, I would say, “easier” emotions — for me personally — to handle. So, I mean, [writing] this helped, but it didn't fix the fact that I'm mad.
JK: It’s interesting to hear you talking about therapy and processing anger, but still absolutely being furious — which are very relatable things that I hear talked a lot about when it comes to writing memoir, not necessarily as much with fiction. And I know that the book is not in any way auto-fiction, but obviously the setting [of the evangelical church] is still a very personal thing.
KM: Like, this book is fake, right? I often forget that I made up these people and they're not real! But the questions in it are true.
Look, if you're going to spend this much time with any project creatively, you have to really care about the core tenants of what you're working on. So the questions of, what do you believe? Who gets to decide what truth is? Who maintains power in spaces of people's personal relationships with their faith? are all the ones that are really intimate to me. So even though it's not a memoir, the questions at the heart of it kind of are.
JK: One hundred percent. I hate the idea of universalism, but those kinds of questions are so relevant and so prescient for our culture right now — for a culture that's so saturated in Christianity, even when it doesn't think it's saturated in Christianity, and that's so impacted by this particular brand of evangelicalism and by things like religious freedom bills, and the questions that are in your book are really at the heart of a lot of very pressing issues in this country.
So, like you said, the set up is fiction. But as with all good fiction, the questions are meaningful and are deeply relatable.
KM: Thank you.
JK: And I did want to ask something that kind of came up when you were describing like that. This really started as a purely experimental, joyful process for you, and I wanted to ask if your process is different with fiction than with nonfiction.
KM: I make this joke a lot, that to me, all writing is the same. The way that I write my tweets is the way that I write my blog. I'm a much heavier improviser than I am a drafter. I just sit at my computer and type words into a file.
But I do think the difference with fiction and non-fiction is 1) that you control everything and 2) that you just have the time with it. So like any nonfiction, except for book length, you're working on a really tight deadline and usually, a deadline that is timely. Right? So it’s like, if this doesn't come in quickly, it can't run. The longest I had ever worked on something, lead time wise at a magazine, was three months. I spent four years here [with God Spare the Girls].
So the work is totally different because you're working at a broad level and also a sentence level. Does this word mean what I think it means? Do I need these adverbs? I also work by hand a lot more in fiction than I do in nonfiction because of that timely aspect. I've always written better by hand, mainly because I can't read my own handwriting, so it's almost like a double drafting process where I write and then I type what I think it says into my computer.
JK: That's so real. I also strongly prefer to write by hand first when possible, because there's a magic to that, just some kind of automatic flow from brain to pen that doesn't necessarily, at least for me, translate to the computer.
KM: I think you're right. There's also a real temptation in the computer, for me, to be like, it's done. But I can write off to the side [longhand] as I'm going, like, this is bad, then circle it and come back and fix it later, which is useful.
JK: There's a lot more room for the marginalia and the self-editing and notes.
KM: Yeah, and nobody can read it and judge me if even I can't read it. How is anyone else going to make sense of it?
JK: So, this is slightly off topic, but I have been thinking so much lately about the digital and how with so many writers primarily working on computers — so much is going to change what authorial archives are.
KM: Oh my God, I think about this all the time.
JK: Yeah, right? Even writing so much by hand, I still throw out so many of my drafts and notes because I don't have space for it all in my tiny ass New York apartment.
KM: In college, I had a good job, and I worked at the Ransom Center [at University of Texas-Austin], which is a big archival library. It’s incredible. I joke about how nobody can read my handwriting, but there are people whose whole job is to try and decipher what people's writing says in [those] archives.
The time I think about this the most is that my relationship with our agent is much more intimate than it is professional. I am very honest about a lot of feelings that I have with her, which is very useful for me. But every time I'm emailing her something that’s like, deranged, I remember that all of David Foster Wallace’s emails are printed in the Ransom. And every time I'm like, oh my God, if I ever write anything like actually big matters and someone acquires my archive, they're going to get all of my emails that are just like me emailing clickable links to Dana and being like, ha ha, which terrible son are you?
JK: But also, that's the other piece of it — how the digital things that are archived, like we all have so much more to sift through.
KM: Right. Good luck!
So, at the Ransom Center, they have Tom Stoppard's archive, and he is notorious for how he's supposed to send a box every six months to keep up the archiving, and he will just sweep everything off the table into a box and mail it in. So they open it, and there's a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in there. And they're like, do we archive this? Is this important? What does this mean? Which has always been fascinating to me: as much as you try to self-curate your archive, at the end of the day, someone else gets to decide whether it's important or not. It's not up to me. It's not up to you. Even though I print out my good articles and put them in a box because I'm like, these are the good ones.
JK: These are the ones I would like you to keep!
KM: Please don't read my blogs. Please don't find my three page railway station box.
JK: I was just thinking — I talk about the fanfiction I used to write in my book, and my editor asked if I would actually list my fandoms in the chapter, and I was like Jenny! Absolutely the fuck not!
KM: Not over my dead body.
JK: On a slightly different note — have you had any particularly magical creative moments this year?
KM: I feel like most of the writing I do is like in my brain, like I'm not actually writing most of the time. It's like I'm just thinking, which is how I end up with like seven thousand iPhone notes that are like, consider chapter two, but backward. And I'm like, what does that mean? There's a lot of like kind of cryptic work happening just in the background of my thoughts a lot.
So it was interesting when I knew that you were going to ask that question, because I thought a lot about, what does my creativity look like? and how does it work? I feel like my creativity in general is much more mundane than I wish it was right. I wish that I was like, oh, yeah. I went to my historically wealthy family’s cabin in Vermont for three weeks and had this revelation.
JK: I think that's such an important note, though, on what creativity can look like, because I think you're also hitting on a different conversation, which is the input versus output conversation, and how much people prioritize the output piece of that. It’s just as much the downtime, as it were and the quiet — the thinking and the shower time and the taking walks and the processing. And so much of writing is all of that.
KM: Especially before the book, I thought that creative written work was this really solitary process where people were just slicing open their arm and pulling out of it a fully formed novel. That's what I thought was happening. Throughout this process, I've realized the value of talking to other people about the things that you're working on and trying to receive input from outside of yourself earlier. So instead of being like, this is really sacred to me and I'm keeping it really carefully hidden, I've been trying to open that door a little earlier to say like, please come in here and help me.
JK: I hear that completely— like the myth of the solitary and isolated artist genius in the tower. It’s such a profoundly damaging one.
KM: It's boring! It's boring. Like Rapunzel-esque. I don't want to braid my hair all day. I want to go to the bar.
JK: Be with your people, be with other writers. Troubleshoot things with other creative people you trust. Definitely choose other people who will respect your process, but like — I don’t know what I would do without writing community. Projects like the one you have written are hard to write and then hard to be promoting, and that’s not something to do alone. That’s something to bring your people along for.
KM: Once you realize you're working for a publication, the end goal is for other people to consume it. That means that you have to start thinking about what other people think, but also what other people need from this, and how can I make sure that I can include that too? Your project starts being more about it, itself, and less about you.
I compare it a lot to raising a child — which, I am not a mother, so maybe I should not be doing this. But I do think that there is a point where you have to be like, the book doesn't want this anymore. So even though I want it for the book, my Book Child does not want to play soccer, so we're going to let the book quit, you know? And you need a community to do that. You can't do it on your own because on your own, you just force your own bullshit into the book constantly.
JK: That’s a very good way of looking at it — like, the book is not your offspring that you're sending into the world vulnerably, but the book is an independent, grown thing that gets to go live away from you.
KM: I said that I sent my book to college, and now everyone else has an opinion on it. I'm like, this is terrible. I love her so much.
JK: And she’s a Cancer?
KM: Thank God, yeah.
JK: So, you know, there are just lots of feelings that are going to come up when reading this book. That's just what's gonna happen.
KM: I have a cancer moon, so I was very happy when the book was a Cancer. The feelings book is my feelings.
JK: It’s appropriate. We love to see it.
KM: We do love to see it.