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Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Kentucky’s Poet Laureate Crystal Wilkinson discusses how each project has its own process and the difference between writing fiction and her new memoir, Perfect Black.

Crystal Wilkinson is the award-winning author of Perfect Black, The Birds of Opulence, Water Street and Blackberries, Blackberries. Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, she is the recipient of a 2021 O. Henry Prize, a 2020 USA Artists Fellowship, and a 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence.

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

In this post, Crystal discusses the natural vulnerability of writing her memoir, Perfect Black, how her process chances from project to project, and more!

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Name: Crystal Wilkinson
Literary agent: Sarah Burnes/Lisa Ekus
Book title: Perfect Black
Publisher: University of Kentucky Press
Expected release date: August 3
Genre/category: Poetry/Memoir/Essay
Elevator pitch for the book: Perfect Black is an inspiring memoir in verse about rural Back girlhood; the survival of sexual trauma, racism and mother-loss. It is a journey toward transformation through deep connections to the land, writing, and love of the ancestors.
Previous titles by the author: The Birds of Opulence, Water Street, Blackberries, Blackberries

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Perfect Black by Crystal Wilkinson

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What prompted you to write this book?

I’ve always written in hybrid forms, but my published books have been fiction. These short forms were an ideal vehicle to lean into my own reality—to explore transformation, exclusion, and belonging.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I can’t say how long it took because some of the poems and essays were written years ago, while others were written once the project was underway. In some ways it was like stacking stones, removing stone, adding stone, carving new stone, until the arc was complete.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

There are always lessons from the publishing process, but mostly our process was smooth from initial contract to editing to publication. The only way it felt different from my other books is that I feel more vulnerable because it’s memoir and I can’t hide as readily as I can in fiction.

Crystal Wilkinson: On The Vulnerability of Memoir Writing

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The process of writing this book made me more vulnerable because so much of it is true. Because of the distillation of the form, again, I feel more exposed than I ever feel in writing fiction.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

In some ways it’s a book of memories about what it was like to grow up in rural Kentucky in the 1970s. I touch on religion, sexual trauma, mental health, socio-political awareness, the black body, and I hope in telling my story that a reader sees reflections of their own lives.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I always fall back on the importance of writing and reading. I quote Ernest Gaines a lot when I’m asked this question. I think it’s really the only answer. When asked for writing advice, he would often smile and lean in close and say, “I’ve got six things. Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.” And that’s it. I think a writer hones and practices both their entire lives.

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