I Was A Teenage DominatrixInterview by Will Tupper
Writer Shawna Kenney is which of the following?
A. The Johnny Depp of Journalism
B. The Lois Lane of whips and chains
C. The living embodiment of your “average” Chuck Palahniuk protagonist
D. Author of the award-winning, tell (almost) all memoir, I Was A Teenage Dominatrix, as well as the just-released look at popular celebrity character hustlers, Imposters
The answer obviously is:
E. All of the above
East-coast punk with a pen turned west-coast punk with a tan (and then back again), Shawna’s story is the embodiment of Joseph Campbell’s prime directive. “Follow your bliss,” he said. And she most certainly has.
Shunning major publishers, embracing “the other,” and living to tell the tale. That’s Shawna Kenney in a nutshell. She chronicles the lives behind the costumed characters who wander unauthorized up and down Hollywood Blvd, charging passerby for pictures. She earns an MFA in creative writing. She teaches the next generation. There’s not a whole lot that she doesn’t do.
Including being interviewed by writers who’ve long admired her, wondering how she does all which she has. In this, our second conversation together, I got some enlightening answers.
Will Tupper: Shawna, I’ve admired your work for almost seven years, ever since I read your memoir and we did an interview together for the now-defunct Chicago magazine, Punk Planet. But for those who aren’t as lucky as I’ve been… Shawna, who are you again?
Shawna Kenney: I’m a writer/journalist/author/photographer spawned from the punk scene and zine culture, raised in the bowels of Southern Maryland in the shadow of Washington, DC.
Will: You started out east, and then headed west to Hollywood. After that, you packed your bags and came back east, to North Carolina of all places, to get your MFA in creative writing. You’d done a ton of publishing already, an award-winning book and everything. What was your MFA motivation, and why North Carolina?
Shawna: After my book came out, I was an invited guest speaker to a couple of college classes in LA, and loved the interaction. I found out I needed an advanced degree to teach in most places, so I started researching what that would involve. I had no interest in taking the GRE, so limited my choices to good programs that accepted students based on writing samples, in places where I thought I could live. I was accepted at Antioch in LA, too, but there was no teaching component there, and I felt I really needed the teaching assistant experience. UNCW offered me a nice package, so even though I loved LA, figured I could take a sabbatical from the city and live on another coast in a quiet town for awhile. Living in the south has been quite educational for me. And now that I’m done with school, I’m still trying to decide whether to stay here or go back to LA, or whether I can actually pull off the bi-coastal thing. I like having a house with a porch and swimming in warm ocean water. Plus now I have a community of artist and writer friends here. Wherever I go I’m missing someone, it seems.
Will: Could you tell me a bit about life as an MFA student? What was the application process like, and did you ever feel as though you already knew a lot of what you were being taught? I ask that based on my own experience as an undergrad. My classmates were excited about their first submissions to publications, and I was sitting there thinking, “Yup. Been there, done that.”
Shawna: Luckily I had friends to help me with the application process (letters of recommendation, choosing a writing sample, etc.) My family is very working class—my sister and I sort of had to navigate the college thing on our own—so there was no one I could turn to there.
I was mainly going to grad school for the piece of paper that would allow me to teach in addition to my writing career, but I did learn about craft and was exposed to writers I wouldn’t have discovered on my own. I mean, I hope I’ll never think I’m beyond learning new stuff. It was weird at first…I had been in the “real writing world” but wasn’t used to talking about writing so much! It’s just something I did and felt compelled to do and never examined too much. Talking about it and analyzing it felt strange at first. I also realized that some writers I met in LA were on the opposite end of the academic spectrum—worrying more about selling or promoting than the actual writing, which can be annoying, too.
There was a bit of weirdness in grad school. You don't have to have a degree to be a writer but I definitely felt like some people in grad school thought so. Some never submitted a thing for publication or did any readings because they were waiting to graduate (or were they just in school because mommy & daddy wanted them to have an advanced degree?) I couldn't figure it out. In my world writers write and school can't make you what you already are or aren't.
Also, I may not have fit in as well as others because one: I was a bit older than most of my classmates (I started at 33, many were in their 20s) and two: I had no interest in publishing in literary journals. Why write for publications that no one reads, and for free?! And three: I already had a book out. And an agent. Some people said they found it strange that I was there...maybe they thought those things are the answers to all the questions of the universe or something, but I'm still searching...
One big complaint I heard from classmates was that the business of writing/publishing was never discussed in our classes, so I did feel very grateful for my experiences in the field.
Will: I Was A Teenage Dominatrix is a memoir about your college life as student by day, dominatrix by night. As you met readers, did you ever feel you failed to live up to the expectations they had of you based on the book?
Shawna: I felt that way on my first book tour. A couple of people said things like, “You don’t look like how I thought you would.” And I had one bookstore owner even suggest I do the reading in a dom outfit, so at first I thought, “Wow, I must be really disappointing to people.” But then I had to remind them and myself that that’s what my book was about—me becoming comfortable with ME and not some idea that society has of what a woman should look like or what an (ex) dominatrix should dress like or whatever.
After the book came out, I was asked to write the forwards for and contribute to numerous S&M and sex-related books and to write columns for sex magazines, and I turned almost all of them down. Nothing against those books—they’re necessary and I am pro everything sex-positive and not anti-porn at all, but I knew aligning myself with more sex industry-related stuff would keep me boxed into one genre. I identify more as a punk or pop culture writer than some sexpert, but I’d rather not label myself if I don’t have to. (I think that maybe answers your next question?)
Will: These days, part of your career as a freelancer is working as a teacher. I think that’s just so cool. After you got your MFA, was it hard to find work teaching writing?
Shawna: I didn’t want a full time teaching career, but thought it’d be a nice fit for freelance writing. UCLA Extension was one place where I’d been a guest speaker, but turned down as an instructor because of my lack of credentials. It was really cool to go back and apply with MFA-in-hand, and to be offered the opportunity to teach for them. I did a semester in person and now mainly teach personal essay online for them. I also teach basic English classes at a local technical college and photojournalism at a juvenile detention center. The juvies (as I lovingly refer to them) are my favorite, and I don’t even think I needed an MFA to teach them, but it’s an opportunity that fell into my lap after teaching at a summer arts camp here in NC. They are kids who have been kicked out of high school for various reasons, and they are the most unpredictable-yet-creative people I have ever met. They are not spoiled college kids. They remind me a lot of the guys I grew up with. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how doing a zine and skateboarding and going to punk shows probably kept me out of a lot of trouble in high school. These kids—these young adults—don’t seem to have people around showing them what’s possible or what’s going on outside of high school.
We made a newspaper last semester. This semester we’re doing blogs, which they seem to love. It’s hard on me because some disappear to other programs or due to running away or going back to school, and new ones appear as the school semester goes on, and I have to adapt to whatever is thrown my way. They hate almost everything, and have been disappointed by so many things in life already, and I am trying to get them to be critical thinkers within this “system” that I don’t even like or agree with on many levels. I am only there two days a week, an hour and a half at a time, but it’s the biggest challenge and most educational experience I’ve ever had.
Will: You also teach a course called Writing 401.3: Writing the Personal Essay for the UCLA Extension Writers' Program. How different is writing a personal essay from, say, writing an Op-Ed for your local paper? Doing an interview with someone? Writing fiction? I guess what I'm asking is, is there a different skill-set for essay writing than for other types of writing? Could you perhaps tell me a bit about the specifics of what you teach, exactly?
Shawna: A personal essay is different from an op-ed in that it is personal and not overtly political--usually intimate or conversational in tone, with elements of confession, honesty and self-revelation. To keep things from sounding like a diary entry, though, you have to find the universal in your unique experience. I feel it's a way of "working things out on paper." My class helps people to mine their own lives for stories and to find meaning in those stories. It's similar to memoir but a much shorter form. Philip Lopate wrote in the intro of a book I use called "The Art of the Personal Essay" that the form "turns out to be one of the most useful instruments with which outsiders can reach the dominant culture quickly and forcefully and testify to the precise ambiguities of their situation as individuals and group members." This is what I love about it.
Will: That’s cool. One of the many things I’ve always found inspiring about your decisions has been the path you’ve chosen: independent, looking “outside the box,” and writing about what’s out there. Have you ever thought about going “more mainstream?” Like, I could totally see Penthouse publishing your memoir.
Shawna: I have always been interested in “the other,” or, as my friend and fellow writer Michelle Tea puts it, “the part that got left out.” Someone asked me the other day how I choose the subjects I write about for magazines and newspapers, and all I could think of was that I follow my obsessions. I’m sure there are more marketable things I could be writing, but I’d probably get bored and feel like a whore.
Will: Ha. You and I have both been heavily influenced by punk music and punk philosophy. One important aspect of that has always been community, and you’ve always seemed to run with a pretty amazing bunch of folks. Pleasant Gehman, Clint Catalyst… the list is almost endless. How important are your peers to you, and has that changed at all since you left Cali, and came back east?
Shawna: Living in LA gave me the most amazing opportunity to meet other writers—I had no writing community in DC. Not saying that one didn’t exist, but I was a writer amongst a lot of musicians. In LA I met “my tribe.” I met Pleasant at BEA when we both had books coming out. I met Clint at a reading at a local bookstore. I met poets like Iris Berry, SA Griffin, Rachel Kann… memoirists like Dito Montiel and Michelle Tea, novelists like Aimee Bender, Jerry Stahl… just this insanely talented pool of like-minded souls. I don’t think people think of LA as a literary city, but it is, and it provided me not only with an education but with a true artist’s community. All of the people I named above are still close friends, even though I’m 3,000 miles away. I saw Pleasant last year in Asheville, NC while she was on a bellydancing tour. My husband and I opened an indie bookstore for a year when we first moved here and Dito came down from NY to play and read at the grand opening. We booked a reading for Michelle Tea here not long after. I just hung out with Bett Williams and a bunch of other folks while I was back in LA last semester teaching. Even meeting you through Punk Planet and being back in touch… It’s this whole worldwide network of friends—a family—similar to what punk rock has provided for me. These writers are my friends and teachers.
Will: You also do a ton of journalism. A lot of the folks reading this interview no doubt would like to make money writing things, but just don’t know how. Was the leap to newspaper and magazine work a difficult one?
Shawna: Well, it’s not like I’m writing for the New York Times or anything, but I am lucky anyone wants to pay me for anything I write. I still get rejected all the time. I keep all of my rejection letters. Any success I’ve had is due to tenacity, pure and simple. I never give up. Plus I’ve worked in an office and in customer service and in the food and sex industries, and I’m not especially good at any of those. Writing and teaching make me happy.
Will: Your new book Imposters is a big, beautiful, funky, coffee-table looking thing. You discuss the book's genesis in depth in the introduction, but the gist of it seems to be (to me, at least): you saw something interesting happening in the heart of Hollywood, and decided you wanted to write about it. Would that be a fair assessment?
Shawna: Yes. Again, I became obsessed with a group of people, and without knowing someone was photographing them, and it turns out, that two people were making documentaries about them, I stayed focused on them, never knowing if anything would come of it. The cosmic unconsciousness brought us together, I guess. I never planned a book, but it’s a lovely bonus. For the same reason (obsession), I also did a story on this Finnish family in my town who makes troll dolls. And then one on southern vegetarian food. And prison tattoo machines. And roller derby. And noise music. The list goes on and on. Just finished a piece for my local paper on technotrash—what to do with your old computers and TVs. There are so many people doing fascinating things; I will never run out of material!
Will: What's the biggest thing you learned from doing Imposters (the book), and what's the biggest thing you learned from the Imposters (the actual people)?
Shawna: I learned that a group endeavor is much more difficult than one person writing a book a lone in a room. There were lots of people involved with Imposters—from the photographer to my Swindle editor who originally published it as a magazine article and then pushed for it to become a book, to the editor at the publishing house, to all of the characters themselves.
The characters (the Imposters people) showed me that everyone has a hustle as well as a back-story. I know the subject matter is funny, but I also aimed to treat them with dignity.
Will: Where do you think the Imposters’ desire comes from? What makes someone want to dress up like someone famous in order to make some cash?
Shawna: Our culture is so celeb-obsessed. I mean, there’s a war going on and Britney’s breakdown is headline news? Coming from DC, where the rockstars are the politicians and the punk rock is more political and less fashion or personality-oriented, it was wild for me to witness the tourist mayhem in Hollywood as I lived right in the middle of it all. There’s this capitalistic mentality everywhere in our pop culture—the bling-bling “I’ve-got-more-than-you-do” attitude that does nothing but make people feel they never have enough or can’t possibly ever be enough by just being themselves. I don’t claim to understand it.
Will: I started interviewing people because I've always been fascinated by what their days are like. Tell me about a typical "writing day" for you. Do you write every day? Or wait until you've got that hot idea, and then just run with it?
Shawna: I do write every day, but not in a journal like I probably should. I sort of jump from project to project to keep from being bored. Always walk or do yoga first thing in the morning…it helps clear my thinking. Work a bit on this story for the newspaper, make some calls, check some emails, go back to revising my book (my grad school thesis: Girl in the Pit: Interviews & Essays in Punk Rock 1986- 2006). Eat lunch, maybe meet up with a friend for tea to keep from being a total hermit, write a bit more, read, check my myspace. Nights are reserved for hanging with my husband/ having a social life, and teaching. I write best in the morning, and on deadline.
Will: Finally Shawna, Swindle magazine recently sent me a copy of their Second Annual “Icons” issue, in which you interviewed legendary filmmaker John Waters. I have to ask: in terms of your entire life thus far, was that a great day? Or the greatest day?
Shawna: Ha ha. It was pretty fucking awesome. I wrote him a letter and sent him my book and his publicist responded two weeks later, which really surprised and thrilled me. He was so cool. They told me I had an hour to interview him and he gave me two. He took a Polaroid of me & the photographer Swindle had sent to his house, because apparently he does that to everyone who enters his home. He also indulged me by posing with me for a dorky fan photo, signing a book for a friend, and autographing my “Til Death Do Us Part” comic book. He was gracious, humble, hilarious and kind. What can I say? Maryland, REPRESENT!
Check Out Shawna Kenney’s books & other works:
I Was A Teenage Dominatrix: A Memoir
My First Time: A Collection of Punk Rock Show Stories
Let Fury Have The Hour: The Punk Politics of Joe Strummer
Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class