A Writer’s Life: Spending time with Cynthia Schemmer in Philadelphia

Post Author: Caroline Rayner

“In this moment, nobody knows our bodies like we do. We move together, stretching and wrapping like vines, pushing and pulling, engulfing an abandoned house we know so well. It is well-built, sturdy, and the foundation is resilient. We can show you every crack in the paint and creak in the floorboards, but it is empty. We grieve for the vacancy, that void created when our parents and the people we once were died. But they are gone, them and us, and so we learn to let sleeping dogs lie. As we fall asleep, I listen to the house settle. I know there was a time and a place where our hearts all beat together, but now, in different places, these are the words that are sung: It seems like years since it’s been here.”

“Our Bodies Like We Do” from Secret Bully #2


Cynthia Schemmer lives on a quiet block in West Philadelphia in a rambling old house nicknamed The Bathhouse. A sauna that no one uses or knows why it’s there is in a tiny room off the kitchen. As Schemmer shows me around, she mentions that The Bathhouse may be haunted by a musician’s ghost and I can’t help but fixate on details like stained glass panels on the door to her roommate’s bedroom or the circle of chairs arranged on the front porch that suggest long nights spent in good company. The scene is warming and idyllic.

But I’m not here to tell the story of a house. I’m here to hear the story of Cynthia Schemmer, guitarist in Radiator Hospital and prolific zine writer. Ever since the day I spent exploring Philly with Schemmer, I’ve been listening to Radiator Hospital constantly and poring over her zines, Habits of Being and Secret Bully. I want to tell her story right.

For a while, we hang out in a room packed with books and records. It’s an office she shares with her boyfriend, Jeff Bolt, who plays drums in Radiator Hospital as well as in Swearin’, and I notice stacks of the “Great Thunder” tape I’d just ordered from Bolt’s label, Stupid Bag. Schemmer tells me that she got her first guitar for Christmas when she was thirteen and that she’d learn Ani DiFranco songs and Saves The Day songs in her bedroom and play coffeehouses. She mentions her past bands––Jettison Sister, a solo acoustic project from her college days, and Zombie Dogs, a lighthearted hardcore band, and Very Okay, a pop punk band. Radiator Hospital, Schemmer’s primary project, plays catchy indie pop songs that simultaneously breaks my heart and make me want to dance.

When Schemmer joined Radiator Hospital soon after moving to Philadelphia almost two years ago, she was hoping to end a long break she’d taken from playing music. “It’s nice to be in a band but also to be playing someone else’s songs,” she says, confessing that she feels self-conscious when writing her own songs, because they feel more personal than anything else she writes and also because they feel like too much like poems, a weird sensation for someone who primarily writes creative nonfiction. Still, she’s working on it: “I’m trying to view it less as poetry and more like ‘Okay, you’re writing an essay, but it can only be this many words.’ I’ll give myself a word count or something and see how that goes.”

As Schemmer got to know more women in Philly, she met Ramsey Beyer, Laura Reeve, and Grace Ambrose, who wanted to learn new instruments and start a band, so they got together and became Heavy Bangs. Not only did Heavy Bangs play DIY PHL’s First Time’s The Charm showcase last fall, they also played a handful of other shows, including one back in January with Waxahatchee, All Dogs, and Cayetana at Philly’s First Unitarian Church. Because Ambrose and Reeve will soon be moving to the West Coast, Heavy Bangs recently broke up, but Schemmer still feels encouraged by the band’s success. When I listen to “All the Girls ” and “Look at Them,” I hear this burgeoning confidence loud and clear, and I’m even more sure of it when Schemmer tells me the story of “All the Girls” and how it began as a breakup song but became so much more.

“It’s about knowing what you deserve and what you don’t, whether that be a relationship or a living situation,” she says. “‘I can hack it or decay in a love not made for me’ is a line in the song that, for me, applies both to toxic relationships and also to toxic places. Just because you love something doesn’t mean it is right or healthy for you. Acknowledging that is super important, but not always easy to act on.”

photo by Perry Genovesi

Schemmer’s cat, Frankie, looks a little like a lion. He wanders in and out of the office as we talk. I ask Schemmer about her writing, the essays contained in Habits of Being and Secret Bully as well as pieces published elsewhere. Schemmer explains that, by compiling her work in these zines, she’s able to reach more people. “I feel like my music life and my literary life are very separate. In my music life, they’re not going to be reading the literary magazines that I’m published in, and the literary people that I associate with aren’t really into the music. They’re two very separate worlds. My zines are awesome because then I can force people to read my writing.”

I want everyone to read Schemmer’s writing, too. She writes about places, lost and found. She writes about people who’ve come and gone. She writes about mice and dogs and birds. Each essay functions like an act of preservation and transformation, as a reminder of why such honest writing matters. “I’ve always just written about my life or about the things that I see,” she says.

Even as a kid, Schemmer knew she wanted to be a writer: “I was always writing or telling or craving stories. I remember being completely obsessed with storytime and the way the books looked and the way they sounded when the teacher would crinkle the plastic-wrapped book covers in her hand. I recorded myself reading my stories out loud or even just freestyling at home on an old plastic cassette tape recorder with a microphone.”

As a high schooler, she wrote poetry, but she says even that was nonfiction. It’s just what comes most naturally.
Schemmer attended SUNY Purchase for journalism and she hated it. She felt much more excited about the writing she had a chance to do while working on her MFA at Sarah Lawrence.

“I’ve gotten into a lot of conversations with people who think school in general is a waste of money,” she says. “That if you’re a writer, you’ll write, and you don’t need someone to teach you how to write. That’s not the point of going to grad school for writing. You know you can write, but it’s about pushing beyond your limits. I was just very stuck with my writing, and in grad school you meet all these people who are going to criticize you and they’re not going to hold back. They’re going to tell you what you shouldn’t be doing and what you should do, and it’s definitely hard to hear that critique sometimes, because you’re like, ‘Here’s this personal thing I just showed you, and you just literally told me it’s awful.'”

Still, Schemmer says that these people showed her ways of thinking about her own writing that she wouldn’t have been able to imagine on her own. And we agree that’s what makes writing so cool, the way you can start one thing and somehow it turns into the absolute opposite.

Schemmer likes writing in the morning. She likes stream writing as a way to get going, just writing without stopping for a few minutes. She likes reading Annie Dillard, Rebecca Solnit, and Jo Ann Beard. She’s working on organizing her creative life and setting a schedule for writing, so she can start making serious progress on a book she started in grad school.

“There are these two linear stories of me dealing with the grid of my mom and me exploring these weird hidden parts of New York City and this need to bring back these ghosts of the past. It’s about the loss of person and the loss of place, and how I felt like I was losing New York when I had already lost my mom and just dealing with those two griefs.” She admits that it makes her a little nervous and that she worries about failure.

I ask what she would say to writers who are still trying to figure themselves out and scared of sharing their work.

“Don’t stop writing,” she offers. “Keep the momentum going and you’ll find your niche. Once you find that niche, don’t get lost in it; rip it apart and try new things. Write a whole piece and then throw it away and rewrite it completely new and fresh. Read Annie Dillard’s, “The Writing Life” and follow her words. And never compare yourself to others; you are not them and you never will be. Something once said to me by another writer that has really stuck with me is that you are only person able to tell your story. This is so true. Nobody else is going to do it, so by keeping silent all you’re doing is withholding what could be an amazing piece of writing from the world.”

I have a few hours to kill before I needed to catch a bus back to New York, so Schemmer and I walk around West Philly, then drive to Center City and walk around some more. We talk for a while about Philly. How it’s not as competitive as New York and how everyone is so creative and supportive. How she likes going to house shows and how it’s been a little weird to see her friends play major venues. How a few weekends ago, a few of her friends baked 150 homemade doughnuts and sold them from a second-story window by way of a pulley and basket system. They called the whole thing Windoughnuts.

Schemmer tells me a story about the kids’ writing workshop she teaches at The Wagner Free Institute of Science, how she once asked the kids to describe a puffin using similes and metaphors, and how one boy wrote that the puffin’s feet were like melted slices of American cheese. I’ve found myself thinking about details from the afternoon that repeat themselves the way certain details in Schemmer’s essays often do. Places that are closed on Mondays. Free coffee, free doughnuts. Chinese restaurants, one that serves sesame tofu that tastes best after a night of drinking, and one that has a buffet where Schemmer and Bolt once regretted eating a ton of fake meat.

Right now, I’m listening to Very Okay’s EP, Small Loud, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve played “Where You Go.” I might finally make my first zine, filled with stories I’ve been dying to tell someplace that’s not my journal. After spending a day with Cynthia Schemmer, I’m inspired.