Special Edition — What Have We Here: A Conversation with Susan Bono About Her New Collection of Essays

For writer and small press publisher (Tiny Lights) Susan Bono, the last thirty years have mostly been about trying to stay ahead of a husband, growing kids, aging parents, and an eccentric old house, in spite of detours, deadlines, unexpected changes, and inevitable losses. But through it all, she’s been taking notes. In her collection of short essays, What Have We Here: Essays about Keeping House and Finding HomeBono is drawn to the mystery, tenderness, and humor at the core of everyday experience and the ever-shifting nature of the place she calls home.

Sheila
Hi Susan. Thank you for this interview about your writing, your career as an editor and publisher and you new book, a collection of essays called What Have We Here. The title is wonderful. That title has me picturing an adult looking at something a child has lovingly created or captured. Therefore, I am, from the very start curious to find out what we have here.

How did that title come to you?

Susan
It’s like they say: when one door closes, another opens. In the process of retiring my personal essay journal, Tiny Lights, I got the urge to gather up the best of my own writing. I started by digging through my stuff and putting it in one big file. I knew my title would have to tie a bunch of stand-alone essays together!

Since so much of my identity was tied up with Tiny Lights, I was convinced the eventual title would have something with “light” in it. I made lists of titles: “Gathered Light,” “Captured Light,” “In Changing Light,” and other phrases that sounded pretty pretentious or woo-woo. Then I showed my ponderous manuscript to Rebecca Lawton, who suggested I divide it into categories, like “marriage,” “family and friends,” “home,” and “the writing life.” When I realized I wasn’t interested in showcasing any writing about writing that eliminated almost half the material.

As I continued to whittle things down, I saw that my true subject has always been family and home. When Becca asked if there might be an essay in the collection whose title I could use, “What Have We Here” popped up pretty fast. To me, that phrase sounds like something a person might murmur when she is sorting things out, which is exactly what I was doing. It’s another way of saying “Let’s see,” and isn’t that what personal essay is all about?

Sheila
Thank you for letting us in on your process. It is always helpful to know how a writer thinks as they begin organizing a manuscript.

This is an excerpt from the preface of What Have We Here. To me, it is beautifully lyric:

But home is a mystery, like dawn, or twilight, or a landscape wrapped in fog. Sometimes it’s a refuge, sometimes a prison. It lives in the untended garden, the scent of sheets on a waiting bed, conversations around the dinner table, and all that goes unsaid. Home is a mirror, a window, a beacon. Its roots run deep and are tangled in love, habit, dysfunction, and longing. Home is a place I build and destroy every day, a place I belong yet am always leaving. It’s the “You are Here” on all my maps. It changes shape every time I look at it.

Were the sentiments in this excerpt something you described before you wrote the book or something you could see about yourself after writing the essays?

Susan
Because these essays were not written in chronological order or with linked events in mind, I felt like I needed a preface that would offer readers some kind of explanation as to what they were getting into. It’s taken a lifetime of surprises and disappointments for me to begin to accept the elusive nature of home, and it wasn’t until I collected my essays that I could see how powerful that idea has been for my writing.

Sheila
I know from years of reading Tiny Lights, the personal essay journal you mentioned you’d recently retired, that you’ve been very busy for years as an editor, instructor, and up until recently, publisher. I can imagine that home is also writing. Over what span of years did you write the essays in your book? How has your career as editor, writing teacher, and publisher impacted your writing?

Susan
The essays in What Have We Here were written during the years I edited and published Tiny Lights: 1995-2014.

Teaching, editing, and publishing have been essential to my development as a writer. I started out as a high school English teacher, but after my two sons were born, I stayed home with them and tried to write. I was having no success as a freelancer, but when I created Tiny Lights, I inadvertently gave myself the perfect springboard for a satisfying writing life.

Tiny Lights taught me a lot about writing for an audience, and working with writers in the editing process helped me see the value of constructive feedback. I was given opportunities to teach elements of essay, and teaching is a great way to learn more about a subject. I’ve always seen editing as a form of teaching, so that continues to mean more learning for me. And what little I’ve learned about handling rejection (I am still pretty much devastated by it), I learned from having to say “no” to a lot of really excellent writing over the years. Like I say in the preface, people tell me I was the mother of Tiny Lights, but I think Tiny Lights was the mother of the writer in me.

Sheila
You say in the opening to the collection that the essays are in chronological order. That makes me believe you see personal essays, when collected, as book-length memoir. Can you tell us about your ideas on this subject?

Susan
I could have organized the work in categories like Becca first suggested, but the idea of seeing my family and me randomly change ages throughout the book really bothered me. And I feel as if my perspective evolved in a sequential way over the course of 20 years, so a chronological order made the most sense. This resulted in what I’d call a “cumulative memoir.” Even though the essays were written to stand alone, when put together, they will, I hope, help readers feel as if they’re getting to know me the way most people learn about each other, from sporadic visits over time.

Sheila
How would you describe the interplay of memory and writing?

Susan
Sometimes one will trigger the other—memory doesn’t always come first! But what really strikes me about writing is the way it codifies memory. Writers ask if they can fiddle with their memories for the sake of the storyline, and I tell them it’s really up to them, but if they do bend the truth as they know it, after a while that’s the way they’ll remember the event. I think you end up cheating yourself when you rewrite history.

And then there’s the way writing immortalizes memory. That might sound kind of overblown, but if you write about a time in your grandmother’s kitchen, or something amazing your kid said when he was younger, every time you or anyone reads that piece of writing, your grandmother is rolling out the pie crust, or your kid is cracking that joke. Photographs can do that, too, but I think writing does it even better.

Sheila
This is probably a horribly inappropriate question, but do you view a particular essay in the book as your favorite? If so, for what reason?

Susan
Aren’t we supposed to say we love all our children equally? I’m kind of embarrassed to say that my favorite essay(s) are those others have admired or rewarded in some way. I am really susceptible to the opinions of others. But even though “What Have We Here” has not been held up as one of my better essays, I love it because it expresses my deepest, purest feelings about my home and family, and it gave me the title for my book!

Sheila
What is launching your own collection of work like after years of sustaining Tiny Lights as a way of helping other writers build their audiences?

Susan
After all these years of being validated for my ability to facilitate others, I have been totally shocked that anyone would be all that interested in my writing. I still think I’m a better as an editor than a writer, but that may be because working on someone else’s writing feels safer, less exposed. It’s kind of strange to come out from behind the protective wall of facilitation. Standing in the world as a writer makes me feel more vulnerable.

Sheila
I know you are an excellent writer as well as an excellent editor, but I totally understand that after working with so many writers, it is easy to feel that everyone else has the wonderful ideas and sentiments. Yet, vulnerability serves us well both as editors and writers. What has been the most useful advice you’ve given writers (and maybe yourself) over the years?

Susan
Keep writing. And if you want an audience, keep looking until you find one.

Sheila
Yes! If we are compelled to write we must. And we will, if we search, find or make an audience. Thank you for that advice. Finding one editor who likes our work or one person who tells another, or a group in a professional or life niche that will benefit from what we say matters tremendously.

We first met over the phone after I had made a submission to Tiny Lights and you had some expert editing suggests. Later, when I was working on Writing and Publishing Personal Essays, I asked if you could select some essays that had appeared in Tiny Lights over the years so I could approach the authors for permission to publish them as example essays in my book. I will never forget you saying, “I am excited to tell my mother that Sheila Bender is choosing essays from Tiny Lights to appear in her next book!” I was thrilled at your excitement. I felt the pleasure you took in sharing professional news with your mother. Was she a major support when you started writing after having children? Is it difficult emotionally that your book has come out after the loss of you mother? Do you address her in your heart and thoughts when it comes to the essay’s success?

Susan
My mom was the ultimate cheerleader! She was always looking for an excuse to celebrate my accomplishments. When you and I met, she was very involved in my literary life. It’s funny, though; I miss her a lot, but I don’t feel her loss in regard to this book. Her Alzheimer’s robbed me of her considerable intellect bit by bit, so I had to learn to get by without her support in the years before her death. These days, my memories of her unwavering generosity and bullet-proof integrity are what inspire me to move forward in my life and in my writing. I miss all that cheerleading sometimes, but I think the example she set in her life is actually more powerful than her praise.

Sheila
That is a wonderful legacy and wonderful that you have internalized her spirit.

Our professional relationship grew as we shared teaching at the Writing It Real in Turkey writer’s conference we brought to Istanbul a few years ago. I love the way being involved in the writing life leads to connections and life-long friendships. What do you think about when you think about the results of networking and fostering conferences, publications, projects?

Susan
In the days before email, I used to say I would judge my life successful by the quality of the mail I received. As the editor and publisher of Tiny Lights, I got FANTASTIC mail almost every time I went to my P.O. box! That amazing project brought people like you into my life! One thing I’ve discovered as a writer: whenever I’ve put myself in a position to give, I’ve gotten more than I ever dreamed of receiving. Maybe this wouldn’t be true for everyone, but supporting others through teaching, editing, and publishing has been essential for my success. I kind of hate the notion of networking, which I’ve always interpreted as cultivating relationships for their usefulness to the networker. I am actually very shy, so helping others gives me a role I’m more comfortable with. I think everyone has the makings of a community within easy reach. But when you reach out, are you trying to get or give? There’s a critical difference, I think.

Sheila
That is certainly something to chew on. There is so much jockeying for position in social groups and professions and it is a distraction to the reasons we write–to explore, to gain insight, to “see” as you said earlier.

Thanks, Susan, for your answers to these questions and for your marvelous essays in What Have We Here. We will be posting one of the essays from your book next week for Writing It Real readers. I know they will be moved and grateful for an example of the work in your book.


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