GUEST POST: Bonnie ZoBell: My Writing Process

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Below is a guest post written by Bonnie ZoBell.

Bonnie ZoBell: My Writing Process:  Blog Tour

Today I’m taking part in the #MyWritingProcessTour. It’s so interesting and instructive to see how other writers go about their work. I was nominated by my friend, Susan Tepper, writer extraordinaire.  Be sure to get a copy of Susan’s latest book, The Merrill Diaries, beautifully written and a thought-provoking romp through the U.S. and parts of Europe.

The awkward part about writing this blog post is that at the moment I don’t have much of a writing process because besides teaching, I’m in the process of birthing my newest book, What Happened Here: a novella & stories. I’m doing everything I can to ease her passage into the world, making sure she’s nurtured in every possible way, and giving her a good wholesome introduction with the hope people will be as good to her as they’ve been to me. At the moment, it’s on pre-release and available only on my site, but she’ll be officially launched on May 3rd. What I’ll do here is write about my process when I’m writing. I warn you: This process isn’t entirely the healthiest for children and other living things, in other words younger writers. Don’t show this to your students.


Final Cover What Happened Here 1-10-14 What am I working on?

I’ve gone back to an old novel, most recently called Animals Voices—which I worked on for many years—because I think I’ve finally figured out a solution to a problem I was having. The story starts out with some young kids, the boy very curious about the unusual girl, after he gets over her strangeness and the way all his friends make fun of her, because she can communicate with animals. They grow up and marry and he is diagnosed with AIDS in the early years. Communication is difficult when no one will acknowledge the disease, probably even more so than communicating with owls. Then I’m going to go back to another novel that I also spent years on called Bearded Women, about a woman who goes to an electrologist because she’s hirsute. There are class issues between her and the electrologist, and it comes down to the main character needing to pluck other parts of her persona as well.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I’d call what I write literary fiction, though I’d like to write more magical realism. Oh, give me anything to read that contains beautiful language and a good story, and I’ll devour it. Perhaps mine differs because of my love of setting. I’m thrilled going back to Animal Voices, getting the chance to revisit the southern part of Del Mar in San Diego, land filled with an estuary, all kinds of unique crawly life, and the magnificent Torrey Pine trees. These gnarled pines grow crooked because they’re on the bluffs right above the ocean and therefore get a lot of strong winds. They’d be creepy if they weren’t so beautiful.

I’m no minimalist, though I try to be as spare as I can. I like to think that sometimes I’m successful at writing beautiful, in-depth descriptions that let you see images in life in a unusual way without going overboard.

I’m whimsical.

Why do I write what I do?

I write because I love language and because writing fiction helps me figure out the world. I’d be lost without it.

How does my writing process work?

This is the unhealthy part: I’m a binge writer. I can go for days, weeks, even a couple of years and do nothing but write. I ignore my husband and animals, my hair gets dirty, my bills don’t get paid, and I wear clothes that should have been recycled some time ago if I get really passionate and possessed about what I’m writing. But it takes a toll. So after doing this for a while, it’s hard to allow myself to go back there—there’s so much deprivation. Unfortunately, the other side of it is that I can also go for a long time not writing at all. That’s where I am right now while I promote and regroup from my collection. But I’m daydreaming about those Torrey Pine trees

My tags

I’m tagging four of my favorite writers who will take the baton next and telling you about their writing process:

Myfanwy CollinsLiveson the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son. She has published her debut novel Echolocation, a short fiction collection I Am Holding Your Hand, and her YA novel The Book of Laney is forthcoming.

James ClaffeyJames’ collection Blood a Cold Blue was published earlier this year. His writing has appeared in numerous journals, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently working on a novel based on his childhood in Ireland.

Tamara Linse – Writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl ~ broke her collarbone when she was three, her leg when she was four, a horse when she was twelve, and her heart ever since. She lives in Wyoming, and just released her collection, How to Be a Man.



Get used to it.


There was a little girl dressed in a costume in the check out line today. She was cute and said to her mother, “No one will recognize me.”

Then she turned to me and took off her mask and I said, “It’s you! I had no idea it was you.”

She turned back to her mother and said, “See? I told you.” The mother then attempted to engage me in conversation about how ridiculous it was that the woman who ran the changing room gave her a hard time that her daughter wanted to wear the costume out of the store.

Apparently, the attendant said, “I’ll get in trouble.”

The woman told me she said back, “I’ll take the trouble on.”

Really? Will you? So does that mean if this elderly woman is threatened with losing her job, you’ll lose your job instead? She just could not wrap her head around why her daughter, who really wanted to wear her costume, maybe shouldn’t have been allowed to because it was against the rules and could possibly cost someone her job.

So she let her daughter do what she wanted to. In fact, she stood up for her daughter doing whatever she wanted to no matter what it cost anyone else.

Her daughter is in third grade and she already believes she is more important than the people who serve her. This is not good.

I see this kind of thing all the time. The children are like little gods. They walk into a waiting room with their parents and the children sit down and the parents stand beside them because there is no other chair. Even worse, the parents let their children continue to sit even when elderly or infirm people enter the room and then must crouch against a wall (though I offer my chair and so that doesn’t last long).

Children, you are NOT more important than anyone else. You exist along side us all. You may not wear your costume out of the store. Wait until you get home. Get used to waiting. It’s good for you. Really. I promise you that it will only make you a better person. I have not lied to you yet.

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john-muir “It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods — trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries … God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools — only Uncle Sam can do that.” – John Muir, Our National Parks (1901) chapter 10.

the unraveling

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One of my beloved aunties had down syndrome. She was sweet and had funny stories about her boyfriend, Mickey Lewis (aka, Mick Jagger). She also had many endearing quirks, one of which was that she liked to clean. Whenever she stayed with us, I would come home and find all of my dresser drawers tidied, even my underwear were folded. She also had a made up game of cards she enjoyed, but only she knew the rules and so she played it like solitaire.

What I am thinking about today, though, is how she knit. To me, her work seemed painstaking and precise. She would knit down, down, down until she got to an end or a mistake she understood but that I could not see and then she would pull the yarn, unravel all of her work, and begin anew.

When I was younger, I might have seen this as an exercise in futility, but not so now. In fact, I look to her as I hesitate to pull the thread that will unravel a narrative. I think of how instead of filling me with dread, it should fill me with joy at the possibility of recreating.

Think of it this way: nothing is lost. The muscle memory remains and there is nothing but opportunity to build again what you’ve destroyed.

So I will think of my auntie’s small hands knitting and how no matter how many times she pulled the thread and unraveled her work, whatever she created anew was just as beautiful as what she had created before. I will pull the unraveling thread with a sense of hope.

Sanford, Florida


On July 12, 2000, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. We were given the news while she lay in her bed at Central Florida Regional Hospital in Sanford, Florida. I remember the date because it was my husband’s birthday and he was off by himself on the holiday we had planned together. I had not gone with him because a few days before we were meant to leave I got the devastating news that my mother was sick.

It was news that was both shocking and not shocking, as I had been waiting for it all of my life, as my earliest memories are those in which her life hung in the balance. Would this be the time he killed her? We clung to each other in the dark, listening and waiting and hoping it would not happen. Please do not let it.

Imagine a hunter is stalking you and it is dark and you know you’ve done nothing wrong. The fear is like that.

Imagine you are Trayvon Martin. Imagine that.

So when I hear Sanford, Florida in the news, I know Sanford, Florida. I have been there with you. I have sat on that bench outside the hospital and looked at the lake. I have seen the trumpet vine. I have snuck wine into my mother’s hospital room so that we could drink it together while we watched the first season of Survivor.

So, I want to tell you that Sanford, Florida is not all George Zimmerman. It is also Mary, who was my mother’s nurse for those nine months–on and off–that she stayed at the hospital. Mary took care of us all. She made sure we had sheets for the pull out chair. She and my mother teased each other. She knew my mother was a pain in the ass and she loved it. She loved her. I felt that love. She gave it freely. She was fearless in her love of someone who was dying. Someone she could not save, but didn’t give up on anyway.

For tonight, I’m going to remember Mary when I think of Sanford, Florida. I going to remember that there are people like Mary who care for those who are dying and have no hope. There are people who show compassion to the families of the dying. There are people  who give you all of their own heart no matter what they have going on in their lives.

Tonight, I will remember Mary as a representative of Sanford, Florida instead of this man who took to the streets out of fear and anger. Who, under the guise of protecting his neighborhood, made so many of his countrymen feel unsafe and angry and afraid.

He protected nothing. He murdered a child and now he is free, but he does not, I hope, represent who we are, because we are also, Mary.

We must also give of ourselves freely and without fear. We must do this. We must do better.

The Still Point of the Turning World, by Emily Rapp

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Chapter 22 of Emily Rapp’s memoir The Still Point of the Turning World opens with a quote from Franz Kafka, “By scribbling I run ahead of myself in order to catch myself up at the finishing post. I cannot run away from myself.”

I cannot run away from myself.

Running away from yourself is exactly what you wish to do when you experience the dying of someone you love. And imagine if the one dying is your child? You will say to me (as people have said to Rapp), “I can’t imagine that.” But you can, Rapp would argue, and you do, which is why people like her, the mother of a dying (and now, sadly, dead) child make us so uncomfortable. They represent an inconvenient truth and that truth is that we are all of us dying as we live and that includes our children, too, though we dare not acknowledge that truth. We dare not.

Rapp had no choice but to acknowledge the truth of her son’s impending death. Indeed, she faced it head on. Still, she does not spill her tears on the page. She doesn’t ask for pity. She doesn’t want platitudes or euphemism  She doesn’t want hugs. And, most certainly, she does not want anyone to say to her, “I’m sorry.”

She just wants you to be present in your life and in the lives of those you love.

Reading this book brought up all kinds of complicated emotions in me. Mostly, though, what I felt was grief: for those I’ve lost, for those I will lose someday, for myself. I grieved for Ronan. I grieved for all of the children who have died and who are dying.

Grief is not necessarily a weeping thing, as Rapp shows us within this book. What it is is an animal thing. An animal thing like giving birth. Grief is uncontrollable, as is dying, as is giving birth.

My husband and I have always talked openly (in an age-appropriate way) about death with our son. We don’t say things like “passed away” or “gone to live with the angels” no matter how tempting they are. He is interested in my parents, his maternal grandparents. I show him pictures. We talk about them. Recently, I let him take out and examine several objects of my father’s that I have. A leather box. A leather key holder.

He wrote a note (with my help) to my father asking him to leave a sign if he was a friendly ghost. He placed is in the key holder and said he would go back the next day to check. The next morning, when there was no note, he was disappointed, but said it was what he expected. He did just as I have done countless times, asking for a sign from those I have loved who have died. Show me that you still exist. Show me that there is something more.

Even as he learns of these dead people, even as he falls in love with them, he also learns how to let them go. He learns how to grieve them just as his young mind begins to understand what sad means.

Yesterday, I found two photos in frames I’d forgotten about. One was of my mother as an infant and then other of a my father as a young boy. I handed these photos to my son and told him who they were and he said, “I love them so much.”

It was a moment


We worked our $5 an hour jobs. We rode through the city streets without helmets on our stolen bikes. We stood on the corner smoking and talking with the homeless men who were our friends. We drank beer on our lunch break. We stayed out all night and still worked our full shift the next day.

Beyond everyone I loved then–all those who broke my heart; beyond how much we talked about the art we would make someday; beyond the passion we felt for everything we believed: What that time in my life represents is a great, unfulfilled sadness. I knew I wanted to be a writer and I had written plenty before but then I stopped and I couldn’t get back started. I wrote privately in my journals. I squirreled it all away. Every separate emotion categorized. Even when I was happy then, I couldn’t stop feeling like I would never get to be where I wanted to be. I couldn’t help feeling like I would always be unfulfilled.

During all the years I lived in Boston, I passed by the Hynes Convention Center hundreds of times. Thousands. I worked conventions there. I passed through. I stood in its shadow.

20 years ago I never thought that I would be there again but this time with 12,000 other writers at AWP. I never thought I would be among them. Beyond that, I never could have imagined that I would be there because people had said yes to me. Because people had published my books and because people actually wanted to buy those books and read them.

20 years ago, this thought would have been incomprehensible.

It was a moment to stand among you and realize that I had circled back to just beyond my beginning. It was a moment to realize that even though it took me 20 years, I was there.

Obligatory AWP conference post

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The 2013 AWP conference is this week (starting on Wednesday).

Normally, I would be packing my bags and stocking the fridge for my family. However, this week the conference is a mere 30 miles from my home. You would think this would make it easier for me to get to all of the panels and events. Instead, it makes it more difficult as I remain active and present in my daily life, which includes caring for my son.

As such, I’m not going to be much of a presence at the conference, but I’m sure you will all bravely carry on without me.

With that said, I will be at the bookfair on Saturday. In fact, I have two signings on Saturday, March 9th:

I will be signing Echolocation at the Engine Books table from 10-12ish

I will be signing I Am Holding Your Hand at the PANK table from 1-3ish

I really hope to see you there.

p.s. My advice from last year still holds: do NOT drink that shot of tequila when it is offered to you (this advice is especially true if you are over age 40).