An inspiring mentor and writing teacher, and author of a range of books, including those that support writers in their journey of self-discovery and craft development, Bonni very generously spent time answering my questions within days of the release of this invaluable book. Please take the time to read this rather long interview, not a word of which I wanted to leave out.
Who was your earliest writing supporter or mentor? How did you ‘get started and keep going’?
I started writing in fifth grade. Our teacher, Mrs. Margaret Thaine told our class about a poetry contest for children. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was capable or even allowed to write poems. I wrote three rhyming poems. I was instantly hooked– delighted by the process and the result. Looking back, I think I was taken by the ability to express my deep emotions and ideas with a few words. Plus, those words stayed put on the paper, and I could share them and go back to them. In high school, I took my first creative writing class. I entered a city-wide high school poetry contest and received an honorable mention. My high school teacher praised my poetry, but when it came time to award my own school’s creative writing prize, he gave it to another student. I was devastated.
The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s a fair microcosm of my entire writing life. I went on to major in creative writing in college and graduate school. Some students and teachers appreciated my work and others were indifferent or deeply disliked it. The same has been true of editors, agents, publishers, reviewers and readers.
I was, and am now, most consistently supported as a writer by my love of doing it. And yes, there were many essential early mentors. Most of them were the poets I read: June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Nzosake Shange, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I also loved Whitman, Dante, and Emily Dickinson. Grace Paley’s short stories at once blew me away and sustained me. Over the years, there were times when I was fortunate enough to spend time with Grace in person. Those were sublime times. But to this day, they weren’t as inspiring to me as her stories, essays and poems were and continue to be.
These days, I’m nourished the most by the critique groups I’m part of (three of them at the moment), an online international writing community The Creative Academy for Writers, and the Facebook group, Jewish Kidlit Mavens.
What what obstacles do you still encounter as you develop new ideas and projects?
When I first started writing, I struggled with revising what I wrote and insecurity about my ability as a writer, due to all the rejection letters I received from the literary magazines I submitted poems to.
All these years later, I struggle with, and dislike, writing the first draft. I much prefer revising. I get frustrated and weary from submitting my projects, but I no longer feel insecure about my ability to write. I know I have ability. It is less than some and more than others – like every other writer.
So given the above, I suppose it’s fair to say that what hasn’t changed is my struggle with impatience. I still worry I might not be up to the task of certain ideas that come to me. I’m also capable of being lazy as a writer. I always have to check myself in that area
You also write picture books. What is it that appeals to you about them and what is the biggest challenge in writing and/or finding a home for them?
I love writing picture books for two main reasons. Craftwise, they’re similar to writing poems and poem making is how I fell in love with writing. Message and audience-wise, picture books speak to a multi-generational audience. The message(s) in the books plant seeds of perspective early in the minds of future generations as well as the adults that read the books to children, often more than once. How many authors of adult books have readers read their book multiple times over? So my reach and influence is greater.
One challenge of writing picture books for me is to limit the number of layers and themes in one book. As for finding a home for them, there are many challenges. I’m still learning how to master picture book forms (I suspect this will be a lifelong education). There are also major hooks that I lack talent with. Humor is an example. I would love to be able to write funny, but I can’t.
Is there one piece of advice to other writers that you’d like to end with?
Writing is an ever-evolving creative practice. To be fulfilled by it, embrace and respect this truth and appreciate all it has to teach you. As the poet Marge Piercy writes in her poem to writers, To the young who want to: “You have to like it better than being loved.”