Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in over 40 magazines and anthologies such as The Toast, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, The Masters Review, Hobart, and Everyman Library’s Monster Verse. She and her partner collaborated on the recently-released audio fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters.
Bonnie holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and created and coordinates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas.
Why did you choose to attend UNT and participate in the Honors College?
I chose to attend UNT because they have a great English department, and they were close enough to family that I wouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. I also love the city of Denton with its vibrant music and arts scenes.
I chose to participate in the Honors College because I wanted more of a challenge: more interesting class options with more engaged students. Then, I came to appreciate the opportunities available to me as an Honors College student. I was able to travel to the Czech Republic and attend the Mayborn Conference on a scholarship as a result of my participation in Honors College.
What was the most valuable thing you did or lesson you learned in college?
The most valuable experiences occurred when I did something that was new to me: traveling abroad, attending a slam poetry meetup, taking a Theatre Appreciation class, going camping, participating in National Novel Writing Month. Those are the moments I remember best.
If you could do college or your first year in the workforce over again, what would you do differently?
If I were to redo college, I wouldn’t do much differently, because most everything I did was a valuable life experience. I might practice strengthening my memory and incorporating what I learned in my non-English classes into my daily life, as I’m often disappointed at how little I remember from those classes. I might also start taking care of my mental health sooner, paying attention to when I was overwhelming myself or training my brain to think more positively. I started these things early enough—right after undergrad—but even earlier may have saved me some panic attacks and a couple bouts of depression.
An artist’s first year in the workforce will likely look different than many other people’s first year in the workforce, because chances are an artist will need to take a job wholly unrelated to their art (though in today’s economy, many non-artists are having to do this too). I worked my first year out of college as a Support Specialist to a developmentally disabled client. I wouldn’t do anything differently in regards to that job or the jobs that came after, as all the side jobs I took have fed into my art in some way.
I might try to practice patience earlier, because I always felt like if it wasn’t happening right then it would never happen—whether that was finding a job I liked, getting published, earning a raise, being able to quit and write full-time—and that caused a lot of distress.
How does your current life compare to what you expected it would look like while you were in school? Was there anything that surprised you about “the real world?”
My current life looks nothing like I imagined. I often told myself that being a published writer was nearly impossible. Other people told me that being a published writer was nearly impossible. And it is true that it takes a thick skin, an iron-clad determination, a solid work ethic, and a dash of luck—but nothing is impossible, and there are so many different paths one can take to reach publication.
To be honest, I’m consistently surprised that most people I thought had it all figured out are just as lost as I often feel. No one has all the answers. Most people don’t even have half the answers. Which is both an uncomfortable and comforting feeling: uncomfortable because it means the people steering the ship aren’t always fully in control but comforting because it means that no one is really alone in their moments of ineptitude or uncertainty.
What have you accomplished that you are most proud of?
I’m still proud of the first story I had published in a professional magazine: “The Wanderers” in Clarkesworld. Even fifty published stories later, the excitement I felt with that first story has stayed with me.
Have you had to face resistance from family/friends/society in choosing a career in the arts? How do you respond?
A lot of people told me that a career in the arts would be difficult, and the tone they used was discouraging. I let that discouragement in at first—I’d preface any discussion of my desire to be a writer with a self-effacing and practical “I know it’ll be impossible, but I plan on teaching too just in case.” And I think it’s necessary to have that practical plan, because writing does not make money unless you are one of the very lucky people who hits on a particular magic at the exact right time. But I don’t think that practical plan needs to be anyone else’s business. It should be fine to say you want to be a writer and leave it at that, because if that’s your passion then that, and not the day job you plan to supplement that, can be the thing that defines you. Eventually I learned to ignore most people’s advice about the difficulties of pursuing a career in the arts, if they weren’t themselves an artist with the appropriate experience.
How did you get started?
I wrote and illustrated stories about my cat as soon as I learned to write; in middle school I channeled my angst into poetry and short stories I never seemed to finish; in high school I worked on the school newspaper. I knew that I would choose an English degree as soon as I learned that there was such a thing as a Creative Writing class. The question was always how I would make money while pursuing writing. At UNT I took every Creative Writing workshop I could—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—but there was so much going on during college that I didn’t develop a consistent daily writing routine until I graduated. During my MFA program I honed in on a genre—fiction, specifically speculative fiction—and everything fell into place.
Where do you find inspiration?
Anywhere. I love music, and I often hear a lyric that inspires an idea or I feel a certain emotion during a tune that I want to evoke in a story. I sometimes take inspiration from visual art. Sometimes from my own experiences. Often I’ll look to mythology or fairy tales. Other times dreams or daydreams provide the spark.
Do you have any advice for current college students?
You’ll probably receive a lot of advice. You don’t have to take it. Sometimes you know best where you want to be. But don’t forsake advice out of stubbornness: you’re around a lot of capable, intelligent people, who have a lot of worthy life lessons to. If you’re not ready to hear them yet, you might write them down. There could be a time when they’re just what you need.
The advice I never received that I wish I would’ve received is all related to some of the non-monetary (though sometimes tied to the monetary) difficulties of a career in the arts: the prevalence of burnout and issues with mental health. Art is often a solitary act, and so it’s imperative to find your community whether in classes, through workshops, at conventions, or online. Those are the people who can help you find the resources you need to overcome the feelings that most artists feel, feelings like that no one is listening or that you’re not good enough. And it’s never wrong to take a break when you need it. Your health should always come first.