Writer and military spouse Kimberlee Bethany Bonura, Ph.D., MFA, E-RYT, CYT, knew at a young age that she was meant to write. She also learned from her mother that achieving goals in adulthood often requires going against the odds. We, too, can create and thrive in “the shadows of military service,” with a whole heck of a lot of determination.
MilspoFAN: Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.
Kimberlee: From 1974 to 1976, there were a series of lawsuits and legal actions about whether female service members could have children, or be involuntarily separated from service due to pregnancy. When I was born in 1977, my mom was a Captain in the Army, and she had to wear civilian clothes because there were no maternity uniforms. The idea that a woman could stay in the military and have a career was brand new. In 1978, when the Women’s Army Corps was integrated into the regular Army, women were only 3% of the force. I was a sophomore in high school the first time I met another kid whose mom was active duty.
My mom retired as a Lieutenant Colonel the same year I graduated from high school, and we instantly became “civilians.” Because I’d been moving my whole life, I had this sense of constant movement. I continued to bounce around between universities and towns and jobs while figuring out who I was.
I joke that I met my husband when he was wearing civilian clothes. We were both in grad school at Florida State. He was there for the Army Advanced Civil Schooling program. Before we met, I would have been adamant that I had no intention of going back into military family life. But, we’ve been together for more than 17 years and married for more than 15 years, so I’ve almost been a military spouse for as long as I was a military brat.
And since then, whenever I think about my life as a military family, and my sense of self as a writer, I think of the first four lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Little Gidding.”
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Because, in so many ways, being a military spouse has helped me to better understand and make sense of my life as a military child. I am exploring some of that in the writing I am doing.
MilspoFAN: How did you become a writer?
Kimberlee: There’s a family story my mom tells about me at age 3, sitting on the carpet typing on a typewriter. This was about 1980, so it’s an actual manual typewriter. My maternal grandmother – my mom’s parents lived with us through all the military moves – said, “Oh how cute, you’re playing secretary” and I responded, “No, I’m a writer.”
I read early, I loved books, and I was always writing notes and stories and songs. I started a class newspaper when I was in fourth grade, and I was editor of my high school newspaper. Some of my early jobs during college and my twenties were as a newspaper reporter and columnist, when small and mid-sized towns still had daily local papers. I had this period in my early twenties, after college, when I was taking lots of writing workshops and seminars, and it felt like the stars were coming together. All at once, I had a screenplay in the finals of a national competition, a small press interested in a yoga book I’d written, and two agents considering a more literary piece. And then all those things fell through and so I thought, okay, time to move on and get a real job.
I went back to grad school, earning my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology (with a research emphasis in Sport & Exercise Psychology) from Florida State. I taught at the university level, in Physical Education and Psychology departments, and then moved into faculty development and academic administration. There was always that wondering in the back of my mind: did I have a story to tell? Could I be a writer?
I had the great opportunity to develop non-fiction wellness courses with The Great Courses, where I wrote my own content, and then worked with their editing and production team to produce a video series. That really helped me start thinking about writing again. I had a wonderful editor who worked with me on all three courses, Catherine Lyon. She pushed me to move from teaching research to telling stories from an educational perspective, to make the content matter to the viewer.
I got brave and started applying to Creative Writing MFA programs. Of course, the first obstacle was finding programs that I could actually do as a military spouse. Most MFA programs are in-person residential, and some have intensive residency requirements that wouldn’t have been feasible for our family. And then the stars aligned, again. I was accepted into the UT-El Paso MFA in Creative Writing program. Their residency is optional, so you can do the program fully virtual. The faculty are the same amazing writers as their residential program. The wonderful writer Professor Daniel Chacón, head of the department, called me and welcomed me to the program, and then almost five years later he served on my thesis committee.
I just finished my MFA in the Spring of 2021. I did a lot of work with writing throughout the program. Now I’m working on revisions, and trying to submit pieces for publication. I’m still working on that sense of myself as a writer. Becoming a writer feels like something that is still a work in progress.
Link to my courses with The Great Courses:
How to Stay Fit as You Age:
How to Make Stress Work for You:
How to Boost Your Physical and Mental Energy:
Link to UTEP MFA Creative Writing Online:
Professor Daniel Chacón: https://www.utep.edu/liberalarts/creative-writing/people/daniel-chacon.html
MilspoFAN: What is it like to stick with a creative project for so long?
Kimberlee: I worked toward my MFA through UT-El Paso over 4 ½ years, while living at three different duty stations, with two more than 1000-mile PCS moves. I wrote most of my creative thesis project during the period of COVID, while supporting two elementary school-aged kiddos with virtual school. It’s definitely been a long journey in terms of both time and distance.
The summer of 2019 we were moving and I wasn’t going to take any coursework that summer. But then Professor Sylvia Aguilar-Zéleny was offering an elective course focused on women and war. And so, I knew I had to make it work to take that course. We were house hunting and living in temporary quarters. I was doing my reading by flashlight at night in a closet after I got the kids to sleep, and doing my assignments with my laptop balanced on a kitchen stool. Pushing through was worth it. I gained tremendous perspective that influenced the project that became my thesis, and Professor Aguilar-Zéleny became my thesis advisor. I learned so much from her, and my project was really shaped by her input, her guidance, and her support. I was so glad I pushed myself to take the course even though it was a tough semester.
Sometimes working with a project over a long period as a military spouse means sticking with it even when military spouse life (or life in general) makes it hard.
Professor Aguilar-Zéleny’s profile at UTEP:
MilspoFAN: How does your novel change over time? Does it change with different influences at each duty station?
Kimberlee: One of the ways that I experience time and location, which I think comes from being a military brat, is that all of my memories are grounded in location. When I remember K -2 of my own elementary years, I am in Italy. If I remember grades 7 – 9, I am in Germany. That sense of time-by-place has continued for my adult life. I think about being pregnant with my older child while in Georgia, I remember my two kiddos playing as toddlers in New Mexico, I remember the first day of school for my older child in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.
I think that comes out when I’m writing because I am always thinking about that interaction of time and space. Right now, surfiction and autofiction are my preferred styles, where you’re taking one moment or experience of your own life, and then allowing that moment to create its own story. It allows you to go to a place or space in your memory, but then not be limited by your own story like you would in memoir. This is the kind of writing Tim O’Brien uses about military life in the novel The Things They Carried, and it’s a really helpful way to think about fiction. You start with an interesting moment, and let that moment write the story.
My thesis project started with one of those “sparks.” I was an 8th grader at Heidelberg Middle School when the first Gulf War happened. Suddenly daily life was armed guards and bomb checks and half the dads on post disappeared as they were deployed to the Middle East. I wanted to write about life as a military brat in that kind of environment. When I took the women and war course, I started talking with my mom more about her experiences in the military, and thinking more about her point of view as a female servicemember.
So, my novel started from a seed of real experience – my being a military brat to a female service member in Germany during the first Gulf War, in 1990 to 1991– and then the fictional story of these characters developed. I ended up with alternating narrators, going back and forth between a fifteen-year-old girl and her Active-Duty mother in that place at that time, exploring both the lives of female service members and the lives of military brats. It’s very grounded in a specific duty station at a particular period in history.
Link to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (on Amazon): https://amzn.to/3e8srIV
MilspoFAN: What’s next for you?
Kimberlee: Next is the practical hard work of revision, revision, revision on my novel, and then query, query, query trying to find an agent to represent my work and hopefully see it in print one day. I bought a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace and I’m reading the acknowledgments of writers I admire to seek out potential agents.
Creative writing is a beautiful, inspirational process. It’s also hard work that is mostly about persistence and deliberate effort. I finished the MFA. It’s only one steppingstone. The hard work of trying to become a published novelist continues.
Publisher’s Marketplace: https://www.publishersmarketplace.com/
Personally, we are now less than 12 months out from either our last PCS or my husband beginning terminal leave and us figuring out how to live as civilians.
MilspoFAN: How has your role as a military spouse impacted your work as an artist- creatively, logistically, or otherwise?
Kimberlee: I just mentioned our upcoming move, so I want to talk about this question logistically. I think that is the part that separates us as military spouses from other professional spouses. Being a dual-working couple is challenging. Being a dual-working couple with children is particularly challenging. But the military spouse life adds another layer of complexity that I don’t think most civilians even consider.
First, there are whole genres of jokes and comedy about doctor’s wives or lawyer’s wives. Military spouses are pretty unrepresented in media and the arts, and also there is this unspoken rule that we are supposed to be supportive, dutiful, and patriotic and not complain. But it is a hard life. There are a lot of challenges that are both emotional and practical. I think maybe military spouse artists are working in that liminal space between their military family member sense of duty and the hurt and loss and pain that comes from living in what I have come to call the shadows of military service.
Second, are the practical challenges. In my fifteen years of marriage, my family has lived in 9 houses plus 6 sets of temporary quarters across 7 duty stations. Every move means finding new pediatricians and dentists, registering for new schools, finding new friends and hoping you find someone you trust enough to put down as an emergency contact. You don’t have a few friends you’ve known forever that you can trust with an emergency school pick-up or to help do a grocery run when the whole family is sick. Just the amount of time I’ve spent the last fifteen years on tasks like looking for housing, packing or unpacking cardboard boxes, dealing with realtors to get security deposits back, calling yet another utility company to start or stop service – all that is time that I haven’t done my own creative work because of the demands of being a military spouse.
I’ve had some amazing experiences. We’ve lived in cool places. We try to turn every PCS into an epic road trip vacation. We’ve met awesome people; it’s been a really colorful journey. I feel like every place we’ve been, we’ve been there for a reason – a friend we were supposed to meet, a medical practitioner who helped us figure something out, an opportunity for work or learning for my career. But, I want other military spouse artists to give themselves a break. Military spouse life can be really hard. It’s okay if, in the middle of a PCS, you don’t get any work done. It’s okay if you have to say no to a really cool project because you just can’t do it at this time. Your to-do list is long, and you need to make sure you make time and space on that list for your own self-care (sleep, exercise, eating well, stress management). Sometimes that means saying no to stuff.
MilspoFAN: What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?
Kimberlee: Connecting to that idea of time, obligations, and giving yourself a break: it’s easy to think you can only be creative when you “have time.” If you’re managing work, military life, and parenthood, you’re never going to have time.
When I was young, I thought that, in order to write, I needed dedicated blocks of time. As a military spouse and working mom, I’ve discovered how much I can get done with little bits of time used consistently. I wrote one of my wellness courses for The Great Courses – something like 60,000 words total – and I wrote it using lots of ten-minute blocks because of the needs of my kids and job at that time. It’s like exercise: ten minutes every single day, or a couple of times a day, add up to a lot more than the 30 or 60- or 90-minute block you can almost never make happen.
Practically, that means both that you make the most of the little pockets of time you have, and also mentally that you shift your mind set so that you’re not waiting for creativity, you’re not needing a bunch of complicated support structures to make the inspiration happen. When you have ten minutes, you sit down and do the work. Maybe you write one sentence or one verse. Maybe you read and revise one page.
In a Virginia Woolf ideal, I would have not only a room of my own (I am fortunate; I usually have a dedicated office, although sometimes it is half storage space) but also an hour of my own. I don’t always get that hour (or it’s an hour with my ear at half-attention in case a kid calls). I find a lot of inspiration in how Jane Austen wrote her beautiful novels in the midst of family life. I try to make the most of every bit of time I get to put my ideas down on paper.
Also, whatever is your media of creativity, make sure you are consuming it. If you’re a musician, listen to other musicians. If you’re a painter or photographer, you need to see those exhibits. If you’re a writer, you have to read. Read work like yours, read work that is different, read poetry and fiction and nonfiction. If you want to write, reading is key to figuring out what you like about language, about tone, about pacing.
MilspoFAN: Do you know any military spouse visual artists, musicians, performance artists or writers? We would love to have their contact to reach out for future interviews.
Kimberlee: I have a good friend, Nicole Lovald, who is also a military spouse and yoga teacher. We met when we were both working in academic administration for the same university. She’s written a beautiful memoir called Om Sweet Om, about surviving corporate life and finding a better way to live.
Nicole Lovald, MS, BCC, E-RYT Psychotherapist and Yoga Teacher: https://www.nicolelovald.com
While preparing for my thesis project, I was reading lots of military-related literature. My UTEP poetry professor, Professor Sasha Pimentel, had read one of Jehanne Dubrow’s poems in a collection about perfumes. Dr. Dubrow’s work was so beautiful and poignant about the challenges of military spouse life. I sent her an email, basically a fan girl note, and she was so kind and helpful – suggesting other writers to read on my journey. In fact, she was so amazing and supportive that she served on my thesis committee. It was really wonderful to have the opportunity of feedback on my creative writing project from someone who is both a professor of creative writing AND a military spouse. MilSpouseFAN has done interviews with Dr. Dubrow before, but for anyone reading who hasn’t read her work, all of it is beautiful. If you’re a military spouse you really have to read Stateside and Dots & Dashes. (https://www.milspofan.com/2018/04/24/an-interview-with-jehanne-dubrow/)
I also, in the MFA preparation process, read Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men are Gone. I am pretty sure Fallon is the only military spouse with published, critically acclaimed book-length fiction, and her book set at Fort Hood is a must-read for any military spouse creative writer. The women are real depictions of the challenges of military spouse life. Fallon also immediately responded to my fan girl email with encouragement for my own work. (https://www.milspofan.com/2017/01/31/an-interview-with-siobhan-fallon/)
She’s not a military spouse, but the military brat Ashlee Cowle’s beautiful book Beneath Wandering Stars is a really accurate depiction of the challenges of trauma of adolescence for military kids, and, again, she was a really supportive person when I reached out during my MFA research. (http://ashleecowles.com/mybooks/)
I think there’s something about the challenges we face writing in this space, of being military family members, that makes this artist’s community so supportive and encouraging. Dr. Dubrow has talked about how hard it is to talk honestly about the challenges of military life, because you don’t want to hurt or betray your loyalty to your service member or to the military overall, but you also need to honestly work, in your art, with how hard it can be to love someone who is in the military.