In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Elizabeth Horneber
Tell us about your CNF piece “Tending to Fires” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
One of the strange things about growing up is that you start to see your parents as regular people. You start to notice their flaws and understand them in ways you perhaps couldn’t have as a kid. At least that’s been true for me. I live several states away from my parents, so when I see them, all of that sort of overwhelms me. I visited my parents just after the 2016 election. It was heavy on my mind. And there was my dad saying, “Remember Quint?” It brought everything, literally, home—how embedded certain attitudes are in our world and how they’re subtly reinforced by people we care about. My story with Quint in the grand scheme of things doesn’t seem like a big deal, but even my own sense of it as insignificant seems telling.
The piece was me trying to understand all this and say, here’s a man (my father) I love deeply, a man I have compassion for, a man who raised me in a really safe household. I’m grateful for that. And yet… And yet here’s also a memory that showcases how certain behaviors are so accepted to the point that women like myself question whether we have a right to be upset. And we do. I wonder if sometimes the small stories can be the most telling in terms of how we end up with a culture where the “big” stories become possible. You know, how did we get here? Well, this. This is how. Or at least one small piece of how.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
I get excited when a piece of writing seems to open something in me. When it changes or challenges something in me. A sharp observation. A revelatory metaphor. I get excited if I sense myself widening somehow. My attention sometimes drifts if a writer goes with the easy thought/question instead of the hard one. Maybe this is also just me articulating what I want my own writing to do, what I’m striving to learn how to do better.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
As a teenager I took a community college writing class from a woman named Barbara Lovenheim. After she graded our first set of essays, she read my essay out loud in front of the class. I’d written about my childhood game room, this mess of a space with headless Barbies and dress up clothes littering the burnt orange shag carpet.
Maybe it was that someone wanted to share my work with others, and maybe it was just hearing my words in someone else’s mouth. I was a quiet, anxious-to-please girl. Hearing my words out loud like that—I think I felt more solid and grounded in my body than ever before. I was terrified, and emboldened, and now I’m just after that feeling.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Right now is an exciting time to be a woman essayist, because there is a wealth of brilliant women essay-ing right now. Maggie Nelson was an important voice to come across early in my study of CNF, because she changed the game for me in terms of conceptualizing what was possible in the genre. I had a similar experience reading Eula Biss’ On Immunity. There are so many others. I wasn’t very aware of CNF as a genre before my mid-twenties, but at some point I felt like I’d accidentally wandered into a room full of intelligent, articulate women having interesting, useful conversations about this world, this life. Now, I’m quite happy to hang out here for a while—listening, learning.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I used to sing in choirs a lot. My sisters and I would all sing, and we were jokingly called the Von Trapp Family on more than one occasion. I love the sense of being among others, of being part of something—a moment, a feeling, a sensation. Writing doesn’t always give me that, but sometimes I feel this way at a reading when the energy is great and the room seems filled with a generous spirit. I like remembering that we make this art for ourselves, but also for and with each other.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
I pleasure in collage, juxtaposition, and image when I write, and during the drafting process I take so much time with them myself that sometimes the connections I see are too implicit. I struggle to always know when I just need to tell my reader something. I rely on readers to let me know when I need to flesh more of my thinking out on the page.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
I suppose it’s just that certain ideas and questions are so prominent in the public consciousness that it’s hard not for that to also seep into the private consciousness. It’s hard to keep public obsessions from becoming private obsessions, and for those, in turn, to show up in the work. I tell myself often that I need to get off social media and see what other private obsessions might be in me that just aren’t getting room to breathe, but I also am really interested in the dynamics of public conversation and public narrative. It’s hard not to feel like I’ll be missing out on something. I wonder if I’ll actually see something more clearly. I go back and forth.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Family. Heritage. Home. Place, and place-making. One’s sense of self, especially in relation to others. Women. Being a woman. Love. Uncertainty.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I pamper myself. I get a hot drink. Light some candles (or more lately, plug in the infuser). I listen to music—I find a song and play it on repeat for an hour or two or more, so it ceases to be a distraction and becomes instead a mood. I make a space I’m content to be in, because I need long stretches of uninterrupted time to make progress on a piece. I have to get into a certain headspace. So I make it an event.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’ve recently come to accept that Mankato, Minnesota is my home. That was never really the plan, yet the way things have worked out, I’ll probably be here a while longer. So I’ve begun thinking about Mankato and some of the complications with feeling at home here. I come from German immigrants who came to southern Minnesota in the nineteenth century. We have roots here. But in the grand scheme of history, those roots aren’t that deep, and our arrival was sanctioned and supported by a government that displaced a people with deeper roots. Yet this is where we’re now rooted. I’m not sure that we have any other roots to speak of. So I’m thinking about that.
Elizabeth Horneber’s essays have appeared in AGNI, Hotel Amerika, Tin House, and elsewhere. She has been awarded an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series fellow. She is a mentor with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop and teaches creative writing in Mankato, Minnesota.