Our fiction co-editor Brett Sigurdson recently had this exchange with Millie Tullis, our Issue #12 featured nonfiction author. Here’s what she had to say about the before and after of her essay “The Bees Are All Women,” her time at Utah State, and the chapbook she is working on now.
“The Bees Are All Women” ends on an anguished note: a fight with your parents about your future. What happens after the essay ends? What is your relationship like with your parents now?
This essay reflects a very short span of time, but I feel that it captured my feelings from that time relatively easily because it was such a specific phase, about five months. As an eighteen year old, I didn’t quite understand how to prepare myself for what there was outside of Mormonism; I was frightened and alone, despite genuinely believing I was right. My family was afraid for me, but also angry with me because I had hurt them and rejected what they loved. I believe our collective fear turned into tension, anger, and loneliness, particularly between my mother and me.
My parents and I haven’t had an intense or difficult relationship for most of my life, the exception being those few months. As a teenager, I was perhaps more independent than is typical, and while I was very private, I rarely fought with my parents. After I rejected the church (which the breaking-up with Stephen seemed to symbolize for my parents), they were terrified. I think that they were afraid of their eighteen-year-old leaving the church because it opened up so many doors for me to explore that were potentially painful and dangerous, sexually and otherwise.
Furthermore, the LDS church is very particular about the seriousness of sexual sin. I think that this is because they are very serious about families and marriage in the LDS temple. As a Mormon, you are taught that the family is the center of God’s plan, and should be the center of your life. To my parents, these were the things I was rejecting: the very principles they built their lives and our family on. I suppose in a way this was somewhat true—I didn’t want to get married and start a family, I wanted to focus on school and writing—but from my perspective, I was trying to be honest about my desires and my serious doubts.
So I feel like this essay captured my emotions during this time, and my parents are only in the essay as they pertain to me and the pain that was part of that relationship. Our relationship has changed drastically since then. I think this is because after a certain amount of time they accepted that I was an adult, and a reasonably responsible one; I think it might have been easier for them early on to assume that I just wanted to sin, and that because I wanted that, I no longer wanted to have a testimony of Mormonism. From my perspective, it happened the other way around. Before I seriously desired anything outside of Mormonism, I doubted it.
I was always hopeful that they would see this “rebellion” as an expression of my sincere beliefs, and maybe they do now. But we rarely fought before I broke up with Stephen. After Stephen, they were too frightened to understand my own fear about this transitional stage in my life, and there was this huge disconnect between us. At some point shortly after this essay, we became closer; I felt like I could begin to talk to them about my life (initially thinking, “it’s not as though anything I say could make it any worse”), and that communication created a stronger relationship than we had had before. So I suppose I feel closer to them because I told them I didn’t believe in the church, and through the pain that created, I was able to finally talk to my parents openly.
Tell me more about your upbringing. What was it like?
I grew up in Cache Valley, Utah. This is in northern Utah and a large majority of the population was Mormon. The minority non-members were usually university employees from out of state, or former Mormons.
Growing up, my friends were all Mormon because almost everyone I knew was Mormon.
I don’t recall any non-Mormon kids in my elementary school, but I assume there were a few. By high school, I had two or three non-member friends, but they acted like Mormon kids. They didn’t drink, smoke, or have sex. Of course there were some kids in my school who probably did those things, but not very many. On top of being fairly academic, I was also in band and choir, so I was offered alcohol only once in high school, at a house party of a friend of a friend. I had no desire to try it. I was a kind of contradiction. I was a very good girl growing up, and I felt very safe and comfortable in my church community. I didn’t want to doubt what everyone I loved believed, and it was very difficult to sit in church meetings on Sundays and doubt or disagree with so much of what I was taught because I was very uncomfortable and secretive about my doubts.
I grew up in a family of six children and I never felt lonely. All eight of us went skiing every Saturday since before I can recall. Every Sunday we went to church for three hours. Monday nights we had family home evening. Every morning we had family scripture study before school and we prayed before every meal. I loved spending time with my family as a kid, but I think that all of our togetherness is part of what helped me learn to love reading and writing. Journaling was my solitude in a stuffed, busy house. It was where my thoughts became a part of my physical world, and to be able to form those thoughts and meditations gave me a real sense of identity.
It was a fairly sheltered world to grow up in. But maybe most childhoods are. I wouldn’t change my childhood or family, even though I don’t see the world the way I had as a child. I’m afraid of a lot more, but I also see a lot more. I think that I started to question my perception of the world when I was a teenager, when I started reading literature and watching serious movies.
What compelled you to write “The Bees Are All Women”?
“The Bees Are All Women” started in a braided essay class that I took when I was eighteen. This is the nonfiction class I mention in the essay when I asked Keith if I could interview him. At first, I really didn’t know what “The Bees” was going to be about. My professor, Dr. Jennifer Sinor, urged her students not to fixate on what the connection between the strands we were braided together would be, but to write and find our meaning through the writing. So I started with Sylvia Plath, who I was doing outside research on for an Honor’s project in my poetry writing class, and I started to research bees because I thought that understanding honeybees better would help me unpack some of the reading I was doing on Plath. Plath has several poems about keeping honey bees, and as I started to read her biographies, I learned that her father was a professor of insects, who wrote a very important textbook on bumblebees.
The third part of the essay, my personal strand, ended up coming out of the journals I was keeping at the time I was taking this course. It took about a year of being out of the class to be able to shape and connect those experiences in with the research, because in the earliest drafts I really couldn’t reflect on my emotions; I had no distance from them. I was still going through these feelings as I was originally writing the essay, but because of them, I was certainly led to thinking about privacy as I read Plath and interviewed Keith. But I don’t know that I understood how to make those different sections create meaning through the weaving for about a year after the course where I first wrote the essay.
Talk about the research you did for this piece. Why did you choose to interview Keith the beekeeper and delve into Sylvia Plath’s life?
I originally thought that I should start looking into beekeeping because I hoped that there would be some clear connection between Plath’s work and the act of beekeeping. She has several beekeeping poems in Ariel, which I had read prior to beginning my research. I was surprised that this wasn’t the way the bee strand ended up working in the essay. I didn’t focus on Plath’s poetry very much, for one thing. “Daddy” was the first poem I fell in love with when I was sixteen, and after that, I had read The Colossus and Ariel. Instead, I used this essay to talk more about her journal-keeping because I started reading her unabridged journals and the experience of reading those was completely different for me from the experience of reading her poetry.
When I was eighteen, Plath’s poetry was something I admired, but it was difficult to relate to. My nonfiction was greatly inspired by the self-conscious honesty in her journals, particularly her early journals. For me, her journals were about a smart, ambitious, angry girl who wanted to be important, who wanted to write things that were important. And I could relate to that.
The bee stuff that came from Keith ended up being more directly about me than Plath, which I didn’t expect when I started trying to make parallels and juxtapositions. I learned a lot about myself by reflecting on Keith as a character and the experience of seeing those strange hives as a disillusionment. And I think that disillusionment about spirituality/relationships/the future is a large part of what this essay is about.
I also began thinking about the ways I treat stories and characters in terms of privacy. My own curiosity as a writer and a reader is something I have learned to feel somewhat guilty for because I want to pry into people’s stories and secrets. I also want to expose my own, but my own story is not just mine. That’s something I have to wrestle with when I write, but not something I think I can fully resolve.
How has Plath influenced your writing, particularly your nonfiction?
Plath’s poetry in particular is so airtight, and uses absolutely no space, no word, unnecessarily. I hope to do that in my nonfiction, no matter how long pieces like “The Bees Are All Women” are.
But other than a deep admiration for her genius, I connected deeply to the themes in Plath’s work, particularly her prose and the discussion I could create from my own life based on similar themes. I first read her novel The Bell Jar the summer after I graduated from high school, shortly before this essay begins. I think that I connected to it because the sexual frustrations and gender roles that Plath struggled with in the 1950s were absurdly familiar to me as an eighteen year old who had grown up Mormon in Northern Utah. The LDS church still teaches that ideally a husband should work and a woman should stay at home to raise a family because these are their divine roles; they are both best prepared for these tasks. This was something I struggled with as a teenager in the church, because I wasn’t excited about getting married and having children. I was excited about my education and independence. When I turned to Plath’s journals, particularly from her undergraduate years, I found the same kinds of frustrations and pressures that I had felt for so long.
You and I both attended Utah State University. How would you describe the nonfiction and other creative writing in the English program? How has your voice grown as a student there?
Even though I ended up attending Utah State for the wrong reasons (I already had a scholarship and therefore didn’t bother to apply anywhere else), I have been absolutely amazed by USU’s English department and creative writing program. I entered as a freshman at USU having all my generals knocked out of the way, and declared that I was going to be a creative writing English major.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I was so confident in this decision. I had written in journals my entire life and had written some really bad love poems in high school, but there was nothing I could say I was proud of. I had never had the opportunity to take a creative writing class during high school and almost all of my writing and been academic (the exception being fourth grade, where I wrote a lot of concrete poems and short stories about animals being good friends). But I loved writing essays for English classes, primarily literary analysis stuff, and I think part of me held onto this romantic idea left over from the fourth grade about being a poet or writer. On the one hand, I think that I practiced all the time (journaling and reading incessantly), and on the other hand, I didn’t think I was a writer because I never wrote anything good. I didn’t even know how to answer the question, “What do you write?”
Creative writing classes at USU made me into a writer. I know what I write and what I keep writing about because of those classes. I still journal a lot, and that is the primary source of my essays and poetry, but it was the creative writing classes and the workshop atmosphere that gave me a sense of community, which then gave me a sense of who I am as a writer and what I hope to use my voice to do. I also learned about editing and the journey that it takes to understanding what your own work is about. Because of the workshops in those classes, my editing takes readers and conversations, but it has thematically become far stronger because of those feedback experiences.
You mentioned working on “Bees” with Jennifer Sinor, one of my mentors at USU. What have you learned from her?
I can’t imagine answering this question with justice, but I will try. I was lucky enough to take a course from Jennifer my first semester at USU. Even though I didn’t quite understand what creative nonfiction writing was, I journaled a lot, so I figured this is what I would make my niche (which was really pretentious of me, because the more I learned about nonfiction the more it terrified me, and the more I loved it).
So first, Jennifer taught me what creative nonfiction was by exposing me to the literature and helping me shape my essays in her introduction course. But it’s more complicated than that, because the answer to what creative nonfiction is is constantly expanding. So I suppose while I learned helpful technical skills and lingo, more interestingly, she taught me to read and stretch the forms and the starting places of my own work; that’s a big part of what I love about nonfiction. I don’t feel like I can ever get into a rut with the length, form, shape or topic. Nonfiction is the easiest thing for me to begin writing because I think that Jennifer has allowed me to feel that it can grow into so many things.
I usually don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve written a draft, read it, been surprised by what it actually was about (compared to what I thought I would be writing about), and then run it past a group of peers who understand the genre and then I get to realize I still didn’t understand what I was saying. I think that I might learn the most about my own work and what the writing is trying to say through group workshops and the writers I have found through classes, including my mentors.
What are you working on now?
I just finished six flash pieces about rape that I conceived as a chapbook titled Red. I’m in the very final polishing stages for most of them, and I’m trying to decide if I’m brave enough to try for chapbook contests. I’m currently very excited about the flash form because I can become more creative with form and add a lot to such a short piece that way. Where a large part of the chapbook deals with trauma, form helps me as a writer try to contain and make sense of what feels impossible to understand or quantify. Which is what recovering from trauma is, this trying to make form where there is seemingly only chaos, and yet so much can be recovered without losing that sense of impossibility.
Given that Mud Season Review grew out of a writer’s workshop, I have to ask: what was your worst writing workshop or feedback experience?
Most of my workshopping experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. But of course there are a few exceptions. The funniest experience I had workshopping happened in the creative nonfiction class where I was working on “The Bees Are All Women.”
Because the essay does not move chronologically, one peer became confused about the timeline and the male characters in this piece (I’m not sure how, as there are only two, Jaden and Stephen) and she said in a strangely exasperated tone, “I’m just having a hard time keeping track of all of the men she is with in this piece!” I was embarrassed that the writing was that confusing, when I knew there were only two boys in the entire piece.