TSP Talks to Bruce Mills
Feature Artist: Linda Rzoska
A Good Cause
TSP Talks to Kristi Petersen Schoonover
TSP Talks to Bruce Mills
Kalamazoo and Beyond
Kalamazoo & Beyond 2
Zinta Reviews
Zinta Reviews 2
Links and Resources
The Editors

Bruce Mills (Photo by Keith Mumma)

Born and raised in Storm Lake, Iowa, Bruce Mills grew up in a working class family of seven children.  When not caught up in the commotion of a large family or the seductive tales told by his British grandmother, he was dribbling a basketball or trespassing onto neighborhood driveways (or into gyms) to shoot baskets.

As a teacher, Bruce has a broad and deep fascination with storytelling.  He has published on how writers such as abolitionists Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Maria Child sought to create more inclusive narratives of American democracy.  His book Poe, Fuller, and the Mesmeric Arts explores why Edgar Allan Poe and Margaret Fuller turned to early notions of the hypnotic state in their tales or essays.

Bruce has published creative nonfiction in The Georgia Review, New England Review, September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond, and Gravity Pulls You In: Parenting Children on the Autism Spectrum.  Along with Debra Cumberland, he co-edited Siblings and Autism: Stories Spanning Generations and Cultures.  His advocacy in relation to autism has led to presentations at numerous conferences.  His writing has also been recognized through reception of the B. Frank Vogel Scholar award to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and a Pushcart Prize special mention.  Bruce teaches at Kalamazoo College in Michigan.



Zinta for The Smoking Poet: Welcome to the pages of The Smoking Poet, Bruce. Congratulations on your new book, The Archaeology of Yearning, published by Etruscan Press. I can tell you that when I received my copy, I had some general expectation about a book that would be a story about parenting a child with autism. Well, yes and no. What I found, upon reading, was one of the most beautifully written, poetic accounts of a parent’s love and devotion to his children, his family, one member of which is Jacob, your now 22-year-old son who has autism. Please tell our readers something about your book and how you came to writing it, the story of the story, so to speak.

Bruce Mills:  Thanks, Zinta.  The story of the story is about the struggle to find the time and form for the book.  I drafted an early version of what opens An Archaeology of Yearning, “Flesh and Blood,” in the summer of 1995.  In it, I sketched out a memory that seemed especially urgent to get on paper, the time when my three-year-old son, who had very limited language, yelled “What is happening?  What is happening?” when he was denied video time.  Later, in 2000, I tried to coerce experiences into a traditional, chronological narrative beginning just before Jacob’s diagnosis and ending around the time my son was eight and daughter ten.  The 70-80 page manuscript felt flat and uninspired, as if I was seeking events to fill out a time line rather than probe memories that had a powerful gravitational pull, so to speak.

So I labored with the writing (and the living) for a long time—a very long time—before finding my way to the archaeological metaphor and the current shape of the book.  In the title chapter, the last piece in the book, I talk of running across a National Geographic article on the Chauvet cave art.  These beautiful drawings and the story of their discovery led me to reflect on how remembering is like an investigation of a sacred site.  The memories that we collect—or recollect—suggest a landscape more than a timeline.  Moreover, to try to put these recollections in a rigid chronology may actually distort the truth of an experience.  So I decided my task was to search for central artifacts, scrutinize them, and then see how they connect with other fragments in adjoining quadrants and the layers beneath.  The archaeology metaphor provided a kind of method and helped me understand that I could leave out a great deal and still capture the story.

Zinta: You have said that this book is not about autism. How would you describe it? What are the elements of archaeology and yearning here? What is your yearning?

Bruce: It is important for me that readers understand there is more to be found in the book than facts about autism, although this aspect of my son’s identity is immensely important and does clearly affect the landscape of the story.   I began to see that my memoir told a very old tale.  It is about getting lost, about needing to shed an old self, and, of course, about the role of others in helping find a new way of seeing and, in doing so, a sturdier and more steadfast kind of hope and connection.

In the last chapter, for instance, I tell of my son’s endless drawing and his persistent writing of “The End.”  During a time when he had lost language, he still used pens, sticks, and his own finger and spit to mark those words on paper, in dirt and sand, and on windows.  These were hard years, but, the more I mapped out the grid of our lives, the more I understood how Jacob was really seeking to connect through this expression.  In this way, the story is not about autism but about developing a rich relationship across difference.  For this reason, and it may not best serve the marketing of the book, I left autism out of the title.

Jacob and his mother, Mary, at the craft store

Zinta: Why is storytelling of so much importance? Why do we need stories?


Bruce: I mentioned that my memoir in part is about getting lost.  For me, this is another way of saying that, initially, I could not easily fit my son’s behaviors and my relationship with him into how I had come to understand children and childrearing—or into the stories that I had read about child development or the dynamic of family life. 


I believe that we are constantly creating who we are through the stories we tell—whether we acknowledge it or not.  The past is only meaningful as it is given order through some kind of narrative.  The future becomes manageable, so to speak, through the cohering power of how we imagine a place within it—which means that we have some kind of plot in mind regarding our goals and relationships or such things as a moral life and the inevitable reality of death.


In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien voices some of these ideas: "Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."





Bruce Mills, his wife Mary Holtapp (in purple), and their children, Sarah and Jacob

Zinta: Writing a memoir is a touchy thing, few if any type of writing more sensitive. You are, after all, writing about your closest beloveds. How did your family participate and finally accept this book?

Bruce:  Ah, yes, you put your finger on one difficult dimension of creative nonfiction.   Ultimately, and I do not think I can get around this fact, my memoir embodies a trespassing upon the private lives of my son, daughter, and wife—and others who get written into the narrative.  This issue is magnified in connection to my son because, at this time in his life anyway, he is not capable of responding to how he is represented in the book.  No matter what is said or how it is said, I am selecting and shaping the memories. 

In a workshop at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference a number of years ago now, I remember pushing back against the idea that a writer’s sole obligation is to the integrity of his or her own story.   What I did not articulate well at the time, I suppose, was that this notion of integrity can be a complex one, especially when it comes to disability.  If I believe that we are shaped by stories, after all, it is possible that I can get locked into formulaic (and sometimes problematic) plotlines about what is possible for my autistic son.  I am not sure that I am that “free” or independent from the influence of other stories and images.   So, as a writer, I live with both the truth of this dedication to my personal vision and to the need to be vigilant concerning its limiting force upon others’ lives.

But, to bring this down to practical matters, I negotiated these concerns—at least with my wife and daughter—with having them read the book as it took shape.  With Sarah, more specifically, I asked her to relate those memories that seemed most vivid to her and worked from these notes in the third section of the book, the one focusing on her experiences with Jacob.  In the end, they accept the book and see in it a truthful and accurate expression of our experiences.  This is not to say, of course, that they would choose the same memories or render the past in the same way!

Zinta: We often talk about what we, as parents, teach our children—but our children surely teach us as much or more. What has Jacob taught you? What has Sarah taught you?

Bruce: In my acknowledgements to An Archaeology of Yearning, I thank my son for his love and “rituals of living” that “compel me to write and to reconsider all that I think I know.”  At the end of “Flood Plain,” I conclude with the admission that living with Jacob is “about the painful unburdening that comes when the mind expands to see anew.”  These lines capture what I think he has taught me; he has given me the potential to understand the world through a different lens.  I must confess, though, that at times this process of seeing anew is like a re-breaking of a poorly-mending fracture to create a better healing. 

In the past year or so, Sarah has begun to help me become less of a parent with a capital “P.”  She reminds me that I do not need to force a lesson from every experience, as if she might not understand its meaning or, more importantly, have her own way of naming it.   In looking back, I feel that, in an effort to protect her, I was sometimes a bit harsh.  It was not doing her any service, I thought, to pretend that “fairness” demanded some immediate and equal compensation when Jacob might be taking so much of our time and energy.   That Sarah loves Mary, Jacob, and me with such openness and depth—having been a witness to so much fallibility and chaos—is moving.    

Zinta: Autism is a fast growing concern, with diagnoses springing up everywhere. There is talk of all kinds of causes, some with merit, some surely without, based on fear and lack of education. But we need to keep an open mind if we are to find the answer or answers. You are not just a writer and educator, but involved also with groups dedicated to helping those whose lives are touched by autism. What do these people say and believe? What theories make most sense?

Bruce: I hope that I can do justice to these questions.  Perhaps one way to approach autism is to understand that there is no blood test.  Diagnosis emerges from close observation of social interactions, communication, ritualistic or repetitive acts, and sensory-processing issues.  Regarding sensory processing, for example, some people with autism cannot easily interpret sound; words are undifferentiated noise.  Others cannot filter out the flickering of a fluorescent light or a strong perfume—and, if nonverbal, may act out to try to express distress.   It is also important to know that autism is a spectrum disorder—which means that, on one end of a range, some are highly impaired when it comes to social communication, perseverative behaviors, and responsiveness to sensory input and, on the other end, others are much less affected and, perhaps, capable of high achievements and distinctive contributions in chosen vocations.  Some are verbal, others nonverbal, and so on.  In part, more people are being diagnosed because there is a greater knowledge of this spectrum of behaviors and impacts.

Theories regarding autism often point to a central issue: those with autism have trouble maintaining joint attention.  Some research suggests that the brain is not wired to attend to human faces, to engage in eye contact, or to pick up easily on the inner states of others.  Objects such as a toy train or a lamppost can be as compelling as a human face.  Imagine, then, negotiating a world where everyone seems to be picking up social cues and you are not.  In one study, researchers tracked the eye movement of viewers watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.   Neurotypicals focused on the eyes, often switching back and forth between those of different actors in a scene.  People with autism tended to concentrate on the mouth and, often, looked at other objects on the screen.  

It takes a great deal of time and energy, then, to teach those with autism to attend to the eyes or to other social behaviors that lead to joint attention.  But this is possible.  With my son, one of the most satisfying accomplishments is his acquiring the tools and coping strategies to bridge the gap between his way of knowing and mine; for me, I hope, it is the growing capacity to demand less of my neurotypical  perspective when he is enjoying the world in his own way.  To get to this place speaks to the endless work of my son, his teachers, aides, and many, many others—and to a cost, thankfully, that has become more recognized through changes in insurance and addressed through other forms of public and private funding.

Zinta: I recently did some research for a cover story about autism in a regional magazine, Encore, and one of the comments I heard strikingly often when talking to families with members who have autism—and that included you—was that you can’t quite bring yourself to regret having it come into your lives. That it might even be a gift … a different way of knowing. Explain.

Bruce: Yes, this re-framing of our notions concerning autism has been constantly evolving.  In recent years, the term neurodiversity seeks to capture this new perspective.  Might we not see autism as evidence of human diversity, as a different mode of experiencing the world with its own strengths?  Do we always need to focus on what is absent or impaired as compared to those who are wired for a another kind of social interaction?  I do not believe that we should diminish the challenge faced by those who have autism and those who live with and assist them.  Some individuals on the spectrum struggle with profound communication and sensory issues that may lead to isolation and aggression.  Still, my son’s persistent desire to draw images of storybook or television characters like Madeline, Pooh, and others reflects a creative presence. 

By the way, if not regret, I did succumb to depression, years of it.  I wrote the book, in part, to give a more hopeful story to what at times seemed hopeless.

Cover story, "A Different Way of Knowing," by Zinta Aistars, on Bruce Mills and his family and about autism (Click on image to read).

Zinta: How is Jacob doing today?

Bruce: Just the other day, he called to me from the living room.  “What are those birds?” he asked.  I came into the room, and we both looked at two mourning doves sitting together on the back deck.  I am not sure I can express what it means to hear such questions, to be asked to join him in naming what he is seeing.  For years, we had to practice “What” questions (and the other “w” questions).   For years, as I have written in the book, he did not call out to my wife and me by name.  A whole new world, then, is opening up.  So, how is Jacob doing?  Day by day, month by month, he is engaging with us in ways that were not available to him in the past.  We all have a long way to go, of course, for it is not likely that he will be able to live independently.  We are enjoying, however, the life of a continually evolving interdependence.

Zinta: Where can people learn more about autism? And about you and your book?

Bruce: The latter question is more easily answered.  I have a website: .  On it, I do some blogging in relation to the book and the idea of storytelling as well as include interviews, upcoming readings, teaching tools and contact information.

The former question is a bit harder, because there are so many books and other online resources available these days—some written as an introductory understanding of autism and others for those eager to do deeper research.  On my website, people can click the link, “Discussion Questions,” and scroll down to some selected links.

Zinta: Finally, Bruce, what is your core message—what you want our readers to understand most about your story, even if they miss all the rest?

Bruce: Deep and enduring connections demand a willingness to reframe what you think you know about the world. 

Zinta: Thank you, Bruce.

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