Bernadette Esposito grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in Wheaton and Downers Grove and attended The Evergreen State College, a small liberal arts college in Olympia, WA. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa and has taught in California and Wyoming. She’s been in Maine for seven years; After five years of teaching at Maine College of Art, she got a job at USM teaching honors math and writing. “I like it here in Maine, and I’d like to stay here,” she said when asked about her plans for moving in the future.
“When I grew up, my parents were divorced. My dad lived in Florida, so we did a lot of flying back and forth between Tampa and Chicago.” Esposito expresses that she wanted to be a pilot because she loved flying as a kid, but in early high school, she began having recurring plane crash dreams that were really specific. “I was also an avid journaler and I always wrote my dreams down. I just always had this fear that I was going to be in a plane crash in real life,” she said. The dreams didn’t stop, even as she wrote about them.
For Esposito, the anxiety over these dreams was very real. She described how she wouldn’t fly on certain days, certain airlines, or on planes with specific flight numbers. “I was obsessed with the number eight and wouldn’t fly if it was the eighth of the month or if the flight numbers added up to eight.” When she went through the math program at college she said it brought the anxiety down as she started learning about the low probability of her fear coming true.
Then in 2005, she experienced the very event she had been having dreams of for so long. “I had a writing fellowship in France following my first year in grad school, and I was flying to Paris from Montpellier when the engine exploded after taking off. It felt like the culmination of this fear that I had had for so long,” she said. It wasn’t until after the experience that Esposito realized she had chosen to fly on August 8, which coincided with her anxieties prior to the accident. She later found in her journal that two days prior she had had a plane crash dream but by then they had become so normal for her she hadn’t thought twice about it. After surviving the flight, she enrolled in a fear of flying program to help with the trauma and she began writing even more about her experiences and everything she knew about air disasters.
Esposito is a published essayist. After her near-air disaster experience, she focused her essays on that topic and she began collecting them and forming them into a full-length book. “It became more personal as I began looking at the fear, and examining it, and thinking about survival, and what it means to go beyond just surviving,” she said. Over the pandemic, she was able to get close to finishing her work and the culmination of her book will be coming to a close soon.
She has been working on it since 2013 when her agent suggested that her essays had the capacity to expand into something larger. She began speaking with air disaster survivors and researched exactly how survivability is calculated in the face of these events. “It’s all very math-y,” she said. “I went to the National Transportation Safety Board and trained to investigate survival factors in aviation accidents, and I was writing about the whole experience as an outsider looking in.” What was a traumatic experience became a reason to delve into the exploration of her daily life and how survivability and the idea of living past surviving resonated with her.
After writing and publishing short-form essays for years, Esposito felt liberated once she realized that her essays could be transformed into a larger work. “I wondered how I could sustain the reader’s attention in this more unconventional style where you have to work harder to pull the reader through when there isn’t a conventional plot-line.” She compared the process to that of quilt-making, something Esposito says she does in her free time; “It’s very pastiche, it works spatially and geometrically; I felt free writing outside a conventional form, but it also challenged me as a writer.”
She has used her experience writing essays and turning the conventional genre of writing into something more creative to inspire her students when planning out her classes. “In terms of designing courses, I give students a lot of opportunities to experiment and kind of play in their writing, similar to the way artists do, in order to liberate themselves from the constraints of a conventional form,” she said.
Her intrigue in arts and writing has inspired her to transform the academic setting of higher institutions into a more creative one. “I understand how, as a writer, you can get stuck in the mode of whatever it is you’re doing, but you can always give yourself permission to explore and play. Whether it fails in your mind or not, it’s a way to grow and keep the right part of your brain working,” she said. She encourages this in her honors writing courses with students who struggle with outcome-driven thinking. “What if it’s just about the process?” she poses.
When asked what advice she’d give to students interested in becoming writers, she responded with: “Try all kinds of writing. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Even if you like writing in one genre, like fiction, try some poetry, try literary journalism, ethnography, essay, sample everything,” she said. “And, as always, read everything. Read bestsellers, the classics, old literary works, read all genres, but also sample lesser-known works and less conventional works. Find as many voices as you can to talk about every kind of experience out there.”
Esposito says she still experiences dreams that often happen in real life, and she’s learned to deconstruct them for their meaning. Sometimes they’re still plane crashes, but that doesn’t stop her from moving on with her life. And she says she’d love to teach a course someday on understanding and interpreting dreams.