Author and UNCW visiting writer Kim Barnes knows she has her work cut out for her, cramming a semester’s worth of exploration into a four-week graduate nonfiction class. “I’ve done a lot of 10- or seven-day workshops, but I’ve never done a four-day, and that’s in 40 years of teaching,” she says. Then again, Barnes rarely has faced a challenge she didn’t meet head on.
The child of an authoritarian, fundamentalist Christian father, Barnes was raised largely in the isolated settlements and logging camps along the North Fork of Idaho’s Clearwater River. She documented her experiences in the 1996 memoir, “In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and established her as an unflinching seeker of personal truths. Now the author of two memoirs and three novels—including “A Country Called Home” (2008), winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction—she’ll read from her work at UNCW’s Kenan Hall next Thursday night.
Barnes teaches in the M.F.A. program at University of Idaho, where she served as a mentor to essayist and UNCW assistant professor of creative writing Sayantani Dasgupta. Dasgupta credits Barnes with inspiring her switch from fiction to nonfiction, and for teaching her to trust her voice as a writer. “As a professor, Kim is not only generous but empowering as well,” Dasgupta says. “She will share with you her successes and her failures; no subject is either taboo or off the table.”
encore caught up with Barnes as she was preparing to teach her first class at UNCW.
encore (e): How much do you draw a line between fiction and nonfiction, or do you see them as two sides of the same coin?
Kim Barnes (KB): They are two sides. For me, the sides are definitive. So I’m quite strict with myself and very strict with my students, unless they’re just lying to me.
e: Lying about the facts?
KB: Yeah. I think “facts” is a word that some writers and critics get distracted by. We’re talking about art, and of course art is made up of facts in a way, but it’s what we do with those facts that matters. We know memory is not truth, but if you have to make up action and stuff that happens in nonfiction, that’s just a failure of the imagination. Each of our lives has plenty to stage a drama. We just have to be able to pay attention.
e: You’re saying you don’t have to live an exceptional life to be able to write memoir.
KB: No, not at all, because it’s all vertical movement. What happens is the horizontal movement. That’s the most boring part of the story. We can read that in any newspaper or tell-all. The confessional—what that means in literary terms is not dragging all your skeletons out, but rather paying attention to the life of the emotions. And emotions aren’t horizontal; they’re vertical.
e: Can you elaborate?
KB: Well, our brains try to make linear narratives of everything, right? “This happened and then this happened and then this happened.” The fact is, memory knows no chronology and our thought process is not linear. I’m sitting here talking to you, and my brain and my body and my eyes are processing about 50 things. Everything from noise to temperature to what these people are doing to what the sun’s like. So when we try to make meaning of experience, we have to dig.
I always say in nonfiction you have to be willing to demythologize your self-mythology—who you tell yourself who you are. Every morning you get up and look in the mirror and say, “This is who I am.” Your familial mythology—who your family is and who your family has told you you are. Are you the sensitive one? The black sheep? The quiet one? Are you, you know—she’s hell bound to do what she wants no matter what? You have to be able to demythologize that. You have to be able to demythologize your neighborhood, your community, your culture. Socioeconomics, your religion, your inheritance, and every part of your identity. You have to be able to take that out and look at it, like you’re looking at a specimen under a microscope.
You have to treat yourself like a main character, which means you have to be both incredibly subjective and incredibly objective. You have to stay in that place of what seems contrary, of negative capability. Oxymoronic vision. Whatever you want to call it. And you then have to find a way to observe those elements. Not just broadly—what was going on in the world, what was going on in the universe, what was going on in history, what happened 200 years ago on the ground I’m standing on?—but microscopically. So, what’s my DNA? I’m sorry, but we’ve got to start thinking about that in nonfiction.
I’m a scientific realist, which means: number one, I don’t believe in free will. Number two, I believe we are going to find that we can pretty much track everything to DNA and the brain and chemistry. Where does that leave literature of any kind? There is no story. Without free will, without a sense of being able to control some part of our environment … there’s no room for that in scientific realism.
That’s quite a paradox.
It is a paradox. But I love it. All of that is an attempt to make sense of our lives. John Gardner said there’s only one story: who am I and why? That’s the only story there is. And that’s the story in nonfiction, that’s the story in fiction, that’s the story in poetry. Who are we? And why?
e: What advice would you give to someone who wants to write memoir but is afraid of upsetting his or her family?
KB: This is huge, and not simple. At the same time, it’s very simple. Write first and foremost to serve the art—not to purge, not out of anger, not for therapy. If you do it for the right reasons, you’d be surprised how people will honor that story, especially if they feel like your reasons are earnest. You’re not trying to hurt anybody. You’re just doing what we all are doing, which is trying to figure out what’s going on. I try to treat my nonfiction characters the way I do my fiction characters: Who are they, and why? In doing that, they often feel like they’re finally being seen.
e: You’re talking about compassion.
KB: It is compassion. Now, if you’re from a family of defined dysfunction—and by that I mean alcoholism, addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, any kind of severe dysfunction like that, where family or community or tribe has gathered around to create a false narrative, and if you puncture that narrative, you get exiled—you’ve got to say, “Am I willing for that to happen?” In my case, I was willing to take the risk that my father would once again shun me. I felt like it was something I had to do because I wanted to get to the truth. And he didn’t shun me. It was just the opposite, which I hadn’t expected. He and I became incredibly close.
Usually, your worst-case scenario isn’t going to happen—if you do it for the right reasons. But if you’re all secretive, like, Oh, I’m going to write it as fiction? Deadly. How many people do I know say, “My family doesn’t want me to write this story so I’m going to write it as fiction”? Then, your family not only knows what you’re doing, but they’re going to be more pissed off, and they’re not going to have any respect for you because you did not have the courage of your convictions. You’ve got to have the courage of your convictions. If you do that, people may not agree, but they will respect you—if you’re from a family like mine, anyway.
e: I heard you wrote a poem in elementary school that your mother tore up. Does writing feel transgressive to you?
KB: It did then but in a different way. It does now because I believe in radical vulnerability; that’s pretty transgressive. I believe in telling the truth of my life. Do I think there’s just one truth with a capital “T”? Well, no. Please!
e: Your first memoir was nominated for a Pulitzer, and your novel “A Country Called Home” won a PEN award. What does that kind of recognition do to you as a person or as a writer?
KB: As writers and artists we all walk this line, right? I say never confuse the business of writing with the art of writing. That’s easier said than done sometimes—especially with the pressures of publishing, and if you’re in the academy and you want to stay in the academy? Boy, that pressure … Those are the realities. At the same time, I always say, your most sacred relationship has to be between you and the page.
When I got the call from the newspaper that I was a finalist for the Pulitzer, I was in the middle of nowhere Idaho. Really, we were 40 minutes from the nearest gallon of milk, above this amazing river. Number one, of course, it doesn’t feel real. But what struck me was that I was representing that place. It was a story of that place, and it was a story of me in that place, but also of all those people in those logging camps and little towns. And it’s a peculiar story. We want to be peculiar in our stories, by the way, but at the same time, open to every reader, if possible, seeing themselves in that peculiarity.
I have run into so much extraordinary—I don’t know what to call it—a kind of regionalism classism. When I was on a coast-to-coast book tour, I think it was with the first memoir, I had a big live radio in Florida or somewhere with someone they called the female Rush Limbaugh. And the first question out of her mouth was, “How did you get from that place to where you are now?” By then I’d had this question asked so many times, as though I had stepped out of the woods, you know, having been raised by wolves, miraculously gifted with speech. I said, “You know, even people who live in relative isolation live lives of the mind.” And it was like news. She didn’t believe me, frankly.
e: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
KB: It all comes down to this: butt in chair. I mean—everybody says that, you know? It’s just so true. You have to be in the presence of it.
If you can, decide what race you want to run: are you a short-distance runner or a long-distance runner? Then, you’ve got to give yourself over to the practice of that. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have or degrees or anything like that. You have to apply yourself. So, what is it going to be? Piano? Violin? Fiddle? You can’t just say, “Oh, I can play any instrument.” Some people can, but most of us have to pick one and do it really well and practice for the rest of our lives. If you want to be Yo-Yo Ma, what, you think you’re just going to practice on weekends?
Why do we undervalue the effort and time and application it takes with writing? I think it’s because anyone can write. Anyone can put words on page. Not anyone can sit down and even play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
What it comes down to is honoring your decision and your art, and not letting anyone else dishonor it. Surround yourself with people who honor your quest. Our culture cannot abide a quest. We’re such an either-or culture. Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Do you drive foreign cars or domestic cars? There’s no fence sitting. You know, Dante had a special place in hell for fence sitters. We need to honor the quest, and the quest takes a long time.
If you will honor your own quest as a writer, and devote yourself to the practice—even with raising family, even with illness, even with having to make a living—you do all that if you’re a Buddhist, and you still honor your practice. Spend some time at that altar.