Monday, December 21, 2020

Karen Barr lives with her husband and three min doxies, on 34-acres east of Kansas City. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, gardening, talking to the neighbor’s calves, and sitting among the charm of 45-60 hummingbirds that spend the summers off her upper deck. She is editor-in-chief of Village Square literary magazine, an extension of Writer’s Village University. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, WVU, is a four-time winner of the UK Write-Invite online competition, and her publications include stories in Ginsinko, Lost River Review, and Village Square

If you haven’t read her story, “Our World Is Not Normal” please take the time to do so and then come back to learn more about her process. 

 -------- interview with Sue Bradford Edwards -------- 

WOW: Although I suspect I know the answer – what was your inspiration for “Our World Is Not Normal?” What did you do to make the story more universal? 

Karen: Yes, I think the inspiration is fairly obvious, but it's interesting how that follows into your second question. It all came from a 3-word prompt. I believe it was smoke, fog, & glass. 

When I read those words there could be no other meaning. They described a world being invaded by something sinister. An unseen enemy that could be foiled by a pane of glass. Suddenly it felt like science-fiction, an event that could happen to any world, anywhere. 

So I explored that possibility. What it might look and feel like, how a collective voice might experience and report it to future generations. It was a cathartic process as well. Being able to look at a situation similar to what we're currently experiencing, from the outside, allowed me to dissect and inspect a lot of my pent-up emotions. Using the 'we' voice really helped me to experience it more universally, and hopefully, the writing followed. 

WOW: Rewriting is such a vital part of the creative process. How did your story change through rewriting? 

Karen: This was one of those stories that came to me as I wrote. I had no idea where it was going from one paragraph to the next. So there was a bit of tidying, but surprisingly, not as much as most things I've written. 

The only real changes to this story were a couple of efforts to clarify at the sentence level and a half-dozen word choice switches. This is actually, the very first story I've ever sent out without weeks or months of revisions! 

I work with a wonderful writing group at WVU (Writer's Village University). They've been my beta readers for the last seven years and they are most generous with their comments and suggestions. Most of my work goes through major changes during the revision process. 

WOW: Isn’t it amazing when a piece comes together without a struggle? How does your work as an editor on Village Square inform your writing? 

Karen: The position has given me a new perspective on the process. For example, I've found out how difficult it is to turn down a submission! When you have two great pieces to choose from and one hole to fill, it comes down to details. So, I spend more time on my final revisions, paying special attention to details like word choice and flow. Even how the text looks on the page. I'm a big believer in white space. 

I've learned a lot just by reading work from such a diverse group. It opens me up to new perspectives and regional terminology. 

It's also helped me to be kinder to myself. We writers tend to take rejection personally and when that happens, it stifles our creative flow. Knowing the pressure editors can be under has taken much of the sting out of the rejections I receive. 

WOW: Nothing can flatten a writer quite like a rejection! What projects are you working on now? 

Karen: I always seem to have a handful of short stories 'in the works,' but currently, no new projects waiting in the wings. I'm also an administrator at Writer's Village University and I facilitate a lot of classes there, so my time is limited. 

But to be honest, this has been a stressful year for most of us. With all that's going on in the world, I'm happy to just relax with my husband and puppies through the holidays, and once the new year begins, I'll get back to work. 

WOW: What a great segue into my last question. What advice do you have for writers who have had trouble creating in 2020? How might they relaunch their writing in 2021?

Karen: Now you're going to make me reveal my master plan! LOL 

Let's split that in two. For those who've found it hard to create - BE KIND to yourself. The stress and tension we're experiencing is a worldwide phenomenon. We're all in this together. Our world is seeing unprecedented times. The political, social, and economical landscape of the U.S. was in flux, and the rest of the world held its collective breath. The entire planet let out a sigh of relief over the election, only to be thrust right back into the fray of confusion and unease with the subsequent attempts to overturn the results. 

We've suffered so many ups & downs this year. Wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, plane crashes, murder hornets, vanishing stars, not to mention the extra burden of job loss, childcare, figuring out how to pay the bills with one less earner in the household...the list goes on. We shouldn't be hard on ourselves if we found it difficult to create. 

Look at it as time spent filling the creative well. It's been feast or famine in the world of creativity. Some found the quarantine a relief. A time for silence, a time to reflect and evolve. For them, it's been a time of meditation, healing, and repurposing. 

Others have had so many balls in the air they haven't had a chance to relax. Between helping and caring for others outside their own households, children now at home who are normally in school, spouses losing jobs, and the accompanying flurry of panic as they try to find ways to keep their homes and possessions. And we won't leave out all the essential workers who have laid their lives on the line, working 12-16 hour shifts, putting themselves and their own families in danger to care for the rest of us. 

We've lost time, friends, and loved ones. But we're still here. 

Now, looking ahead to next year and how we might relaunch our writing in 2021... I can only speak for what's worked for me in the past and what I'm going to try to do, and that's R-E-L-A-X. I know how much the stress of the past year has hobbled my writing, and I know the cure, but I admit, it's been difficult to implement. 

1) Stop watching the news. It's a perpetual worry machine. My husband is much more into the inner workings of politics than I am, so he leaves the news channel on all day. I can't tell you how hard it is to walk through the living room and not get caught by the "Breaking News" that pops up every few hours. I can feel my body tense up as I watch. Find a time, no more than fifteen minutes a day, to inform yourself and after that, stay away from the news. 

2) That goes double for social media. The world around us has been in chaos for the last year and we've assimilated that chaos by starting the day with news or newsfeeds. In order to create, we must clear the chaos from our brains and social media does nothing but enhance that chaos. We generally have very little willpower when we're in chaos, so it's better to remove the temptations than try to resist. So turn off, unplug, and distance yourself from notifications. 

3) Get outside. There's no better restorative than nature. I'm lucky to live out in the country, where I have 34-acres to wander. If you live in the city, there are still ways to get out of the house and breathe in some fresh air even if you have to drive to a park or other location. I find tremendous solace in gardening, something that anyone can do, even if it's no more than some herbs on the kitchen windowsill. This may be the only choice for those in parts of the U.S. seeing that we're headed into winter. But find a way to get outside and refresh yourself in nature, every single day. A simple walk in the fresh air while letting your mind wander is one of the best ways to 'get out of your own head.’ Julia Cameron considered walking essential to creativity. 

3) Meditate, exercise, & dump the negative. If there's one thing that stands out this year in comments from friends and acquaintances, it's meditation. More and more people are turning to mediation for release, one, because it's something that can be done anytime, anywhere and it really works to bring a sense of calm and self-control. It also assists in keeping a positive attitude. Which brings me to exercise. There's nothing like the feeling you get after a hard workout, confident, powerful, and exhausted. But here's the thing...your creative mind is working just as hard as your body when you exercise. The fresh flow of blood to the brain combined with the pain of pushing yourself to the limit is both revitalizing and vital to dumping negative thoughts. Focus on what you have and what you can do, rather than what you've lost. 

4) Find ways to reset your creative mind. We've put all our efforts into basic survival this past year. Wearing a mask, washing our hands, keeping our distance from others, shopping online, homeschooling our children, trying not to touch that or this thing, working around store outages and empty shelves, worrying about unemployment or your family or friends getting sick, dying! How can our creative mind possibly stick its head up amongst all the odd routines and negativity? 

One thing that works for me is to write it all down. To make a list of everything my brain is trying to tell me, all the little things it thinks I will forget if not for its constant reminders. I write it all down on a piece of paper, then I toss out the list. (If it's too scary to toss the list, just remove it from your work area, put it in a safe place to worry about later.) The real point is to clear out my head. Once I have all that chaos dumped onto a piece of paper, my mind relaxes a bit. I am noticeably calmer and I can then force myself to push everything else into the background long enough to create. 

Most importantly, be kind to yourself, forgive yourself, and don't dwell on the past. We've been through unprecedented experiences this past year! In 2021, when we're finally able to distance ourselves, to step back and look at it all in hindsight, we'll realize that our creative well is full to use however we see fit. Don't let it go to waste. 

WOW: What an amazing final answer and set of directions to guide us all into a creative 2021. Thank you for inspiring us and giving us this special holiday gift!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--Thanks for doing this intervew, and for giving us a link to Karen's story.

I think these days, we're being forced to learn new ways to get feedback, new ways to de-stress, new ways to let our creativity flow. Perhaps it's a good thing--in a way. Getting back to more "basic" strategies, simpler activities might be wonderful.

Good luck with your future writing projects--and have a wonderful Christmas, if you celebrate that holiday.

PacingSteps said...

Thank you for the story and for the interview.

I liked learning about the inspiration for the story and how it was easier for Karen to write than most.
I noticed the white space and I’m a fan of short one lines! Being a poet, I tend to write short lines
more than longer lines. But I like short ones in stories or essays, too.

I agree with the advice in the interview.

I’ve dissociated sometimes from the pandemic. I went ahead with my life as much as I could in 2020.
Moving to the seashore was one of the best choices I made. There have been a few complications
because of the pandemic.

But the pros far outweigh the cons.

Most days I push my walker and guinea pig along the gravelly path near the Salish Sea.
It is so awesome breathing fresh air and seaweed scents as I gaze out over
the expanse of the waves. The clouds and sky are coloured and configured
differently each day. And some days, it’s as if Mt. Baker pops out of clouds
and looks like it is waiting for a photo shoot. Sure enough, walkers pull out their cell phones
and aim at the mountain.

I’m so grateful to enjoy this fantastic scenery, come home, and write. I wish all writers
could enjoy their dream scenery each day. I agree with walking outside.

I took part in a poetry challenge and now have a tiny chapbook of haiku called “The Seashore Journey.”

Meditation meant even more to me in 2020 and each day I’m retraining my brain and body to relax.

So yes, the advice is spot on!

Karen is an excellent writer, editor, and admin. I appreciate her.

Thanks so much for sharing this descriptive story and interview!

All the best, Karen, for 2021.

Louise Sawyer, Canadian senior
MFA certificate student at WVU
Poetry copy editor for Village Square

Karen Barr said...

I'm so glad you have your dream scenery around you, Louise.

I love the visual of you pushing your Guinea Pig and the walker. How do you take him for a walk?

Do you have a basket or bed set up for him on your walker?

Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on the story and interview. :^)

Cranky Grandma said...

Awesome interview and thanks for the story link!!

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