Interview with Barbara Olsen: 2021 Q2 Creative Nonfiction Contest Runner Up

Sunday, June 20, 2021
Barbara’s Bio:
Predominately a visual artist, Barbara Olsen has been creating art for several years, exhibiting her work in numerous shows and publications. Unapologetically a lifelong list maker, journal nerd, and travel diarist, she also has an innate interest in the written word. In the last couple of years, she’s dipped her toes into the world of writing poetry and prose through enrollment in local classes. Within these circles of talented, passionate writers, she’s found a supportive community. Her vision is to ascribe, through imagery and words, personal, but at the same time universal, stories borne from observation and transformation. When not writing or painting, Barbara can be found in her backyard watching the birds, looking for monarchs, and imploring her plants to grow. Her essay, A Fish Out of Water, is dedicated to all fellow humans who have ever felt they don’t belong. 

If you haven't done so already, check out Barbara's award-winning story "A Fish Out of Water" and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Q2 2021 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Barbara: In a writing class I was taking, we were encouraged to create an essay juxtaposing two seemingly disparate ideas. For some time, I had been mulling over interactions I had experienced that spoke to a sense of alienation, a feeling probably not uncommon for those living outside their home country. I knew I wanted to write about this issue. This assignment gave me the impetus to start. So, I had the subject but needed the counterpoint. Because I love idioms, I searched for one that would align with that concept. Hence, “A Fish Out of Water” was born. From there, I needed to do some research to determine if any fish really could survive outside of water or its breeding ground. Discovering the world of snakeheads, I found my perfect foil (fish)! From there, interspersing facts about snakeheads with the recollections of conversations or situations where I felt like a fish out of water myself, the essay found its pacing. 

WOW: Thank you for sharing your process. I love to hear how pieces of writing prompts, personal experience, and research intersect to form a completed piece of writing. What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay? 

Barbara: Probably it’s best to keep my mouth shut. Seriously though, two things stand out for me. First, the writing process has been a replacement for therapy since I can’t afford the real thing. When I write my thoughts down on paper about any given situation, I’m halfway to understanding and processing the problem and further down the road to becoming a better-balanced, saner person. Two, in reliving these situations (about this essay in particular) and thinking deeply about their ripple effects, I’ve come to see just how close we all hold onto our deep-rooted, visceral beliefs. Once questioned, our first response is to lash out in fear, anger, or distrust. This reaction is problematic as it shuts down any chance for a healthy exchange of ideas. 

WOW: It is amazing how much you can reveal about yourself to yourself through writing. It can definitely be an effective type of therapy! Can you tell us more about your visual artwork? Does it ever inspire your writing or vice versa? 

Barbara: I’ve been painting predominately with watercolors for several years, with a recent foray into mixed media. I have incorporated words into some more recent collage pieces and enjoy the visual interplay between the two expressions. I also love seeking out and thinking about idioms, figures of speech, song, and book titles, and I will often use these when naming my paintings. View my artwork at The language of art inspires me as well. Words like chiaroscuro, pentimento, and sfumato, alizarin and quinacridone, each have their rich etymology. Snippets of language learned through years of creating visual art will often seep over and infuse my prose and poetry. 

WOW: Which creative nonfiction essays or writers have inspired you most, and in what ways did they inspire you? 

Barbara: I am inspired each week by a coterie of fellow writers in my local writing classes. Humbled, amazed, and moved by how they weave together words, I am left speechless at their abilities. The strong voices of Joan Didion, Ellen Goodman, and Nora Ephron also inspire me. Their insights into the female journey, and their prowess at taking us along for the ride, never fail to elucidate, educate, and entertain. In another life, I’d like to think I could be reborn with the intellectual rigor, the unfaltering energy, and the sublime clarity seen in the essays by Siri Hustvedt. Her ability to bridge the worlds of any number of disciplines, notably art and neuroscience, is truly remarkable. Another work I found to be a wellspring of great inspiration was Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. Her ideas on the creative process, fear, and writing resonated deeply with my own: “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them…” 

WOW: That’s a great list of inspiring writers. Big Magic is one that has stuck with me, too. If you could tell your younger self anything about writing, what would it be? 

Barbara: Don’t belabor putting your words out there for others to read. It’s a huge time sink. You already know what inspires, resonates, and enrages you. Write about that. Don’t push. When it’s time, you’ll sit down and start. And read a lot. 

WOW: Anything else you’d like to add? 

Barbara: Thank you to everyone at Women on Writing for the fantastic platform you’ve provided for women writers to get their work out there and seen by another set of eyes in a supportive and non-threatening environment. 

WOW: You are very welcome! Thank you for your thoughtful responses. Happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, who keeps a blog of journal entries, memoir snippets, interviews, training logs, book reviews, and profiles of writers and competitive sportswomen. Tweets @dr_greenawalt.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Anne--Thanks for doing this interview and for giving us a link to Barbara's essay.

Barbara--Congratulations. I loved how you alternated between fishing/fish information and your story. I've seen pieces like this, with a couple of different threads woven in, and it makes the impact more powerful. Good luck with your future writing.

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