Interview with Barbara Olsen: Q4 2022 Creative Nonfiction Contest Runner Up

Sunday, December 04, 2022
Barbara’s Bio:
Predominately a visual artist, Barbara Olsen has been creating art for several years, exhibiting her work in numerous shows and publications: As an unapologetic lifelong list maker, journal nerd, and travel diarist, she also harbors an innate interest in the written word. In the last few years, she’s dipped her toes into writing prose and poetry and been recognized by WOW! Women on Writing competitions for her work. Barbara’s writings disclose personal, but at once universal, stories that reveal our interconnectedness. She’s currently working on a collection of essays exploring transitions. 

If you haven't done so already, check out Barbara's award-winning essay "Everything Remains" and then return here for a chat with the author. 

WOW: Congratulations on placing in the Q4 2022 Creative Nonfiction Contest! How did you begin writing your essay and how did it and your writing processes evolve as you wrote? 

Barbara: As with many of my essays, I began writing it in my head. After a while, when it became too uncomfortable to keep it inside, it found its way onto the blank page. I had seen the interaction between the teenager and his mother on a beach two years ago. It deeply disturbed me on a maternal level and brought up my own insecurities. Was I a good enough mother? What could I have done better? So, I initially spoke to that in the first draft of my essay, but I wanted to express more. There was a feeling of interconnectedness with all mothers that I wanted to include. With subsequent drafts, I eventually found the wording to convey the awareness within mothers that the work we do is hard and never forgotten. I wanted to wrap the mother in my arms and say, "I see you. I have been where you are now. You are not alone." 

WOW: Thank you for sharing your process with us. What did you learn about yourself or your writing by creating this essay? 

Barbara: I learned that it takes persistence to hone an essay down to its true essence. And that, just because it veers off course a handful of times, doesn’t mean you can’t get it righted in the end. 

WOW: The power of persistence: so important for writers. Can you tell us more about the collection of essays you’re working on that explore transitions? 

Barbara: I’ll start by saying I’ve always been uncomfortable with change. Obviously, I’m not alone. I think countless humans would be more than happy to freeze-frame their lives during the good times and watch that movie run for a while. It’s hard being human. Our parents get older, our children grow up, and our loved ones pass away. Our roles morph, and we change as well. We become different people. The essay collection I’m working on explores these transitions: the ones in our lives where the sands shift beneath our feet, and we search for meaning and perspective as we regain our footing. 

WOW: I love that concept, and it sounds like it is so relevant to our WOW community. Was there anything in particular that inspired you to start writing creatively after being predominantly a visual artist? 

Barbara: I’ve always been particularly inspired by the combination of images and words. Illustrated travel diaries and sketchbooks line my bookshelves. Because I’ve kept journals, lists, and travel diaries over the years, it hasn’t felt like a massive leap to writing essays. When I apply paint to paper, I can visually express what I can’t always put into words. But on the other hand, I can often write more succinctly what I can’t articulate with paint. There’s this symbiotic relationship between the two; each expression informs the other, and smack in the middle is where I like to live. 

WOW: It’s fascinating to hear about the relationship between visual and written expression and how it manifests for you. What have you read recently that has influenced your writing? 

Barbara: I enjoyed Ann Patchett’s These Precious Days, Jo Ann Beard’s Festival Days, and Sarah Polley’s Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory. All are collections of essays and stories. Whether or not they have specifically influenced my writing is hard to say. I know that within these collections, I have discovered pieces that align with topics I like to explore: memory, transitions, and loss. I imagine almost everything I read informs my writing in one way or another on some subconscious level. 

WOW: Wonderful. Thank you for sharing your reading list! Anything else you’d like to add? 

Barbara: Thank you to Ashley Memory for critiquing my essay and for the biggest compliment she could ever have given me, “I needed to read this essay.” Thank you to everyone at Women on Writing for providing a supportive platform for women writers to get their work out there and be seen. And for the valuable critiques that help nudge good essays toward great essays! 

WOW: Thank you for sharing your writing with us and for your thoughtful responses. Happy writing! 

Interviewed by Anne Greenawalt, founder and editor-in-chief of Sport Stories Press, which publishes sports books by, for, and about sportswomen and amateur athletes and offers developmental editing and ghostwriting services to partially fund the press. Engage on Twitter or Instagram @GreenMachine459.


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