In January 2016, assistant professor of English and director of Presbyterian College’s Creative Writing program, Robert Stutts interviewed Dr. Terry Barr for the PC Creative Writing Newsletter. The interview is published below with permission from Mr. Stutts.
“I’m Always Revising: An Interview with Terry Barr”
In February, Dr. Terry Barr’s first collection of essays, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from my Alabama Mother, will be published by Red Dirt Press in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Red Dirt also published the journal Red Truck Review; they are “devoted to publishing new and established voices of the New South” in prose and poetry.
Dr. Barr graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us about the collection, writing, and more. Enjoy, and buy a copy of his book!
Q. Tell us about your upcoming book.
TERRY BARR: It’s an essay collection focused on my hometown of Bessemer, Alabama. Bessemer was typically provincial and quite “redneck.” But it was also much more diverse than I thought when I lived there back in the 60’s and 70’s. So I wanted readers to see that diversity set against the angst of the Civil Rights years and against my own memories of friends, witches, and sad deaths. Family is also an important ingredient, and, like a good Southern boy of my generation, I listened closely to my mother’s advice. And that’s how I got the title: Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother.
Q. Which essay of yours are you most proud of?
TB: I’m picking two and they’re both in the collection. The last essay, “Star-Crossed,” makes me proud because it looks at my family as honestly as I know how to look. It’s actually an older essay, so if I fault it, it’s because I would phrase things so much differently now and also be more economical. I also really like “Hey, Did You Happen to See,” which is about a high school girl I knew in my hometown, one of those “it almost happened” kind of romantic things. I really like the way I wrote it and how I braided the story over the years I knew this girl and lost her.
Q. How long have you been writing creative nonfiction?
TB: The first impulse came in the early 80’s. I had an image of the oak tree on our street and what I thought, or was told, were bats flying around it in the twilight. They might have been sweeps, but on the night my mother showed them to me, my father also slapped my face for asking what the word F-U-C-K meant. I was only nine. So when it came time to write, those two images gelled.
Q. Why did you start writing creative nonfiction?
TB: I don’t know why exactly. I thought I might have stories to tell, but I think I fell in love with writing CNF when I first read Joan Didion’s The White Album. Also, I wanted to see if I could do it, if someone would publish what I had to say. I’ve always loved to write, and I wanted to spend time listening to the music of words and wed them with my own stories. My first workshop was in Prague with Patricia Foster. It was the workshop experience that pushed me to take the next step into publication.
Q: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing?
TB: That the more honest and vulnerable I am in my writing, the greater the chance that a respected journal will take the piece.
Q. Tell us a little about your writing process.
TB: I’m always revising, first of all. I like to write in the morning after I’ve had a bit of coffee and read for about an hour. I read only nonfiction in the morning. I’ll write for a couple of hours when things are going good, and then maybe in the afternoon I’ll spend a little time looking over what I’ve done. Sometimes a new detail or new story branch will occur and I might go deeper then. Things are just fresher in the morning. I also listen to music as I write; in fact, old songs give me ideas of what to write because I so closely associate those songs with specific times and memories.
Q: What advice do you have about writing and/or submitting someone or yourself for publication?
TB: First, don’t think that you don’t have stories to tell. Don’t be afraid that you’ll embarrass someone or yourself by telling a story. You can always change names. And, if you feel like the story you want to write will be painful, go ahead and write it because it’s probably the story you need to tell. And as you revise it, ask yourself if there’s more to this story, if you’ve truly reached the source of your pain. Then keep going.
Submit everywhere, but do look carefully at what editors want. Believe them when they say they like personal essays, or experimental prose. Submit simultaneously unless they expressly say “No simultaneous submissions.”
Q. What’s your approach to teaching Creative Nonfiction?
TB: The one thing I try to get students to do in a CNF class is to listen to their own and each other’s words—to hear the rhythms of their prose. That’s a tough task because some people have natural advantages. But if you really listen, you can hear phrasings and repetitions, and how to balance your words against other words and with the images you’re seeing.
Q: How has teaching Creative Nonfiction impacted your own writing?
TB: Teaching CNF has kept me alive and, believe it or not, saved my career. Watching students reading their own work, listening to each other, working so hard to tell their stories and get their sentences and words just right inspires me to do the same. I’m a much better writer when I’m surrounded by ten other writers working so hard at their craft. And truly, my own acceptance rate for publication spikes dramatically when I’m teaching CNF.
Q: What writers have been influential for you?
TB: I already mentioned Joan Didion, but others are Mary Karr, Jack Hitt, Patti Smith, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Harrison Scott Key.
Q. Who are you reading now?
TB: I’m reading Barry Hannah’s fiction collection Airships at night, and Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees, each morning.
Q: Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
TB: I hope there will be another collection, but no set plans yet. I have essays appearing soon in the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, South Writ Large, and Blue Lyra Review.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say to current students or Creative Writing alumni?
TB: I appreciate the chance I’ve had to teach and write with so many of you. As much as I hope you’ll read my stories, please know that it’s your stories that have kept me sharp and motivated to write.
Thank you, Dr. Barr!