Balancing Music and Meaning: An Interview with Kim Barnes on Short Nonfiction
In the following Q&A, contributor Gretchen Clark and author Kim Barnes delve into short nonfiction, from its definition and essential elements to the role of intuition and the moment of surprise.
Kim Barnes’ novel A Country Called Home was published by Knopf in 2008. She also is the author of the novel Finding Caruso and two memoirs: In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country, winner of the PEN-Jerard Award and finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, and Hungry for the World. She is co-editor, with Mary Clearman Blew, of Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, and, with Claire Davis, of Kiss Tomorrow Hello: Notes from the Midlife Underground by Twenty-Five Women Over Forty. Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including MORE Magazine, Fourth Genre, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. She teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.
Q. How do you define short creative nonfiction?
A. First, let me say that I’m quite strict when it comes to the “factuality” of nonfiction in general. Yes, I understand that memory can be its own fiction, but I believe that the author’s intent must be to observe and record as accurately and ethically as possible. To intentionally deceive...well, to do so seems to me a failure on the part of the writer, an indication that the author has no faith in his/her ability to tell the story. In nonfiction, the most important thing is not WHAT happened but WHY it happened and our attempts to make sense of that narrative. Reliance upon fabricated scenes, events, and characters demonstrates an unwillingness – or inability – to stay in the presence of the actual story.
The “creative” aspect of writing nonfiction simply refers to the art, not the act of make-believe. It means that we heighten our use of language and shape our story; we impose a narrative of meaning that represents our individual emotional truths. That truth varies from person to person. The fact that my aunt was named Daisy is not an act of the imagination. Attempting to understand how my aunt Daisy shaped my life and to contemplate that influence in an artistic way is an act of the imagination wedded to intellect and craft-oriented creativity.
The “short” designation is somewhere between one and ten pages, I’d say. The longer essays I write are often thirty pages or more. When I set out to write shorter essays, I’m often working from a more lyric stance – not simply “lyrical” in the sense of musical/poetic language; it has more to do with the movement of the piece. Lyric essays rely on image rather than narrative. The poet Richard Hugo said that poetry should be a battle between music and meaning and that neither should ever win, but, if one has to win, let it be music. In prose, that battle should tip in favor of meaning. Still, if you look at most very short essays, you’ll see that they rely on compression, intimation, and intuition – all the provinces of poetry.
Q. What do you consider to be the essentials of creating a solid work of short nonfiction?
A. A defined focus, or thesis, if you will. Why is the author telling me this? As a reader, I should never have to ask that question. The narrative (and sub-narratives), the images, the tone, the voice, the structure, the style, the syntax, the rising and falling action, the resolution – all must work together to bring the reader to a final awareness at the level of both craft and content.
My goal is to create essays that work at more than one level. Some short essays work for me at the level of the intellect – they’re cool and clever – but I want to read essays that work not only at the level of the intellect, but at the levels of the heart and soul as well.
Q. Is there a moment in a short piece that you find yourself looking for as a writer and reader?
A. Yes – that point where the essay surprises me. This surprise can come as a word, a phrase, an image, an appropriate revelation. It’s what causes the essay to transcend individual experience and attain the level of art.
Q. Do you feel writers need to approach writing the short piece differently than the longer, more traditional personal essay?
A. In some ways, yes. Again, I think intuition has a great deal to do with it. Allowing images to carry, phrases to resonate. More suggestion and less definition. I might even say that longer essays are more left-brained and short essays are more right-brained. Short essays may rely more on the unconscious in the Jungian sense. That’s how I write them, anyway, and I think that, as a reader, that’s how I approach a very short essay. There’s a way in which shorter essays create an “atmosphere” of meaning. They are often more stylized, drawing attention to how sentences are shaped, how the essay is structured.
But this is not an excuse for the author to leave the reader muddled and guessing. It’s okay for your narrative to be ambiguous; it’s not okay for the essay to be confusing. Again, your intent, direction, and focus must be clear. Review Aristotle’s discussion of unity. Nothing has changed.
Finally, the question for the writer of short essays is this: What comes in to take the place of the more elongated exposition, contemplation, and scene development that we find in longer essays? Something has to, and that’s why you’ll often see shorter essays take on particular “forms” such as hyper-stylization, segmentation, etc. The white space that a shorter essay relies upon still must be filled with meaning. The question is how you, as the author, create that meaning.
Q. What techniques do you use to help your students new to CNF loosen up and get their true voices down on paper?
A. I offer many, many short exercises (prompts). I’ll assign a book or essay and create an assignment that requires that the students emulate some aspect of the text. Their goal is not to complete an essay but to complete the assignment, but they often get started and can’t stop. What I’m looking for is a way to offer them a vessel to fill–the construct of the assignment. That’s the thing about nonfiction: you know what happened; you don’t always know why or what it means. That is the quest – to bring structure to content in a way that exemplifies unity.
Q. What are some of the problems that writers new to writing creative nonfiction seem to encounter?
A. Failing to step outside their own experience and see their individual stories as constructs that must conform to the same requirements as fiction. In other words, characterization, motivation, rising and falling action, unity of time and place, setting, dialogue, action and thought – the things required of the narrative arts, no matter the genre.
Contemporary personal essays are a new breed of narrative. Traditionally, personal essays were non-secular – Augustine and Montaigne and all that confessing. Really, we’re in new territory, and I find it exciting. But twenty-year-olds writing contemplative memoirs reliant upon soul-searching reflection and “looking back” narratives of meaning? Not going to happen.
Q. So what takes the place of that convention of confession – soulful contemplation and reflection?
A. Form. And that’s why we’re seeing this rise of interest in the short personal essay, which requires less contemplation and more imagination. But – and this is important – it requires no less discipline, dedication, wit, intellect. When I see shorter essays that fail to realize their potential, this is usually the problem: the author has seen the form as a short cut rather than an even greater challenge to balance music and meaning.
Gretchen Clark’s essays have appeared in Flashquake, Tiny Lights, Hip Mama, and New York Family Magazine, among other publications. She co-teaches creative nonfiction classes online at Writers.com, including the class "Piece of Cake: Writing Flash Nonfiction."
Kim Barnes photo © Scott M. Barrie