Promise and Abundance: An Interview with Lynne Barrett

I’m thrilled tobring to The Writerly Life an interview with Lynne Barrett, an extraordinary writer, teacher, and editor whose stories I’ve admired for many years. I asked Lynne about her most recent book of stories, Magpies (which won the Florida Book Award Gold Medal for General Fiction), her writing process, and her very busy life.

For some remarkable insights, read on. Welcome, Lynne!

Magpies, available at

Gerry Wilson:  Steve Almond calls Magpies a “stone cold triumph,” and I agree. These stories encompass such a broad range of styles, from the fun structures of “Links” and “Cave of the Winds” to noir—“The Noir Boudoir” and “When, He Wondered”— to a marvelous touch of surrealism in “Gossip and Toad.”

Do you sit down to write with a well-formed idea of what the story is and where it’s going? Or do you “write to discover” and then shape it? How do you decide what form a story ultimately takes?

Lynne Barrett:  Writing is a process of discovery that begins before I “sit down to write.” At odd moments phrases, situations, or maybe just a word that resonates will occur to me. I jot down what I can. I usually carry small pads, but I’ve been known to write on a dollar bill when desperate. Very early in the morning, when it’s quiet, I often begin my day sitting somewhere comfortable and un-work-like, writing free-floating notes in a sketchbook, and that’s when I’ll go through my accumulated bits of paper and transcribe them. I read around in what I’ve done before and add details and questions. Then I get coffee and go to my desk to work on some much more developed project.

Over time, some notes accumulate towards a story, and I’ll find a simple name (not a title, yet) to mark them and to head new pages where I’ll add bits of dialogue, details about characters, or sketches of locations. So when I’m ready to take the story to my desk, I know a lot. It’s not “well-formed,” but it has a feeling of promise and abundance, so that I want to make the story happen. Still, where I start drafting may not be the beginning, but rather some intriguing angle that I want to explore or a scene I think is going to prove difficult that I want to take a shot at.

Gerry Wilson:  Can you give an example?

Lynne Barrett:  I knew that “When, He Wondered” was going to include a man trying to fake his own death, and that this would make some use of a Florida sinkhole. I’d made up place names and worked out a history of my invented town. The first scene I wrote showed this man taking his most dramatic action. I didn’t worry about the writing being polished—my aim was to reveal who he must be and how such a character would affect others around him. In the final story the reader never sees this scene, though details from it emerge. I’d already thought that I’d like to use another character, Tom, as protagonist and point of view. As I moved into writing Tom, I saw—and I think I could only have seen this because of what I’d written already—that an ongoing question he asks himself about their friendship would spiral through the story and shape it.

Though I might describe the circumstances that led to it, nothing can ever truly “explain” an idea: writing is full of imaginative leaps. For me the point is the process: once I’ve written something, it becomes a steppingstone to other parts of the story, even though it may not make the final draft. I think it’s important not to confuse the writer’s need and the reader’s. There are lots of detours I’ll take in exploring my story, while the reader wants something that seems to have been always certain and complete.

Gerry Wilson:  Please talk about “Gossip & Toad,” which I saw as surreal.

Lynne Barrett:  It’s interesting how many terms there are for fiction that has an element that’s fantastical without being wholly fantasy: “slipstream” is the current one. I’d use “magical realism” for “Gossip & Toad”: the story has one move that’s magical, which is handled as if it were absolutely real. The professional gossip in my story has exercised her talent for nastiness to the point where what she says begins to bring out with it spiders, lizards, and a toad. This image comes from a fairy tale (“Diamonds and Toads”), but I think externalizing an aspect of character in this way goes back into myth, where metamorphosis makes visible something psychologically true: sometimes ugly things come out of our mouths. Other stories in Magpies are set against a background of booms and busts, and it occurred to me that the market in celebrity gossip is a boom that shows no signs of ending. One of gossip’s hunting grounds is Miami Beach, where I’ve seen the sideshow atmosphere of the celebrity world, so it seemed natural to me to set this leap into the grotesque there, as the character has to confront the fact that she’s in the situation of those she talks about, with a secret she must conceal.

Gerry Wilson:  In Casey Pycior’s interview at The Story Is the Cure, you talk about the differences between short and longer fiction and your love of story in particular: “[It] helps to think about what the short story is equivalent to: a painting, say, that is small enough to be taken in at once, yet that rewards more looking. Even the choice of where the edges are, the framing, has an effect. What can the painting do that the mural can’t?” I like the image of a story having “edges,” or “framing.” How do you find the “edges” of a story? How do you know when it’s done?

Lynne Barrett:  Any narrative has edges, but a shorter work can make us more conscious of them. Because the short story is ideally read in one sitting, its compression adds power (or so Poe argued and I agree with him). I think it is worthwhile always, after reading anything good, to look back to see how the beginning and end speak to each other: how much has changed? How far have we traveled? Edges to me include where the text starts and ends, but also how far into the past you reach and how much of the future has been implied.

Lynne Barrett

I like to play with form, as part of the meaning of the story. In Magpies, “Links” covers about a year, beginning near the peak of the dot com boom and continuing a bit beyond its collapse. Pasts that reach as far back as the 19th century are pulled into it, and, since the story borrows the form of a website, there’s an implication of a future from which the narrator is writing. “One Hippopotamus” covers a short space of time—an hour or so—on a stormy summer night when the power goes out and one character tells another about an event in his past, so there is a story within the story. By the end we see that the telling and the listening are going to alter both characters’ futures. The possibilities of form are infinite.

As to when a story is finished—there is just no simple answer. But as a teacher and editor I find that often the part that hasn’t gotten enough work, that’s underdeveloped or slack, is the middle. The middle should be interesting in itself. Well, everything should be interesting and feel necessary. Easy to say, hard to do.

Gerry Wilson:  All the stories in Magpies are suspenseful—rife with secrets, twists, mysteries, tangled relationships. Would you talk a bit about the role (or necessity) of suspense in your stories, or in fiction generally?

Lynne Barrett:  Suspense comes from anticipation. The reader has to know that there is trouble and that something is at risk. Everyone understands it’s necessary in a crime story, whether the threat is of physical danger or punishment or the consequences of accusing the wrong person. But in other situations, the reader must be made to grasp what the stakes are, for instance that the balance of a marriage can change forever because of something revealed, as in Joyce’s “The Dead,” to name one great example. I think it’s a mistake to think “literary” means “no suspense.”

Gerry Wilson:  Your essay “What Editors Want” went viral when it was published last year in The Review Review. Every writer looking to publish (and who isn’t?) should read it. I’ve read that you were surprised by the response the essay received. In hindsight, why do you think “What Editors Want” took off the way it did?

Lynne Barrett:  The editor of The Review Review (which is a great online magazine that covers the world of literary magazines) was surprised as well as she saw the count of readers mount into the thousands while I was getting contacted by editors who liked it and teachers who were assigning it to all their students. We could see online that it was being blogged about and commented on. Within two days it was written up in the L.A. Times book blog. Glimmer Train, whose editor wrote to me at the very start, republished it in their Bulletin, last fall. The system by which the Internet can slingshot links around is much clearer to me after this, but the response was spontaneous.

I think my piece was both fun to read and met a need. It tries to dismantle the stereotype (which is damaging both to editors and to writers) of the editor as a scary curmudgeon—editors work very hard and are never happier than when they find something great—and to re-explain the relationship as one in which being organized and professional and polite matter. (That’s true on both sides, of course.) It has been read so widely that I got Twitter followers from as far away as New Zealand. I’ve also been in conversations where the subject of publishing comes up and someone will recommend the essay to me, not realizing I wrote it.

Gerry Wilson:  You wear many hats: writer, editor, teacher, not to mention wife and mother . . . Would you offer some tips about juggling the writer’s life with other demands? How do you prioritize?

Lynne Barrett:  I say yes to too many things, no doubt, but they’re things that attract me. I get up early and write, first—even if I can only give it a short time. I’ve always written in the morning, but once I had a child it became more of a necessity to start very early. My son is now 20, but I’ve stayed on that schedule. To me it means I’m telling myself writing comes first, and what I do will stay in my mind all day as I do other things.

Not mentioned in your list is the public side of writing: I give readings, speak with book groups, and teach at conferences. These—even just the arrangements for them—take a surprising amount of time. I had made what I thought was a fairly sane calendar for this spring, but when Magpies won the Florida Book Award, a lot of appearances were added and my time got very jammed up. There simply was no choice. It’s hard for a book to get visibility, and you must do your best. But I have blocked out a long stint this summer with no events, when I’ll be hiding and writing.

Tips? I have found that it’s good to put things on my calendar that are, in effect, appointments with myself. I add reminders for pieces I am writing, not just deadlines, but I’ll block off days or half days for particular projects. Somehow when it’s written down, and my computer is nagging me about it, the commitment is easier to defend. I think it helps to bunch types of tasks. I try to corral advising and appointments and meetings into teaching days. And I might designate a “travel arrangements afternoon” or “research Friday.” That way every day isn’t chopped up into a lot of bits and pieces. I get more done and I am not chafing, too much, at the fact I’m not writing every minute. Well, I do chafe. But in the early mornings I restore my serenity.     

~Lynne Barrett

About Lynne:

LYNNE BARRETT’s third story collection, Magpies, was recently awarded the Gold Medal for General Fiction in the Florida Book Awards. Her other books are The Secret Names of Women, and The Land of Go, and she co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion. Barrett has received the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best mystery story. Her work has appeared in One Year to a Writing Life, Miami Noir, Delta Blues, A Dixie Christmas, The Written Wardrobe and many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She is a professor in the M.F.A. program at Florida International University in Miami, and teaches at many writers conferences. Learn more at her website.

Read It and Weep (Not)

I’ve been thinking about critiques—how to give and receive them. An online group I belong to, an offshoot of the My Name Is Not Bob Platform Challenge (April 2012), has bonded as an active, online community, and now we’re looking for ways we might support each other. One way is through “reading and responding” to each other’s work. I actually prefer that term to critique; critique sounds so clinical.

So how do we offer honest, valuable feedback? How do we go about responding to someone else’s writing without falsely patting the writer on the back and praising the work—without offering anything substantial that might help the writer improve the piece—or going to the opposite extreme with a “slash and burn” technique that leaves the writer in ruins and makes her want to rip the story up—literally—and never write again? I exaggerate, but you get my point.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat

I actually witnessed the latter once at a prestigious writers’ conference where someone I knew was so crushed by the critique of her poems by a craggy, handsome older poet, every bit as prestigious as the conference itself, that she packed up and went home. Overly sensitive, you might say. If she couldn’t take the heat she should have stayed out of the kitchen. Maybe so, but any criticism that is not delivered in a positive context, with integrity and compassion, is not worth its salt.

I know many of you are already practiced readers. You could teach me a thing or two, and I actually hope you will by leaving comments. Let’s get a dialogue going here! For those who might not be as familiar with the process, I’d like to offer some suggestions. None of these ideas are original with me. They’re common practice among many writing groups.

Cottage ruins, Cumberland Island, Georgia


I taught creative writing to high school students for more than twenty years. Talk about potential for disaster—a room full of teenagers let loose to “critique” each other’s writing! We had to have guidelines, and I believe they apply as well to adults in a similar situation. So here goes:

  • Read the piece once, all the way through, without stopping to ponder too much or make notes. Then read it again, more closely this time, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. Consider the elements of craft (I’m thinking fiction here)—plot, characterization, language, setting, opening/ending, etc.—particularly anything the writer has expressed concern about.
  • Always, always start by commenting on strengths: identify what the writer has done well. No generalizations allowed: no “I really liked it,” or “I think it’s good,” or “Great job!” Those statements may be true; you may feel them, but they don’t help the writer in concrete ways. Say specifically what you thought worked well and why: “The dialogue sounds real; I could hear those characters speaking.” “I was intrigued by the plot turn when  . . . [something happened].” “Your setting details really establish the mood of the story.”
  • Make your constructive comments specific. Notice I don’t say critical comments, but constructive, which means, hopefully, that the comments will be useful to the writer. Try couching your negatives as questions or “I” statements: “Could you clarify what happens here?” instead of “That’s so confusing.” Or “I didn’t understand the time shift when . . .” instead of “Wow, you really lost me!” or even worse, “This makes absolutely no sense!”

Tough Story-Love

Some of you may consider this a “touchy-feely” approach to critique. I’m not saying you can’t offer tough love for a story. It’s what most of us need. If all we want is vapid praise, we aren’t really serious about this writing business, and we aren’t willing to do the work necessary to succeed. But being a good reader also requires skill, hard work, and thoughtfulness. It’s a gift you offer to another writer.

Remember: as a reader of someone else’s priceless work, be respectful, be honest, be specific, be constructive! 

Tomorrow, I’ll address the other side of the critique desk (or more likely, these days, the computer screen). How should the writer receive feedback? Stay tuned. 

Meanwhile, please leave a comment about your own experiences as a reader of others’ work or as a recipient of “feedback.” Or leave a reader-tip to add to the above! I’d love to hear from you.

“Mama n Em”: Tales of a Hospital Waiting Room

This post is a day late, but I have a good excuse! I won’t be writing about craft or language or blogging today. I won’t be clever. In fact, I’m going to be a little serious, so if you dare, read on:

Huddled Masses

My husband had surgery on Tuesday (he’s doing great, thanks), and we spent four hours in an admissions waiting room before his case was called. Such a cross-section of humanity you’ve never seen (or maybe you have). I was reminded of the words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses . . .” Just add “your sick” to her words, and you’ll get the picture.

Waiting / image at

I’d believed the days of entire families gathering in hospital waiting rooms were long since over. My ex-husband, a surgeon, used to talk about hordes of family members in the hospital hallways, waiting to snag the doctor on his way in or out of a patient’s room. He called them “Mama ‘n ’em,” which is Mississippi Delta speak for “mother and all the rest of the kin.” Maybe it’s a Southern thing, this gathering of the clan. Anyway, it was happening in that big room on Tuesday.

Made-up Stories

To pass the time, my husband and I invented the lives of the folks around us. The couple across from us? Retired teachers. Or, because of her severe haircut and lack of makeup, I thought she might have been a nun and he a priest who . . . Well, you can finish it.

Down the way, a tall, elderly, elegant-looking African-American woman wearing a wonderful black and white caftan. She sat in a wheelchair surrounded by five or six older adults and teenagers who brought her blankets and coffee and catered to her needs. She was “in” for a hip replacement. Just before her name was called, a man who I took to be her son stood up and said, “You’re gon’ be all right. We gon’ pray before you go back.” I certainly hope she was. Those family dynamics? Who knows, but there’s a story for sure, one of close ties strengthened through hardship.

Next to me, a man in his forties, his complexion yellowed. Several family members sat with him: a sister, his mother (a woman with poufed, Mormon-wife-style hair, carrying a red plaid purse), a daughter who sat on her boyfriend’s lap, both preoccupied with their cellphones. Texting? Surfing? The young man had two dog tags tattooed on his left arm. Nobody talked.

A few rows over, three women in their sixties who had to be sisters. Their elderly mother was the patient. She must have been ninety, but she sported a pink eyelet sun hat and seemed the calmest of them all. How many years, how many relationships were represented there?

And one more: In the far corner, a couple facing away from each other. Enough said.

Two Fiction Writers in a Game 

So there we were, my husband and I, two fiction writers in a game of making up stories to keep our nervousness at bay. But you know, I haven’t stopped thinking about those people. I’ve wondered what happened to each of them after their names were called and they underwent their procedures. I’ve thought a lot, too, about the fact that they—and we—were only a small portion of a larger flow of humanity through rooms everywhere, undergoing “surgery”—physical, emotional, spiritual—at any given moment in time.

I couldn’t help being struck by the diversity, the emotions, the dramatic circumstances. But if we’re looking for stories, we don’t have to do it in a hospital waiting area. All we have to do is look around us. Really. See.

Wherever you go this weekend, take a notebook, sit, watch. You’ll find plenty of stories or poems, if that’s what you’re looking for. If you’re not, you’ll become more aware of our common humanity. Come back here and tell me what you see. Leave me a few lines of a story!