Professor Andrea Barrett is currently using her reading time in two ways. The first is articles and essays on Neo-Lamarckism, a 19th– and early 20th-century branch of biology that rejected the teachings of Charles Darwin. The second is Elena Ferrante’s popular “Neapolitan Novels,” a four-part Italian series about women growing up in post-war Naples. These are disparate subjects, no doubt, but ones emblematic of Barrett’s interests and her career as a writer and teacher. A biology major in college, Barrett started writing fiction as an adult and published her first novel in 1988, when she was in her mid-thirties. Since then she’s won substantial praise, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2001, for work that often displays her interest in the intersection of science, history, and personal relationships. In many of her stories and novels, characters exist in a network, connected to each other across time and continents. Barrett was a student and then a teacher at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, and later an instructor at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. In 2004 she joined the Williams faculty, where she’s taught a variety of courses, including fiction workshops and a class focusing on science in literature. Last fall, I took “The Art of the Long Story” with her, in which we read works of fiction longer than short stories and shorter than novellas. Professor Barrett asked us to consider the perspectives of the authors, teaching us to examine how they achieved the effects they desired. I sat down with her in January to discuss her thoughts on writing and teaching aspiring young writers.
—Andrew Wallace, April 2016
What does working to become a writer look like?
It looks like reading all the time, and reading thoughtfully, with a pen, really trying to dissect what you’re reading and understand how it’s made. And it means writing sort of all the time, even if you’re not working on something particular—you don’t have to be writing a novel or a story—but developing your chops writing journal entries, taking stabs at writing certain kinds of descriptions or scenes. That’s a lot of it. You just do it, it’s not rocket science.
A lot of students here find that it’s tough to make time to read outside of class. How should prospective writers reconcile the need to read constantly with the lack of time to do so?
I don’t think I’ve ever had a student here not say that. I’ve internalized over the years the idea that it’s really, really hard to read outside the classroom. That makes me sad, but I have to accept that your workload is heavy. But you can think of it this way: That you are writing at all in college is kind of amazing. There didn’t use to be creative writing courses in college, they just didn’t exist. So already people who are taking writing classes are starting really early, which is fabulous. If you can’t read everything you wish you could, tant pis! You’re already way ahead of the game just by starting to write now. I was much older when I started writing.
You’ve said that you didn’t love school when you were a student. What’s it like teaching now, finding yourself in the position your professors were in when you were young?
It’s funny, sometimes. I think about that a lot, especially if I have a student who is having difficulties with school or who has gifts which aren’t expressed in the shape of school. I feel split in those moments because I know what I should be doing as a teacher, in the context of Williams, to get that student in line and help her or him go through Williams in a successful way. But I also remember how I felt, how school wasn’t a good shape for me to learn in. It’s a funny little dance because I’m such a non-traditional school person myself. I really balked at it, but I had some wonderful teachers who let me balk. So I would do very badly in some things and then meet someone who could get me through or around the hurdle and do very well in that area. I also did an awful lot of independent work. I think I took almost a third of my courses as independent studies. That’s how I learned. Give me an idea and a library and someone to bounce things off of and that works for me. Class, not so much.
Much of your work is set in the past, and your writing often requires extensive research. Is it easy to do that research in North Adams and Williamstown?
It’s a lot easier than it used to be. It has totally changed since I was a young woman because so much is available digitally now. And also, being attached to a college like this with great libraries on campus—there is so much here. It always shocks me, particularly in the science library. Many times I’ve gone to look for something published in 1840 or 1860 or 1880 and, when I wander over to Schow, it is there. And it’s not in the rare books section, it’s just sitting on the shelf—some of those books are quite valuable. I’ll ask the librarian, “Why is this here? Why isn’t it over in Chapin?” And they’ll tell me, “They have another copy in Chapin.”
Have you ever considered writing about Williamstown?
I do think about it, but I’ve never written about a place until 10 or 20 years after I’ve lived there.
As someone who does so much research before you even begin writing, how do you advise workshop students to write, when they are not able to do much research beforehand given the structure of school?
I wrote four books before I ever did anything really based in research. You have to learn to write first. There are so many things that aren’t related to research, and that’s where everybody starts out. I don’t usually advise people to start working with historical material right away. There’s just this whole other layer of stuff. And school is not very conducive to that long, slow marination. But in terms of teaching, generally I think any good writing teacher does this: I’m not trying to teach you to write the way I do or emulate my process or end up with a product like what I end up with. Always with teaching writing you are trying to understand who the student writer is and who that writer wants to be. You give guidance and make suggestions that help them be the best version of the writer they want to be, which is often very different from the writer I am.
Do you ever meet someone who is passionate about becoming a writer who you can tell is not going to succeed, and advise that person against pursuing it?
I never have advised anyone that, but I don’t think I was lying not to do that. I say that partly because I was so unpromising myself as a young writer and a young student. I don’t think that we can tell with people in their teens and twenties. Writing is not like trying to be Mozart or a dancer—something where you peak early and the gifts are apparent quite young. Some writers don’t start until late. So to look at someone eighteen or twenty-one who says, “I really, really, really want to be a writer,” but their gifts at the moment are not that evident on the page, I think it would be crazy for me to say, “No, be an accountant.” I just can’t tell. And the one thing I do know is that people can have enormous, fantastic native gifts, and they won’t become writers because they don’t want it or they aren’t willing to work hard enough or they get distracted. I’ve seen that so many times. I’ve also seen people whose native gifts seem initially very modest who want it badly and are determined and work hard and they do very well.
Are you pleased with your first attempts?
I write horrible first drafts. Really horrible first drafts. It’s common for me to do twenty drafts of a story. Not everybody does, but that’s my process. I write appalling first drafts but I am a dogged reviser, and I keep at it until something comes out. At Williams I’ve taught a course called “The Practice of Revision.” Students revise a story five times over the course of the semester. I bring them earlier and later examples of canonical works, like an early chunk of Mrs. Dalloway, or a well-known Joyce story for which there exists an extremely early, kind of terrible version. There are also early Fitzgerald versions of The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night that look very different. It’s neat because part of the thing that is so discouraging as a young writer is that you look at your early drafts and then you look at published books by writers you love and there is a big gap. And if you haven’t looked at their early drafts you won’t know that they, too, write terrible first drafts.
You told my class that people, especially young students, should return to things we’ve read and not enjoyed, because it might not have been the right time in our lives to have read it. What would your advice be to people who aren’t enjoying the reading for a particular class?
Get through it, I guess. Trust that there is something there you can’t feel right now. If you can’t feel emotional or aesthetic pleasure reading it, try to find some intellectual pleasure, something to help propel you through it. And don’t just give up on it for later. The project of getting through undergraduate school is in some ways antithetical to the project of writing or of reading like a writer. It’s nobody’s fault—it’s not school’s fault. They’re two really different paths, and for people who start writing young and are studying writing in college, those things are in conflict for a while. So there’s no sense in getting upset about it, or punishing yourself about it, thinking you’re a failure because you can’t do all the things you should be doing as a young writer along with all the things you should be doing as a college student. You just have to realize that they are absolutely orthogonal. You have to do the best you can for now, and know that it won’t always be this way. Also understand that you are learning other things that are valuable, that are feeding you. You will have plenty of time to read and write later. Do what you can now, but don’t go crazy because the project of school is keeping you from writing to some extent. I didn’t do any of this stuff when I was in college. I didn’t even know I was going to do it.
Is one of the benefits of taking a writing workshop just being in an environment that forces you to write?
Sure. You are around other writers, which for some people sets off that little sense of competition. You see what other people’s writing looks like. And that’s both encouraging and discouraging because some of them are going to be better than you and some are going to be worse. You have a structure that forces you to write. The people who end up being writers learn to internalize everything in the workshop, the deadlines and the desire to write every day. But when you are young, you need someone there to say, “It has to be done by Thursday.” And when you do that twelve times over the course of a semester, something inside you starts to respond, telling you, “I really need to get this done.”
You said that one of the best ways to teach someone to write is to give them a really good reading list. Why do you think that’s true?
For any writer, no matter how gifted, there are things you do better than other things, stuff you’re naturally proficient at and stuff you’re resistant to and bad at. Some people write good dialogue and have a good ear for conversation, but may not be able to write summary or narration or cover time very well. Somebody else will write fantastic description or narration but won’t be able to write a scene. Anyone who has been teaching for a while will be able to suss out those proficiencies and deficiencies pretty quickly. Then you can say, “You really need to look at how to construct a party scene. Here are five books that have fabulous party scenes.” For every writer there are certain books you need at certain stages of your development. At different times in my life different writers have mattered differently. I’ve always read a lot of Virginia Woolf, and Rebecca West has been important to me. I love Tolstoy, George Eliot and the Irish writer William Trevor. Some of those books I found on my own and some my friends gave me or I came across at Warren Wilson or Bread Loaf.
Were you a student at Warren Wilson?
I wasn’t, and I wish I had been. I learned almost everything I know from teaching there, though. That’s where I got most of my education as a writer, because I didn’t go to graduate school. You learn a lot teaching, but I was very panicky my first couple years. The students are great and the other faculty are amazing. It’s a cooperative model where we all sit in on each other’s classes and teach workshops in pairs, so it was like I got my own MFA while I was teaching MFA students. I didn’t start teaching undergraduates until later. In my first couple of years doing that, I made the mistake I think most new teachers make, which is thinking that there is a big chunk of stuff you have to teach the students, and you have to get that chunk out of your head and into their heads. And that’s not what teaching is. It’s really about, if necessary, throwing huge chunks of the chunk overboard, and trying to respond to the students and their needs.
Do you think your teaching ever seeps into your writing?
I do find that in a broad sense I write about teaching and mentoring and the interaction between older and younger generations in a way that I didn’t as a young woman. I’m sure that comes from teaching here. The whole project of teaching, being in that relation to other human beings in a different state of their lives, interests me.