fter reading her book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, I was on a mission to interview this writing dynamo. She was easy to find, I just followed the flaming trail left in her wake. I knew our readers would want to see what it would be like to walk in the shoes of such a focused, time-management maven. So, like a true media stalkerazzi, I began the adventure to track Barbara DeMarco-Barrett through her week by lurking in a scheduled chat she had on the Writer's Chatroom.com. It didn't take long to discover that I'm not very good at lurking in the bushes; I'm just too chatty. Soon, there was a slip that revealed my reason for being there—"I'm just here to stalk Barbara," I admitted. In exchange for not filing a restraining order, I sent her a recipe for Apple Cinnamon Bread Pudding. I stayed through the two-hour chat, and as I had expected, she was gracious and engaging with tips and encouragement for all the aspiring writers in the room.
The next stop on my a-day-in-the-life-of journey found me sitting curled by a crackling fire, listening to her podcast as she interviewed Scott Turow. Barbara is host of "Writers on Writing," a weekly radio show that airs on KUCI-FM. The following day, I read her blog and investigated the pages of her website www.barbarademarcobarrett.com where I discovered she is editor of The ASJA Monthly (the official publication for the American Society of Journalists and Authors).
Barbara's nonfiction has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The Writer, Poets and Writers, Writer's Digest, Pages, and more. She also teaches writing at the UC-Irvine Extension program where she won a Distinguished Instructor award in 2001. She also teaches an online class, "Jumpstart Your Writing," at Gotham Writers' Workshop. Her first book, Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, was released by Harcourt in October of 2004 and made the Los Angeles Times bestseller list the week of October 24. In April, it won the American Society of Journalists and Authors' 2005 Outstanding Book Award.
Join us in a chat with Barbara and discover how this busy woman set her writing career on fire!
WOW: How do you manage to organize your time to juggle teaching, your radio show, promoting your book, blogging, writing your next project, and still make time for your family life? I feel like I need a nap after just thinking about what your schedule must be like!
BARBARA: Organizing is imperative to being productive as a freelance writer. Lack of organization can be a major impediment. I don't always do a great job of it—mostly because I have a hard time saying no. But on good days, I write a bit of fiction first, and then do my paid work—editing The ASJA Monthly (www.asja.org), teaching, freelancing. There is so much unpaid work, though: blogging, radio, writing fiction—because we do have to write the entire book before we can even hope to see an advance. So, I look at my deadlines and plan from there, doing what needs to be done first.
WOW: From your experience with your successful website, blog, and radio show podcasts, and with the exponential growth in technology and the marketing opportunities available on the Internet, do you recommend that writers establish an Internet presence before their book comes out? Or should they wait until they have a product to promote?
BARBARA: It's never too early to establish an Internet presence. Starting a blog is a free way to do it. I know writers who started a blog or website years before their book came out. It's a way to build an audience, and in some cases, books have come from the fact that someone started a blog and an agent or editor found it and liked it.
WOW: In your book, Pen on Fire, you talk about the necessity for an aspiring writer to make a sacrifice—to step out of the comfort zone—to pursue their dream of becoming a writer. What sacrifices have you had to make in your writing journey?
BARBARA: Oh, gee. Dare I say I'm still paying off my student loan? For long after I got my degree, I earned enough to make ends meet. (I didn't take my mother's advice to marry someone rich.) It's only been in recent years that I've done well with writing and writing-related jobs, like teaching. So one thing I did was decide that I would focus on doing what I loved, not what paid well.
Also, when I was working on Pen on Fire, beginning when my son was two, many times my husband and son would go off to the beach or park or wherever and I'd stay home, glued to my chair. I figured if I didn't produce words, nothing would ever happen with my writing. So many years of seeing little result, but I kept hacking away, believing that one day something would happen.
WOW: The road to getting Pen on Fire published was challenging. Can you tell us what that experience was like for you? Did you ever consider giving up?
BARBARA: Saying that it was challenging is putting it mildly. I don't think I've ever been so driven before in my life to make something happen. It was an eight-year process. I had two agents before I found a third agent that sold the book. Many rewrites. Many months of the manuscript in hiding under the Christmas decorations so I just wouldn't see it. It proved to me that when you believe in something with all of your heart and soul, then you can never give up. So many projects come and go and some are easy to let go. This one wasn't. Though, yes, I considered giving up. That's when I buried the proposal beneath the decorations. But that inner nagging voice—plus some good friends—wouldn't let me forget about it. When we turn down the voice that's urging us on, that's when we get in trouble, and those are the things we end up regretting later—that we didn't do such and such.
WOW: How did you go from wanting to write for yourself to deciding to teach classes for aspiring writers?
BARBARA: I wish I knew. So much of what I do is organic—it evolves without a real plan, though I've tried to have it all interconnected. Teaching gets me out of the house, so to speak (even when I teach at home or online). It gets me interacting with others and in teaching, you really must practice what you preach, so it keeps me honest.
WOW: As I read through it, I found Pen on Fire was filled with so many practical and encouraging tidbits to inspire women to get in touch with their inner writer. One point you made stands out in my mind very clearly—your call to the Late Bloomers. I think many aspiring writers feel they may have waited too long to get started. I'd love to have you share your thoughts on this with our readers.
BARBARA: We live in a youth/celebrity culture and it's very easy to think that we're over the hill, even at 30! When we begin to think it's too late for us, we really need to dissect that thought. If we're 50 and want to take up ballet, maybe it is too late to become a professional ballerina, though not too late to dance and get a good workout doing something we love. But I like to say:Too late for whom? Regarding writing, we are lucky to be doing something that is pretty much judged on its own quality, not on our ability to be photogenic—or not. Writing benefits from age, actually—from the wealth of experience that living gives you. And so many writers who published young are basically one-hit wonders. Some of my favorite writers—Harriet Doerr, for one, whom I talk about in my book—started late and were quite successful. Listen, this is your life. If you want to write, please...don't let age be a barrier. Nike stole the most wonderful, inspirational phrase: "Just do it."
WOW: What technique or tip do you recommend to your students when they are feeling blocked or caught in a creative corner with their writing?
BARBARA: Freewriting is the cure-all, far as I'm concerned! I go into it in depth in Pen on Fire, but essentially, allowing your thoughts to reach the page unhindered is a great thing.
WOW: Do you have any special tools for writing? How important are a writer's tools, anyway?
BARBARA: When I write longhand, I use a Moleskine notebook. They are pricey, but the paper is lovely and they have a band that keeps them closed and compact in your bag. My computer is an iBook, a laptop Mac that appeals to my aesthetic sense and is intuitive in the way that a computer should be. Tools are so important! Before my Mac, I had a desktop PC that I hated to sit at. I suppose I detest routine—though I wish I liked it more—and having to sit before that cumbersome screen every day in the same place began to drive me nuts. With the laptop, I can move it around. I can take it with me to cafés to work, which is great—as long as there isn't Internet access!
WOW: The Internet—a writer's blessing and curse. I must admit, I'm the poster girl for the "Eddiction" you talk about in Pen on Fire. I check my email at least 25 times a day, bouncing from one screen name to another. And unfortunately, my husband also lures me into sitting beside him: "Honey, come see this..." until I'm comatose in front of the TV. Is there any hope for writers like me?
BARBARA: Oh, dear, I'm in a similar fix with email. But TV, that's the real time eater, I've found. I pretty much limit my TV watching to nighttime when my 12-year-old son is watching a movie or the Food Network. We'll sit together and he'll watch and I'll knit. So I'm not just sitting and watching. I really don't like to sit and stare—even with DVDs or videos, I have to be knitting, probably because I'm also being productive. Life is only so long (or short)....
Email, well, going to cafés with no Internet access is a great way to get work done on your computer. Or just go with a notebook. I love writing longhand.
Pretty much you've got to force yourself to give up the TV habit. Or when your husband calls, say:"Just a minute, honey," and stretch that minute out...and out...and out.
It takes something like 28 days to form a new habit. So if you replace TV viewing with writing, after 28 days, TV will pretty much not be something you want to do.
But it is highly addicting, as is email and so powerful steps have to be taken to overcome the addiction.
WOW: How do you keep your muse balanced? Do you have a secret creative pleasure?
BARBARA: Well, I knit and make jewelry. I love handcrafts and am quite obsessed with knitting at the moment. I've always had a love for making things. In college, photography battled writing to be my priority, but in the end, it was writing.
WOW: Do you keep a journal of your experiences, thoughts, and travels to mine for inspiration?
BARBARA: I have a few journals scattered about the house, but truthfully, I rarely if ever turn to my journals for inspiration. I write in them mostly to remember various things.
WOW: This week I had the opportunity to listen to your radio show and I enjoyed that the interview was more like eavesdropping on a conversation between friends. From a marketing standpoint, your radio show has been a wonderful way for you to establish a presence in the literary community and get your name out there. On a personal level, what have you enjoyed most about interviewing other authors?
BARBARA: I feel as if I'm in a Masters program, only without spending 20 grand. I have loved meeting authors on the air that I would probably not talk with otherwise—not for an hour, anyway. I love being able to question some of my favorites.
WOW: How do others' books inspire you, or do they? Do you read while you're writing?
BARBARA: They do—of course they do. And yes, I'm pretty much always reading—for my show and for my own pleasure. I love books on CD when I can find them. I seem to be an aural learner, and remember books differently when I hear them. Certain books I seem to like more when I listen to them. I didn't read Zadie Smith's White Teeth when it came out, but recently I checked out the CD from the library and loved it. The reader made the book come alive in a way that wasn't there for me on the page. Although a reader can send me running, too. I've been wanting to finish Don DeLillo's Underworld and checked out the book on tape. The reader was horrid, though; he sounded like one of those computerized voices that call you up to tell you the library book you requested is in. Yuck. Books on CD or tape are great, too, when you exercise.
WOW: (a light bulb pops over my head) That's a great idea! Listening to books on CD might actually get me on the treadmill. That reminds me, I read an essay on your website that dealt with women's body image. I must admit, I agree completely with your stance on the subject. What do you think it will take to make the pendulum swing the other way? You seem so passionate about it, is that a concept you think you might want to incorporate in a future book?
BARBARA: I don't know if anything will make the pendulum swing the other way, except for time. In the early part of the 20th century, it was fashionable for women to have smaller breasts and fleshier bodies. It was anathema to be skinny with big boobs. In time, that changed. I imagine someday it will change back again. In other countries, body image is looked at a bit differently. In Brazil, smaller breasts are "the thing," and in countries in Africa, big hips are considered beautiful. In India, it's a sign of power and wealth for women to be fat. So here, someday, it will no likely change. I read recently that Cosmopolitan magazine is starting to have women on the cover that have a bit more flesh on their bones. Interesting! And yes, it is a concept I may incorporate into a future book. I did try to sell an idea for an anthology called Boobs, essays by men and women about breasts, but publishers didn't bite.
WOW: (laughs) I can't imagine publishers not wanting to take a bite out of something so obviously...enticing. So, now that we're starting into a new year, do you have any writing resolutions for 2007?
BARBARA: Finish my novel! I've been working on it since I turned in Pen on Fire in January of 2004 and am almost done with the first draft. I hope to finish a draft by the end of January and then spend some months (hopefully not years) revising.
WOW: I have a feeling I already know the answer, but I'll ask anyway. Can you tell us a little bit about what we have to look forward to with your next book?
BARBARA: If I'm so lucky to see it published, it's a novel. But, in keeping with what I talk about in Pen on Fire, I can't talk about it for fear of letting the air out of it.
WOW: If you had one single message you would want readers to take away with them after reading Pen on Fire, what would it be?
BARBARA: There is a lot of accumulative time in your day that you can use to write. Don't put it off because you don't have a week or month or year. Use what you have, learn to write anywhere, and have confidence in yourself.
WOW: On your show, you ask your guests for last words, or words of wisdom? Do you have any for our readers?
BARBARA: I've said it before and I'll say it again; you can never hear it too much: You must be your greatest advocate and take your work and yourself seriously. It's so easy to let your writing go because of the infectious attitude of how difficult it is to publish and why bother? But, if you're a writer, you must bother. You must take the time and do your work. And don't listen to anyone who tries to discourage you. I can't tell you how many times I heard how difficult it was to publish writers books—or especially writing books like mine. I was encouraged by one agent to make it into more of a how-to and remove the anecdotal, personal stuff. But that wasn't the sort of book I wanted to write. I stayed with my original vision and intention and paid attention to the voice inside that believed in the project. Sure, it's great when friends, families and mentors believe in you. But believe in yourself, as well. It will take you far.
WOW: Thank you, Barbara. You are just as inspiring as your book. I'm sure our readers will want to read Pen on Fire: A Busy Woman's Guide to Igniting the Writer Within, and hear you live on your radio podcast at www.writersonwriting.com It's been a pleasure chatting with you.
To purchase a signed copy of Pen on Fire, go to Barbara's website: www.penonfire.com
Annette Fix is an author and spoken word storyteller based in Laguna Niguel, CA. An excerpt from her e-book, The Hungry Writer's Guide to Tracking and Capturing a Literary Agent was featured in WOW!'s September 2006 Issue. Annette's memoir, The Break-Up Diet will be available in October 2007. You can catch her next spoken word performance at The Powerhouse Theater in Santa Monica on March 5th.