Angela Kelsey

Tell the Story

On Magpies: Part Four of a Four-Part Interview with Lynne Barrett

Filed in Books, Stories, voices, Writing :: November 17, 2011


If you’re just arriving at these Lynne Barrett interviews, you’ll want to catch up on Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

If you want to meet Lynne, she will be reading from and discussing Magpies at the Miami Book Fair as part of a panel with Tayari Jones (Silver Sparrow), Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland) and Justin Torres (We The Animals) on Sunday, Nov. 20, 12:30 p.m., in Room 3209, (Building 3, Second Floor), Miami Dade College, Wolfson Campus.

With gratitude to Lynne, one last question:

Angela: What advice would you give to readers of this blog or to the writers in my workshops, many of whom will not be likely to take university creative writing classes?  What should they do to become better writers?

Lynne: First, and always, read. And then reread. Writers are people who read a lot and think about what they’ve read, and go back and unravel how the effects a work had upon them were created, which you can only do on second, third, fourth reading.

Keep a writing journal. Copy out things you like by hand. Eavesdrop and write down things you hear that strike you. Record what you notice so you get used to turning your noticing into sentences. The journal is both useful as a practice and valuable later, when you may be stuck, and you can go back and find a detail or a moment you’ve forgotten that has gained new meaning with time.

For people who can’t take university classes, other workshops in the community, like yours, are a great option. I also recommend going to writers’ conferences, both for the access to published writers and to editors, and for the chance to meet other aspiring writers you can stay in touch with.

And without traveling, you can read good writers’ blogs. I’ll recommend here Beyond the Margins, which has a great group of writers contributing useful posts on all angles of craft, the writing life, and publishing. The large community-based writing organization Grub Street in Boston  is republishing some of their older posts in their daily newsletter, along with many other useful things. On the other hand, stay off the Internet completely when you are actually writing, as it is a pit of procrastination.

If you have a life full of other demands, set yourself tasks that you can actually accomplish.  Write a paragraph each day, if that’s what you have time for. It will still mount up, and you’ll be thinking about what a paragraph is, what it can do, how short it can be, how long. Or assign yourself other tasks. Here’s one: Each day for a week describe a meal (remembered or invented). Don’t worry about anything but getting the food right. And try not to look ahead at the rest of this assignment. (I know, that’s impossible. See anxiety and suspense, above.) At the end of the week, choose one, and write the scene where that meal is prepared. This may take many writing sessions. Don’t worry, take your time. Then write the scene where it’s eaten. Then write the scene that follows right after the meal: how are the characters different than they were before it? What happens that can happen only on this particular occasion? Before you know it, you have a story.


Lynne Barrett is the award-winning author of the story collections The Secret Names of WomenThe Land of Go, and, most recently,Magpies. She co-edited Birth: A Literary Companion and The James M. Cain Cookbook, a collection of Cain’s nonfiction. She is the editor of the new collection of prose poetry, flash fiction, and flash nonfiction Tigertail: Florida Flash, to be published in Oct. 2011. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Her essay, “What Editors Want,” published in The Review Review, was featured in the L.A. Times Book Blog and republished in Glimmer Train’s digest. She has received numerous awards, and fellowships from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she received her M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. She teaches in the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Florida International University and edits The Florida Book Review.

1 Comment

  1. wholly jeanne

    Great suggestions. Opportunities to hone your writing skills, to challenge yourself are available in a wide variety of accessible locations and price range.