For Christmas my husband bought me a book I’d been wanting for several months: L.L. Barkat’s Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity and Writing. I read it in three sittings. Then I read it again.
It’s a beautiful book, easily my favorite book on writing since Bird by Bird. Barkat shows exactly what she’s telling, and her writing is vivid, concrete, evocative; her voice, personal and personable.
After reading the book, I wanted to take her out for tea and a good long talk. Since she lives in New York and I live in Seattle, that wasn’t really in the cards. So I did the best I could: I emailed her and asked if she’d let me inteview her. She kindly said yes.
KCI: I’m curious why you chose an excerpt from Yeats’s poem “The Stolen Child” as the epigraph for the book.
LLB: Now that is an emotional question. Because it represents the tension of the whole book – the issues of coming-of-age and of Imagination versus Reality in the writing life.
One night I read the poem to my daughters and couldn’t get through it without getting misty-eyed, and we had a marvelous conversation about how parents want their children to stay innocent and without pain, so they can sometimes be like the faeries in the poem, who are trying to steal the child away forever. But those fantastical figures are offering a stunted view of life. Perpetual childhood and escape from reality has its own kind of losses. Likewise, however, perpetual reality without innocence and whimsy is too punishing.
Similarly, the writer moves between Imagination and Reality. To stay on one side too regularly is to lose the benefits of the other. The writer needs both to remain vital and fulfilled, needs both the stolen cherries and the oatmeal chest.
Oh, and who doesn’t love that phrase “the waters and the wild”? Too good to pass up for an opening.
KCI: One of my favorite things about your book was the way you showed in story what you were telling your readers–how in reading your book, we don’t just get your advice but also your modeling of what following that advice might look like. What inspired you to take this unusual approach to writing about writing?
LLB: It is the only way I write anymore. I have a strong theory about the power of place and the objects that surround us. So I’m trying to live it. If I can’t say something about writing through my fragile white teacup, or through a climb up the lighthouse stairs, then I am missing a deep opportunity as a writer.
I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. I say a lot more about this in the book, since it is, after all, a theory I embrace (not a unique one by any means, but an interesting one).
KCI: In one of my favorite chapters, “French & Spanish Tea,” you talk about the importance of passion and place in developing a written voice. You’ve written on your blog and elsewhere about the centrality of place in your own writing. How did this focus on place begin for you? Who or what influenced your thinking (and writing and living) “in place”?
LLB: Okay, now I am smiling. I didn’t read ahead to notice you’d ask about place. So you see how much it informs my thoughts!
As for how it began, I think it started through reading poetry. Poetry is so compact that it’s easier to notice certain tendencies that writers exhibit. I began to notice that the really excellent poets had a strong sense of place. Olives, jasmine, veils in Darwish. Cactus, cattle, tree-poker in Goodyear. Salt and dust in Overstreet. And so on. Each of these image-sets flows directly from the poets’ places of origin or current region. And they are beautifully evocative for a reader.
Well, it seems like a worthy writing goal to become… beautifully evocative. So there you have it. I was sold.
KCI: You explain in the opening chapter why the book is called Rumors of Water. Then, much later, you reveal that what you wrote in that first chapter isn’t exactly what happened. How do you reconcile your writer’s vision (and memory) with “what really happened”? In other words, how much poetic license can we take in our writing before we’re just outright lying?
LLB: I’d say don’t lie on purpose. But if we believe we make it through even one day without altering reality, we are deceived. The brain is simply not that reliable.
What’s more, when we retrieve memories from the past it is common knowledge in brain science that we actually alter the memories based on our current experience. There is no perfectly-remembered reality. The writer should do the best she can.
And if you remember in the book, I say something about following the blue-striped apron principle (or was it the red plaid?). You know, be open to changing a detail if you need to change it. But know you are going to make mistakes and somebody is going to be unhappy about it (trust me, I have lived this).
KCI: Your daughters are major characters in the book, and their writing and learning at home form part of the foundation of the book. As a homeschooling mom myself, I’d love to hear how you, a former school teacher, arrived at the unschoolish methods that underpin your teaching and your girls’ learning.
LLB: I fell in love with these little children who had hearts and minds of their own. It’s about as simple as that. And I probably read something somewhere that I don’t remember now. Suffice it to say, I have never been disappointed by my children’s creativity. It is wild and constant, if only I make way for it.
KCI: Last but not least, in the movie version of your book, who plays you? Who plays your daughters? (When my husband read this question, he scoffed, “How can you make a movie out of a book on writing?” I said, “Because it reads more like a memoir than a how-to-write manual.” He was skeptical, but I stand by my question: who plays you? Your girls?)
LLB: Me? Oh, Sophia Loren of course. Although I don’t know how in the world she’d really play a homeschool mom.
My daughters? Lucille Ball and John Malkovich. (Shakespeare got away with casting male characters for women, didn’t he? My eldest daughter would just love the hilarity of that, and she is seriously a Malkovich personality.)
L.L. Barkat blogs about writing, art, and life; about creativity, education, and social media; and about spiritual practice. She is Managing Editor for The High Calling and a staff writer for The Curator.