Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

14. Kim Barnes, 1958–

Since the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through the valley two centuries ago, few non-Native people have settled along Idaho's Clearwater River. Most of the valley's inhabitants are in the lumber trade, though some fish, and some work on the hydroelectric projects built along Idaho's tributaries to the Pacific Northwest's two great rivers-the Columbia and the Snake.

In the river valley town of Pierce, the Pilgrim Holiness church took in families of failing loggers and gave them new faith. Perhaps they needed it. Many families had moved to northern Idaho after breaking down somewhere else. Kim Barnes's parents fled Oklahoma and settled into the Idaho forest to log until that way of life failed and they turned to the way of Pentecostal fundamentalism and its broad exercises of authority. Kim Barnes's father became the family's absolute authority, and his rules came both from what he knew of scripture and from his soul's inspirations. A Pentecostal believer places great faith in literal, spiritual visitations, and little faith in anyone who has not been "in the Spirit." A "Fundamentalist," as defined in a series of early-twentieth-century tracts, believes every word in the Bible is verbally inerrant, divinely inspired, and "is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (KJV. II Timothy 3:16). Such convictions came upon the Barnes family. Kim Barnes's father and mother joined a sect related to the snake handlers and poison drinkers, a sect whose women were to be invisible in the congregation and submissive in the family. And so, thoroughly reinforced against spiritual chaos, Kim Barnes's father and mother raised their spirited daughter in a north Idaho logging compound until the spirit compelled the family to move to the mill-town of Lewiston.

Barnes's two memoirs reveal her upbringing. In the Wilderness describes childhood in the logging camps, her family's frustrations with her resistance, and her swings between the spiritual security in a small church and her defiance against the church and family authority. Hungry for the World (Barnes 2000) describes her flight from that authority. The cultic, isolated life made her subject to fits of rebellion and faith. "Changes so dramatic and seemingly sudden can hardly be reconciled except in retrospect, and all that is left to ground us are the expected and familiar motions of the present: the salt must be passed, the ice cream served, the coffee perked" (Barnes 1996:199).

The idea of wilderness centers her first book. Fishing, the sounds of rivers and the wind in the woods, the cathedral-trees, the great otherness of the wild non-human blanketed Barnes's family. But no wilderness can be logged forever, and typically its loss embitters the woodsmen, disillusions the inhabitants of the small lumber towns, and hardens the unemployed people who loved their work. The subsequent move to town left Barnes's family even more resolutely religious, more resolved to separate itself from all but the church community. Barnes left home for good when her father forbade her to attend her high-school graduation dance. So ends her first book. Her second is a recreation of the hellish three years she spent in rebellion, coming close to death through recklessness and rebellion. Its structure differs from the first book. Its language is less lyrical, more confrontational, more aghast at the lost self Barnes bravely chose to face.

Kim Barnes teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Besides writing memoir, she recently completed a novel, Finding Caruso (Barnes 2003). She lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, and their children in a house overlooking a bend in the Clearwater River. Not far upstream is Barnes's lost wilderness home, submerged under another man-made lake.

The essay included here, "Prayer, Piety, Passion, and Prose" summarizes parts of her life in the Northwest. It was first presented as a talk at Walla Walla College in March 2002. Afterwards she responded to questions from students and faculty. Barnes began with a series of opening questions and statements of faith.

Q: You've written both fiction and memoir. How does writing fiction differ from writing memoir?

Barnes: Memoir is autobiography made into story, into an arc of meaning. One writes to find meaning in the ritual act of writing, to see if one's calling is true. Beside me as I write are a book of hymns, a King James Bible, a concordance. Who am I and why, are the questions that define the writer. What happens to an abandoned faith, to the defining traditions? What happens to the lost servant of those traditions? How can one find the end of chaos in literature? If stories are how we define ourselves, reworking our stories is how we find ourselves. Stories help us rediscover the loss of a sacred master plot. What happens when our stories can't be accepted by our families, our community, the people of our old faiths? What happens when the stories of our families are stories of abuse and oppression, when what you want to tell is how your own life, its literal truth, is a sacrilege? So we have lost our way. And the quest looks like a road to catastrophe, especially when dire prophecies come true because we make them self-fulfilling. The storyteller's task is to find a way to stay true to the old structures while remaining true to what's been found out as one finds survival. While the writer honors the road that brought one to where one is, she must see how the road goes on as well. Narrative is a continuum, a rediscovery.

Personal nonfiction destabilizes. It redefines the present, and tells us how to act now. It hopes to make new rituals, and still hold to the old ones that hold the self together. Writing is like praying for the "gift of tongues"; it brings one to one's knees. The elements of faith from childhood become re-embodied as the elements of faith for the writer. She must believe in what she is doing. She has given her life over to the computer and she shows her family the writer at work.

Advice to authors: do it for the right reasons. Not for money, recognition, revenge. How can one get a blessing that way? Honor the family with the gift of good writing. Allow them complexity. Describe their actions objectively, let the audience be the judge. Look for some essential element of the self.

Q: How did your family feel about your first book?

Barnes: Writing about someone's spirituality is much more intimate than writing about sexuality. I was writing about their spirituality. I began telling them about attempting to write this book in a way that was non-specific. We were Pilgrim Holiness, a sect related to Pentecostal Fundamentalism, related to snake handlers. They had begun to separate themselves from that Pilgrim Holiness, my family, so our communication opened up some. I was taking a great risk, with my life and theirs. After I ran away from home in the 8th grade, I was sent to live with the Langs, the father had been our minister, and awful things happened. My family had never spoken of that. Nor of what happened after my high school graduation when things got even darker.

I told them it was my time to understand what had happened to me, that I wanted to write about the women in the church because that was my particular interest. And it was about memory, I said, because I wasn't working out of journals or diaries, nor was I interviewing family. To me, what is important about memory isn't what you remember, but why you remember it the way you did. The story of what I remembered is what I wanted to tell. I talked to my family about this. We ended up arguing about which side of the road the outhouse was on, but not much more about data. I mailed the manuscript to my family only after a publisher accepted it. And it didn't get changed after my family read it.

My mother called and she was crying. She apologized for not intervening in my young life. It was mother guilt. But I told her not to cry, that I am a happy person, and I have a good life and it's because of you. Then she cried again, but this time it was harder, it was for her own life. She married at 16, moved to Idaho at 18. She was incredibly beautiful and energetic, but when they joined the church all that stopped. Women were supposed to be invisible. Now she felt she had lost her self. No one had told her story.

Then my father called. He said, "You are my daughter, and you have made a terrible mistake." He had shunned me for two years before. But what he then said, in a fast shift from condemnation to joking around, maybe, I don't know, was that if I had called him sooner he could have told me why my uncle moved out from Oklahoma, which side of the road the outhouse was on. And we talked for four hours; that's the longest my father and I had talked in our lives, and it was overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming. And he said, "Do I want you to publish this book? No, I don't. Do I think you should? Yes, I do." As you know, in the book I try to treat him with compassion, but he is still somewhat of a villain. But since that day we talked, the door has never shut, and we still talk. I know that writers of memoir often fear the worst, that our families will abandon us if we tell our truth. But it's just the opposite, for me.

When I wrote that book, it was a good period in my life. I was engaged in the creative community, I was married and I had a family, but I was emotionally slim, and very closed off, and writing the book forced me to go back and re-allow that time in my life back in. I had to become that child again. I had written short stories, before, about this time. And when I read them in public about the laying on of hands, people would howl, and think I was hilarious. And that was not why I was writing. So when I went back to memoir, I could treat it differently.

Q. I think there are many people like your father, and your story made me wonder how to find a way to love such people.

Barnes: It was so hard, my father is incredibly intelligent, but he can also inflict terrible pain. There are many stories my family never tells; one they did tell was my father's burning down their house when he was little. In the fire his family lost everything of the little bit they had. They had a couch, a new violin. After the fire his father became a drunkard and he and his father were killed. My father carries the guilt of that. He's a kind of mystic. A story I learned later was that his brother threatened to have him put in a mental institution if my dad didn't come out of the bomb shelter he'd gone into where he planned to pray for forty days and forty nights. My father's brilliant, he glows, he's talented and he preaches. He'll have 200 people over for dinner, but after that, he'll lock himself into a room and talk to no one.

Q: How did your book affect your spiritual self?

Barnes: One thing that book forced me to do was to go back to the possibility of the spiritual self. And that's where I am now, and it's an incredibly powerful place. One thing I didn't want to do was write the second book. For my mother the book created a spiritual crisis. She said, "I don't know what my spiritual life is, it was always someone else's--the males'." She developed breast cancer, and my father told her it was her punishment for not being submissive. And she left my father with whom she'd been since 16, and it was terrifying, it was a loss of narrative. She went back to him after two years when he became disabled. She's now been in remission for 6 years, and has come to believe that cancer was not a result of her lack of faith.

The place of not wanting to be submissive but still wanting to be in the faith, is an incredibly chaotic place. As a writer, I think our subconscious works to manifest itself on the page in front of us. That's a gift.

Q: Were the women in the holiness church really happy?

Barnes: My mother would say those were some of the happiest times. It was like a very close-knit family. They were so young. My mom was only 18 when I was born. One thing about the Langs, our minister and his family, is that they were fun. My mom loved being with Sister Lang. They laughed. In Mrs. Lang's marriage she had taken on the codes of subservience, and she was able to do that. Still, sometimes I saw Sister Lang become almost violently bitter; the spell would break down. From the sight I have now, I don't think she was happy. But as the saying goes from back in Oklahoma, "they were in tall cotton." Imagine a family in Oklahoma with no plumbing or outhouses. "Tall cotton" meant there was a lot to hide them. Tall cotton meant having it good.

In high school I was in the National Honors Society. I thought I'd be an English teacher. When I was reading up in Pierce, Idaho, I had Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, but I don't think I read anything written by a woman. The idea that I could become a writer never dawned on me. We were getting married very young—the Langs' daughter married at 16. The Apostle Paul said "better to marry than to burn." In high-school, I thought I could become a teacher. I edited the literary magazine. I published myself. But when I left home, I had to work, pay the rent, and I forgot all those ambitions. I wrote a poem in late grade school that my mother tore up. She didn't want that kind of emotion in the house. Paying too much attention to the emotions….You think too much it will make you crazy. My family had a fear of the life of the mind.

After the dark three years I write about in Hungry for the World—years I was lucky to survive—I went to Lewis and Clark State and met my husband Robert Wrigley. I dropped pre-med and started writing poetry and was able to place some of that, and then short stories, but it wasn't until I met Mary Clearman Blew with her sense of how your life story could become a narrative, that it dawned on me that I could do that. And when I sat down to write In the Wilderness, it was as if I had finally fallen into words. I was turning soil over in the garden and I literally dropped the spade and wrote it all in thirty pages, and sent it off to an agent, and then a publisher who called and said, "What is all this poetic bullshit?" Poets are spatial, not linear, and she said, "Just tell the story. Quit going like poets do. You've got to write it from beginning to end." I was distressed, but at 2:00 in the morning I got scissors and tape and got back in bed and started cutting it in pieces and putting elements in chronological order.

The process of going into my family history happened not by research, but by remembering. Whenever you're at dinner, Christmas dinner, Easter dinner, you hear the same stories over and over. I did ask my mom about some things. It was strange. She laughed hysterically at the stories about her crippled brother and stories when they were all starving. I had to recreate and imagine narratives. I think sometimes we have pieces of story, and if we think about them we can fill in the other parts because most stories are the same.

Q: How do you craft something that's so personal?

Barnes: This is one of the few moments I had with my mother when I saw in her the girl she was at 16. My mother was probably a lot like I was when she was 16, but whatever it was in her got squeezed out when she moved to Idaho. Her loss was something that informed my sense of myself. Women couldn't cut their hair, couldn't wear makeup. They were to be invisible. Not speak, not draw attention to themselves, not draw out their own evil natures and not, thereby, draw out the evil nature in others. The most attractive woman, the most vibrant woman in our church was accused of demon possession. She was my mother's best friend. And my mother was warned by that woman's banishment.

What you're sensing is my shaping of the story. Starting as a poet helped me with that. I circle back to things. it's all about revision, reshaping. When I want a word to resonate, I search for the word.

Here's what I do. The first thing is craft. Paying attention at the level of the sentence. Using your intellect. Autobiography says I was born and I'm not yet dead. Here's the difference between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography is sequential, first this happened, then this happened. Memoir is thematic. You could write a memoir about an hour in your life. Remember Kate Chopin's The Story of an Hour, or Joyce's Ulysses. But the story has to have an arc. There has to be a sense of the beginning, then the thematic elements and then the end. When I first wrote In the Wilderness, I wrote past the thematic arc, I wrote past the high school and up to marriage. But William Kittredge [the legendary author and writing teacher at the University of Montana] said the story's arc ended after high school.

To make the writing into literature remember you must bring your intellect to bear inside the thematic arc. You write the narrative of what happened, the actual plot element, like talking to my mother about our mutually hidden smoking, and then you go into contemplation. This can involve philosophy, psychology, cultural elements, associative elements of many kinds, but you come back into the author's voice and you project meaning onto the narrative. It's pretty methodical. I'll often do scene, contemplation, white space, scene, contemplation, white space. And I'll just do it over and over again. The lyricism changes quite a bit. The sentences change. The contemplation is a no-tense land. I can go wherever I want here. "Some day I would realize." "I remember when I was four." I can go wherever I want. Usually you craft the story, and then the trappings are the imaginative leaps, the musculature is the contemplation.

In the Wilderness had been with me; it was a story I had been working over in my mind. Hungry for the World had been put away. It's a lot easier to mythologize your childhood when you're responsible to others, but when you're responsible to yourself, it's a lot harder. Those three post-high school years represent an era I hate. To compensate, I started writing tough, like James Ellroy. I didn't want to go into the facts. In the most painful parts I felt I was chiseling stone; it was a fight, I literally had to be down on the floor. I had to try to understand me. Whereas the earlier book was just there. In Hungry for the World I still had my fear and my shame so much with me. All I could do was blame everything on myself. I heard words, "You made this bed, you lie in it." I didn't want to be that girl. My editor said, "Kim, you've got to lie down with that girl." It was finally at that point when I could start writing.

Q: How, in a religious context, could you go back? About the forest, and the land, you write, "No matter what I did, I could always come back to the woods." But I don't sense you can do that with the church.

Barnes: The woods don't care. What drew my father to the woods was the absolutism. It didn't involve people. I never feel safer than I do in the woods. In New York, I'm terrified. My fight or flight sense is activated in the city. There's no place to run. I'm OK in the woods. I have fear of the people around me. The Langs' betrayal never has left me. As a child I was never outside that religious experience. I was never outside observing myself be in the level of the spirit. There was no irony at all. When I gave myself back to the Langs, only to have them say I was demon-possessed, I had no narrative or room for that. I wasn't allowed to speak to my parents, there was no "case worker" to say the Langs had problems. I thought the Langs were going to show up on my doorstep when I started writing the book. I still have that fear. In the woods I feel safe.

In the second book, I was able to let loose some of the barrier I had built up. I want to emphasize this, this isn't about religion, it is about that particular church, but anyway, what I felt when I went back was to open myself up and let some of the cynicism go away. But you don't write for that reason. You write to attain a work of art. A by-product may be a healing. But you write for art. A word of warning. Once you put it down, it becomes the definitive text. Except someone on said, I knew Kim Barnes and this stuff never happened.

But back to the earlier question, of how I am able to be honest. I'm a real anarchist. I was born just saying things. I've never worried about what people thought of me. I never think about them because there's a reason why I need to write this. I always believed that if I'm trying to bear witness to my story and to the stories of a lot of people, that people will respond to me, and not judge me. There are no lives around us that we do not share. My editor's partner, a gay, Jewish, New Yorker, read In the Wilderness and said he had read his own story. When we tell our own honest story, the stories we think we should protect ourselves against, we are telling everybody's story.


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