Meet Barbara Drake
Barbara Drake is the author of the memoir Peace at Heart: An Oregon Country Life and the popular textbook, Writing Poetry, as well as several volumes of poetry. She is a professor of English at Linfield College in McMinnville, OR. She and her husband William Beckman live at Lilac Hill Farm, in the Yamhill Valley of Oregon. Susan Wittig Albert conducted this interview in August, 2000. It was originally published in The Story Circle Journal.
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 08/15/2000
Peace at Heart is a wonderful book, with such a strong sense of detail and immediate presence. Do you keep a journal? If so, how did the journal contribute to the book? Can you describe your journaling practice? If not, how were you able to recall and evoke such details?
I don't usually keep a daily bound journal of thoughts and ideas, although I do keep that sort of journal when I'm undertaking some particular experience, such as when I travel and want to have a specific and thorough record. When I recently took a series of art courses (life drawing, water color, colored pencil), I kept a dated, continuous journal in which I would describe the lessons and any associations and reflections that came up, including my feelings about how my own work turned out. I also wrote about related experiences the art classes reminded me of. For example, I wrote down thoughts about my mother teaching me to draw when I was a child, about nudity, about some exhibits I saw in New York around that time, about a conversation between artists and scientists at a faculty party—that sort of thing.
Last year I had to have surgery (lumpectomy) and radiation for breast cancer (DCIS) so I kept a journal of that whole process. I'm using some of that material in other writing and I think it helped me a lot to write about what was going on. If I didn't write it, I would just run it all through my head obsessively. (I'm fine, now, by the way.)
Except for such occasions, I just write down ideas I have and do rough drafts that I later work into essays or poems. I really enjoy the writing process and I write a lot so it's never been a problem for me to make myself write. I started using a typewriter to write my poems and other things when I was about thirteen. If I don't have access to my office I write by hand but I prefer to write on my computer, even first drafts.
Peace at Heart came naturally as a series of informal stories I wrote after we moved to the farm. I've learned that when something happens that feels like "material" I should write it down as soon as possible, because that's how you get those fresh details. On the other hand, I had two children before I finished graduate school and eventually had three and was writing all the time when they were little so I got in the habit of working on my writing in my head while I was doing other things. I do keep my ideas going mentally, even when I don't have a chance to write them down right away. My first "journal" is in my head.
In your book, you convey a very strong sense of place. In what ways has your life been shaped by the place where you live? Do you think your experience of living in that place has been further shaped by writing about it?
Although I was born in Kansas, my parents moved to Oregon when I was two. My dad had visited Oregon and loved it. When he met my mom and proposed, he promised he'd take her out West, and he did, so the journey to the beautiful West has been a big part in my lifelong personal mythology. Although I eventually grew up on the southern Oregon coast, went to college and grad school in Eugene, in the Willamette Valley, and lived for sixteen years in Michigan, this farm where we live now and which is the subject of Peace at Heart is actually off a small old Oregon highway that connects two of the Oregon towns where we first lived. I'm just twelve miles from where I lived when I was two years old. When I moved back out here I went to that neighborhood and found my way to the corner where our apartment had been (now a vacant lot)—I think I have strong homing instincts. I like to travel and I am constantly falling in love with other landscapes, but I still always know that Oregon is my first love and this is home.
Now, did writing about the Yamhill Valley change my sense of it? I think so. I appreciate it more when I learn about the ecology of the place for example, with regard to water, subsistence, native plants, history, and so on. I like the fact that places intersect with my personal history and memory. My husband and I have recently been canoeing the Tualatin River near here. It winds all over the valley and even though it's a slow little river, very tame, and travels through a lot of suburban areas, once you're down in it you feel like you've entered the forest primeval because the trees lean out over the river and there are lots of birds and wildflowers and few people. Local advocacy groups are doing a lot to restore and preserve this little river. Well, my own memory of this river from when I was a child is that we sometimes picnicked along it. The only time I ever saw my father in a bathing suit was abut 1945, in a certain spot in this river (which I can still identify). He didn't care much for swimming but he went in that day for some reason and I found it quite surprising. This landscape feels very personal to me, but when I write about it I keep learning and understanding it more and it just gets better.
Writing about our lives can help us to heal, to grow, to become more deeply aware. Did the writing of your memoir change you in any significant way?
I certainly agree with your initial statement here. Both the events I describe and writing about them helped me work through some difficult emotions—having the experience and paying close attention is one step, and writing it out is another. When Ursula Le Guin wrote the blurb saying the book offered a definition of happiness, it scared me a little. I really hadn't thought about that being the subject of the book, even though I now realize it is one of the book's subjects. (Others include renewal, rural living, family, death, loss, love of animals, beauty in nature, and a certain amount of how-to—all those big ones). But I wouldn't deliberately set out to try to define happiness, because I'm the sort who thinks if things are really good you should maybe just keep quiet about it. But I do love to share and celebrate the good things of life, as well as good ways of getting through things that might not be so good. When something interests me, I want to tell others about it—the vocation of the teacher there. Writing does change the writer in a mysterious way, maybe by bringing into existence a transcendental version of reality, if you're lucky.
There are also practical and social effects with a new book. My publications before this had been poetry, textbooks, and (some years back) fiction. There's a wider audience for prose than poetry. A lot of people who wouldn't necessarily read my poetry seem to find Peace At Heart appealing and respond to it in a personal way. It's gratifying. I'm not abandoning poetry, though. I'm just working in a different genre right now.
It's hard to write about happiness and peace because these emotions lack drama. How did you handle this problem?
Let's see, that's a hard question. As I mentioned already, I didn't know I was writing about happiness and peace. I was writing stories about things that interested me, presenting, explaining, and commenting on them. I mainly wrote about things I found dramatic or amusing or moving. I wrote more essays that might have been included in the book, but if they didn't seem to be dynamic enough, I left them out. The title came up after I finished the book. My subconscious sort of presented it to me and I wasn't sure what it meant but it seemed right and, along with arranging the book chronologically and writing a little more where there seemed to be gaps, the title sort of pulled things together.
Do you write every day, or just when you are inspired? Do you have a special place/time to write?
I write every day when I have time. Sometimes after a long day of teaching I am too tired, but even while I'm teaching, when I give my students writing exercises I write with them, so that I don't miss out. I've gotten some published pieces out of work I've written to prompts I've given my students. I prefer to write at the computer, but I also write a lot of little bits on whatever—notes on scraps of paper, on napkins, in little spiral notebooks, etc.—when I'm not at the computer. I always have a big "mulch pile" of rough drafts and ideas. Periodically I go through and sort these into piles, such as a pile of drafts that I'm pretty sure I can make into essays or poems, and groups of things that seem related and might all be connected to make one work—stuff that doesn't seem interesting any more sinks to the bottom, or rather, off into another pile, which I don't actually throw away but sort of ignore. In a nutshell, my writing practice is: 1) do lots of free writes or little rough drafts about things that interest me or that get my attention somehow; 2) when I have time, comb through this accumulating pile of stuff and look for common themes or drafts that seem promising and work on one, trying to make it into something someone else might enjoy reading (and which I will enjoy rereading); 3) keep working on it, and working on it, and...finally it's done.
Do you work on several pieces at a time?
Yes. I've got lots of essays going, lots of notes, it almost gets out of control. Or maybe it is out of control. Oh well. I told Bill I needed a "task shelf" with a lot of shallow shelves so I could lay out my various projects without continually losing track of them, and what do you know, he went out to the workshop and built one for me and it really helps. It's about six feet long with three levels, and I can keep my various stacks in plain view, so I can find things. I've got filing cabinets as well, but I really like my task shelf.
About a third of the essays in your book were originally published in small magazines before you collected them under the title Peace At Heart. How did that come about?
Actually, the first three essays I wrote (and the first three in the book) were published in a commercial magazine, a glossy literary supplement called Northwest that used to come out with the Portland Oregonian newspaper on Sundays. Lots of good literary stuff by well-known authors appeared there—fiction, poems, and creative nonfiction as well as contemporary living type articles. Northwest also paid fairly well. So I sent them the first three essays I finished and they bought them. In some ways, that kept me going on the project. I hadn't published essays before and to have someone accept and pay for the first three was very encouraging. Later on, for marketing reasons, the newspaper discontinued that magazine supplement. Pretty sad, I think. It made a contribution to the cultural life of the area, and none of their fashion sections or home and garden sections have come up to that standard. Some of the other essays were published in literary magazines.
What advice do you have for those of us who would like to publish our journals and memoirs?
There is definitely a difference between journals for personal expression and writing for publication. You can often develop publishable work from journals, but when you edit and develop something for publication, you often have to leave out things that are very interesting to you, either because they detract from the central idea or feeling of a piece and ruin the unity of it, or because the material is mainly of personal interest. Also, work for publication often requires some sort of research for development. It may be research so casual and minor that no one would recognize it as such, but research, such as checking "facts" you remember or looking up some statistics or definitions that will strengthen your piece, is important for publication. Sometimes a student will feel shocked when I suggest drastic cutting, say half, to get at the heart of the work, but I do it to my own work all the time. Think of it as panning for gold. I won't claim that I always succeed, but that's what I aim for. If you don't want to edit your own writing or consider your audience, you may simply want to write for yourself, for expression, an outlet, to record your life for future generations, or to improve your writing. That's fine too. I'm all for writing uncritically in first drafts and free writes or to get something off your chest. But it's important to edit and develop when it comes to writing for publication.
How long did it take you to write Peace at Heart?
It took me six years to get about half of it finished and then I had a sabbatical and I wrote the other half in about six months.
What are you working on now?
My new project is not about the farm at all, though I am still making rough drafts and notes when something here comes up. But I am going in sort of the opposite direction and working on essays having to do with travel. I got a bunch of letters back from my Mom, ones I'd sent to her and my dad during the early 60's, when I was in Europe traveling around on a motor scooter and sleeping in free parks and so on and ended up living in Greece for a while. The material interested me so much that I started a series of essays in which I weave together past and present travel journals and topics. That's a lot of fun for me right now. I am learning a great deal in the process of going back to my memories and travel journals and then researching the stuff I didn't fully understand or know about at the time.