Woodland Force

heidi-barr-cover-250These days, my reading alternates between strategies to resist President Trump’s malevolent policies as well as to promote political change and writing that prompts reflection, grounding, and hope. A title that fits in the latter category is Heidi Barr’s forthcoming Woodland Manitou: To Be On Earth. Scheduled for release by Homebound Publications in September, this collection of essays is rooted in the rhythm of the natural world. Through the turn of the seasons, Heidi demonstrates that the cycles of the earth inform her everyday life. She paints a picture of how remaining close to the earth provides a solid foundation, even as the climate changes and the story of the world shifts.

Part stories, part wonderings, and part call to act, Heidi’s words invite reflection, encourage awareness, and inspire action. Once I have a hard copy of Woodland Manitou, I expect it will live on my nightstand, like a book of devotions I can pick up when I need wise words, sustenance, and comfort. Heidi’s writing is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life and big questions that are part of the every day—loss, control, change, transformation, fear, hope. These short essays require only a few minutes to read, but they lead to many more moments of reflection and looking inward.

HBblackwThough we have yet to meet in person, I’m getting to know Heidi through her writing, our association with Homebound (the publisher for my forthcoming memoir Hiking Naked), and this interview. She lives near the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota with her husband and daughter. They tend a large organic vegetable garden, explore nature, and do their best to live simply. Heidi works as a wellness coach, offers retreats and teaches online courses through Wildfire Wellness, writes books, and strives to give voice to stories that need to be told.

Although Woodland Manitou is available for pre-order through Homebound Publications, you’ll have to wait a few months to hold it in your hands. Until then, enjoy these thoughts from fellow writer, Heidi Barr.

Iris: Woodland Manitou is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life. When and how did you first recognize the importance of the natural world for you?

Heidi: It’s hard for me to pinpoint a certain time when I realized nature was important in my life, but I think I noticed its absence during my years in graduate school—living in a very urban area was difficult, and I often felt cut off from what was important to me, even if I didn’t always realize it at the time. As a young child, I spent hours outside in the huge vegetable garden my parents kept, and my family’s vacations were to wild places. We’d load up the family van and the camping gear and head out to Acadia National Park, or the Black Hills of South Dakota, or the Colorado Rockies for a week of hiking and exploring. And growing up in a rural area, out of town, everyday playtime meant running through prairie grass, picking vegetables, or finding enchanted groves in the shelterbelt. Nature was just a part of life. Now, as an adult, and especially as the parent of a five year old, I recognize the gift of those opportunities: to know nature as a regular part of life. These days if I’m feeling cross, my husband just says, “Have you been outside yet today?” Being connected to the earth in a fundamental way is what keeps me feeling balanced and in tune with myself.

Iris: What’s something that surprised you as you worked on this essay collection?

Heidi: Before I started collecting these essays into a cohesive work, I don’t know that I realized how much the seasons impact my life! Only in sifting through old blog posts and journal entries and musings did I come to truly acknowledge the importance the changing of the season has in my life and in how I operate in the world. It was fun to see the themes come out as I worked on it, and it felt good to be continually reminded why I have chosen to live as I do.

 Iris: I’m always fascinated by how writers work. You obviously have a full life and juggle many roles. What’s your writing process?

Heidi: I’d love to say I sit down every morning and write for an hour, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that. With a full time job as a health coach, a huge garden, a young child, and plenty of side projects going all the time, I weave writing into the fabric of the days.   I’ll think of an idea while out for my morning jog around the lake, and then later I’ll type out a few sentences while waiting for a meeting to start, or while the casserole is in the oven, or while my daughter is winding down for the day with a book. It can feel like writing happens in the margins of “real life,” but when I really think about it, sometimes it’s almost like writing is the thread that connects the dots. Because after all, a lot of the writing process is experiencing life, being present in the ordinary, reflecting on it, musing over why something impacts you like it does…..the actual act of writing sentences is just the outcome of all of that.

 Iris: Woodland Manitou is your second book. Tell us a bit about your first book, Prairie Grown.

Heidi: Prairie Grown: Stories and Recipes from a South Dakota Hillside is a cookbook that walks through a year of life on my parents’ organic vegetable farm, the homestead where I grew up. It includes seasonal recipes for each month of the year, tips for putting up produce, really lovely photographs taken by a few different people, and stories about life on the farm.

Iris: What are you writing now?

Heidi: I’m currently co-writing a book with author Ellie Roscher (her new book, Play Like a Girl, comes out in August). Our book is about tapping into the root “tiny thing” of twelve different areas of life—everything from home to food to sensuality to style—and figuring out how to be intentional about incorporating these small practices into one’s daily practice.   It’s been a really life-giving project, and I’m pretty excited to get it finalized and on to the next step of the publishing process! We have a couple chapters to go before the first draft is complete. I’m also working on another essay collection that may or may not turn into a book. We’ll see what happens there.  

 Iris: What are you reading now?

Heidi: This is a great question, the answer to which changes daily, some weeks. Sometimes I feel like I read WAY too much, but then I think, na….not possible. I just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, Francesca Varela’s Call of the Sun Child, and the latest issues of Orion and The Sun magazines. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is up next, I think.

Iris: Thank you, Heidi, for our virtual chat about your book, and for posting our conversation about my book on your blog. And Happy Birthday!

In “Waiting for the Sacred,” one of the last essays in Heidi’s book, she advises,

“It might be harder than we thought to stay awake. We can listen and let the ancient become new again, just like the sun that rises and sets. We can step outside the illusions of our time to be in what we know is real. And we can stand in solidarity with those who are experiencing hardship and keep our eyes open to what we are being called to do in the world.”

Woodland Manitou will be a valuable guide in this demanding work.




Writer Island


I live on an island. Not a tropical isle, but one in the Pacific Northwest, with rocky, cold-sand beaches, bald eagles roosting in cedars, and great blue herons squawking as they skim the bay near my house. At least half a dozen times each day, I can see a Washington State ferry, our link to the mainland, coursing its way here.

Most mornings, I retreat to a small writing space that once was my son’s bedroom. My only company is my yellow lab/Shepherd, Buddy. It’s my own writer island. Why, then, would I board a ferry to a neighboring island to write?

The simple answer is evident in this poster:


Leaving the solitude of my home office gave me the chance to study again with my friend and writing mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. This time, she taught at Orcas Artsmith, leading a prose workshop, “Make It Move!” I was hoping for inspiration to make my pen move, and I wasn’t disappointed.

With our group of ten, Ana Maria reviewed how good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, move—through the growth of characters, unfolding plotlines, shifting scenery, and emerging meanings. Additionally, good stories move readers when they strike a chord, stir emotions, and change us. Ana Maria then posed the question, “Is there something about a way a story moves that moves us?”

After we each read excerpts of writing that touches us, we generated a list of characteristics that move the story—and the reader:

  • Concrete details
  • Repetition of images and sound—like a heartbeat
  • Shifts and surprises
  • Honesty
  • A bit of humor blended with the grief of loss
  • Descriptions of acts of compassion
  • Juxtaposition of big concepts/ideas with the small.

korean-war-veterans-memorial-pThen we turned to our own writing, generating a list of scenes or moments that have moved us. When Ana Maria asked us to choose one, I circled my note about the day I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, thinking of my father who had served as a Marine in that war.

For the rest of the morning, Ana Maria led us through a series of exercises using craft techniques that help carry readers from one emotional state to another:

  • Use active verbs (rather than forms of “to be”)
  • Note character gestures – the ways they touch and move
  • Look for a larger cultural context.
Kangaroo House – Orcas Island, WA

In the afternoon, we scattered to our own “writer islands” to work (or walk, nap, read) individually. After dinner, we gathered again at the inn that served as home base to have dessert and to read from our work.

The next morning, I left the workshop with the beginnings of an essay, a list of fourteen other moments that moved me that just might make their ways into my writing, and a few more tools in my writing toolbox. Could I have accomplished as much had I sequestered myself in my writer island office for a day? Perhaps. But I would have missed out on the wisdom of a gifted teacher, inspiration from other writers, and the luxury of a day free of the distractions that swirl around my desk.

And I would have missed the dessert.




Re-Blog “Writing is Art”

Earlier this month I reviewed  Spry Literary Magazine’s ABCs of Creative Nonfiction series. Now I’m sharing a thought-provoking post by writer and teacher Debbie Hagan about essay-writing. Hagan is also book reviews editor for Brevity Magazine, and she skillfully discussed a new essay anthology I might need to add to my library:  I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and how it motivated her to create a class for art students on revision and to think of writing as art. Whether you’re a writer, artist, or reader, I think you’ll find Hagan’s post interesting (just click on the link below).

via Today’s Lesson: Writing Is Art — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Creative Nonfiction from A-Z

typewriter2 (1)When I introduce myself as a writer, the person I’m talking to typically asks, “What do you write?”

After I reply, “Creative nonfiction,” I usually hear, “Oh…” and my new friend’s eyes focus somewhere beyond my face as if I’ve responded in a foreign language. I understand the confusion.
CNF60_Cover-1Essayist Scott Russell Sanders claims that the term nonfiction was coined by librarians to show their libraries weren’t filled with frivolous things. The genre’s name says more about what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s like saying that classical music is non-jazz or wine is non-beer. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, describes what creative nonfiction is in detail, but also offers this succinct and accurate definition: “True stories, well told.”

And that’s where the creative part comes in. A well-told story, whether true or made up, relies on literary craft techniques of characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, and description. It’s just that with true stories—nonfiction—the writer can’t exaggerate or lie about what really happened, can’t create characters that don’t exist, wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) falsely describe a setting. Or, as Gutkind says, “You can’t make this stuff up!”

ABCs-of-Creative-Nonfiction-1What creative nonfiction writers do, though, is shape their stories—personal essays, memoirs, narrative nonfiction—just as novelists and short story writers do. They (we) use a range of storytelling techniques and tools. Recently, the editors of Spry Literary Journal undertook the task of compiling descriptions of some elements of the genre and, with the help of twenty-six writers, launched The ABCs of Creative Nonfiction.

Linsey Jayne
Linsey Jayne

Linsey Jayne, poet and founding co-editor of Spry, began the series this way:

“Reading the work of a gifted author in the genre suddenly gives you the feeling of being swept into your closest friend’s dream. Notes meet rhythm to become symphonies. Something about the artful way in which such a writer paints the universe invokes a sense of empathy. Her stories make you feel all the more human, connected to yourself and to the world. She sweeps you up into something that once seemed as ordinary as walking across your living room floor, but now is laden with the meaning that builds in the hundreds of times you’ve walked across that floor while holding the hand of your child or laughing with your loved ones late into the night.”

What followed Linsey’s introduction were twenty-six mini craft lessons to correspond with the letters of the alphabet. There was A is for Accoutrements by Spry co-editor Erin Ollila, B is for Bravery by fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop classmate Chels Knorr, and E is for Ethics. One of my favorites was Q is for (Not) Quitting. As a contributor to the journal’s Issue 2 with my essay Cycles, I was invited to participate in the series; my offering was S is for Setting.

Linsey concluded the ABCs of Creative Nonfiction posts with this reflection:

“Writers in the genre need to offer journalistic honesty, interrogating the elements of their pasts (or the pasts of their subjects) to the point of pain and often at the risk of their emotional stasis for the sake of their craft. They have to swear. A lot. (Honestly, I can understand why.) They need minds that are equal parts surrealist, absurdist, realist, magician; they need to care so much that when their worlds sweat, they sweat.”

Whether you’re a reader or writer (or both) of creative nonfiction, I think you’ll enjoy Spry’s A-Z compendium about the genre. If you get hooked, as I did, you can also check out the magazine’s ABCs of Writing for Beginners and ABCs of Fiction Writing. Up next from Spry will be the ABCs of Flash Fiction.