Rebecca Barry is an author, mother, sculptor, magazine editor, and writing coach striving to balance the beauty of family life with her desire for a creative life. She is the author of Later, at the Bar: A Novel in Stories, which was a New York Times Notable Book. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Magazine, Seventeen, O, The Oprah Magazine, Ploughshares, Tin House, Ecotone, Mid-American Review, Best New American Voices 2005, and The Best American Travel Writing 2003.
Barry’s most recent book, Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories, is an honest and hilarious account of her struggle to work as a writer while mothering two young sons, caring for her aging parents, renovating an old house, and supporting her husband’s dream of starting his own green-living magazine. In Recipes, Barry shows raw and real emotion as she tries in vain to complete her second novel. But as she lets go of the novel that didn’t succeed, Barry discovers another, more inspired, more authentic project happening.
Literary Mama Blog Editor Amanda Jaros met Barry for coffee in upstate New York to talk about writing, finding balance, and doing the work you love.
Amanda Jaros: When I read Recipes, I appreciated how honestly you told your stories of enjoying family life and also struggling with it. You captured the reality of that dynamic well. Is that the focus you were striving for when writing it?
Rebecca Barry: I think when you’re writing a book, you think it’s about one thing, and then when you finish, you think it’s about something else, and then after the book comes out, you think, oh, it’s really about that. So when I was writing Recipes, I thought the book was about moving from the idea of a beautiful, simple life to a creative life. Which is a different kind of beauty for me, more expansive, really. I guess in the beginning, I thought our life would look like something out of The New York Times style section, which is really funny, given that our roof was falling down. It turned out that what is beautiful to me is a big mess. I create really well in that kind of environment. Now, actually, I’m beginning to think maybe a little less mess would be nice.
When I was writing the book, I thought it was about the creative life, and it is, but now I feel like it’s also about learning to trust yourself, about letting go of that idea that our lives are somehow a problem that needs to be fixed, and embracing the fact that our lives are what they are. That’s where the richness is.
AJ: After many months of work and numerous conversations with your editor, you realized that your novel wasn’t working and decided you couldn’t continue writing it. But you had all these notes and journals about motherhood and your kids. What was it like to let go of the novel and transition to writing about your family?
RB: That period where I couldn’t write the novel was very hard. Awful, really. Looking back, I think it’s too bad that it was so hard for me because it didn’t need to be—but I felt so sad. I loved the characters in the novel. I loved that world. The material I had was really beautiful, but I couldn’t find a container for it. Meanwhile, I knew that what I was writing with my blog and the material that eventually became Recipes, that was where all of my spirit was going. I knew I was happy there. I was writing a book the whole time, but I just didn’t see it. And the blind spot was so painful.
I thought if I couldn’t write this novel, then I’d be a failure as a literary fiction writer. I don’t know why I thought that was true. That’s just a story I told myself. Because I’d already written a book that I love that’s literary fiction. So, where’s the failure?
AJ: Any writing project allows a writer to grow. Were there specific things you learned from the process of writing Recipes? What did you learn about yourself and how you work?
RB: I learned so much from that book. It taught me to trust myself as a storyteller. It changed the way I write—or, more accurately, allowed me to write the way I really like to write. And it taught me that I’m really not great at plot. I kept saying I needed help with the plot, and I wasn’t kidding. And it’s so funny because now I’m writing a series of YA novels. It’s a packaging deal, so someone else is doing the plot. They’re doing a great job, and with that container, I’m having a lot of fun. I’ve heard that people don’t like these deals because the publishers take half of everything, but they’re doing the work that I can’t do, and it’s nice to work with a publisher where the work is half yours and half theirs. We’re all invested.
AJ: In Recipes, you show a very relatable side of motherhood. It’s hard! How did you feel about sharing all of the ups and downs of your family life?
RB: When I was putting Recipes together, I wondered what I wanted this book to do. I think, in the end, I wanted people who feel things deeply to feel less alone. I don’t think it’s productive in our culture the way we tell people they can’t have feelings. We’ve created a culture where we’re so focused on being positive, we don’t look at the mess we’ve made. We don’t allow ourselves to feel grief or loss over things that matter, like the loss of the natural world.
So, I guess I just felt that way about motherhood: that it’s hard, and it’s really okay to feel all of it—the loneliness, the hope, the anxiety, the joy, the anger, the love, and the sweetness. It’s all real, and it all matters. There’s no shame in acknowledging you’re jealous when someone else is more successful; there’s no shame in feeling sad that you’re not making money; there’s no shame in feeling mad at your kids. They’re just feelings. It doesn’t mean that’s who you are or that you’ll always feel that way. There’s all this beauty and richness that comes from dropping into those feelings. If you don’t, you never get to the full beauty of it, the humor in it. And, really, once you look at or listen to a difficult feeling, it doesn’t last that long.
AJ: Something mother writers talk about all the time is balance. What does that mean to you?
RB: I know, and I always think that’s so funny! To me, being alive is unbalanced, so the second you’re born, the idea of balance is out the window. How can we possibly try to find balance, at least in the traditional way that we think of it, where things are equally parceled out? People get earaches in the middle of the night. You might not sleep for three days. Snow days happen the week you’re supposed to turn in your novel. Children pee on the rug. The mother you thought you’d be turns out to be different from the mother you are. It’s like, “Oh, balance. Here’s another thing women can work hard on.” My theory is just give in to the madness—that’s where you can find some kind of relief.
Also, one thing that really helped me was deciding not to define myself only as a writer. I’m not any one thing; I’m all these things. Sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m editing, sometimes I’m sculpting, sometimes I’m consulting, sometimes I’m hanging out with my kids, sometimes I’m taking care of my mom. Who knows what I am? The less attention I spend on defining myself, the more things tend to flow.
AJ: The pressure’s off…
RB: The pressure’s off; I’m much more playful. And you know what? I actually produce much more. I don’t define myself as just one thing, because that’s when the balance gets thrown off.
AJ: Do you have advice for mother writers?
RB: Don’t work on anything you don’t like. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. I’m making as much money now doing what I love than I ever have doing all those things I didn’t, and it’s because I’m committed to work I enjoy. I think now that the only way to make money is to do what you love. The other stuff gets in the way and slows you down. Take it seriously. It’s not the money so much as being valued for what you do. And no one is going to value it unless you value it. Do what you love, and don’t feel guilty about it.
Also, ask for help. You don’t have to do it alone.