Seven questions for Barbara Aline Blanchard

The mellow mouth of my French horn
Is worth all the jade or silver
Or the superficial birthright
Of an old family of scholars
That I’d trade for Scottish whiskey
And the junk I learned in college.

That’s how Barbara Aline Blanchard begins the poem that begins her book, I Was a College Dropout: the French Horn Was My Mistress. In it she tackles issues like aging, jealousy and making jam in her grandmother’s kitchen. During her career she has overcome the challenges of shopping her work and supporting her children as a single mother. Here she revisits her childhood dream and shares the ups and downs of a long career in an interview with Crossroads.

Blanchard BabetteHow did you get your start as a writer?
As a child of four, my mother called me Babette, French for “little Barbara.” She nourished my inner poet: repeating and recording my thoughts, praising my creativity, shaping my self image. Poetry was the core of my being—I always planned to be a poet when I grew up. As a shy child, poetry and art were the way I expressed my feelings. Ideas could take shape in essays, but emotions needed a poem or a picture.

When I met my husband of 26 years, I was a high-school English teacher in New Jersey, also teaching creative writing at night and lecturing in the psychological and nutritional aspects of weight control. Before that, I had been a social caseworker and a parole officer in Newark, New Jersey. Divorced with two sons, I was driven by a desire to provide for them in the only way I knew how: writing. Poetry wasn’t paying the bills, even though I had written two books of verse, recorded my work and given poetry readings in Washington Square and at such venues as the Lone Star Café in New York City and the Playboy Club in Great Gorge, New Jersey.

For years, I wrote two pages of fiction each weekday and five pages each weekend day, for a total of 20 pages a week. If I had a school vacation or a snow day, I would write extra pages, which would allow me to take occasional breaks. For 13 years I rarely missed a day. Most of my writing took place after 10 p.m. when my children were in bed. I would write until I fell asleep at the typewriter (remember those?): the typewriter bell would bing and I’d wake up and go to bed.

Blanchard Arthur & BarbaraMy first novel was accepted for publication just before I met Arthur. The check was equivalent to several months’ salary—enormous to me at the time. A sister publishing company then asked me to write a romance novel. I had never even read one. I was guaranteed an advance if I delivered the manuscript by December: it was ready in six weeks. Christmas was good that year, though I was sleep deprived.

After those two minor successes, I took a sabbatical from my teaching job to write fulltime. In addition to my then-current novel, I wrote short stories, newspaper articles, and “fillers.” I tried to make writing a business. Obsessively, I wrote 10-12 hours a day. In the evening, I painted to relax. I had two children and one TV—which I rarely watched.

What challenges have you overcome?
Making a living as a writer was difficult, even though I was publishing. I needed cash flow. After taking a bartender’s course, I worked special events at the Holiday Inn, experiences that were memorable and lucrative. But when my health insurance was about to run out, I returned to teaching and Arthur and I moved in together.

Arthur took an executive position in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania while I freelanced. A magazine picked up my ghostwritten article. “I Was a College Dropout, the French Horn Was My Mistress,” a sestina, arguably my most technically-proficient poem, was published.

What makes you proud?
Undeterred by those who said a writers’ group wouldn’t last, I wrote an article for the local paper announcing the inaugural meeting of Pocono Writers. Twenty-six of us met one evening in a real estate office. Raising a glass of “literary sherry” (a reference to Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado), I dared the group to prove the skeptics wrong. We began a tradition of monthly meetings around the fireplace at a local restaurant, reading, listening to and critiquing each other’s work. All “business” was printed and distributed in the newsletter, which I began and edited for several years until Arthur took a job in Massachusetts. I left my friends from Pocono Writers, which was and is the seed of the arts in the tristate area. The group continues to thrive.

Arthur is a scientist and a businessman. He convinced me that writing yet another novel without an advance or contract was just not logical. I bought a 640k Leading Edge word processor with an amber screen and began to teach myself. I landed a job as a consultant for Better Communications, the premier corporate writing-training company.

For seven years, I traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Bermuda, presenting workshops to, among others, Ford Motor Company, Sun Microsystems, the U.S. Department of Transportation and AT&T. I edited corporate documents; ghost wrote speeches; coached scientists, engineers and executives how to write more succinctly and give their documents visual impact. As the director of curriculum and instructor development, I was included in Who’s Who in of Global Business Leaders in 1996. Finally, I was earning a decent living as a writer. My hourly rate was 50 times what I had earned as a fiction writer, maybe more.

Meanwhile, my typewritten manuscripts were beginning to fade away and were impossible to scan. My first still unpublished novel, The Barefoot Years, which I had once submitted to Random House with high expectations, had fallen into the technology gap. “Despite obvious merits, we will not be making you an offer to publish,” the editor had written. Why not? Too short? No sex? Too introspective?

What was your breakthrough?
Hotel rooms were where the phone rarely rang: the perfect atmosphere for a writer. After a day in which I exceeded my word quota, I sat in the room and doodled. I sketched. I wrote poetry. There were no laptops, no cell phones. Business writing and creative writing collided in a cyberspace that had not yet been invented. The visual world took over my right brain.

Blanchard garden torso--Prize winning sculpture 2009 001 (2)The time came when the train to the future chugged to a stop: Babette had loved to paint, to mold clay and words into the shapes of clouds and butterflies. The journey back to my childhood destination has been arduous, like the overnight train from Beijing to Xian. I looked out the window at the early dawn and watched a fantasy landscape pass through a cotton-candy cloud that melted at the touch of my tongue.

Now I am walking through the dream I once had: traveling to exotic lands, attending theater and concerts, sculpting and painting. My studio is a place to play, to work, to imagine.

What is your latest work?
Blanchard Cover smA poet-songwriter friend, Virginia Wagner Galfo, spent three years editing my previously published poems. She persuaded me that these poems were my legacy. I Was a College Dropout: the French horn Was My Mistress was recently published. My sculpture by the same name is currently in a 3D show at the Venice Art Center, Florida.

What do you do for fun?
Almost everything I do is for fun! Recently, there was Brecht’s Galileo, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Verdi’s La Traviata. The porcelain workshop with master potter Ki Woon Huh is hard work—today I spent four hours carving my piece. My hands hurt, I’m tired, but it was fun. Tomorrow I go to my twice-weekly workout at the Y: it’s fun when I finish.

What is your advice to fellow writers?
If you want to write for a living, write nonfiction. It’s helpful to have some credentials and knowledge about what to write. A major in science, for instance, would make it easier to publish in myriad journals and websites.

If you want to write poetry and/or fiction, get a day job. Take lots of notes, keep a journal and don’t worry about writing for a living. Write what comes from the cherry pit in your belly.

The good word

Good writing can come from any place, not just fiction or poetry but ads, blogs and articles about business and science. It is muscular and inventive. It captures the heart and soul of characters, objects and readers. It nails that undefined emotion that’s been rattling around in our guts for years. And it’s largely invisible.

JohnPipkinGood writing lives in literature. Witness John Pipkin (Woodsburner) as he describes the fire that nearly consumed Concord: “Henry [David Thoreau] looks up . . . and sees a host of elfin flames leaping into the air, one upon the other, riding the wind. . . . The fire advances in a crooked line a dozen times the length of Henry’s arm. The pine needles, though quick to ignite, are easily spent, hardly fuel enough to sustain the flames for more than a few seconds at a time. And the fire knows this; it behaves in accordance with its own set of a priori truths. It must keep moving and consuming to survive.”

LaurieRKingIt lives in contemporary fiction. Watch Laurie R. King (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) as young Mary Russell verbally jousts with the legendary Sherlock Holmes: “A series of emotions crossed his face, rich reward for my victory. Simple surprise was followed by a rueful admission of defeat, and then, as he reviewed the entire discussion, he surprised me. His face relaxed, his thin lips twitched, his grey eyes crinkled into unexpected lines, and at last he threw back his head and gave a great shout of delighted laughter.”

Good writing lives in blogs, as Joyce Maynard (Labor Day) shows in this edited version of her essay, “In the kitchen of discontent”: Seven years after I separated from my children’s father it was still hard going back to our old house. For the first time in ages, I stepped into my old kitchen. A bitter taste rose in my throat, like what happens when you think you’re going to throw up, but you don’t. I stepped into the hallway and glanced at the bed where all three of our babies were born. I went back in the kitchen, ran my hand over the wood of the kitchen counter, where I must have prepared a Joyce Maynardthousand meals, and looked out the window, to an eerie and beautiful streak of light from a full moon slashing across new fallen snow. I remembered another full moon night, when my husband and I had skated on black ice on the pond down the road, and another full moon night, when we’d fought so bitterly I paced the rooms of this house until dawn, lying down briefly next to first one of my sleeping children, and then another, unable to find sleep.”

It’s kindled by contemporary poets like Barbara Aline Blanchard (I Was a College Dropout), who writes in “Jealousy” about an ex: “She has knots in her eyes/trying to be civilized.”

Good writing thrives in mystery fiction, as in this excerpt from P.D. JamesThe Lighthouse: “This was the air of late October, still unseasonably mild with the first chill of autumn, the air faintly scented, as if the dying light had drawn up from the headland the concentrated sweetness of the day.”

You can find it in the complex and contradictory emotions of the characters that populate novels of suspense. Martha Grimes is famous for climbing inside heads to view life at the granular level, as she does with Inspector Richard Jury in The Old Silent: “Jury’s mood was as black as the biscuit Wiggins was now crumbling into a cup of water, and, irrationally irritated by his sergeant’s pursuit of some elusive and Platonic Idea of health just as he was reading of the kidnapping of one boy and the disappearance of the friend who had been with him.”

You can see it in the work of Ruth Rendell, as in these lines from Wolf to the Slaughter: “The shop squatted under a towering wall of brown brick. It seems to lurk there as if it had something to hide.” And this passage that fuses weather and emotion in a glowering tangle: “A high east wind blowing for a day and a night had dried the streets. The rain would come again soon but now the sky was a hard bitter blue.” With Rendell, even optimism carries a delicious menace.

BrettArendsFiction isn’t the only place good writers come to rest. Two lines from Wall Street Journal writer Brett Arends illustrate that point: “The economy seems to have staggered up from its death-bed (at least for now). And the mother of all fiscal adrenaline hits hasn’t even entered the bloodstream yet.” And Barron’s Alan Abelson is always the delightful iconoclast, as when he holds forth on wayward personalities: “Shakespeare was wrong. A rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet. Suppose, by some nomenclatural misadventure, a rose was called a stinkweed? Does anyone really believe that his or her olfactory response wouldn’t be influenced by the mental abhorrence triggered by the very word ‘stinkweed’?” Overwrought? Yes. On target? Oh yes.

Beauty isn’t always truth and truth isn’t always beauty, at least not in the Judeo-Christian West. But good writing reveals the truth that lies at the bottom of the well. And when we read it, we experience a moment akin to a religious experience, or a good session with the therapist. All is revealed, and remembered, at least until the medication wears off. Which makes what these writers do all the more valuable.

Describing those invisible emotions with precision is an art. Nailing the zeitgeist is a calling, and few do it better than these authors, or business writers Allan Sloan and Stanley Bing. “My bank came up with a way to spare me the shame of overdrafts,” Bing writes in a cheeky essay in Fortune about the financial crisis of 2008-09. “What favor will they do for me next?” That’s the setup. Not wishing to keep us waiting, he delivers the punch line in the opening paragraph: “You know, we don’t thank our bankers nearly enough.”

Or our writers.