Scholar Fridays is a series on Bearings Online where we feature 2018-19 Resident Scholars. Nancy K. Barry is a professor of English at Luther College in Decorah, IA. She spent March-April 2019 at the Collegeville Institute working on a writing project titled Healing Cancer. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Tell us about your current project and what inspired you to work on it.
I am working on an autobiographical narrative based on my experience undergoing breast cancer treatment. The narrative tries to weave in the layers of my experience as a teacher, as well as a woman who lost her mother at the age of nine.
I’ve been working on this material for quite some time, but the Apart, and Yet A Part week-long summer writing workshop here at the Collegeville Institute inspired me to return to it with deeper threads about the death of my mother. I was greatly helped by the mentorship of Michael McGregor. After the summer, I knew I would have some time in the spring, so I inquired about the possibility of a short-term residency. The space and the quiet here at the Collegeville Institute has been invaluable for me to deepen the manuscript.
Have you ever read a book that changed your life? If so, what book and how?
These books changed my writing life, for sure: Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Both of these books create a “space” for the writer to find her own voice, and solicit from us a more intuitive, less “rule-bound” sense of ourselves as writers.
What book are you reading right now for pleasure?
Clock Dance by Anne Tyler. I have been a huge fan of Tyler’s novels for many years. She is a writer of what we used to call (in a somewhat patronizing way) “the domestic novel,” but I find her fiction authentic and warm, dazzling in a quiet way. Probably my favorite of her many novels is Saint Maybe, which I take as an allegorical title about my own life, to tell you the truth.
If you could do a studio visit to any artist throughout time, who would it be? What would you ask?
This past semester I taught a seminar at Luther College on Emily Dickinson, and the experience of intensely reading her poetry for 14 weeks made me long for an evening in which I could just watch her work! I would love to be a fly on the wall to watch as she composed those short but deeply mysterious poems, to see if they came at her “all at once” or if she labored word by word to get them right. Her manuscripts showed she was an incessant “reviser,” so I’d like to eavesdrop on that process with her.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
In ten years time I will definitely be retired from a lifetime of teaching at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and this month at the Collegeville Institute has given me a definite head start on what that is going to feel like! There is liberation in the freedom, but also no small amount of anxiety. I’m hoping to write another play eventually about two social reformers, Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, so that’s a project I look forward to being able to work on.
How did you find out about the Collegeville Institute?
This is actually my third visit to the Collegeville Institute, and it has proven itself to be a terrific environment for me to work on this material related to my breast cancer treatment. I first began the manuscript back in 2004, and then the project morphed into a one-woman play, Lessons from Cancer College. For the past five years I’ve been wanting to turn it back into prose, but that has proven more difficult for me than I imagined! Michael McGregor’s advice was “forget the play,” and I’ve been able during these days of my residency to follow his advice and deepen the narrative.