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Rehoboth Beach writer uses craft to understand motherhood, grief

Shannon McNaught * Delaware
shannon.marvel@doverpost.com
Sussex Countian

Sarah Barnett has had three careers. None of them involved creative writing.

But at 79, she’s been named an “Emerging Artist” in Literature: Creative Nonfiction by the Delaware Division of the Arts. The fellowship comes with a $3,000 prize.

Barnett grew up in Brooklyn. She first worked as a math teacher, then as a librarian, then as a lawyer. Much of her writing, though, is about motherhood and reflects on her relationships with her own mother and daughter.

“You’re basically telling a true story but you’re using the techniques of fiction to tell the stories,” she said. “So you’re writing like a scene, describing where you are, what the setting looks like, what the weather is. Or if you’re indoors, you’re talking about objects that are meaningful to you that are in the room, using dialogue. That’s the creative part of nonfiction.”

Barnett retired to Rehoboth a little over a decade ago and joined the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild, which she credits with helping her blossom. Now she is vice president. Her essays and short stories have been published in anthologies, magazines and journals.

Her favorite activity at the guild is something called a “free write,” in which writers are given a prompt sentence and a few minutes to expand on it.

“It’s a very effective way to get out what’s in your head,” she said. “Memories you didn’t even know you had or explanations for things that happened to you that you finally begin to understand. It’s amazing.”

Barnett recommended new writers start journaling thoughts, feelings and experiences.

“I think a journal is very useful. Another thing I did early on when I discovered I wanted to write was I took a couple of classes,” she said. “Through classes I met a few different people that I could meet once in a while for dinner or coffee and just sit around and chat writing.”

Barnett plans on using the fellowship prize money to take more classes and maybe buy a new computer. As a fellowship winner, she’s required to showcase her work. She plans to host public readings in the fall.

An excerpt from ‘The Opposite of Wrong’

By Sarah Barnett

I miss the way she started speaking as soon as I picked up the phone. I’m about to spend $30 on a brisket, she might say. Or, Are my kids ever going to grow up? They’re going to grow up, right? I miss the way she moved about her kitchen, like the captain of a ship. I miss her smile, her musical laugh. I miss the way she had of hugging me that made me feel safe and loved.

I don’t miss…? 

I don’t want to write what I don’t miss—though I don’t miss the way she could get angry at the kids and say things she’d regret later. I understood. Of course I did, having been guilty of the same thing and believing she’d learned it from me.

My mother had a saying—what every mother says to every child. “When you’re a mother, you’ll understand.” 

I’m still trying. Still looking through the wrong end of a telescope to understand my mother, then flipping the lens to focus on myself as mother to Michele and Michael. 

When Michele became a mother we found ourselves surveying three generations of mothering struggling to answer one question: How does it happen that beginning with the best intentions and as much love as we can muster, we can’t help but feel we’ve messed up?

Michele is gone. She died four years ago. This was not supposed to happen. 

The list of things I want to tell her grows longer each day. Her son Andrew graduated college. His sister, Rachel, studying pharmacy, works in the bagel bakery where Michele and I often met for lunch. In a drawer in my kitchen is an antique cookie cutter in the shape of a giraffe that I never got to give her. I will always wonder what else I forgot to give her.

About the fellowships

“Individual Artist Fellowship grants provide the recognition and exposure that artists need to successfully promote their work,” said Paul Weagraff, director of Delaware Division of the Arts. “The financial award allows them to pursue advanced training, buy equipment and materials or fulfill other needs to advance their careers.”

This year, 139 artists applied and 19 were awarded fellowships. The Masters Award and $10,000 went to Mark Unruh of Wilmington.

Twelve established artists, six emerging artists and two honorable mentions were selected. Full list: arts.delaware.gov/iafrecipients.

The work of the Fellows will be featured in a group exhibition, Award Winners XX, at the Biggs Museum in Dover June 5 to July 23, with an award ceremony and reception June 10. Selections will be displayed at CAMP Rehoboth Aug. 1-31 and at Cab Calloway School of the Arts in Wilmington Sept. 4 to Oct. 25.