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Joyce Barbagallo, a freelance graphic artist from Claymont, spends most of her free time writing, in one form or another. She’s kept journals since she was 13, but around 2010 she began to crave a more disciplined approach. A book by Stephen Levine, “A Year to Live,” prompted her to ask herself: What would I do if I knew I had only a year, or a month, or a week, or a day, to live?
“I discovered,” says Barbagallo, 54, “that my answer was, I would write.”
With her visual work, she says, there’s a much greater sense of when it is complete. Clients’ satisfaction with a brochure she’s designed, for instance, is a gauge. And Barbagallo knows when a design works. That’s more difficult for her to sense with her writing.
“It’s always alive and it’s always changing,” she says. “Those little bits of satisfaction in my writing often come in little bits, like writing a good sentence. Because I’m still revising stories that I wrote five years ago. They seem like they’re always in flux.”
That, to some, might seem daunting — the prospect of a project’s completion, always just beyond reach. Barbagallo sees it differently.
“It’s what I love about it,” she says.
Still Life with Lilac and Pine (April 2015)
I didn’t hear the branches snap and fall. Eleanor says she did. She says she saw through that small rectangle of window at the top of her front door, one minute she was noticing the branches and how the ice looked on the pine needles, sparkling in the streetlight, and the next she heard a loud crack and they were gone…
As a child, Barbagallo wrote poems. When asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, “The only thing I remember saying or thinking was that I wanted to be a writer,” she says. “But writing poetry is not something that I really thought about seriously since I started writing fiction in the last few years.”
Maybe the short story would be a good place to start, she thought. It seemed like a compact way of writing. She didn’t even contemplate writing a novel. But she couldn’t find any short story classes, so she took a screenwriting class, thinking there were some of the same elements in short-story writing as in screenwriting.
“I think that naturally led to fiction,” she says. In screenwriting, she found herself “tripped up” by the marks she had to hit — it’s a deeply structured format. Short stories require similar elements, but they’re not as delineated, and that appealed to her.
Her goal this year is to complete a rough draft of a novel. (“Which characters,” she asks herself, “do I really want to spend that much time with?”) One of the short stories she submitted for the Division’s fellowship is part of a collection of short stories she wants to arrange as a novel. The novel on which she has worked the most, she says, is a departure from her usual subjects. It’s a fantasy adventure that involves animals, “kind of like ‘Watership Down,’ [Richard Adams’ 1972 classic featuring anthropomorphised rabbits,] but with birds.”
She prefers to write in the morning, and she is careful to separate her writing hours from her work hours.
“There’s something about that time between day and night, whether in morning or at twilight,” Barbagallo says. “There’s that shift you have to make from being creative and going to work. That can be such a jolting, hard switch. I could never work where I write for an hour or two and then I work for a few hours.”
Beyond her quest to complete a novel, she continues to work on her short stories.
“To me, they can be like snapshots of very specific times and places that point to much larger, more universal themes,” she says. “Often, they are stories and language in a more concentrated form. Sometimes they can simply frame the beauty of a very ordinary moment.”
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