By: Gail Obenreder
“Beginning a piece without knowing exactly what I’m writing about is daunting, but I find if I keep putting words on paper, the theme has a way of emerging.”
After retiring from a lifetime in the Washington DC suburbs – working as a teacher, librarian, and lawyer – Sarah Barnett moved in 2009 to Rehoboth Beach. Professionally she had “tackled writing assignments ranging from newsletter articles and speeches to press releases and regulatory comments, but I always longed to explore writing creatively.” So in Delaware, she began to write creative nonfiction and joined the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild.
Barnett grew up with her parents and older brother in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn’s close-knit Bensonhurst neighborhood – “where a child could ask a stranger to see her safely across the street or you could leave a sleeping infant outside a grocery store.” So she especially values the camaraderie and inspiration provided by her circle of Delaware writer friends. “Hearing a writer address a subject I’ve found difficult inspires me to try harder.”
The Opposite of Wrong
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
–Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
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…
As a child, Barnett loved movies, and “I read indiscriminately – comic books, cereal boxes, Elsie Dinsmore, Nancy Drew.” In high school she “caught up with the classics, especially 19th century literature like Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Tolstoy.” Today, she finds inspiration in the works of contemporary Americans like Anne Tyler, Ann Patchett, and Julia Glass, along with British authors like Barbara Pym and Penelope Fitzgerald.
Barnett tries to incorporate humor in her stories, even when she’s writing about serious subjects, and finds that people warm to her writing because “it’s funny.” But it’s a challenge to balance the element that elicits such warm responses with the serious subjects she explores – like her daughter’s death or the single life. She herself categorizes her writing as “you-have-to-laugh-to-keep-from-crying funny.”
Passionate about Sussex County’s LEAP (Literacy Education Assistance Pups) program, Barnett and her dog Blue meet other volunteers weekly at the Rehoboth Beach Library, helping children to develop literacy skills as they read to these specially trained dogs.
Barnett enjoys leading Guild writing workshops – watching a writer’s progress – and the Division Fellowship has inspired her to move forward as well. “Hundreds of short, promising but unfinished pieces languish on my computer,” and she hopes to hone them into a memoir that can inspire and illuminate. “It’s very gratifying when people tell me they appreciate some piece of writing, that it reminded them of something in their childhood, that my mother sounds just like their mother.”Fellowship Home