Image from Permission to Embark

Detail from Barbara Helen Berger’s collage “Permission to Embark”

The word “essay” used to turn me away with a shudder. It sounded cold, impersonal, and way too rational. I thought the same about “nonfiction.” But that was long ago.

What changed? I learned that essays can be personal, even intimate. An essay can be warm. It can be lyrical. An essay can be factual, witty, full of information, or a deep reflective search. It can be a literary collage. Or a memoir. There are all sorts of essays. Because the stories they tell are true stories they are nonfiction, and we now call it “creative nonfiction” because a writer brings her full creativity to the craft. What a large, enticing realm has opened up for many writers, including me.

For years I had been writing picture books for children, stories I also illustrated. Coming from a fine art background, my training was spotty in writing and literature. So I learned on the job and over time, the demanding genre of picture books for children gave me a deeper regard for story itself. Then one day I realized my own life was full of stories. And they wanted a voice for adults.

That has led me here. To a teetering mound of personal essays, some published, others still in scribbles and notes. Chapters are quietly forming; a memoir is underway.

Everyone knows that writing can be difficult and hard work to do well. The same is true of visual art—and we do call it our Work. But all my years in art have shown me how essential it is to really enjoy the craft. To love and enjoy the making. That’s what can sustain you. Writing too is an art (as an artist I can’t help but see it that way). The medium is words and I love messing around with words as much as I’ve ever loved messing with acrylic paint.

“Essay” comes from the French verb essayer, to try. I often have to remind myself that while try means put forth an effort, it also means “Let’s just give this a try. Just try it out. See what happens.” Then, on days when time disappears—I’m so immersed in shaping words into sentences and paragraphs—that taste of freedom from time is a deep enjoyment of writing.

Barbara’s essays and tale-retellings have often appeared in Parabola magazine. Essays also appear in these anthologies:

HEALING: 20 Prominent Authors Write About Inspirational Moments of Achieving Health and Gaining Insight; Edited by Lee Gutkind (Tarcher/Putnam, 2001)

MIDLIFE CLARITY: Epiphanies from Grown-Up Girls; Edited by Cynthia Black and Laura Carlsmith (Beyond Words Publishing, 2002). Also available from Beyond Words Publishing.

She is the author and illustrator of ten books for children (visit the Children’s Books page).

(For a full list of publications, see Resume)

A Selection of
Published Pieces

A Shift in Vision

First appeared in Parabola magazine, The Unknown, Fall 2012

One of the most exciting things I learned in art school was how to see “negative space.” A drawing professor introduced it to his beginning class by asking us to shift our habit of vision. For weeks we had been drawing the contours of objects in a still life. He had not allowed us even to look down at the paper while our eyes traced along the shapes of the pitcher, the lemons, the pile of wooden blocks, and our soft-lead pencils followed. Then one day he rearranged the still life and said, “Now. Do not draw the objects at all. Draw the spaces between them. Only the spaces.”

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An Offering of Flames

First appeared in Parabola magazine, Burning World, Spring 2012

Last night I struck one match after another. It was the first anniversary of the death of my beloved, Jerry, and I wanted to honor his passing. I wanted to honor his life. And so on trays filled with sand, I set out many candles, forty-one for our years together. Then I held a match to every wick.

It seems a natural thing to do in loss and grief, to light even a single candle. I had done so many times throughout the year. A miraculous glow spreads around that flame. It may shine in a chapel, where people leave their silent prayers burning at the feet of a saint, or simply on a windowsill at home. This must be an old, old desire in us—a necessity in us—to see the surprising power in one small flame of light to dispel the dark.

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From HEALING: Twenty Prominent Authors Write About Inspirational Moments of Achieving Health and Gaining Insight, Edited by Lee Gutkind (Tarcher/Putnam 2001)

We were the only kids in the neighborhood with a real human skeleton in our house. Every year on Halloween, Dad carried it up from the basement to stand by the front door, just inside. We’d run home from school to put on our gypsy bangles and pirate capes, and the skeleton would be there. “Mr. Bones!”

There were plenty of hats to dress up in, but Mr. Bones could never wear one. A stainless steel hook, by which he hung from the skeleton stand, came up through the bare skull. So instead of a hat, Dad tied a red bandanna around the neck, over the shoulder blades in back, the clavicles in front. It looked quite casual. Then he inserted the stem of a white chrysanthemum between Mr. Bones’s teeth.

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Brother Simple

From Parabola, Holy Earth, Fall 2007

(Christian / European)

Once long ago, there was a young soldier. He rode off to battle again and again. He fought bravely and lived to return with the heroes. Yet the joys of victory never lasted. In the dark of his dreams, rivers of garnet blood ran on without end. There was no peace in his soul. So one day, he set out to find it.

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Nomad Girl

From Parabola, Seeing, Fall 2011

(Tibetan Buddhist)*

… Not far along his way, he turned for a last glimpse of the tent he had left behind. He saw no trace of it now in the vast land. But could the nomad girl have packed everything up, loaded the yaks, and moved so quickly to another grazing ground? Maybe a mist had come over the plain, hiding her tent from his view like a dream. Would he ever find her again?

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