Christine Henry and me Aug 1981_smaller

Local author spotlight: Barbara Dills

Barbara is a writer, editor and marketing consultant who’s called Carbondale home since 2011. Before that, she lived in Oregon for over 30 years—in Hood River, Portland, and, finally, Joseph—and was involved for many years with the Oregon-based literary nonprofit Fishtrap, eventually serving as the group’s interim executive director. After moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, she led a project dear to our hearts: rebranding the Aspen Writers Foundation as Aspen Words. Currently at work on a memoir about a summer she spent on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Barbara recently was named a finalist in the nonfiction category of the Tucson Festival of Books literary competition.

Read on to learn more about Barbara and how Aspen Summer Wordswas a game changer for her writing.

When did you start writing?
Writing has always been in my life: My mom read poetry to me as a child and I wrote my first poems in third or fourth grade. In high school, I was editor of my school’s creative writing magazine. When I started college, I planned to be an English major but the first English professor I had was so uninspiring and discouraging I ended up majoring in comparative religion.

How did your memoir come about?

Barbara and the kids_1977During my senior year at Smith College, I started dating a guy who the year before, in 1973, had dropped out of school to be part of the Wounded Knee occupation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I didn’t have any plans after graduation—this was a time when there weren’t a lot of opportunities for women; my conservative father wanted me to be a secretary—so when my boyfriend asked me to return to South Dakota with him after graduation, to Rosebud, I said yes. I went there without any idea of what I was going to do or where I’d live (I wound up sleeping in an abandoned U-Haul truck and learning to cook with government-issued food over an open fire). Living in an armed American Indian Movement camp and being invited into ancient Lakota ceremonies brought life-changing and sometimes dangerous experiences (we had snipers firing at us from the hills).

Sharon and me Sept. 2009For many years after Rosebud, I wasn’t sure this was my story to write, as there’s this tragic history of white people exploiting Indians and their cultures. However, by the early 1990s, my memories of Rosebud were so powerful I needed to get them out, not necessarily for publication, but just to write them down. I started by writing a few vignettes then developed a list of chapter titles, which anchored my memories and became the foundation for my work. I took writing workshops, at Fishtrap and other places, but I only wrote every once in a while, because I was so busy working and raising my son. Over time, I came to understand that this story, if I handle it right, is mine, not theirs. Through the telling, I have an opportunity to honor the riches they shared with me. 

How was Aspen Summer Words a turning point for your writing?
In 2013, I took a memoir workshop at Summer Words with the journalist and author David Lipsky, who loved my project and was super encouraging. His attention to language is extraordinary, and he helped me find my voice. Two years later, I took a Summer Words workshop with Andre Dubus III, and he became another important influence. Andre is all about the emotion of a story, and would tell us to think about what it was really like to be in each moment we were trying to describe. I would not be anywhere near where I am without David Lipsky and Andre Dubus III—I still think about them when I’m writing–and without Aspen Words, none of that would have happened.

Do you have a writing routine?
A few years ago at Summer Words, Ann Hood said she doesn’t sit down to write every day; rather, she is writing when she’s cooking, knitting, reading, driving her kids around, and I adhere to that writing habit. In other words, even when I’m doing things besides sitting at my computer, my story is still percolating and I’m mulling over whatever writing challenge is front of mind at the time.

One other note: Something that’s had a hugely positive impact on my writing is Scrivener, an app that helps me organize my chapters and keep track of the many versions of each one I’ve written over the years, as well as research notes, submissions and the like.

In 2016, you did a three-week residency at Nebraska’s Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. What advice do you have for writers interested in a residency?
Poets & Writers magazine is a great place to research what residencies are available. Once you decide to apply for one, be clear about how you want to spend that time, but also be kind to yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not writing 14 hours a day while you’re on retreat. The opportunity to sleep and read and recharge can be valuable to your writing process long after your residency.

What are some of your all-time favorite memoirs?
Books I’ve learned the most from in terms of craft:

  • “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by Nick Flynn
  • “Lit” and “The Art of Memoir” by Mary Karr
  • “Townie” by Andre Dubus III
  • “Writing Memoir: From Truth to Art” by Judith Barrington
  • “Dispatches” by Michael Herr
  • “The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again” by Sven Birkerts
  • “Little Failure” by Gary Shteyngart
  • “The Truth Book: Escaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses” by Joy Castro
  • “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” by Alexandra Fuller

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