When you enter the grounds of the Writing Barn, you quickly forget you are in suburban South Austin, a few blocks from Slaughter Lane, the east-west throughway dotted with strip malls and chain restaurants. As you drive down the dirt road, past groves of live oaks and the main house, covered with ivy, you might see deer nibbling grass, or in the springtime, a small field of bluebonnets.
The Barn sits at the back of the property, its sideboards olive green, its stables converted to a screened-in porch. Inside a writing studio with cozy armchairs and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with novels and memoirs and books on the writing craft.
When I first visited the Writing Barn to inquire about renting space for my workshops, I immediately began to covet. This was a life I could imagine, although I’m sure if I were presented with such a fine piece of property, I would hoard it for myself. Fortunately, Bethany Hegedus and her husband, Vivek Bakshi, had a broader vision, opening their home as a haven for writers and other creatives.
Bethany Hegedus has silky red hair, pale blue eyes, and a warm, shining smile that puts everyone who visits the Barn at ease. In the two years I’ve known her, I’ve watched Bethany develop the Writing Barn from a space available for rent, to a home for multitudes of writers with an impressive creative writing program. I’ve also watched her see to fruition a book she dreamed of for nearly twelve years. Grandfather Gandhi, which she conceived in the wake of 911 and co-wrote with Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, tells of the peace activist’s lesson to his young grandson , teaching him to respond to anger and hatred – his own and others – by turning human darkness into light.
Saundra: During our recent e-mail exchange, you expressed concern that you didn’t have balance in your life, the way you thought you should for this interview. We all have ridiculously busy lives. Creative Mix is about how we stir things up. Maybe there’s a moment or two in our week when we feel that everything is in balance, but mostly our lives are messy works in progress.
Bethany: When I agreed to the interview, I was feeling great about how all the elements in my life were working together, but lately I’ve been questioning whether I have balance, which for me is more like flow.
I work slightly differently than other people, managing several different things at once. Usually only one of them needs primary attention and the rest I can balance and juggle. But as things get bigger, everything feels equally important. I’m in a new phase of figuring that out, which I wasn’t expecting.
Saundra: This is the way things tend to happen at this point in our lives, when everything starts working simultaneously.
Bethany: You’ve been working towards certain goals for a long time and then things start moving on their own. But then there are different, new requirements that come, and you’ve got to keep the balls rolling.
Saundra: Let’s talk about the balls you have in the air right now.
Bethany: First and foremost I’m a writer. When my first novel came out, I wasn’t comfortable with the word, “author.” I would say, “No, I’m a writer, not an author.” But once your you’re published, you’re always an author, which comes with promotional responsibilities.
I’m gearing up for the release of Grandfather Gandhi, building a new author website and a tie-in website for the book with the tagline, Live Your Life as Light. I have to think about book launches and speaking engagements, plus the back and forth with the publicity department at Simon & Schuster and the marketing consultant I’ve hired.
But I still have my writer hat on. I’m working on a new manuscript, a dark circus fantasy, which is a stretch for me, and I need to make time for that.
Saundra: In addition to the writing and all the other hats you wear, you are responsible for your own promotion.
Bethany: Yes, and they feel like different hats. The writing is one thing and it’s separate. You can’t focus on how it might be perceived when it comes out or if it’s going to get a contract. I’ve yet to write a book on contract, so I’m trusting that it eventually will get a contract. But you also can’t think about your audience too much. You’re doing this because it’s what you need to do and how you need to express yourself. I trust that if I do my best work, it’ll happen and my agent will take care of that at the right time.
Later you have to share with the public why you wrote the book, why it’s important to you, what you think readers are going to get out of it. And because I write children’s literature, I have to prepare engagement activities for the schools. You can see why I’m exhausted, and we haven’t even talked about the Barn or the teaching yet.
Saundra: I love the distinction you’re making. The writer is the person who gets up in the morning and sits down at the desk, and the author is the public persona, who gets all the other things done.
Bethany: Yes. When it comes to ushering the book into the world, you want to do it well, and not think of it as time away from the real work, which is the writing. The question is how to balance the roles and not let them destroy one another.
It’s best that I write first thing in the morning. I wake up, get my coffee, and get to the writing desk. I made a commitment to write two pages a day on my current manuscript, but things have become busy. First, I shifted to four pages every other day, which worked for a while. But it took two hours and other responsibilities crept in that needed to take precedence. How could I still put the writing first?”
I need to live in the world of my story as I’m creating it, day by day. This morning I set my timer for thirty minutes. I only got 376 words written, but I did it before anything else, before I answered emails or got distracted by other business. So that’s my new commitment: thirty minutes first thing in the morning on the days when time is tight. When I’ve got more leisure, I can take those two hours.
We all we all have busy lives and we have to create the time for our art, because nobody’s going to grant us permission.
Saundra: Thirty minutes a day is doable. And 376 words a day is a manuscript draft in less than a year.
Saundra: Before we discuss the Barn, let’s talk about your teaching.
Bethany: I work privately, one-on-one, with fiction students in the children’s and YA field, although I’m considering working with memoir writers. Someone will approach me or I’ll run into a writer during a class at the Barn with potential, and we establish a paid mentorship, for which we create deadlines, either once a month or once every six weeks.
Our ultimate goal is publication, but we’re also paying deep attention to craft and process. I emphasize to my students that we need to be in the world of the book and take time to layer it and deepen it, so when we do send it out into the world, it’s more likely to get a yes than to send us back to the drawing board.
I graduated with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I try to recreate that same intense experience, studying your craft one-on-one with a mentor. My program was long distance, and we worked over email together, which mirrors the author/editor relationship. You don’t sit across from the table from your editor anymore, unless you both live in the same city or you make a special trip. No one’s hashing it out over a martinis. Now you get an email with notes, a letter, and some comments. And that’s the way I work with my mentees.
Saundra: I love that you took the model from one experience and applied it to another.
Bethany: In school we had packets, so I still call them packets. I read their novel in full first, and give them feedback and a response letter laying out the work ahead. I give my reactions, where I think the work can deepen, and at the end of the feedback letter, I suggest what the next deadline will be.
I always suggest people take two to three days after feedback before they even ask me questions, because different things come up. People berate themselves and they berate the teacher. They may want to throw darts at me.
Saundra: I read an eBook last spring by Marc McGuinness, Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success. He recommends a 48-hour period before responding to criticism. I’ve found that it take at least that long for my crazy, defensive mind to settle down.
Bethany: Exactly. I also ask my students to write a process letter in between packets, to discuss what they’re learning, the outside reading, and to give them a safe place to say whatever is going on in their lives.
I had a student, who was working on a light story with me. It was good, but I didn’t think she had found her voice yet. I could tell she had something deeper to say. Then her cat died and she found herself writing a deeper, more serious story. Because she was mourning, something opened up, and this new story came out based on where her mood was. “This is your voice,” I told her. “You’ve found it. This is where you need to be.”
Even though there are painful things in our lives, if we can keep moving forward and writing through them, they can take us to new places. Writing can always happen. You don’t need to stop to mourn or to stop to celebrate or whatever.
Saundra: I want to backtrack to something you said in terms of earning a living. You made a significant financial investment in a long distance learning program, and then turned around and used the model to create income for yourself. That’s the wonderful thing about teaching. Every time you take a class, you learn it for yourself and you have something to bring to your students. You’ve set up an entire side business based on that model.
Bethany: Yes, and in addition to our education, all the books we read about craft live inside of us. We can pull them out, the way you just mentioned the Resilience book. That’s something you offer people.
In an early interview about the Barn, I said, “The Barn was the dream I never knew I had.” I always knew I wanted to teach writing, even before I was published, but I never knew that this space would happen. The Barn is a culmination of life experience and then meeting a man who had a beautiful piece of land, and who was an entrepreneur, who said, “Go with it.”
Saundra: When I met you, you were just opening the Barn for business. I visited with my friend, Laura, and of course we were coveting. I remember you telling us that your husband’s first wife had horses.
Bethany: Yes. This was a working horse barn when they bought the property many, many years ago.
Saundra: And you envisioned it as a studio for yourself, but you also envisioned it as being multipurpose.
Bethany: When I met my husband, he was living in the cabin and renovating the house. He was studying Sanskrit and Yoga and talked about holding workshops here. The house has a big central space that he thought we could use. Also, it was his dream to have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.
When we started getting serious, I told him that that the house needs to be a house. Because it’s a small house, too. It was his idea to turn the barn into my office. As we started remodeling, I thought, What about that workshop idea he had? I had been working at the Writers’ League as the office manager, not in programming, but knew I had that in me.
But I had no idea this would be a real business. I thought, “Oh, I’m part of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and they’ll come over or my friends will come over and we’ll get to use the space together.” And things developed from there.
When we started thinking about names, I wanted to keep the identity of the barn. Also, as a children’s writer, I love puns. The fact that it was once a riding place—you know, R-I-D-I-N-G — we called it the Writing Barn. A lot of people want to call it the Writers’ Barn, but I like Writing, because it’s the practice of writing and it’s active.
Saundra: At first you rented the Barn for individual teachers and then you began organizing workshops with guest teachers.
Bethany: I call those “Writing Barn Presents” events, although local instructors still come and rent the space. We’re also starting to do splits, but I hope that people will earn more than I do. The space has its own costs, but I want teachers to be making money from their events and from their classes.
Saundra: That’s a nice model. It’s wonderful to do a program and have someone else organize, promote, and take care of registration.
Bethany: We have great writers in the community and we all need to support our income and to pursue our art, so it’s another opportunity for that.
When I asked the YA writer, Sara Zarr, to tell me about her experience teaching at the Barn, she wrote a beautiful Writing Barn Rave with a quotation by Frederick Buechner. I actually have it written down: “A personal calling is where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Then Sara wrote, “Most writers I know deeply hunger for a beautiful and quiet space where they can connect with themselves, others, and their work, and I think Bethany must find her deep gladness in providing such a space.”
I just loved that, and it’s always stuck with me. I felt like she knew me better than myself.
Saundra: That’s gorgeous. What a beautiful thing to discover.
Bethany: Does the world need another writing organization or another writing class or another writing retreat space? Not necessarily, but it’s the way we offer that and my commitment, having been a writer first. I could always tell the difference between a writing organization trying to make a fast buck and a program that was about something real and true, about finding ourselves. It takes more than one class. It takes years and years of apprentice time to do this.
Saundra: You feel that larger intention when you’re here. It’s a nurturing space, and it’s quiet here, too, peaceful. It’s not only about the classes, but the environment you create.
Bethany: Our tagline is “Retreat, Create, and Celebrate.” You can do all of those things here, including celebrate. We host book parties and events here, but also I think our classes are celebratory
You have to celebrate the process, including the rejections. We started a new series on our blog called, “Rejecting Rejection: How to Say Yes to Yourself When the World Says No.” I had the idea when this year’s speakers read from their rejection lectures.” I thought it would be great on the blog and then writers from all over the country could hear about that process. We get no’s all the time. We have to be able to hear them and listen to them and transform them, let them help us back to the page, instead of keeping us away.
My last book took me twelve years to get published and there was a time when I was ashamed of that. I was ashamed that it took so long and I was embarrassed by all the different stages. I don’t think writers need to be ashamed of how long things take. I want to support writers in the day-to-day work of what it takes and a lot of it is figuring out how to deal with those no’s.
Saundra: Everything you do here supports writers, not just their craft and their process, but like you said, for the long haul of and all that entails.
Bethany: As a writer, all of this supports me, too. I could spend 24 hours a day on this work, if I didn’t have to sleep, and I would still get energy from it and not feel depleted.
Saundra: One thing supports the other.
Bethany: One thing is supports the other, and they all mix up together in this creative mix!
Saundra: Well that’s good. We should just stop there! But I want to know how you and your husband negotiate working on the property together.
Bethany: As the business has been growing, we’ve been playing musical workstations. When we were both working in the house, it was hard to know when the other was available, especially as so much work is on the computer. You want to ask, are you available to chat? Are you deep in your work or just checking Facebook? If we both worked in offices and had other bosses, my husband wouldn’t call me to tell me about the electrician or ask if the mail came today. But if you’re in the same space together, all of a sudden these things feels urgent.
Modern couples and families who freelance need to create those spaces for themselves and specific work hours, or whatever they can do to create boundaries. It’s important to have a place that you can go and think and be quiet, without interruptions
Saundra: There was a time when my husband was home in the mornings and I’d wander from my office into the kitchen. I remember him coming in and wanting to talk. “Just because I’m making tea,” I said, “doesn’t mean I’m not working.”
Bethany: True. But we’ve also begun to create little moments of togetherness. I write first thing in the morning, and Vivek either meditates or wakes up after I do. Then we have breakfast together and have a little conversation. When he goes to his office, that’s my transition into other work. If he comes home for lunch and I’m at my desk, he doesn’t talk to me. He knows I’m still working or maybe I’m thinking. For writers, it’s not just when we’re at the page that we’re working. We can look like we’re doing nothing and maybe we’re working at a plot point or we’re mulling something over.
Saundra: When we had tea a few months ago, you said when you get tired of working on the book, you work on Barn business.
Bethany: The writing and the teaching take their own separate time, but I can move back and forth between Barn programming and barn publicity and now working on the Gandhi book and getting that out into world. If I’m only creating and don’t have other things on my plate, I get bored. I can’t write deep work in ten hour stretches everyday or even eight hour stretches. Eventually I’ll be spent and when that happens, I move to other projects. But if I spend too much time doing all that other stuff, I get cranky. To keep myself from feeling either bored or cranky, I need to mix it all up.
When I was in graduate school, in New York City, I worked as a receptionist. I learned to write at work with a flurry of activity around me, and also do a bunch of other things at one time.
A friend of mine said, “I don’t know how you write from that desk with all this activity. I can’t even write in a coffee shop.” I tune it all out and things get done. I think having that as my survival method way back when, trained me to get a lot done now. Although I didn’t know I was establishing a career plan, a way to work for the rest of my life.
Saundra: Who are your role models?
Bethany: One is Cynthia Leitich Smith, who is a New York Times bestselling children’s and YA author. She writes vampire books, and she also wrote these incredible multicultural novels, a thread she carries through all of her books.
Cynthia began teaching in my master’s program after I left. I met her at a party when I was up in Vermont. When I emailed her and told her I was thinking about moving to Austin, she wrote back and said, “Do it!” When I got to Austin, she introduced me into the community.
I was floored at how wonderful people were. Cynthia has helped developed that spirit here in Austin. Her blog, “Cynsations,” is a must-read in the field, where people go to find out what’s happening in the industry. She has this extreme creative heart and a business heart that aren’t at war with each other. I found a kind of kindred spirit with her.
My other writer/mentor/role model is Kathi Appelt. She wrote picture books for many, many years. She also teaches at Vermont. Her work is deep and sensual and always about the words. I respect how she’s continued to teach and contribute to other writers as her career has taken off. She is a Newberry Honor author and two-time National Book Award finalist, and she still cares about mentoring young writers.
Saundra: I’m sensing an underlying theme here of nurturing community and other writers.
Bethany: As women we can fall into people-pleasing aspect. Nurture becomes a burden, taking care of others and their needs. But when we allow the nurturing to be circular, it creates energy rather than depletes it.
When you had your first group here, which was one of our first classes at the Barn, I was teary-eyed that it was actually happening. The same thing happened when I first taught here and even still sometimes when I see events happening. I think to myself, “You made something happen.”
Saundra: How have your thoughts about success changed in the last few years?
Bethany: I received my first star from Publisher’s Weekly for Grandfather Gandhi, which I co-wrote with Arun Gandhi. I’ve been thankful enough, knock on wood, that all of my books have reviewed well, but I really wanted that star. The second it happened, I negated myself. I said, “That’s because the illustrations are beautiful. It’s because it’s a picture book. It’s not like me on my own. I won’t have really earned a star until one of my novels gets a star. Then I’ll have made that goal.”
I heard myself and thought, “Bethany, you’re being ridiculous.” So then the second star came in from Kirkus, which is known for being hard. I thought, “Ok, I’ve earned it.” I didn’t beat myself up anymore.
Saundra: The star came from outside, but you still had accept it from the inside
Bethany: Also, as soon as you reach one goal another one rises. I once heard somebody say that whatever your dreams are, if they are what you’re complaining about in five years, they’ve come true. Once upon a time I wanted to be published, and then I was published and started complaining because I had to stop writing to do the promotion, and the website. Whatever your dreams are, you know you’re successful when the complaint cycle begins. Or when you negate yourself. But if you listen to the negative thoughts, you can stop them. I realized what I was doing wasn’t going to help, but hurt, in terms of letting the success and goodness in. I needed to rewire myself.
It took years of work to build this foundation. I moved to Austin to live off of my writing income in a way I could never do in New York City. I moved here for the community. I wanted to find love here and a real partnership, and found that as well. There are years of work underneath what you see here.
Saundra:. It’s the ground that you built.
Bethany: One of my non-writer friends came to Vermont for my graduation and senior reading. We were out walking in in the snow, and she turned to me and said, “Bethany, it’s like you’re mayor of a small town, the way you’re creating community.”
I always felt most myself when I was at Vermont and in grad school and getting to talk to writers 24/7, getting that break from my regular life, and devoting it to my craft. Recently, when I was out walking, I realized I’ve created community here, and I am the mayor of my own small town through the Barn.
I never would have thought that was in me. I had that spirit, but the courage came from having a stable relationship, a loving, safe, secure place with my husband.
That could come from any relationship. I don’t think you have to be hetero or married or whatever. As artists we often create from trials and tribulations. There are all those artist archetypes of the alcoholic writer and the crazy artist and the musician who stays up all night. I think our real work, where we can really explore ourselves, comes when we have a place of safety and security in our lives. My husband has given me that. He never says, “Don’t.” He just says, “Go.” Or his phrase, “Make it happen!”
Saundra: I think we should all adopt that as a motto.
His daughter and I tease him about it, but that’s how he lives his life and it’s contagious. He’s a big part of the Barn, even though he says he’s just the janitor. This never would have happened without him. I was still a struggling writer, trying to pay the bills, and the advance hadn’t come and I was driving a beat up car. He gave me the place and the confidence.
Early on, he heard me speak at a Writers’ League event and he saw me facilitate a panel. He said, to me “The world has other things in store for you.” And because he’s Indian, it sounded like a spiritual proclamation.
I thought, “Ah, the heavens have opened and now I’ve ascended and I must listen to this.” But it is incredible to have somebody believe in you in that way, or to see something in you, to encourage you to do more.”
We’re very different, but some of our experiences and our goals are the same. He’s an expert in extreme ultra-violet lithograpgy, whatever that is!. He also leads workshops. And this is our home, so who we invite here and who works here matters to us. It’s part of our partnership. The space we live in and the space that we create for other writers has become part of our marriage in a way I never would have thought a business could be.
Saundra: Last question. Do you have any advice for someone is trying to combine art and some kind of a business?
Bethany: Allow yourself to be scared and do it anyway. Take one step and later you can step out a little further. You do it slowly, learning to trust your talents and then allowing yourself to grow. You step out in faith, and with each move, you build and grow.