Britt Kaufmann: One Writer’s Quest to Find Her Wings
By: Cathy Larson PHOTO BY: Marylee Yearick Photography of Spruce Pine, NC
A clear-eyed straight talker, a thoughtful and heartfelt writer, Britt Kaufmann has had a banner year: Finishing Line Press has published her poetry chapbook entitled Belonging, and her original play, An Uncivil Union, pleased summertime audiences at the Parkway Playhouse in Burnsville, NC, her home base since 2003. Another play is in the works for next season. In the metamorphosis from emerging writer to a published author in the public eye, Britt has outgrown her cocoon. Her new wings, though perhaps a bit dewy, are silky strong. Her bright accomplishments are presaged by a journey in which Britt learned to prioritize her art along with, in her words, “all of the other million things I am.” Recently we made room on my dining room table for a tape recorder and sat down to talk about her writing life in Western North Carolina.
CLS: How did you happen to land in Western North Carolina? It seems like such a good fit for you.
BK: We moved here after my husband finished his residency because he wanted to be a small town doctor where he took care of his own patients in the hospital and had a better continuity of care. We knew we wanted to live somewhere other than northern Indiana, where it was flat. We wanted something mountainous and exciting. And so when we visited this area there were two quilting shops in Burnsville and a lot of art. I went to the library to see if they had certain books. I liked the grocery store. And it wasn’t odd for women my age to be canning food and so I figured we would fit in here.
CLS: Was this part of your own family background in Indiana?
BK: Yes. We grew up with a big garden, and canning and reading were always really important at home. Mom had lists of books that she wanted to read to us kids before any of us were born. And they read out loud to us. My parents still read out loud to each other.
CLS: How beautiful. You appear to be such an ethical, mindful person. Well beyond your years. Would your Mennonite background have anything to do with this?
BK: Well, the Mennonite church is a peace church, and because of that, Mennonites tend to live in communities all over the world, where we just want to live peacefully; typically farmer/agrarian. That’s changing now because it – the whole culture – is changing. There is the kind of notion, similar to the Amish, but different, of being in the world but not of it. It’s a trying in some ways to hold your self separate. And it’s very much a works church, also. Like how you behave and how you interact in the world and how you take care of your neighbors is what really matters . . . we view ourselves as global citizens.
CLS: I think many writers share this sense of being global citizens. There must have been other writers in your family.
BK: Yes. My uncle is a very prolific poet but he doesn’t send his stuff out to be published at all. And my aunt is a prolific writer and she has never let anybody read her stuff. I don’t know if it’s just the product of being an oldest child, but I kind of feel, sometimes, like the observations that I make, that come out of my writing about life or whatever, that people should know them. Well, maybe I’m not the writer than my aunt and uncle are, but I think that’s why I keep pushing myself to submit places and to keep trying.
CS: Describe your writing a little bit.
BK: Well, when I was in college, I took a poetry workshop from Nick Lindsay, who is Vachel Lindsay’s son. Nick Lindsay described my poetry as “schoolmarmish.” And oh, I hated that. But I think since being a mother I have kind of given in to my own didacticism. I know that being didactic in literature is frowned upon, but that’s really where I am right now. With raising kids, everything is a teachable moment, whether it’s teaching about how our government works, or about inflation, or: “If it’s shiny and red, that means it’s poisonous – don’t put shiny red berries in your mouth, ever.” I guess having been a teacher also, even in my writing or in a play, I feel like that’s a teachable moment.
CS: How have you managed to bring your own writing to the public?
BK: My first poem was published in Mothering Magazine in 2002, the year of my daughter’s birth. I think it was bad, because it didn’t prepare me for all the rejections that come with writing and it led me to be discouraged easily after that. And that was more with the submissions of individual poems. But by the time I started sending in my chapbook manuscript eight years later, I’d learned how many rejections a writer can receive, and knew that I had to give myself a year to submit to different contests before I was allowed to give up.
CLS: You took a small office in the Heritage Center in Burnsville when your twin sons went to preschool. Was it the proverbial room of your own, so you could work on the chapbook?
BK: Yes. What I would do is, I would drive in, drop the boys at preschool, then go to the office instead of driving the extra distance back home and that was my writing time, three times a week. I just had a kitchen table so I wouldn’t accumulate clutter. It was me, and getting the work done.
CLS: And you also had a critique group that kept you focused, when you followed some advice you received at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival, in Burnsville, of which you are one of the original coordinators.
BK: Well, I got to lead a panel discussion with the other authors one year, including two other parents who had young kids at home that both had multiple published books and I got to sit them down and ask them questions. And one important point was that they were both accountable to an editor and an agent, and they had these deadlines. So I talked to my critique group about it and they said, “Okay, well then what’s the deadline? When are we gonna see your rough draft of your chapbook?” And they made me set a deadline, and I had to deliver it to them. I had accountability to them.
CLS: You have also described Andrew Gall, the artistic director of The Parkway Playhouse, where your play was produced, as “the deadline” for your work.
BK: I originally went to Andrew (whose office was also in the Heritage Center), just with the idea of writing a one act play; I felt like I needed somebody to be accountable to. He gave me the idea for the play and I went with it because who would say no to an opportunity like that? “I want to produce this play based on local history, if you can write it good enough.” Well then, there it was: I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got a goal!
CLS: An Uncivil Union is a romantic comedy that revolves around an incident in which a group of Yancey County women broke into a Union warehouse to steal bags of flour for their families during a cold winter in the 1860s. Was that a challenge for you, as a newcomer to the area, depicting a period deeply ingrained in local history and folklore?
BK: Well, I’m curious. I’m a curious person. I want to know more about things. I’ve transplanted from a different culture and I’m curious about . . . oh, how people say “Aye, law’.” Where did that come from? What’s that about? Or they say, “It pours the rain.” Little linguistic things. I realize: “Oh, it’s like pouring the rain from a bucket.”
I would spend mornings sitting in the local greasy spoon, eavesdropping on old timers who were in there having their breakfast, and then try to get the rhythm, but when it came down to rhythm, the cast changed some things I didn’t have quite right, which I would then go back in to fix. And Andrew did a really good job of casting people from Yancey County in several of the roles, so that it had a more authentic sound than I was able to write.
CLS: What was it like, dipping into a new genre after writing mostly poetry?
BK: It was hard. Andrew handed me Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, which is for screen writing, and he said, “This is how to figure out the pacing, because playwriting isn’t like a novel, which can be a hundred pages or it can be several hundred.” It’s still going to have that arc that we expect, but there’s a lot of leeway. However, for plays, there is not so much leeway, because people will only sit for so long.
You’ve really got to get these elemental things to keep the audience’s interest, to build the tension, to make it feel satisfactory, all within a certain amount of acts, and it feels like a giant. My dad is a math teacher and he really likes story problems. I also have this same love of story problems. And that’s kind of what a play feels like, like one of those logic puzzles: “How am I going to get all these things together to form a cube?”
There’s room for innovation, but within the paradigm. And I get to make up a couple of the pieces. I find that I’m better at being creative within structure. You know, then I can get in there and wiggle around a little bit and it really pushes me to do things in new and interesting ways. So it’s not the same thing that you’ve seen before, even though the structure might be exactly the same.
CLS: You are now working on a second play (we’ll keep the plot a secret) to be produced next year. How does that feel?
BK: When I’m writing this play, it’s so different, because I know it already has a place on the schedule. So it’s less a leap of faith in the writing. It doesn’t feel so fraught with anxiety. I’ve got a time, a place, a deadline, a thing that has to be done and now I have to come to that table and put my butt in that chair and do the work.
CLS: This second work is also based on an idea proposed by Andrew Gall.
BK: Yes, but I get to make it what I want it to be. If Andrew says, as director, “I’ll show a play about this, with these three male leads I would love to cast,” I’d be silly not to take the assignment. At some point if I have this passionate, burning desire to do my own thing, or I have some message, I’ll do that, but at this point I’m helping the community theatre, I’ve got an outlet for my work, and a motivating factor, which is what I need because I tend so frequently to put my artistic stuff off because there are other immediate needs. I have three young kids, a husband who has a demanding job, and it’s so easy to say, “Well, these poems – nobody’s expecting them. This is kind of my hobby.”
CLS: Would you describe some other tools, besides deadlines and accountability, that have helped you keep your artistic goals a priority?
BK: I am very fortunate that my husband is supportive. I go on about two writing weekends a year. He stays at home with the kids, and I hole up in a hotel with my laptop. I do silly things to keep myself writing and in the chair. For example, I’ll say No going out for dinner until you’ve got 15 pages written. And then I get it done. That’s how I wrote most of An Uncivil Union.
I’ve also done the Artist’s Way (a workbook for developing artistic creativity by author Julia Cameron) twice – once on my own and once with a group – and each time noticed a significant growth in my production and quality. I also noticed an increase in my “luck” or serendipity. Of course, it’s because I was doing the work and being balanced in my care of my creative side, physical health, spiritual health, etc.
CLS: Do you have a philosophy that you might pass on to other creative women?
BK: Pray and run both. It’s like the Hawaiian tradition of prayer-action. Cameron talks about it in the Artist’s Way: if you’re late to catch the bus, don’t just stand there and pray that the bus will be late. Pray and then run! That’s what I’ve got to keep working on in my own writing life. Not just wishing that I become a better writer, but doing the necessary work, submitting despite rejections.
For instance, with my chapbook. I didn’t actually win or place in the competition, but they offered me publication anyway, so this just all fits in with the prayer-action idea. I wanted to be published, and not winning was a bummer, but that’s the way it is. Still, I got the opportunity to publish, so if I hadn’t submitted to the contest, this never would have happened. And then the chapbook opened up a lot of other opportunities for me, like getting to read at Wordfest in Asheville, because the director had met me through the Carolina Mountain Literary Festival. It’s just the serendipity thing.
CLS: As we close, do you have an image of the way you see your life as woman and as artist?
BK: You could think about it as a mobile . . . a kind of revolving balancing act involving many components of my life.
Enjoy Britt’s words and works at: brittkaufmann.com and brittkaufmann.blogspot.com
Cathy Larson Sky writes novels, poems and freelance articles and holds an MA in Folklore from UNC Chapel Hill. A performer and teacher of Irish traditional fiddling, she currently lives in Spruce Pine, NC. Visit her at: cathylarsonsky.blogspot.com