Gracious Stumbling

Barbara Heming’s liberal arts journey has been widely varied. Just now she writes mystery novels and serves as a tour guide at one of the homes of artist Georgia O'Keeffe.

Kalamazoo College students learn how to live graciously in different ways. For Barbara Heming ’66, gracious living has meant “stumbling” into new dreams and new opportunities—then going after them diligently and confidently.

After a career in higher education, Barbara has most recently focused her work on writing novels, a lifelong dream. Death Wins the Crown, her first, is also the initial offering in a series she plans to write. Her road to becoming a novelist has its origin at K.

It seemed to Barbara that she heard about K all her life from her father, Arthur Heming, a chemistry major who graduated from the College in 1937. After he earned a doctorate (University of Wisconsin) in biochemistry, he worked for Johnson & Johnson. His work there took him and his family to São Paulo, Brazil, and later to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Barbara was born.

The family returned to the United States when Barbara was three and settled in the Philadelphia area. During the ensuing years, Barbara forgot all the Spanish she had learned, but she never lost her alma latina.

At K she went to Madrid for study abroad and fell so much in love with the people, culture, language and literature that she took every Spanish class she could fit into her schedule, even though her major was religion. After graduation, she lived in Spain for three months and then took a secretarial position in Washington, D.C. She worked just a couple blocks from the White House. Her interest in Spanish continued, and she took night classes at the American University. Later, she became a full-time student at AU and earned a master’s degree in Spanish language and literature.

At first, she felt she had to catch up to the other students who had majored in Spanish as undergrads. So she immersed herself so deeply in her studies that by the end of the second semester she was far ahead of her classmates.

The liberal arts … help you adapt to the many circumstances you confront in life.

“Intellectual life is important to me, and that attracted me to K in the first place,” she said. “At K you hit the ground running for 10 weeks without excuses and without late papers. You figure out how to get your work done. As a result, I learned that if I decide to do something, I’m going to do it.”

Her next “something” was to teach at the college level. She earned a Ph.D. (State University of New York at Stony Brook) in Hispanic Languages and Literature.  Her dissertation focused on the experience of five Spanish writers exiled because of the Spanish Civil War. Although these writers were known for other genres, in exile each turned to the theatre.

“Theatre was a way of communication that was more present,” said Barbara. “Their work performed in front of an audience gave it a more communal expression.”

Barbara taught at Ohio State University (Columbus), Westminster College (New Wilmington, Pa.), and Thiel College (Greenville, Pa.). During her time at Thiel she encouraged study abroad and enabled two group trips—one to Honduras and one to Peru.

“I really credited all my success to K,” said Barbara. “It was there that I got a sense that the world is large and that great people live everywhere. I also learned how to explore the world in ways that are not imbued in other college study abroad programs.”

Barbara has lived in five different states. Her approach to any new environment is to look around, figure out the culture, discover what was available, and how she could make a contribution.

“I believe strongly in the liberal arts because they help you adapt to the many circumstances you confront in life. My education at K prepared me to be able to do many different things.”

Teaching was good for Barbara, but she felt the urge to try other things as well. At one point she went to the Worchester (Mass.) Center for Crafts to learn weaving, and she ran a weaving business for a few years before returning to teaching.

During a six-month sabbatical from Thiel College, she lived on a small agricultural town in Peru. She also accompanied a doctor from the local health clinic on home visits to assess and schedule patients for a visiting U.S. surgical team.

“That experience was life-changing,” said Barbara.

After Peru, she felt a need to be in a more spiritual environment and eventually joined the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, a religious community in northwestern Pennsylvania. She stayed with the community for five years and then left to become a lay minister in an Hispanic congregation in Canton, Ohio.

Then Barbara began to feel an attraction to New Mexico. She ended up living near Abiquiu, at tiny town about 50 miles north of Santa Fe. Barbara became a tour guide at the home studio of celebrated artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who lived in Abiquiu for almost 40 years.

“The yearning to go to New Mexico was a mystery to me,” said Barbara. “And the most logical action would have been a job-and house-finding visit, but something about that course didn’t seem right. So, I just moved there.”

Georgia O’Keeffe has long been an inspiration to Barbara, and working at one of her homes has been a special treat.

“Miss O’Keeffe was a woman of her time. Her dedication to her art—as well as her willingness to structure her life in service of that art through sacrifice and in the way she lived—speaks most deeply to me.”

Barbara’s calling to New Mexico was also the start of her new “career” as a novelist. She began by writing fiction and some poetry, but it was the mystery novel that captivated her the most.

“I always liked reading mysteries,” she said, “and wondered what it would be like to write one.”

Our mystery writer at a book signing.

To prepare herself, she took an online class in fiction writing through Writer’s Digest and learned the elements of making a whodunit. She came up with the idea for Death Wins the Crown, sat down, plotted it out, created character profiles, and started writing.

“There are lots of online opportunities out there for writers,” she said, “which would never have been possible 15 to 20 years ago. You can be connected with writers from all over the world to share your work and have it critiqued. You can also join a writers community.”

Barbara used Skype to converse with a novelist from the United Kingdom, who critiqued her work and even visited her in New Mexico.

Barbara finds writing totally absorbing.  She likes to write all day for a period of days. She especially enjoys having the freedom to write fiction, a bit different from those academic papers she used to write.

“You are in a different world as a fiction writer,” she said.

She’d be hard pressed to decide what she loves best: the process of writing or the good story that emerges. “Through fiction I’m better able to explore deeper levels of truth—and communicate those ideas to readers—than would be possible through other genres. A good story draws readers into its world and allows them to experience a different reality. Hopefully, they will be open to ideas that they might resist if presented in nonfiction.

“Through the structure of the mystery in Death Wins the Crown,” she added. “I explore the exploitation of young people in our society—girls and young women through beauty pageants and young men through sports, especially college football—and the tragedies that result.”

Barbara is using the new media available to both publish and promote her book, which sidesteps the time and expense of going through agents and publishers.

“Self-publishing used to be considered a vanity press. Today’s technology has made publishing more accessible and more democratic,” she said. “It still takes a lot to produce a novel and get it out there.”

The New York Times best seller list is not on her bucket list.

“My goal is to tell a good story and provide something readers can take away from their reading,” she said. “I want to add something to the larger conversation.”

Barbara has written the first draft of her next novel, which is set in New Mexico and deals with the themes of family secrets, the nature of betrayal, and the meaning of home.

And her next mystery novel is unfolding. “I’m not sure yet what will emerge, but its setting is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and its working title is Death Rocks and Rolls.

Just where did this itch to write originate? “From K,” she says.

“The common thread in my life has been to respond to whatever drew me to a place or an action,” said Barbara.  “That’s my way of gracious living.”

Find out more about Barbara’s work on her website.

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