Clark Hansbarger: The Arc of a Storyteller

Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series

During the Meet on Tuesday, the Foxcroft community welcomed Clark Hansbarger, a local teacher, author, musician, and songwriter as the third guest in our series on the theme “Inspired by Storytelling,” as part of the Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series. Drawing on his talents as a master storyteller and teacher, Clark wrapped lessons about narrative arcs and recursive narratives within the personal story of his lifetime. His sense of humor put everyone at ease — and kept everyone engaged — as he welcomed his audience with, “I’m retired now. You don’t have to call me Mr. Hansbarger. You can call me Clark.” He began his story at the end, introducing the community to his wife (and Foxcroft alumna) Ginger Reuling ‘77 and the birdhouses they build and sell, the houses he rehabs, the band he plays with, and his grandchild.
Then he took us back to the beginning. His beginning. We were transported back in time to his childhood in Gatlin Mills, WV, when he began to be haunted by his past. His story of finding his mother weeping in the dark on the anniversary of his Uncle Leonard’s death — an uncle he didn’t even know he had — captivated his audience. He was just a young boy of six at the time and he struggled to understand his mother's grief, the circumstances of his uncle’s death, and the impact it had on his family. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, unraveling the mystery of this one incident put him on the path toward a life of telling stories. “It propelled me to start asking questions,” he says, “I wanted to know about my family… I ended up writing most of my fiction about these guys, I made them fictional characters, but that’s what I wrote about — my family and my past.”

He married young, while he was a student at George Washington University. After graduation, he began teaching English at Woodson High School in DC, but got laid off during a period of downsizing. He moved out to Loudoun County and started teaching during the day and playing in a band at night. Things “got real” when his children were born, and Clark buckled down, focusing on his teaching job and letting the band go. But he started to write. At first, it was just articles for education magazines, but then he decided to get a master's in writing as much for the increase in salary that it afforded him as a teacher as for his desire to write. By sheer luck, the MFA program at George Mason, which he had selected for its convenient location, turned out to have an outstanding creative writing program.

Getting his first short story, “The Victory Garden,” published in The Gettysburg Review was a high point in his life and in his narrative arc. Though the details and the characters differed, it was essentially the story of his Uncle Leonard and his mother. He credits this story with being the one that helped him find his voice. Once this story was published, others followed, as did awards such as National Endowment for the Arts and Virginia Commission for the Arts creative writing fellowships, and a teaching position at American University. “I got a nice tweed jacket! I was somebody!” But then, as Clark had foreshadowed, his narrative arc took a downturn: the stories stopped coming.

The next chapter of Clark's life was filled with highs, lows, and plateaus. He returned to teaching high school English, this time for the IB program at Clarke County High. And, as he says, he “dove back in.” He coached, was a scout leader, became involved in the community, and though he wasn’t creating too much, he was pretty happy. Then, after 30 years, his marriage fell apart, and he and his wife divorced. It was hard for awhile, but the creative urge returned and he began to create again.

He eventually remarried — to Ginger, who we met her earlier. An artist herself (and a Fox), they build and sell birdhouses at garden shows around the country. Music and songwriting make a comeback, too. Clark’s band, The Bitter Liberals, plays small theater venues all around the area, and their playlist includes songs written by Clark and other bandmates. He’s writing again, too, working on a novel, and he’s rehabbing houses. He and Ginger travel whenever they can, rescue dogs (they currently have four but have had as many as seven), and take the role of grandparent very seriously, too. He brought us back again to the present where the arc is quite high. Let’s hope it stays that way!

He ended with the following sage advice to the gathering:
  • Stay busy. Be curious and learn everything … in school and out. Particularly out.
  • Put in the time and persevere. 10,000 hours until you can say you’re any kind of an expert.
  • Travel and keep and open mind. Bring a toothbrush.
  • Fail … then get back up and fail again, until you don’t.
  • Spend time with all sorts of people … and respect all as people you can learn from.
  • Trust yourself. You might as well ... it’s the only self you’ve got.
  • Be both humble and bold.
  • Enjoy yourself and be grateful.
  • Life is a struggle. Everybody struggles; it is hard. Embrace it and struggle boldly.
  • The purpose of life is purpose. Find yours. If you’re not busy, get busy. Realize that your purpose may change as life does.
After his presentation, Clark held a workshop for several budding songwriters in the student body. The girls brought lyrics and music that they were working on and began collaborating. Julia G. ’21 had a moody but beautiful melody and Marina V. ’20 had a few lines of lyrics, which became the refrain. Courtney B. ’20 fleshed out a few verses, with Clark on the guitar and Julia on guitar and piano. Jennifer C. ’21 worked on music to incorporate violin in the mix. It all came together quite quickly, and the result was pretty remarkable. Click here to listen to a recording.

“My experience in the songwriting workshop was amazing,” Julia says. “Although I have written many songs before, this gave me a different perspective on the theory of songwriting and how it flows.”

Marina agrees, “The songwriting workshop with Clark was incredible! I had never been to a songwriting workshop before, but I've always been very interested in songwriting. His workshop was very fun and extremely helpful. I went in nervous and not knowing what to expect, but at the end we had written a whole song and recorded it!"

Clark kept it fun and engaging, as Courtney attests. “Working with Clark was so much fun! Before Tuesday, I had no experience with songwriting, but I felt so comfortable working with him, and we created something amazing. Clark was truly inspiring, and brought so much positive energy with him.”

Earlier in the day, Clark enjoyed a free-ranging discussion in Dr. Lindsay O’Connor’s The American South English elective, touching on authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Zora Neale Hurston, and Harper Lee, as well as southern food and identity. And later he enjoyed lunch with a few faculty and students who wanted to continue the conversation and ask questions.

The Helen Cudahy Niblack ’42 Arts Lecture Series was established by Austi Brown ’73 in memory of her mother. Since it began in 2007, the series has brought a variety of literary, performing, and fine artists to Foxcroft to share their work, stories, and perspective on the nature of the creative process with both students and the larger community. One of the goals of the Niblack series is to provide an artist with the opportunity to share their artistic journey in a comfortable and familiar setting, creating space for an exchange of ideas that just might inspire a Foxcroft girl or two to chase her own artistic dreams.
    • Songwriting Workshop with Niblack Artist Clark Hansbarger

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An all-girls boarding and day school in Northern Virginia, Foxcroft prepares young women in grades 9-12 for success in college and in life. Our outstanding academic program offers challenging courses, including Advanced Placement classes and an innovative STEM program. Our premiere equestrian program is nationally recognized, and our athletic teams have won conference and state championships. Experience the best in girls' boarding schools: visit Foxcroft.