by Kara Gibbs '96
What is the meaning of life? A deep question, to be sure. And yes, Ben Barnhart ‘99 could happily oblige you with a philosophical debate on the subject. Philosophy was, after all, his major at Cedarville University. Or he may choose to just write about it, utilizing his minor in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Either way, the man made certain his schooling would prepare him to express himself intelligently.
Combining a philosophy major with creative writing made sense to Barnhart. “The English route seemed a little more open-ended than philosophy,” he says, “which does typically end in teaching and writing philosophy. I think, too, that I felt a greater resonance for the world of literature than I did for the philosophical world.”
Needless to say, Barnhart was initially drawn to the study of philosophy because of the opportunities it offers to pursue the questions of meaning and existence. Questions that humanity has struggled to answer since time began.
“While studying those questions from a philosophical perspective,” Barnhart recalls, “I began to realize that many creative writers—novelists, memoirists, and poets—found themselves trying to answer the same questions, but the ways in which creative writers approached these problems was more interesting to me.” He explained that writers form characters that depict a particular framework or condition and use the tools of storytelling to explore and try to answer the questions that intrigue them.
Barnhart took this fascination into the professional realm. He now works at Milkweed Editions, a non-profit publisher of literature for adults and young adults based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is responsible for acquiring and editing books for young readers ages 8 to 13, and a few fiction and nonfiction titles for adults. Most of Barnhart’s time involves reading potential manuscripts and working with authors on forthcoming books.
“The work is challenging and energizing, and requires a great love for literature,” says Barnhart. “As with any small arts organization, though, I wear a number of hats. I oversee our internship program—which brings about 15 young people through our office each year, manage rights sales for our books, handle contracts, and act as our IT consultant.”
It was while he was applying for publishing internships during his senior year at Cedarville that Barnhart first heard of Milkweed. He initially went to Minneapolis to interview, and then returned for the internship program. When that ended, Milkweed offered him an entry-level position working in the editorial department. That was seven years ago, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Cedarville’s language and literature department played a prevalent part in preparing Barnhart for Milkweed. For instance, it exposed him to a wide range of writing and literary styles. He says: “From Dr. James Snowden’s literature survey courses to the creative writing courses I took with Jack Simons and Kevin Heath to the practical experience gained working at Cedars and on the Cedarville Review, I was ready for many of the challenges I faced when first coming to Milkweed Editions. Working in the editorial department of a small press requires a wide range of skills and constant attention to a shifting set of priorities.”
When asked how his faith at Milkweed has taken shape, Barnhart says it’s a difficult question to answer with tangible evidence, a philosophical response indeed. While his role at Milkweed isn’t that of an evangelist, he is more than happy to talk about his faith with his colleagues and authors. “On some level I think of my faith and my work complementing one another very easily. As a Christian I find myself curious about the human condition with a specific focus on the ways in which grace and love affect our lives, and as an editor I find myself working with authors on books that strive to understand those same problems.”
Writer. Philosopher. Poet. Christian. Ben Barnhart continues to use his skills not only in his career, but in his life.