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Jonathan Barnes (DC'93)

January 2013

Alum Jonathan Barnes Turns the Spotlight on English Professor Hilary Masters in New Documentary

Jonathan Barnes (DC’93), who earned degrees in Professional Writing and Creative Writing, has built a career as a journalist and freelance writer. His resume includes stringing for Reuters, the New York Times and other publications and contributing to Fortune magazine. Currently, he is a correspondent for Engineering News-Record and other publications.

Recently, Barnes was hired by the French-German ARTE TV, which promotes programming in the areas of culture and the arts, to work on a series of film segments for a web-based documentary about Pittsburgh. In addition to helping the foreign journalists understand Western Pennsylvania’s history and culture, he helped the French crew define stories and arrange interviews and shoots.

The ARTE crew was interested in showcasing Pittsburgh homes and talking to residents who have seen the city’s transformation. So, Barnes tapped his friend, mentor and former professor Hilary Masters, professor of English, for an interview. Masters and his Mexican War Streets home are featured in this clip from the documentary:

Dietrich College News recently caught up with Barnes to talk about his career and the shoot with Masters.

Why did you think to include Professor Masters in the ARTE TV web documentary?

Hilary is an expert storyteller, a world traveler, a North Sider for three decades and a Pittsburgh original. He has created much of his work here. (His book “Shadows on a Wall,” is not only a uniquely Pittsburgh work of nonfiction, but also a great example of the heights of the form.)

Hilary has an understanding and affinity for all sorts of people, including blue collar people. That sensitivity comes through in his writing as well as in his home, which is a Mexican War Streets row-house he restored. I knew he could comment on how Pittsburgh has changed as a city, from a heavily industrial place to a more cultured, economically diverse spot.

I figured the War Streets, too, could make their own point on how Pittsburgh has transformed, since they have been mostly gentrified and the homes restored, due in part to earlier adopters like Hilary. (“Very BoBo,” one of the French journalists said as he looked around Hilary’s street.)

I also knew that Hilary and his wife, author/ Pitt professor Kathleen George, have taken sabbaticals in Paris and have friends there. I thought it might be neat for their friends and others in France to see them on ARTE.

You refer to Masters as your mentor. Could you share how he has influenced you as a writer?

Poor Hilary—he didn’t choose this questionable distinction, I just started calling him my mentor way back when. I’ve always thought that at least to begin with, he felt some ambivalence about it.

As a double major, I wanted to get as much training in writing as possible. So I explored the forms, taking poetry, fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, journalism and other stuff. I took fiction with Hilary and others, and I grew to really like him, partly because of his down to earth approach but also because of his accessibility. His office door was often open and he was a very generous teacher, patient even with a quasi-dullard who never really got the hang of the fiction thing.

But the little encouraging notes he scribbled in the margins of our stories—he was a teacher who would correct, but also found the praiseworthy—helped me and many others have confidence to keep going on the very unclear path of being a writer. The last writing class I took in college was Personal Essay, with Hillary. It was a Professional Writing class, technically journalism, and it hadn’t been offered for a few years and Hilary was going to be teaching it again. I was talking with him in his office one day and he told me about it and I asked, “What’s personal essay?” He tossed me a dog-eared copy of “Essais” by Montaigne, telling me to keep it.

I read the book, signed up for the class, and got comments from Hilary in some of my essays with stuff like: “This may be your form, Jon.” My heart lifted—he thinks so, too. I was right, I thought.

I felt such a comfort level with essay, which I couldn’t have been learning from a more gifted practitioner. Hilary’s nonfiction book “Last Stands: Notes From Memory,” has been instructional to me as a person writing about family; from a writing perspective, the book’s wonderful, seamless transitions in time and other techniques Hilary uses are instructive.

As a freelance journalist, my personal essays have been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Engineering News-Record and other magazines and newspapers. My essays also have been published in literary journals including Dos Passos Review, Sampsonia Way and others.

Over the years, Hilary has continued to support and encourage me in my writing, and offered valuable insight that a person with his particular experience could give (he began his career as a journalist and newspaper publisher). His peers at CMU also have been supportive, including my former academic advisor Professor Jim Daniels, as well as Professor Jane McCafferty, the late Professor Dave Demarest, and others. Having the encouragement of such talented people from my old school has been a big help.

Over your career, you have worked for many of the top media outlets. In your opinion, what has been the biggest change that journalists have had to deal with recently?

Many people in various media outlets are being asked to do extra, though they have cut back employees.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers and journalists?

The same advice Hilary wrote at the end of our essays: “Keep going.”

What do you know now about working as a writer that you wish you knew when you graduated?

It never really becomes easy. If you’re going to strive to be a better writer each time, the writing will always be work and it takes time and sweat and there’s no getting around that.

Secondly, you must be a big self-promoter. Working on a platform and connecting with people has got to be a part of your business strategy if you are a writer. I have been doing so for years and must work harder at it, but I am promoting myself now, of course, with this article. In addition to being on Facebook and LinkedIn, my main sales page online is my blog, Barnestormin, which is

I’ve had the blog for years and annually I get at least a new client or two who finds me and wants to hire me partly because of what he’s seen on my blog. I have sold essays and other articles I first published on Barnestormin to mainstream media publications for reprint.

Also, you have to be your own muse. You might end up divorced or alone, jobless, without a home. Or possibly worse, you could end up doing something you hate for a living and writing on the side with no one seeming to recognize your obvious talent. But even if that were so, if you’re going to be a writer you owe it to yourself to never give up. Always keep going.

What do you miss the most about your time at Carnegie Mellon?

I miss the daily interaction with the people, both the students and the professors. That mix of diverse, very talented people. And I miss the campus, which has been built up a lot since I was there, but still kind of feels like home.

If you would like to reach Jonathan Barnes, you can contact him via email or social media:

To learn more about the humanities at Carnegie Mellon University, watch this video:

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Contact Shilo Rea, Director of Public Relations at or (412) 268-6094.


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