Monday, November 19, 2012


My mother was a very traditional Thanksgiving cook. We always had the same menu: pimento-cheese-celery, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing (not dressing), something orange and squishy, green beans-and-mushroom-soup casserole, pumpkin pie. We loved Thanksgiving, our food, and our turkey—the next day’s sandwiches.

When I became the family matriarch, a title I inherited when Mom didn’t have access to a stove any more and I had an elevator to get her up to our place, I decided to do things differently. Gone was the cheese-stuffed celery, since Bill, our cousin who loved it most, was also gone. Gone also were the green beans, replaced by roasted Brussels sprouts, which have offended certain taste buds big time. My biggest decision, a few years ago, was to do something different with the potatoes. I made gnocchi, sort of, my first try, and one of my sons commented that they looked like goose do. (He’s also the son who said I needed  some blood and violence in my novels if I wanted I’d sell them.) I did not repeat that experiment.

So every Thanksgiving, for the past who-knows-now many years under my leadership, has included some food no one at the table has ever experienced. I consider it my duty. I love the risk of cooking something for others that may either please or disgust them. So far, it’s been about fifty-fifty, please/disgust-wise. 

This year I determined to attack the turkey. I would do the In thing. I would butterfly it.  Spatchcocking, the magazines called it. The bird would fit in the fridge better, in the oven along with the roasted beans, and, according to the articles, brine better (another innovation my mother would have laughed at.) Then my son, the same one as above, sent by mail, a frozen wild turkey to represent him, since he and his family could not join us, at the table.

This bird’s breasts Dolly Parton would yearn for. All that flying, you know. It doesn’t matter that he is male, these breasts are for flying, the skinny legs for landing. And our first view of Henry, we named him, is bloody juice, leaking from the box my son had mailed him in, all over the entry of my building. Our mailman will get a nice thank you at Christmas, since Henry had also leaked all over his vehicle.

Wild turkeys are a different color than the ones that sit around getting fed hormones and antibiotics, and corn. He was pretty red, even his chest, and he continued to leak a little, in a sickening kind of way, as we debated spatchcocking first then brining, or the reverse? Brining of wild turkeys is important. Those big breasts are tough babies from working so hard

Henry did not spatchcock easily. His bones were really tough; we had to saw at his backbone with a carving knife, and pound and stand on his chest to flatten him into a butterfly. At some point, I felt so sorry for him, I wanted to quit. I couldn’t, of course.  He was due at a Thanksgiving dinner table. I’ll take the results out of the oven in a couple of days,

Along with Henry, I have taken another Thanksgiving risk. I’ve spatchcocked Graffiti Grandma. She is now being worked over by someone other than me. I’ve given her over to people who will shape her up, make her look good, maybe make her taste better, turn her into a new presence. This too, is a risk. For her, for me. For a year, I wanted to treat her in my own traditional “I can do it myself” way. I’m now allowing someone to take over, butterfly her. I’ll find out the results in a few weeks.

Jo Barney Writes

Friday, October 12, 2012

Who's Ruling the Rules?

I’m thinking that folks writing books in this flowing stream-of-consciousness manner are either would-be, envious, behind-the-times  Joycists  or angry  anti-Strunkists revolting against every red-inked correction they ever received from instructors whose job was to make their writing readable.

But, then, I’m an old lady, taught the conventional punctuation of the early 1900’s by Teacher Kuhnau, who was born in Germany and understood that rules are important.
And I went on to teach teenagers the same rules he taught me.  We diagrammed in my classes. We rewrote essays until they were close to perfect. For years–until I began to realize that the red marks I was making on all those papers weren’t creating better writers, only better punctuationalists. Then I loosened up a little, wrote more Good!’s
and fewer Run-on!’s.

Only when I started writing full-time did I discover that my own writing was loosening up also.  I used fewer commas, forgot what semi-colons were for, got in the habit of  creating phrases instead of sets of words that could be diagrammed.  Forgot how to diagram.

Felt good, this sense of freedom. Maybe overdid it sometimes. I still believed in quotation marks, though, and my paragraphs had places in them to breath.

Then, through an attempt to get Graffiti Grandma into a Publish on Demand format, I paid for the manuscript to be proofread. The novel came back with digital red marks (the way it’s done now) on every page.  For a minute I thought Teacher Kuhnau was back. It took a number of hours and numerous pots of coffee to get through my reader’s corrections.  I learned a lot: that dumpster is spelled with a D; that too many had’s are deadening; that incomplete sentences are okay, for emphasis; that commas and semi- colons create a rhythm; that M dashes sometimes work even better than commas– a little like my old German teacher taught me.  I like the new look of Graffiti Grandma.  I'm inspired to try to get it published again; it breathes so well now, with at least one hundred new commas. 

So, I’ll never write two-page paragraphs with no commas unless I get inspired by too many cups of coffee and the event of rain outside my window after three months of yellow light and sweat when I walk the dog and try to find a cool place to read the latest novel by a post-modernist who is protesting the control he’s lived under for forty years and can finally throw off the chains of punctuation and write the way he’s always wanted to but no teacher would accept his premise that periods are a barrier to inspiration and  no publisher would even read his dystopia novel until a courageous young MFA’s short un-perioded story was accepted by a cutting edge literary magazine and began the revolution that is causing havoc in much of the reading world as it tries to read and inhale at the same time and which has brought these novels to my desk on this rainy day.

Jo Barney Writes

Friday, August 17, 2012


Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Damn!  That Alexander Pope knows writers, doesn’t he?  Especially about man (I assume he includes woman) being never blessed, just hoping s/he will be, sometime in the future, maybe.  His/her uneasy soul, stuck at home (and maybe in a few coffee shops), will make atonement in a life to come.  For what?  For the sin of spending hours in front of a computer, fingers tapping as s/he waits for the blessing of fame and fortune undoubtedly lurking just around the corner?

Wait. How is that a sin?

Maybe today it just feels like it.  The sun is out, I hear a singing bird and a happy barking dog.  Edith is again stuck in a limbo of confused POV’s. I should be outside, my soul let loose, my fingers moving across an iPod to find walking music.  But I can’t get out of my chair.

I’m waiting for the pop of an email, maybe an important one, not from the Obamas who have been very attentive lately, but from a woman who just might. . .(Oh, god, there it goes again, the springing.)  If the response is positive, I just may have. . .(Stop it!  You know you hate marketing!) 

I come from a family for whom hope meant that Dad got inside painting jobs in the winter so we could eat and maybe see a movie once or twice.  Blessings came: good health, lots of summer work, a Pendleton skirt for school in the Fall.  Don’t think any of us thought much about expiation although my ninety-seven-year-old mother has recently told my sister and me she was sorry for a couple of things she did sixty years ago and which we have no memory of.  Maybe I will too, a few years from now.

But now it’s about Hope. Maybe Pope had it all wrong.  Maybe Hope lives not in the breast, but in the soul, an infinite entity nourished by dreams of what is possible.  I’ll wait one more hour and then the dog and I will go for a walk.

Jo Barney Writes

Saturday, July 21, 2012


My last blog was entitled “Edith Emerges.”  Somehow, however, in the past month she’s gotten stuck in the hole she’s emerging from, probably from the waist down, since she’s a little round like her creator who is even rounder after a week that’s included Mexican appetizers and marguaritas and sixty people in her living room.  I thought that with that kind of stress, I would lose weight.  I, however, had to taste every enchilada, guacamole dip, Mexican meatball I created.  Not to mention the trial marguaritas.

So Edith got stuck. However, I need to be honest.  It wasn’t the south-of-the border party that stuck her. It was me, stuck deeply in my own hole of depression. You see, I had entered a screenplay, which I dearly love and which actually won small awards in a couple of contests, to a BIG contest.  For $50.  Tax deductible, I figured. I didn’t expect to win, but an honorable mention would have sent a surge of hope, as well as a reason for the next thrust of queries to Hollywood or whomever. Personally, also, I admit I was hoping for a pat on the back as an aging woman still hanging in there.  So out of 6000 entries, I did not make the top ten percent.  After a bout of wine-solace, I found a scrap of paper and a pencil and figured out that the contest managers had taken in, from the 6,000 of us with stars in our eyes, $300,000!  Minus, of course, the $5,000 prize and whatever an interview with a producer costs.

I wished the winner well.  No way could I write a dystopian movie involving four-breasted beings with six fingers, and who knows what else, in a ravished landscape somewhere east of Portland.  And then I gave a thought to the inhabitants of my real world, writers like me who keep churning stuff out, sending queries, paying sometimes to win or find a place for our precious words, hoping for . . . for what? 

And that was the question. Why?  And somehow as I squirmed my way out of my black pit, I found my answer.  I have a retirement fund; I don’t need money.  I have grandchildren who love me, so I don’t need fame.  I have at least fifty friends and acquaintances who have bought my two ebooks, so I have been read.  What more is there?

What more is that I need to get Edith, my seventy-year-old protagonist, out of her pickle.  Tomorrow she will escape to go on to get into more trouble.  Me, too.

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, June 21, 2012



So, I’m 20,000 words into the next novel.  I’m getting acquainted with the woman who is making an appearance on my computer.  She’s a bit like me, only bitchier, at least at the beginning of the book. Not her fault.  She’s been married to a bully of a husband for forty years and for some reason she’s hung in there. Not my problem, but I can identify. 

One morning she wakes up next to him and discovers that he’s dead. Without saying goodbye and with no indication that he was about to bow out.  She closes his eyes and wonders, what now?

The what now? is, of course, the story, and a fourth of the way in, Edith hasn’t much of a clue.  But her hair is now blonde, not gray, and she’s thinking about doing something about her chin.  And she’s confused about the coroner’s report about the contents of Art’s blood. Anti-depressants in a man who wouldn’t swallow an aspirin? 

I am so excited to be able to delve into Edith and Art’s lives, into their son’s disrupted family, into how we think we understand when, in reality, we may not have clue about the people closest to us.

And I also haven’t a clue on how this story will end.  That’s the best part of all.  The writing adrenalin is spurting, watering my dreams.  I wake up and try to remember why Art’s pockets contain receipts from local rib joints when he wouldn’t touch his food with his fingers, ever.

This is the work I love. Getting to know people I never knew existed, and which don’t exist except in my imagination and on my computer screen.  And in my midnight fantasies.

I spend a little time, over early morning coffee, thinking about my other good friends, the school counselor in Wednesday Club, the hockey player in Mom, the college friends in Solarium, and the old lady and her runaway friend in Graffiti Grandma.  I read about how I can promote them with ads on the internet, how I can blog about my e-books on several electronic destinations created for writers like me, how I can ask for reviews and pats on the back from others looking for the same sort of support from me.

            I am exhausted thinking about all that. 
            I go find Edith.  Edith is learning to swear a little and to reflect for a moment on the black man with clipped gray hair she finds at her table at the rib joint.  Who knows what’s next?  I don’t.
            This is not a YA novel.  This is an OA novel.  It will appeal, first of all, to its author, and then maybe, to other folks for whom vampires, dystopia, avengers and rumpled sheets have little appeal.  Well, maybe the rumpled sheets. Edith is open to new experiences.

Jo Barney Writes

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Epiphany Via Computer Near-Death Experience

My last post spoke of pollinating blue berries in some sort of ethereal terrace scene.  A break, I said, to the writing/internet stuff that had occupied my chair-bound days.

Then last Thursday Betsy, my computer, took sick. She wouldn’t receive or give messages. Only the ether goddess knew what important communications I was missing.  By the end of the day, Earthlink on the line, she seemed on the mend--until the next morning when Betsy’s sickly gray face greeted me. Even her cursor was too weak to move. Apple medi-corps responded. Sorry, beyond hope, at least on-line, they commiserated after many electronic pokes. 

So Betsy went to the Apple ICU where she spent four days, an amazing four days for her closest friend, me.

I had read about the idea of taking a Sabbath from one’s electronic devices.  The writer chose Friday sunset to Saturday evening.  She said how astonished she was that she actually had time to read a book.  My forced Sabbath lasted five days.

During those days I went to the library, walked two/ three miles a day to stores to buy the light bulbs and screws I’ve needed for months, read four books that have lain on my bed stand since January, watched three episodes of Perry Mason, fired up my iPod and reminisced with Errol Garner and the MJQ, brushed the dog for the first time since he was born, talked with neighbors I only recognized because I’ve met their dogs in the elevator, yoga’d  on my mat, including downward -facing-dog and  the elusive tree pose, wrote in my journal (not my blog), convinced my husband to  meet me for a Manhattan at three in the afternoon (no reason), went with a friend  to the spring-blooming rhododendron gardens. I also shaved my very neglected legs. 

Then one night I woke at three a.m. and began one of those caffeinated silent soliloquies. Who am I?  What is my purpose here?  After this, what comes next?  I knew why I was wandering those desolate plains. That day I had visited the John Frame exhibit at the Art Museum (Three Fragments of a Lost Tale).  The artist, using small, hand-carved puppets, has tried to answer those questions for himself, resulting in sleepless midnight forages for the rest of us who have peered into the dimly-lit display cabinets, all of our nightmares, dreams, unspoken wonderings only inches away.

Damn, I thought, my nose pressed against the glass.  If I could write like this. 

Well, I can’t.  But I did figure something out. I have been spending hours every day trying to sell my two ebooks, racing up and down the various writers’ site staircases to heaven, social media-izing my fingers and brain and energy into password pulps.  I have abandoned Edith, my old-lady-novel friend, for weeks.  She can’t stop feeling guilty about finding her husband dead on the pillow beside her. Ten thousand words in and she’s still not changing the sheets and coloring her hair blondish, not too blonde, though, as she has wanted for years.

It is time to move on for both of us.  For me, I’m giving up the marketing stuff, the hours on Facebook, She Writes, Goodreads, whatever, hoping for a sale.  From this moment on, I intend to find Edith a new life.  And me, too.

Took a sick computer and a forced Sabbath to bring me to this place.  And it was worth  it.

Jo Barney Writes

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Truth By Way of a New Yorker Cartoon

Okay, so picture this:  a mid-life, housewifely woman leans a hand against the door jamb, the other hand on her hip.  She’s looking at a man, balding, her husband, sitting at his computer, fingers perched on the keys in front of him.  He glances up at her, says, “I feel that I have at least one more unpublished novel in me.”

Damn!  Reverse the sexes, and there we are.  Even the dog curling at the feet of the writer, asleep as usual. 

I don’t really understand this need to keep on writing.

Of course, I didn’t understand my compulsive, neurotic hours of attempting to format, publish, and sell my e-books either. In the past months, I became obsessed with my search for the true path to successful marketing of books that exist only in the digital ether. That path, I began to see, led to my friends who bought my books in an effort to save my sanity.

Then, one day last week, I rose from my daily ritual of visiting blogs, writers’ sites and groups, some of which it seemed only wanted my money, Facebook, and web sites of successful authors who published the old-fashioned way, scattering writerly comments here and there, and I found that my right leg had gone dead. The dog scrambled under the bed I as dragged my body to the bathroom, other parts of me having gone dead also.

“I am not having any fun!” I yelled at my husband who came to the door of my writing space a few moments later. He knows better than to try to soothe me at such moments.

“And?” he answered, not flinching or even raising an eyebrow.

“And I quit!”

So, today I’m beginning my fifth book.  A painful, anxious-making obsession is being replaced by kinder, gentler one, I suspect, and I will continue to sit for hours at my keyboard, the dog for safety’s sake moving away from me when I finally stand up.

I have at least one more unpublished novel in me.

Jo Barney Writes

Thursday, March 1, 2012


So, now I have two digital novels being published on three sites, a beautiful website, and membership in three authors’ groups, all of which email me at least once a day.  I’ve sold fifty or sixty books. I’m on my way, to whatever that way will lead me.  I still don’t understand the Share button on Facebook and I have a bit of trouble buying The Solarium for my new Nook app (somehow my sister-in-law in upstate New York has slid into my account), but  all in all, I’m feeling pretty good. Very good, in fact. 

Then the friend to whom I’ve sent the paper copy of The Solarium sends it back, wrapped in plain brown paper.  Not that it needed to be sent that way, like a dirty book, but that’s the way Sally, a sensible non-digital person, sends everything.  She attaches a note:  “A great read, Jo.  I don’t remember the rhododendrons at the sorority house, but Frank had a car so maybe we didn’t need to sneak behind them at the ten o’clock curfew.” Then she added,  “I started to mark the insignificant typo errors, but got caught up in the story, so I went back and made a list of a few slips I noticed.”

The list was forty items long.  Since this is a manuscript I had massaged word for word, at least ten times, I suspected she was getting a little loopy.  I had downloaded a perfect piece of work. The number one rule of self-publishing is “Make sure you’re sending perfection. Review your offering before you punch the Okay key.”

I thought I had. But there they were.  Forty missing to’s, for’s, from’s, in’s, a’s and the’s , a couple of pronoun confusions, and the worst of all, the main character’s name had morphed from Madge to Margo at least once.

I spend today correcting the book, following Sally’s notes, then republishing it.  I’ve learned two things.  It is a wonderful gift to have a friend who tells you like it is, typos and all.  And it is both humbling and empowering to be able to undo one’s mistakes.

 If only that were possible in the rest of one’s life. 

Jo Barney Writes