Lynda Barry, Genius

lynda-barryI usually look forward to the Weekly Challenge, but today’s left me cold since I DON’T make lists. Then Marilyn Armstrong commented about whether one could tell a story with a list and I started to think about how one could — and I thought of this brilliant cartoon from the 80s. Definitely lists. Certainly a story.

Listless at Espresso Roma

Writing Challenge Countdown ‘Tis the season for suspense-building lists.

Sorry. I don’t make lists at all. Ever. I don’t see the point. If there are things I have to do, I think the best thing is to get started, not fuss around with a list. But there are a couple of lists in this story.


Ann sat looking at her coffee through the side of her glass. The barista — barist-O — took great care with Ann’s caffe Latte, and it really was beautiful to see the layers of coffee and foam. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Trevor said from behind the espresso machine.


“A lot of people don’t even notice that about a latte. They just order a ‘latte’ thinking it’s cool or something to get a latte, but I think you…”

“Yeah. I suppose I’m just ordering a latte for the sake of being cool, too, but the difference is I AM cool. This doesn’t add to my coolness. It illustrates it.”

Ann’s friend, Leo, arrived, and she went with him to the counter to order his coffee; she was going to treat him. It was some special day or another, who knows what at this point, as after time these special days all run together in a list of small commemorations. Trish, the barista, was switching aprons with Trevor whose shift was done. Leo’s crush on Trish was as big as Brazil, and when he saw her he turned uncool and jittery.

“Hey,” he said, like a sixth grader might to his first or second crush.

“Hey,” she answered in a flat voice, rolling her eyes. Then she saw Ann. “Hey,” she said, like a sixth grader might to her first or second crush.

Leo blushed, thinking the warmly inflected “Hey” was directed at him.

“Not you. Her.” Trish pointed her well tattooed and ringed finger at Ann. “She’s the hottee.”

“What can I say, Leo? You got it or you don’t.” Ann laughed, trying to diffuse the awkwardness of the moment.

“I didn’t know you were…” Leo stopped, staring at Trish.

“Well, now you do so you can quit foaming at the mouth whenever you come in here. What would you like?” Trish leaned forward on the counter. Ann jumped back.

“I don’t know any more. I don’t think I want anything.” Leo was crushed, still, he stared at the list of offerings written in colored chalk on the blackboard on the wall above Trish’ head. “I’ll have a Coke and baked brie.”

“Okie-dokie. That’ll be $6.50.”

“Don’t I get the employee discount any more?” Leo asked, feeling that insult and been laid upon insult already and he did work here. The discount, at least, should still be good.

“My bad,” said Trish. “We’re never on the same shift. I forgot. When are you working next?”

“Tomorrow. I’m opening.”

“Hangover city.” Trish accurately described the coffee house on Saturday mornings


Ann paid for Leo’s lunch, both forgetting why.

“Do you want something to eat?” Trish turned to Ann. “It’s on me.”

Ann shook her head. Nothing in this life was simple.

“So would you go out with me?” asked Trish, clearly nervous.

“Wow. Like, here’s the deal. I’m twice your age — at least — and straight.”

“I like older women.”

“Yeah, but, I don’t, you know. No. It’s just not my thing.”

“Have you tried it?” A line was building up behind them at about the same rate as Ann’s embarrassment.

Ann nodded. “It’s not you, Trish. Like I said. I just like men.” She turned to Leo and said, “C’mon. Let’s sit down. There’s a bunch of people behind us.”

“I can’t believe it,” said Leo, once they were seated. “She’s a…”

“Shhh. I don’t want to talk about it. Why doesn’t anything normal ever happen to me?”

“I don’t know,” said Leo. “Seems that was pretty normal for you. Bitch.”

They Found ME

Writing Challenge Digging for Roots In this week’s Weekly Writing Challenge, tell us about what makes you, you.

I cannot imagine anything more “Twilight Zone” than writing a novel set 800+ years ago and discovering you had written accurately about your own family of whom you had known nothing.


While writing Martin of Gfenn, I became fascinated by one of the characters, the Commander. In 2005 I set out to write a prequel that would tell the story of the Commander’s life before he came to Gfenn.

Anyone who’s written a novel knows that characters have lives of their own and at certain point, a writer must allow the characters to tell their own stories. I had no idea where that would lead me when I set out to write this book. I finished a draft in 2005 and put it aside; other (rather dire) circumstances had captured my life and I had to attend to them. In 2010, when I returned to this novel, I was a different person and a different writer.

In what was going to be the “prequel” to Martin of Gfenn, the Commander was going to be the oldest son of a minor noble, a simple knight, who bred horses and lived…where? I decided he would live in Aargau. I put his castle on a hill (small castle, more fort than castle) and using some interesting information about a ruined castle near Solothurn, I built my character’s childhood home.

I gave him a brother named Hugo, a father named Ulrich, a mother named Anna and a fiancée named many different things I can’t now remember, but her name became Gretchen. The protagonist was named Rudolf.

He and his brother happily went to the Crusades — Rudolf to save his soul and Hugo to have an adventure. At a certain point in my writing, their father’s name, Ulrich, no longer seemed “right” so I changed it to Heinrich (bear with me; I know you feel like you’re in a bad dream with this half-assed plot summary and a Tolstoyan list of changing names coming at you). The family became: Father — Heinrich. Mother — Anna. Sons — Rudolf and Hugo. Fiancée— Gretchen.

Meanwhile, Martin of Gfenn came out. I sent copies to four newspapers around Zürich. Three interviewed me and published reviews of the novel. Martin of Gfenn became a big seller in a small part of Switzerland, and I got a email from a Swiss fan asking if I had Swiss ancestry. I believed I did, but I had no proof. I had looked, to no avail (I looked because my grandmother’s cooking was exactly the same as a few “typical Swiss” dishes I’d eaten in Switzerland), so I gave it another shot and I found…

The earliest known of my grandmother’s progenitors came from the Albis region between Zürich and Aargau. Some of them lived in what is now Aargau; some in Zürich. They were a large family of relatively minor knights in the service of the rising Hapsburg family. My grandmother’s — and my — progenitors names were….

Heinrich, married to Anna, with children Rudolf and Conrad. Heinrich’s BROTHER was named Hugo. Rudolf married a girl named Margaretha which is normally shortened to Gretchen. They lived in a castle on a hill looking over the Reuss and the village of Affoltern am Albis in Canton Zürich. There were visible ruins of the castle until the early 20th century; now there is just this wall (see photo). It was a197a3727-01f3-42aa-a472-131462fe9125 small castle, mostly a fort, and, apparently, judging from the supports and old records, it had had a large tower.

Of Heinrich and  Anna’s two sons, one, Rudolf, lived a very long life (well into his 80s) and the other, Conrad, was lost to time. In my novel, Rudolf survives a significant and bloody battle, while his brother is killed.Once I found all this, I changed the name of  my character, Hugo to Conrad. That was one of two important changes I made to adapt my “creations” to historical fact. The other?

The original ending of the novel really didn’t work, but it seemed to me to fit and to be effective and sufficiently mysterious. It left the door open to possibilities. A big fan of French film, I prefer equivocal endings to those that are neat and tidy, but having learned that the REAL Rudolf lived into old age, I felt a responsibility to him to extend his story, to give him one more chance to fight and win over his demons. The “real” Rudolf had also had children (and so I’m here 🙂 ). I loved “my” Rudolf and I didn’t want to shortchange him of his future. As I thought about it, it seemed more and more that equivocal or even sad endings can be as big a cop out as happy ones.

Though it is impossible, it seems that my ancestor was pushing me as a writer to do something new. I will not say what, as you might want to read the book someday! There are two chapters posted on Rudolf’s blog.

I also Lunkhofen Coat of Armsremembered how, in 1994, on my first trip to Europe, I had been taken into some old hall in Zürich and told to look at all the coats of arms up around the wall. I remember not caring one bit. The Twilight Zone aspect is that the coat of arms of my own family is on that wall. Heinrich’s older brothers (Heinrich was the youngest of three) became very powerful. In Aargau there are towns that bear their name. Over time, “my” side of the family changed its name. That name was Anglicized in the 18th century when some of the members emigrated to America. The last person in my family with that name was a woman. Her daughter was my grandmother’s grandmother. All of my grandmother’s female ancestors (and most of the male) were Swiss (Amish!). That explained her cooking.

Pi and Pie

Writing Challenge Pie Food evokes all the senses: the scent of pastry baking, the sound of a fork clinking on a plate… This week, make our mouths water with stories about pie.

When my dad was busy, and I was hanging out with him, he would sometimes say, “Honey, here. Go divide π.” I thought he was seriously interested in the answer, and I did the best I could, though, sadly, I never got the same answer twice, adding dimensions of irrationality to an already irrational number.

As for pie, my grandmother made apple pie from the apples growing on her trees; cherry as well, though most often she “put up” the cherries and used them in pies later. She made gooseberry pie from the gooseberries growing behind my aunt’s incinerator. Many WordPress readers won’t know what that is. We used to burn paper trash in our backyards. It caused air pollution, so the practice was banned. Good thing, too, because we have infinite space in landfills…


My grandmother made pie from scratch and from memory and from Crisco and flour. I am sure in the old days she made the crust from lard rendered from their own pigs.


One day I came in from playing outside in the pasture. I had a milkweed pod in my hand. I asked my grandma for a glass so I could pour the milk from the milkweed stem into the glass and drink it. She laughed. Wiped her hands on her apron. Took the milkweed out of my hand. Threw it in the trash. Told me to wash up because I was going to help her. She lifted me on a chair, put a handful of pie crust dough in front of me and set me to work making the sugar pie. For those who might not be familiar with this wonderful thing, it’s remnants of pie dough rolled out flat. On one side you sprinkle sugar and cinnamon, then you fold it over so it looks like a taco shell or an omelet. You can sprinkle more sugar and cinnamon on top if you want. It goes into the oven with the pie.

In her day, the little house above had green asbestos shingles and a front porch that ran the width of the house. There were turned pillars to hold up the roof. Her sons-in-law kept up the place for “Mom” and had even been the ones to add the indoor toilet in the old-time bathroom. Everything about those days has achieved the golden-rose glow of time.

My grandmother made the best pie I’ve ever eaten. I know I have never tasted anything like it since. Still, it is hard to know so many years later if it was the pie or whether it was the light coming into her Montana kitchen window and dancing from her eyes, my grandmother’s particular magic.


Writing Challenge Oh, The Irony This week’s challenge explores one of the oldest — and trickiest — literary devices.

“It’s ironic to consider irony a literary device.”
“Perhaps we can say the intentional use of irony in a work of literature is irony as a literary device?”
“Yeah. I’m thinking of Mrs. Zinn and Oedipus Rex.”
“Mrs. Zinn?”
“Honors English, 1969/70. Mitchell High School. Colorado Springs.”
“Ah. The woman who taught you everything you needed to earn a living for your whole entire life?”
“Yeah, that was ironic considering that I had to have a masters degree in order to be a college teacher and then all I taught was the thesis statement, supporting sentences, evidence and logic.”
“What about Oedipus?”
“The irony there is that in spite of EVERYTHING he did end up killing his father and marrying his mother. In Oedipus Rex there is a direct line between hubris, fate and irony. In Greek tragedy, as a whole, irony is man vs. fate and man losing. It’s not sarcasm or a ‘tone’ of voice or anything less consequential than fate having the last word — often to the serious injury of the hero. Ironically, it’s always the blind seer who, uh, sees it coming.”
“So you were fated to teach freshman composition?”
“Apparently. I should’ve seen it coming…”
“But your vision has been corrected since you were a little kid. How could you have seen it?”
“I know. Ironic, isn’t it?”

Yeah, but She SAID…

Writing Challenge The Unreliable Narrator This week, consider the unreliable narrator — a classic storytelling device — in your own work, no matter your genre.


Lying. My favorite fictional “unreliable” narrator is actually completely reliable in a way. He’s the speaker in Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart.” He insists that he is sane but all his actions illustrate the opposite. Still, he never denies any of his actions; he explains them in detail along with his motives. But his motives and actions are the motives and actions of a mad man. “Why will you say that I am mad?” he demands of the police.

If the police were allowed to speak, or the testimony given in court against the murderer were written by Poe, we might have read, “Because you’ve done a crazy thing for a crazy reason. Just because you accurately relate the facts in this matter doesn’t mean you’re not insane. You are definitely insane.”

Facts speak for themselves if we allow ourselves to “hear” what they have to say, but we are often “unreliable” witnesses to the facts of our own lives. Just as the speaker in “The Tell Tale Heart” we can assemble all the facts and derive a fallacious conclusion; it depends what we want to see.

For most of my life I have been surrounded by unreliable narrators, narrators whose actions contradicted their verbal claims. I’ve also been guilty of allowing wishful thinking to cloud my perceptions of reality; I have not asked enough questions or refrained from making decisions before I should have. I had excellent and life-long training in the embracing of illusion. The most sophisticated of all the unreliable narrators in my life was my mom.

My mom was an alcoholic. I didn’t know it even though the evidence was in plain sight. What blinded me? Her words, her stated beliefs, her accusations, her created reality in which I was given a role to play. From this role I derived part of my identity. I believed her when she told me that she didn’t drink, “Just because I have a bourbon and water doesn’t mean you get to look at me like someone from the WCTU (Womens Christian Temperance Union),” she would say. Since I didn’t look at her that way (in the first place) I then became very careful NOT to notice her actual behavior or internalize her obvious hypocrisy. During our church going years (all of them when I was growing up) as good Baptists we vowed every Sunday to “abstain from the sale and use of alcoholic beverages.” I KNEW that chances were good we’d all go home and mom would have a beer before lunch, but I didn’t notice it.

I was not the only one in the family who did not know. Her closest sisters did not know. It was not until a scan of my mother’s brain toward the end of her life, revealing physical brain changes and scars from a lifetime of alcohol abuse, that we knew. When her doctor explained this to me over the phone, I felt in my heart and mind the same feeling I’d felt standing on the edge of the ocean while the water pulled the sand out from below my feet. I had nothing to stand on.

Why didn’t I know? I lived with her for years. I visited her frequently after I moved out. I’d been there when she’d turned into a monster if I arrived home at 4:40 instead of 4:30 (at which point we started cooking supper which had to be on the table at 5:30). I’d been yelled and and manipulated after 9 pm when I didn’t want to stay up and watch Johnny Carson. I was yelled at first thing in the morning by a person I later knew was “Jonesing” for a drink. In the evening, when she fixed what I always believed to have been her first bourbon and water for the day, I always felt I could relax into a predictable few hours. Two drinks, supper, television and, if I was very lucky, bed with no drama.

It wasn’t that no one told me. When I was eleven and my mom was screaming at me after supper, my dad took me away in the car and talked to me about how there are “…some people get happy when they drink, MAK. Some people get mean. I’m afraid your mom gets mean. You have to stay out of her way when she’s drinking…” I didn’t understand it. Later on, when I was in my forties, and one of my aunts (a nurse who was married to a long-time alcoholic, then, finally, in recovery) said, “How is your mom when you get up in the morning, Martha Ann? Is she mean to you?” I didn’t get it. My aunt was trying to tell me my mom woke up with a hangover every day and my being there, visiting, kept her from getting that first (morning!) drink. I didn’t guess it when one afternoon my mom was driving and nearly ran off the road into a streetlight.

There is no one in our lives more “reliable” than our mom, right? And so, in spite of reality and concrete evidence and the testimony of reliable witnesses (my dad, my aunt Madelyn), I did not know my mom was a drunk. The lovely irony here is that my mom was always afraid I’d be fooled and hurt because of my gullible and trusting nature. “Don’t believe what people tell you, honey,” she said, often. “You need to be a little skeptical. People lie.” If I believed her when she said that, what would have happened to our relationship?

My Darlings Won’t Die

Cities and Time and Maps

  • It’s a big world out there — and in here, too!
  • I had been here before, a long time ago — Now I remember. 
  • I was uncertain, but kept going — and ultimately, I died.
  • In my dreams, I envision a place — but the world is wider – and wilder! – than my dreams.
  • Loneliness is an interesting feeling — no, it isn’t.

I like the city picture. It is not as chaotic as many of the places I’ve been… So… 

A city with busy, chaotic streets.
© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

© Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

All cities are chaos until you know them, until you allow them to teach you who they are. You see, all real cities are living things. Shanghai, for example. 1983 (It’s a different city now). We had only a map of the city in Chinese, none was available in English. For us it was no problem. We had our Fodor’s and we had a year of experience navigating through the labyrinth of Guangzhou using only a map in Chinese that had bus routes. We’d used our skills to get around Beijing and Hangzhou? Small city, piece of cake. So in Shanghai, with my Chinese brother, Xiao Huang, we were fine. And we had only one day… It was our last day in China. A brand new 747 carrying only 11 passengers would take us to San Francisco the next day.

Xiao Huang had been assigned to accompany us from Guangzhou to see we would not get in any trouble and maybe because the “heads” knew we would miss each other. Our “watcher,” Xiao Huang had become our good friend. The flight from Guangzhou to Shanghai was his first plane flight, a rickety Aeroflot. I don’t think he enjoyed it.


“Where did you get that map, Ma Sa?”
“In the hotel bookstore.”  Hotel amenities were alien to Xiao Huang who had learned English from Voice of America while on “political study” in a factory in Dun Huang during the Cultural Revolution. Free soul that he was (and is!) some bourgeois artifacts nonetheless inspired his disapproval. The hotel was one of the great art deco buildings still found in Shanghai, left over from the glittering 30s.
“How can you read that?” he asked, looking at the map.
“It’s OK, Xiao Huang. I have a book, too.” I showed him my Fodor’s (I still have it.)
“Your plane leaves in the morning. I am afraid we will not have time to sight see.” I realized he was scared.
“We have all day! I may never again come to Shanghai!”
We were notorious in Guangzhou for going everywhere. It was all the PLA and the police and the Foreign Visitor’s Bureau could do to keep track of us and protect us (it had happened…). I think Xiao Huang was afraid there would be no one in Shanghai to keep us out of danger. He also thought we would get lost. Of course, we never did. We saw many things that day, especially in Old Shanghai. Yu Yuan, a pleasure garden with a moon gate.


In that old Chinese part of the city we saw men making abacus(es? ii?) with drills that had to have existed in medieval times. I bought one, wishing I could give it to my dad, the mathematician, but as he had been dead ten years already it would have to be a votive offering such as the Chinese made to their ancestors. I couldn’t burn it, so just yesterday, I packed it once more. We walked past the shopping area of Shanghai’s glamorous 20s and 30s on a street where pedestrians had one full lane, bikes another and the few trucks and cars were relegated to a narrow lane in the middle.

Xiao Huang had a great time.


Now I look at the cities I’ve visited as not only places navigable via two dimensional maps in languages other than English, but in the way I might imagine three dimensional Tic-Tac-Toe. Chinese cities and European cities are layers of time. Under the streets of Zürich (and other cities) are other cities. In one spot in Zürich you can look down on the excavated ruins of a Roman bath. 34776829

Maps from the past are a big help navigating the time warp of old cities. This map of Zürich was a great help (and a time machine!) when I was working on Martin of Gfenn.  Even though it’s a 16th century map, it’s possible to find the older Zürich and its walls.


Chaos is ignorance waiting for light. As Nietzsche said in Zarathustra, “Unless you have chaos within you, how can you give birth to a dancing star?” Navigating the superficial chaos of an unfamiliar city is one of the great things about traveling!

List of Nouns…


My nouns: writer’s block, illusion, self-indulgence, activity, lamentation, self-importance, skepticism, novels

Yes, Bradbury might actually have SUFFERED from writer’s block; but he was supporting a family on the income from his writing. But generally, when I hear a writer’s lamentation that he or she is suffering from writer’s block, I wonder, “Why allow yourself to suffer from that? There’s no requirement that you write anything at all EVER unless you’re earning your living from writing. If you don’t have a story to tell, well, isn’t THAT some useful information? Doesn’t that tell you exactly what to do? Stories come from LIFE, activity.” There is no law that says a person must be constantly inspired — that would be pretty much the same as being constantly in a state of orgasm, right? It’s an illusion. Inspiration comes and goes, and is often a dead end. So-called “writer’s block” has a real use; it’s the time in the writing process to look at what one has already written and make it better. Maybe that’s a grind but it’s the difference between good writing and a mere “splooch.” I guess I view the whole idea of “writer’s block” as a kind of self-indulgence, self-importance. I have serious skepticism about the whole thing. I do not always want to write. I do not always know what I have to say. I do not always have something to say, but I have learned that the times I’m not writing, I’m writing. Somewhere inside ideas are forming, evaluating each other, and developing into a story. I learned a lot about this from Fellini’s “failed” film, The Voyage of G. Mastorna and a documentary about Fellini’s life. Sometimes a block — a creative block — is  a sign that the writer/artist is being too controlling  or a sign post. “Wrong direction, dude.”

Kindness of the Gods

In 2010 my brother — a hardcore alcoholic — died. None of his friends or family knew about it until five months afterward. I was devastated, naturally. I’d “cut off” my brother six years earlier when his constant demands for money and his absolute lack of awareness about anything in my life or his daughter’s life was too much. I always hoped that he would want us enough after a while to stop drinking. I have known people who made that choice — family vs. booze. My brother chose booze. And, right now I do not want to hear anything about “it’s a disease; they can’t choose” because the reality is that yes, addiction is a disease BUT the only cure lies in the hands/mind/heart of the addict. There is NO OTHER cure. Simple cure, horrendously difficult to accomplish. If you believe otherwise, you’ve bought into the addict’s con and my prayers go out to you.

When I learned of his death, I contacted one of his friends. We did work to confirm it. I was left, then with finding his body. After some effort it was delivered to me — ashes — by my sweet, friendly and dog-loving postal worker. She had no idea what she was handing me over the fence, but there was my brother.

My brother was my best friend. I loved him with all my heart and soul. So, as it happened, did many others. When the news got out I made a Facebook group for his friends. My brother was an artist and soon photos of his works began to appear on the page. Memories and stories appeared, also. Then, one of his friends from high school — Lois — held a wake for him. I couldn’t go (it was in Colorado and I’m in California). They filmed it as it was going on and I watched it on Facebook and commented — as if, almost, I was there. I saw my brother’s friends, all of whom were from his teens and twenties. I felt I had met them and knew them and loved them, but I only knew a couple of the

Three years later I went to Colorado to give a paper. By then I’d made Facebook relationships with some of my brother’s friends. We planned a small “service” for him and a dispersal of some of his ashes which I shipped ahead in case TSA didn’t like the stuff that looked exactly like gunpowder. I met some of these people for the first time. Others for the first time in more than 40 years. My new/old friend, Lois, and her husband cooked a brunch for everyone who would be coming. We sat in her living room and talked about my brother and about addiction and about each other and where life had brought us all. When the time was right, we took my brother’s ashes up to a place we had all loved as young people, to rocks on which my brother and I used to climb. I put some ashes between a cedar tree and a juniper tree, and one of my brother’s friends tossed some of my brother into the air.

I did not know these people. Many had not seen my brother in decades. ALL of them — all of us — had had some terrible experience with him. They were there to memorialize my brother, but they were also there for me. Never in my life have I experienced anything like that. I felt as if my brother — now in some place where he’s no longer tormented by the demons that pursued him — brought me to his friends. Perhaps he was finally able to see how golden they are. Perhaps  he knew I would love them. In any case, out of it and their kindness, have come friendships that I treasure with all my heart. I almost cannot believe my good fortune awakening from the sorrow and darkness of my brother’s life and my life with him into such a circle of kindness.