Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Q & A with Journalist, Blogger & Memoirist Sarah Barnes

Welcome back, people. Today I am thrilled to present to you an interview with my great pal, Sarah Barnes. I met Sarah back in the mid-90s when I was volunteering in a special needs classroom over at Casis Elementary. Sarah has two lovely daughters, Meredith and Caroline. If you read the Statesman and have seen Sarah's column, you know that Meredith is disabled-- the hemispheres of her brain do not have a way to communicate with each other. Sarah has been documenting Meredith's progress for many years, and it has been wonderful not only to read the reports but also to see, with my own eyes, how far along Meredith has come. You can still read Sarah in the Statesman. You can also catch her onstage whenever there's a Dick Monologues performance-- she's part of the amazing cast. And now you can also read her great blog: A Different Road: Saccharine-Free Stories on Special Needs. For this interview, Sarah discusses everything from her early days in journalism to her writing process. 

SG: Tell me about your background as a writer-- you got a degree in journalism, right? And from there, where did you go for work?

SB: Yeah, my journalism degree was from here at UT-Austin. I was unhappy and in a sorority, so, you know, finding journalism and The Daily Texan was my salvation. God I loved the Texan…I loved the people. We were news addicts and just outraged at everything and everybody and we hated the Statesman, where I worked later. We used to literally pin it to the wall with snarky comments about inaccuracies. The parties were hilarious because we’d talked about the same serious stuff we did in the newsroom, only slurring. Good times.

After graduation, I did the newspaper tour hitting all the garden spots like Lubbock where I covered obits, records and the medical school. Covering records in Lubbock meant you had to record births, marriages, probates and funerals every day. And that was just one family. Ha,ha. I mean I’d write “babies” on one page and “deaths” on the other. Circle of life, my friend. But, you know, that did introduce me to the importance of accuracy because you did get a nasty phone call if you screwed up a death.

The first day on the job at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal - oh did I tell you it was named that for the avalanche of news? Awesome. Anyway, that first day I was routed calls from four different funeral directors with their dead person information. I was on deadline for another story and I’m like, what gives? We actually had a phone operator for the newsroom that answered the main phone line and he sat perched above the newsroom on a raised platform looking out at us like an eagle over its nest. It was truly bizarre. He apologized for giving me so many obits, saying, “Oh, “sorry darlin’ I thought you were the new obit girl.” I’ve been called many things, but never an obit girl. My favorite obit? Just one line: “He was a retired cowboy.”

From there I went to The Des Moines Register, which is certainly the best place to be in journalism once every four years.  I was too inexperienced to get a decent assignment for the caucuses, so my friends and I would entertain ourselves looking for broadcast celebrities. My favorite moment was when Tom Brokaw came into the newsroom and started walking down the aisles talking to department heads and then he kept going and I was like oh my god, he is coming over here! And he did and he spoke to me! That man was hand-SOME.

During my stay in the Midwest frozen tundra, I got assigned “loaner” duty. This meant as a reporter from a Gannett paper (the Register) I got tapped by an editor to be sent to USA Today just outside Washington, D.C. for four months because it was also a Gannett paper, thus a loan. Isn’t that weird? This was an absurd but beautiful plan: Loaners were given free room and board at 925, the name of a high rise just down the street from the Kennedy Center and the Watergate building. I couldn’t believe I’d be shopping for my groceries at the Watergate. I mean it made me feel like my vegetable selections were being scrutinized. In addition to paid rent, I got a $1,000 stipend every month and a free roundtrip ticket to pretty much anywhere in the country I wanted to fly or I could fly someone in to see me. It was crazy ridiculous. So, basically the job just got in the way of shopping and museums and weekend trips to New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

The job was really difficult. I mean how much can you assimilate if you only have four months? The staffers weren’t real interested in befriending us, so I mainly hung out with other loaners. My favorite assignment was reporting and writing briefs for the left hand column of the Life front. It was celebrity gossip, music and most any pop culture reference that would draw readers. When they gave me this assignment, I was like what am I going to do for the next seven hours of my day? That was the craziest week I have ever had. Ever. I had 50 calls a day. Make it STOP. The Bananarama people were the worst. They just hounded me ever day for publicity.

I got one true front page story when I was there when we broke the news on Oprah Winfrey’s diet. I wrote the “don’t try this at home” sidebar. It was kind of cool to see it in newspaper racks knowing it was all over the country.  For another story I interviewed Dr. Spock, Dr. Ruth and Dr. Joyce Brothers about where they thought babies came from when they were children. Do you even remember these people?

SG: When did you start at the Statesman and what did you do/are you doing there?

SB: Yeah, I had two different eras there, the first from 1990 – 93. I was a business reporter, which was a good experience, but I’d never go back to that beat because I wasn’t that great at it and I found very few things I was interested in writing about. I did love the oil and gas beat. I had assignments in places like Giddings where we would go out into the field and talk to roughnecks about the benefits of a new technique called horizontal drilling. Yee –haw.

Then I went to city desk.  I once had to interview a mother an hour after her little boy got killed trying to “outrun” a car on Interstate 35. That was one of the toughest assignments I ever had and I can remember thinking this is what reporters do, but when I raised my fist to knock on that door, I felt my stomach churn. So naturally I moved across the aisle to the Arts and Entertainment department, where I became an editor for the first time. I have to say editing heavyweights like Michael Corcoran and Don McLeese was a formidable challenge, but the free pass to SXSW was an outstanding reward. I saw so many showcases that had a “buzz” band and first time acts that were sure to be noticed. I really loved all that.

But when Meredith was born and we found her neurological problem, I felt I had to leave. I remember being so angry, not at Meredith, but the facts. I guess I could have hired a nanny or something, but it just didn’t feel right. So suddenly I was making runs for physical therapy instead of lunch engagements. Before, when I walked into my job at the Statesman I knew exactly what I needed to do, but with Meredith I just had no idea what to do, how to fix her. I started writing and two years later I would have a regular column, “A Different Road,” written in first person, something entirely new to me.  It was a small ray of happiness in my irrevocable abyss of responsibility. Does that even make sense? It was like I had found something good to say about this, this horribly wrong turn for my family

SG: In one of your pieces for the Dick Monologues, you talk about the sexism of working at some small town papers. Care to elaborate on that here? Do you think that happens any more?

SB: Ugh. Yeah. As long as there are dicks, there will be trouble. I think women are much better equipped to deal with it now because they have history behind them that I didn’t in terms of sexual harassment laws and zero tolerance and more women are in management now. God, I hope so anyway. You know in the old days, reporters seemed to never go home. It was the 12-hour-days and heavy drinking that created stress and led to unwanted behavior. I think so much of that has changed now with health issues and family dynamics.

So I did find world class harassment in Lubbock, but I also had a little problem at the Dallas Morning News. Ok,I won’t name names, but let me just give you the facts. I had been working for the Dallas News for a year in the Austin capitol bureau and I was really tight with the reporters there and the Dallas editors welcomed me to the stable even though I was an intern. I really, really wanted to work there, so you know, I was hopeful. They flew me in for a tryout of sorts and I did well, they told me, but nothing more was ever said about it.  Then one month before I was going to complete a layout class for my journalism degree and graduate, I got a call from one of the Dallas editors who said he had a good opportunity where I could do clerk type work and sort of get to know the newsroom for a week, but I would not be doing stories. 

I told him a week in Dallas would prevent me from graduating. I also mentioned that clerking was not on my career path. Then in a sweetening of the pot gesture I found extremely disturbing they said they’d put me up at the Four Seasons. What the hell kind of shenanigans is that? Why would they shell out that kind of money on a 21-year-old unproven reporter to file clips when it’s cheaper just to get a temp? I remember the stunning inappropriateness of it ….  they were sort of dangling this opportunity in front of me as an “in” to the paper. Pretending to be a secretary or whatever job description they were attaching to this seemed a hell of way to earn my stripes. They were incredulous that I didn’t want to do this and even offered to talk to my professor, who told me he would likely just tell them to go to hell.

So, go on.  This next incident wasn’t exactly harassment, but a huge blow to my apparel expectations. I asked the Morning News for an official interview about six months after I graduated and I snagged one with a top-ranking editor. Ok, great, so I drove to Dallas with clips and a resume, which was sort of ridiculous since I knew everyone, but you know I was steeped in that career girl earnestness of the 80s, so I put on heels and hose and waited for him at the restaurant. He was like 30 minutes late and as we sat down at a booth, I thought why is one of the most powerful editors in the state of Texas sitting across the booth from me in running shorts dripping with sweat? Was that a compliment or was I just not worth a pair of pants? Or, maybe he just couldn’t wear the pants. Ha, ha.

You know it’s all good, since it prepared me for Lubbock. I swear to god you will not believe this. Just six months into my job there, the executive editor with his own glass cubicle summoned me to his office to ask me if I was interested in being interviewed for a book he was writing on sex. And, you know, we could meet at the hotel bar. I’m not making this up! What is it with hotels and editors? I never got back to him and the other male reporters told me it was something he did to all the new girls. This is as humiliating as it sounds and are young women putting up with that shit now? This happened at the same place where boxes of Kleenex were issued to the women only. I’m not kidding. Is this because I’m going to cry over a story? Maybe an obit?  There are no words.

SG: You have a brand spanking new blog-- tell me about it. 

SB: Yes! I’m so excited. The website is and it’s called A Different Road: Saccharine-Free Stories on Special Needs, which is primarily stories about raising my daughter Meredith, who has disabilities. Wait! Don’t run screaming from the room. Yes, it is a rather narrow niche, but my whole mission here is to offer stories that not only foster understanding of my role as a mother, but also evoke empathy from people not in my camp. I hear from so many readers that have been dealt the wrong set of cards and they can relate with me even though their issue may have nothing to do with kids. I always feel like those are the most important connections I can make. I mean everyone has some sort of “different road” in life, so why not share it and I hope they will. I think the blog is all about catharsis.

The thing about writing it is that I never thought I’d feel so liberated. Wheeeee, I can write about anything. It took me forever to come up with those six words “saccharine-free stories on special needs” because I didn’t want to be boxed in by the special needs label, but I also knew the journalist in me really wanted to break it open and give a realistic portrait of what my life is like on a weekly basis. So the blog is a much easier medium to write about all that. I still love the newspaper, but it’s a different demographic and expectation. When I push that “publish” button for the blog, it’s like, ok, people in Australia are now reading about Meredith.

I also have a Resources Page with contacts and news and a section I love called Darts and Laurels, which is sort of a way to applaud businesses and individuals that have done something good for people with disabilities. If you get a dart, you are not doing something right, ranging from bad access to your building to bad legislation or writing really inexcusable things on Dick Clark. He has speech impairments from a stroke, but still does co-hosting of the New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, a live network New Year’s Eve countdown in Times Square. His performance was called touching, morbid and retarded, depressing and inappropriate. You know if you listened, you could understand everything Clark said. Where’s the advocacy?

SG: You're also working on a memoir. Regular readers of this blog know I can't resist asking all my interviewees about The Way Things Are Now vs. How They Used to Be in publishing. So, given that you have a new blog and a memoir on the same topic-- well what do you think? Think people are reading less long-form (book length) stuff? What are you doing to get the memoir published?

SB: It’s funny but some pretty weighty writers are telling me to not even go the NY agent route. It’s frustrating and no one is taking memoirs anyway. Still, do I want to end up hawking myself on KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) next to some guy who has written about his ship in a bottle collection?  Hopefully I can land somewhere in between at a small specialty press. I’m just hoping to get it published at all. It’s short so theoretically I could publish it on my website, but, you know, I think first time book writers want to hold out for real paper. I’d like to think people are still reading books, and if that’s true, many more are doing it electronically.
I’m talking to a professional editor because being a former newspaper creature, I want my book to read like a memoir, not a bunch of newspaper clips about my daughter. This should give me a better manuscript to ship to potential agents. The blog is definitely there to support the book. So far I have talked to one agent in New York and said she wasn’t accepting memoirs, but she thought I had “writing chops”. Oh, I love that term!!! I’ve always wanted to hear I have chops, like a good musician.

SG: How to ask this delicately? Oh, wait, "delicate" is not in my repertoire. But, okay, so you write about Meredith specifically and disabilities in general. In fact, you've won awards for your writing. What's it like-- you have a lot of really intense challenges as the parent of a kid with disabilities and yet this part of your life, well you've used it to enlighten and console and educate so many people. Will you talk about that?

SB: Oh, Spike. I lost “delicate” the night I got Meredith’s diagnosis. You know something weird? The next day after I talked to the doctor one of my first thoughts was well I’ll just write about this. I mean the whole diagnosis seemed like such an affront in a way. I followed the pregnancy book to the word in each chapter-- I was perfect. And then I get this call from a doctor I don’t even really know saying my daughter is missing part of her brain and I was like holy shit. I will write about this fucked up call. I will write about how I became the other mom, the one with the baby that looks nothing like yours. It’s uncomfortable and it makes me cry every single day. I will write. So I lost “delicate” that night. And I did begin writing.

Every morning when she slept I’d go to the computer and spill it. I did this for two years and then I realized hey maybe others want to hear about it. I always tried to write it from a populist viewpoint so as not to offend the Gerber moms, a term I used for those with typical children who ignore me because they don’t want to think about what could have gone wrong. I’m not here to threaten, just inform, you know. One of my main themes is that I don’t believe there is a real blessing here. Hard work, humor, poignancy, yes. Meredith is one of the funniest people I know and I love sharing the unexpected quirky side of her too.

Providing information on topic so that people understand is the heart of what I did at newspapers, so it was never a foreign concept. I just can’t suppress it all, you know?  If the whole deal with Meredith had not happened, I would have stayed at the paper and maybe followed the editor track. Of course I’d probably be out of a job by now. I also think I’d do more freelance writing like travel stories and profiles for magazines and newspapers. A few years ago, I edited the H.E.B. magazine and it was fun but you can’t do a narrative on a casserole recipe.

SG: I've watched you In Process building the blog, writing the book. Will you tell us a bit about what your process is like-- when do you find time to write? Do you do multiple drafts? 

SB: Yeah, I am lousy with multiple drafts and I never seem to learn that when I’m writing first person stuff my story can really lose its color and spontaneous nature when I continue to rewrite. So in the first draft I get the initial concept and key metaphors – if there are any -  and descriptions. The second draft I may change some word choices and add more color and description to pull people in. At this point I should just quit and turn it in to my editor, but I’ll usually sit on it for another day or two on idle and that’s when the piece can get really bogged down. I always joke with you that my writing is Victorian somehow, like it should be read in the parlor because it’s not very edgy. My whole new plan is to become conversational, more edgy. You know I just want to find the punk rocker in myself, like you Spike.

The question about when I write is always humorous to me. You know I get some of my best material when I’m in the car or falling asleep. I keep a notebook in the nightstand. I’m not a morning person, but my brain is best then so I usually get to the computer right after the kids are gone. It’s weird because if I go upstairs even to brush my teeth, I begin to lose momentum.  Yeah, pajamas, coffee and typing are definitely my writer trifecta.
SG: Are you going to focus fully on the blog now? Or will you be pursuing other writing opportunities, too?

SB: Well, time is the main deal killer on adding new writing on top of my blog. Meredith will be transitioning to high school and Caroline to middle school, so I’m expecting much change next fall. I wish I could be one of those moms that multitasks, but I’m not good at it and it’s not like I get a do-over with them.

So, yeah, focusing on the blog will be top priority. I mean just building that blog was unbelievably complicated-- God, do not get involved in the backend of the site and learn about widgets and plugins. They are not your friends. I also love taking the pictures for the blog. It’s goofy, but it feels like my own mini newspaper when I do that.

SG: What else? 

SB: Being a writer is so powerful and though much of the traditional media is going away, writers will still be needed to explain nuclear physics, to tell a powerful story and to piss people off. Why would I ever consider doing anything else?


  1. Sarah, I have read your Statesman articles since you started and have always found them interesting. As a mom of three grown kids, I could relate to your challenges. Yes, my kids were "Gerber" babies, but raising them had its share of bumps in the road and a few mountains to climb. Continued best wishes for you and your family.

  2. I not only remember Dr. Ruth, Dr. Spock and Dr. Joyce Brothers, I still have all my Dr. John albums right beside my Bananarama collection.
    I love your voice, S.B. and am always honored to perform near you at HPT!