We’re Just Drawn That Way

 

Earlier this year, I decided to stretch my literary ligaments by reading books outside of my regular go-to genre. So it’s been novels instead of my usual steady diet of essay collections and literary memoirs.

I really enjoyed Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng.) I loved The Friend (Sigrid Nunez.) And I’m really enjoying Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. But I wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng), Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) and City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) more. I started two or three other novels that I just couldn’t finish.

All of which brings me to: We like what we like.

An eloquent essay elevates me.

A meaningful memoir mesmerizes me.

It all began for me in the early 90s when personal essays were showing up in women’s magazines, the Sunday papers and on public radio. It was the era of the New York Times Hers column. Later it was the Lives column. There was Anna Quindlen’s “Life in the Thirties” column and Marion Winik’s radio essays on NPR and then, Modern Love. The essays explored work, motherhood, family, relationships, life, death and health in layered and honest ways.

I moved from essays to memoirs: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.These writers showed me how to make art from life with a willingness to go deep, choosing well-chosen words and metaphor. Then I discovered  Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Brenda Miller, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Roiphe, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro. There were male writers, too, of course: Jean Dominique-Bauby. David Sedaris. Brian Doyle. Phillip Lopate. James McBride. Darin Straus. Augusten Burroughs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But among the writers who wrote in all genres, what I leaned toward were the stories they wrote from their lives.

Friends – literary and otherwise – recommend, give or loan me their favorite fiction, insisting that I’ll love it. I do try them. If a writer doesn’t grab me in 50 pages, I simply have to move on. I have a life to lead. But rarely, if ever, did I fall in love with a novel like I have with a memoir or essay collection.

I take that back. I can think of one: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It’s one of the rare books – novel or memoir – that I actually read twice.

It’s the job of a writer to take her reader by the head, hand or heart, I tell my writing students, to keep that reader engaged.

Too much to ask? Maybe.

But in this current attention-challenged climate, I think it’s even more important for writers to ensure that their readers get lost in their words.

I tend to like concise, thoughtful, spare and honest writing. Writing that’s funny and self-aware. I know there are plenty of novels and short story collections with these qualities. But for me, it’s more about the approach to the subject matter, the lens through which the writer is looking. I am pulled toward material that explores the psychological and the mysterious. Pieces that rely on curiosity about human nature with a hunger for insight and wisdom. Stories that invite the writer and reader to journey together to make meaning from them.

I’d like to think of myself as reader-curious. I often wish I was more genre-fluid. But I do think it’s worthwhile to be able to name the kind of work we like best. It tells us something about ourselves. For those of us who write, it’s valuable information that may help identify the form we want to explore with our own words.

Our choices are, after all, a miniature mirror. They are a small reflection of our authentic selves.

Whatever you are reading this summer, may it be full of exploration, escapism and self discovery.

 

Thinking ahead to Fall? Check out my selection of day and evenings workshops here.

 

 

 

 

Ellen’s Eight

There’s no sure-fire formula to teach creative writing. I don’t believe there’s a prescription to teach any kind of art.

Instead, I think writing teachers and coaches do our best when we create a safe space. The more comfortable the writer, the easier the “brain dump” and the chance to capture words on the page or screen.

Creative process is as varied as people are. There’s no one method to get those words out.

However, I do rely on a post brain-dump checklist.

I call them Ellen’s Eight Elements of Essay and they are applicable to all forms of personal narrative after the first draft is down.

On the sentence level, there’s detail, scene, language and pacing.

For the work as a whole, there’s storyline, structure, voice and theme.

I could write volumes on each one, but there isn’t space for that here. Besides, it’s more efficient to talk about them within the context of an essay or piece of memoir – a conversation that is the foundation of my workshops for many years now.

But lately I’ve been thinking that these eight elements don’t just apply to essay and memoir.

The more I talk about them as they relate to a piece of personal writing, the more I see that they are a pretty good checklist for living a meaningful life.

Starting small:

Detail. You’ve heard the expression, The divine is in the details. I’ll just leave that right there.

Scene. Paying attention to the scene you are in is living wholly in the present tense.

Language: The words we use are not fleeting. They can be a reflection of ourselves. In fact there’s some science behind this.

Pacing. The rhythm of our sentences and the pace of the story is a mirror to our mood.

Moving larger:

Storyline. You are living your story, telling your story and you can reframe both.

Structure. We are comfortable with how our lives are shaped and organized, or not.

Voice. Your voice is the  your vision. How do you define yours?

Theme. What would your life’s mission statement look like? What matters most to you?

Ted Talk author Emily Esfahani Smith’s defines a meaningful life as one filled with belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. I believe writing provides all four. The storytelling, for sure. The hours lost in the writing can feel transcendent. The subject you are writing about can give purpose to your life. And belonging can come from connecting with a reader or being with other writers.

Making art isn’t just about making something expressive, poignant or beautiful. When we make art, we make meaning.

 

Read my recent craft essay on the Brevity Blog!

 

A new month, a new Stitch! So much said in so few words.“Tied and True” by Ruth Rozen.

 

Watch for the Summer Issue of Thread to be released this month! Missed the Spring Issue? Read it here.

 

I’m taking a much-needed break from reading  Thread submissions this summer, but will continue to review pieces for  StitchCheck out the Submission Guidelines.

 

We’ve only just stepped into summer, but it isn’t too early to think about writing in the fall. Take a look at my offerings for fall.

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

 

First Threads: An Origin Story

Last Thursday night, more than one hundred friends, family members and art appreciators left their homes – some from as far as California, Colorado, Pennsylvania and New York – for a night of storytelling to celebrate Thread’s fifth anniversary.

Threadaversary: An Evening of Personal Stories was the seventh live lit event – the biggest show yet! A sell-out of 140 seats!

It was a chance to shine a light on the art of words; beauty made by the human hand, head and heart. Words that are witty or weighty. Heartbreaking or haunting. Poetic or poignant.

Decades into writing, editing and teaching personal narrative, I am still astounded by how we can take the experiences from our lives and simply by connecting words into sentences, we can connect and move people.

The house lights illuminated nine dazzling Chicago writer-storytellers (David Barish, Ada Cheng, Eileen Dougharty, Nestor Gomez, Jill Howe, Diane Kastiel, Sheri Reda, Jeremy Owens and Scott Whitehair as well as a few special guests including author Richard Reeder) All had interconnecting storylines to Thread.

But we quite literally couldn’t have gathered if it wasn’t for The Grant Street Writers.

These writers met in one of my writing workshops almost a decade ago. The essays they were writing were good. Good enough to publish. I urged them to consider submitting their work and Marie said, “Maybe we should make our own literary magazine.”

That’s when the idea for a publication first took stitch in my mind. But it was still an abstract concept.

In the spring of 2014, we invited friends and family to a final reading of their essays.

The following day, as I thumbed through the photos on my cell, I found one shot that had seemingly taken itself. It was a photo of the multi-colored braided rug on the floor of the café.

It captured the feeling of the evening: Strands of colorful stories braided together that created something separate and beautiful of its own. The word braid hung in my mind’s eye. Then yarn. Then thread.

Thread resonated because I often ask my students, what is the main thread here? Where does the thread fray or come loose? I love the idea that the thinnest strand of thread holds a garment together. Its presence  – or absence – makes its mark in a piece of writing.

A tailormade title for a literary magazine.

Long after the workshops ended, these writers continued to meet on their own. And just recently, they made good on that idea to make a publication of their own. They published their first book of essays, Wednesdays with Winston in April.

Once the name was pinned to my brain, the publishing machine moved at lightning speed.

By late spring, I had a name, a URL and web hosting. By summer, I had a logo that I only realized later contained the word read in it! In the fall, web architecture and contributors. I invited two Chicago-area writers whose work I loved  – Lee Reilly and Tom Wolferman – and four writing students to contribute essays to the inaugural issue. It was always my mission from the very start to feature established and emerging writers in every edition.

That December, Thread was launched.

Five years and 72 essays later, this solo-editorpreneur’s online literary publication has not only met, but surpassed my original mission. Thread has earned two spots on the Best American Essays notables list and has been the first published home for many writers whose names later appeared in bigger publications.

We say it takes a village and last week in the Village of Skokie – my Threadquarters –  everyone who helped build, contribute, read or support Thread were sewn into its tapestry and my heart.


I offer a new tagline for the occasion:

Life is messy. Find the Thread.

Subscribe. Submit. Support.

PS: Now that Thread is growing beyond its formative years, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What essays have moved you? What brings you to the site? What would bring you here more frequently?

 

 

We Steer the Boat, But We Don’t Alter the River

There are weeks when life feels like still, shallow water, attracting dust and flies.

And then, there are some like the past several weeks where flooded days rush at rapids pace, blurring the highlights along the rivers’ edge.

Life really does ebb and flow.

Thankfully, we have our calendars, memories and links. Because I am still navigating those rapids to some degree, I offer this month’s post as a clickable highlight reel of items relating to craft, creativity and the writing life.

See what inspires and steer your raft toward your own version.

 

 

In mid-March, I released the Spring 2019 Issue of Thread, the twelfth issue! Six new essays by six magnificent writers. How freedom smells. A light goes on – and off –  in a marriage. Springsteen as a salve for the soul.  A life-changing ride in an MG. The summer of Dahmer. Courtship with a cat.

 

 

I was interviewed by Aaron Masliansky for “Inside the Skev” on life as a writer, editor, teacher and coach. Have a listen!

 

 

On April 9, I was delighted to tell a story at Chicago’s longest-running live lit show hosted by Scott Whitehair, This Much is True.

 

 

There’s less than two weeks until Thread’s big anniversary celebration at the Skokie Theatre. Nine storytellers and a few special guests promises to loosen you up, laugh and feel the love. Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are going fast!

And for those who celebrate, happy holy week.

Rapids photo above is of me (far back, orange cap, cringing) and family members navigating the Roaring Fork River in Colorado several years ago.
Title is borrowed from a quote by Josephine Earp (wife of Wyatt Earp)

A First Love Returns

Long before my first crush, I had a first love and it was music.

I was nine when I heard “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams in the late 1960s played over a loudspeaker in my school auditorium and I remember how it stilled me, insisting on my listen.

A few years later, at 11, I was away at overnight camp when I first heard “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell played by my guitar teacher. That was it. I was in love with how much sound – and how much could be said – with seven notes.

Decades later when I discovered the personal essay, I had the sense that these two word-art forms were deeply connected, that they were like prose cousins. Both forms are personal narratives that rely heavily on voice, pitch and pattern, sound and rhythm as well as pause. So many gorgeous ways to communicate, tell stories – make art – in only 26 letters!

Just a few years ago, in the midst of a songwriting workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music, my hunch was confirmed. Words like hook, intro, bridge, refrain, outro and melodic line, chord cycle and lyrical phrase began to take on more meaning. These were terms that applied not only to songs but essays, too.

Since then, I’ve been collecting song-like essays that are essay-like songs. Just this week, I led a one-night workshop on this topic with a group of writers at StoryStudio Chicago. We talked about how the elements that make a song pleasing and satisfying to us are also true of the successful essay. Essay writers can borrow the tools of the songwriter to infuse their work with more dimension. To make their words sing.

Elton John got us started in this video where he explains his writing process for “Tiny Dancer.” Our musical readings included works by Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright and Simon & Garfunkel. Our essays included work by Bernard Cooper, Abigail Thomas, Brian Doyle and Chloe Caldwell.

I fretted that there might not be enough to say – or enough material – to fill our time together but during the workshop, song and essay suggestions continued to spill from the writers in the room. There’s more than enough to get me thinking about a multi-week workshop on the topic.

Stay tuned. If you’re interested, email me and I’ll let you know when I can make that happen.

Coming up:

 

 

The Spring Issue of Thread has just been released!

Six new essays by six magnificent writers: How freedom smells. A light goes on – and off –  in a marriage. Springsteen as a salve for the soul.  A life-changing ride in an MG. The summer of Dahmer. Courtship with a cat.

 

 

Threadaversary! An Evening of Personal Stories

Join us as we celebrate five years of Thread for an evening of storytelling at Skokie Theatre.

What: A special one-of-a-kind evening featuring nine amazing Chicago storytellers and some special guests.

When: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Where: Skokie Theatre

How can I get tickets?  Here.

 

 

Writing for Personal Discovery: Making Art from Life

Spaces still available for my final writing workshop of spring.

What: A five-week writing workshop focusing on the personal essay.

When: Monday evenings, April 1-29, 6:15 – 8:45 pm

Where: Ice House Gallery in Evanston 

How can you register? Here.

 

And yes, that’s yours truly in the photo above at 11 or 12. Check out that Marimeko bedspread!