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! 

 

So Hard to Say “I’m Sorry”

 

I am wrapping up a workshop on writing wrongs and am now certain of three things about apology and forgiveness:

First, to feel sorry  – or to need an apology  – is uniquely human.

Second, saying you are sorry – or that you forgive – is really hard.

And finally, apologizing and forgiving can be expressed artfully and in infinite ways.

It’s this last point that got my attention, as well as for the writers in my workshop.

What a rich topic to explore! It’s a subject that never gets old; as true to the zeitgeist of today as it is of yesterday.

Saying we are sorry – or granting forgiveness – can be a thorny proposition. But exploring it in words can coax out the color, the bud. If we’re lucky, the flower.

If more of us give it a go, who knows? We might be able to populate more gardens, seeded with love.

To get a taste for how magnificently the subject can be addressed in words  – as well as animation – I share just a few materials that we relied on for our discussions and writing prompts that ranged from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Bo Jack Horseman.

One or more of these is likely to move you. I encourage you to let it.

“I’m sort of sorry.”

Bo Jack Horseman  comes to Herb’s death bed to apologize, but it doesn’t go well.

“You should feel sorry.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates describes what not feeling safe can look like in his own neighborhood.

“I forgive you and I understand.”

Sarah Vowell sees herself in her dad, in spite of their vast differences.

 “I am sorry but I want to do better.”

On her Facebook page last fall, Elizabeth Gilbert, offered a profound self-integrity check. 

  • Did I give Bill Clinton a complete and total pass on being a lying skank about women, because he was my guy and I liked his politics? Answer: Yes.
  • Do I preach love and courage and peace and inclusion, but then use my social media platforms to spew rage and fear and panic and condemnation? Do I constantly use the language of war, with the delusion that this will somehow lead to peace? Answer: Yes.
  • Do I make blanket proclamations about how “we women are angry,” or “we women will rise up and take our revenge” — ignoring the fact that literally millions of women have completely different beliefs from me? Answer: yes.
Interested in future writing workshops?
In March: “Reading and Writing the Personal Essay”
Also in March: “Essay as Song: What Essayists Can Learn from the Songwriters”
In April: “Writing for Personal Discovery: Making Art from Life”
For more workshop info, click here.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Turning an Unwelcome Wait into a Powerful Pause

 

 

It’s winter, the season most likely to deliver the blues. Or if you live in the Midwest, an expanse of gray.

A few weeks after we reset the clocks and the light dims, a light will frequently go out inside me, creating my own personal darkness.

Winter is, after all, designed as a slow season. Every year, even though I know it’s coming and can, to some degree, offset it with extra Vitamin D and exercise, the season does its thing. I get through what I have to and all other commitments are negotiable. Especially when it’s a choice between staying in or going out at night. Amy Collier captured this feeling perfectly in her essay, “Your Apartment Tries to Talk You Out of Going to a Party.”

We long for light, but instead we get an unwelcome wait for it. An overly long pause.

And …. Hold!

It was in the middle of a dance class when I had my pause epiphany. We were dancing to swing when the teacher instructed us to stop for a beat after a three-step. The music stopped and she called out, “Wait for it!” We all froze. Then, “And …. hold!” It looked very dramatic in the mirror – twelve sweaty dancers holding still and then, suddenly, moving in unison again. It got me thinking about the power of a pause not only in dance, but also in music.

After that, I noticed how the pauses in a well-told tale or comedian’s monologue hold my attention. How the white breaks on a page do, too. They give the reader a chance to take in what came before and get ready for what’s to come.

We all wait for something. For our prescription at the pharmacy. For a boss to respond to our work. For our coffee in the café. For a response to an email.

But the wait has its benefits. It puts us completely in the present tense. It can amplify a moment. It can highlight and dramatize it, insisting that we see it and take notice.

What Waiting is Worth

As I write this, my memoir is being read by editors at several publishing houses. Waiting for their responses these past months has sometimes felt unbearable! But in the weeks and months that have passed since I completed the manuscript, sections of it are revising in my head. I am reworking parts that will make the book stronger. Now I can’t wait to dive back into it, tweaking, rearranging and letting go of parts here and there.

Only the slowing of time would have allowed me to get here.

This winter, I’m going to try to embrace the waiting in my work and my life. I’m going to let it encourage me to stop so those one-of-a-kind moments don’t slip away without me.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Two Strands Become One

We live and tell stories from our life every day but finding the words to commit to the page can be really challenging.

We want them to be the right words. We want them to sound great, like the writers we admire.

But our lives contain many more than one storyline. These crisscross and intertwine like the yarn in a complex tapestry.

Which color? How much? And in what order? These choices make it hard to pull out that single thread we want to express for that article you may be writing, presentation you are preparing, social media promotion, academic assignment, essay, memoir or story for the stage.

But it can be found and when we do, it’s so gratifying! To communicate an idea, write or tell a story from your life, speak your mind, say what you want to say so that others understand is an extraordinary experience. It’s like the first moment a child is understood by someone else – it’s a hallelujah! There’s been a successful exchange. In the language of the weaver, it’s called “double ending”  – two ends are woven as one. Down deep, I believe that’s what we all want. To be heard. Understood. Seen.

It may begin as the work of the mind, but once it moves from our heads through our hearts and into our hands and onto the page, it’s handwork, craftspersonship. It enables us to leave a part of ourselves in the world.

This year, I took enormous pleasure in helping to facilitate and witness others find their storyline as a coach and teacher. I learn so much during this process.

From the psychotherapist working on a feature article, I was reminded of how we struggle to find a balance between our professional and personal voice on the page.

From the educator preparing a multi-media presentation illustrating how she approached sensitive topics with women in other countries, I learned how productively we can exchange ideas without a shared language.

From the activist who wanted to improve his social media posts, I saw how content and passion can often be more compelling than spelling and grammar.

From the writer who sent draft after draft in an effort to understand her origin story, I was moved by how determined we are to make meaning from our experience.

From the novelist-turned-memoirist, I was struck by the impact of changing the sentences from she/he to “I.”

And when a student becomes a contributor to Thread or Stitch, what a gift for the writer, the editor and reader! Four pieces generated by current or former students in my workshops were a fit for Stitch this year. Check out the beautiful 100-word work of Renee Moses, Marie Davidson, Carol Skahen and Sarah Crewe (forthcoming in March.)

This month also marks the end of a robust year for Thread and Stitch:

  • Thread earned its second notable in Best American Essays and celebrates five years of publication! Watch for the Spring Issue in March/April 2019. Save May 2, 2019 for an evening of stories at the Skokie Theatre, a night we’re calling Threadaversary.
  • Stitch posted its 30th flash essay.
  • A shout-out to Alexandra Yetter, who gifted both publications with her astute administrative, editorial and production support as our first intern.

It has also been a productive year in my own realm as a writer and storyteller which energizes and allows me to support others:

Holiday discount offer! In appreciation for my students, coaching clients and readers – and in time for the holidays – I am offering discount incentives for getting a project underway. Contact me before December 31, 2018 and schedule an appointment for January, February or March, and you will receive a 10% discount on one or three-hour coaching session. (That’s $30 off a three-hour session and $15 off one hour!)

To the festivity of the season and a more peace-filled new year!

Find Thread and Stitch on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

Slow Words

 

 

In his Ted Talk praising the virtues of slownessauthor Carl Honore describes the moment he became aware that he was racing through his life. It was bedtime, his only time each day with his young son, and Carl found himself speed-reading through The Cat in the Hat.

We are in the midst of what Honore calls “road runner culture.” We like things fast. There are advantages, for sure. But there are also consequences, especially in how we read. As a writer, editor, teacher and word lover, I see the impact of this every day.

Each week I assign a published essay for discussion and urge my students to read it twice. Because life often gets in the way of a second review, I allow time for us to read the piece aloud when we are together, taking turns with each paragraph. It’s usually after this second read that I hear writers say, “I didn’t like this piece when I first read it, but I get it now” or “Now that we’re talking about this, I see a structure I didn’t notice before.”

We all do so much necessary skimming of email, texts and headlines that I believe we’re losing practice in efficient reading.

And we’re missing a lot.

I discovered the power of a slow read when I began to study Torah several years ago. Reading the Old Testament line by line can sometimes be an excruciating endeavor – it’s not the easiest read –  but when you unpack sentences at the word level, you can see the wisdom or the questioning in the word choices, the emphasis in the order or how words can shed light on the gray areas. And for those of us who read via screen, it feels good – even grounding – to touch paper and turn pages.

I’m also noticing how much we don’t see —  word wise — in my personal life, too. Even the shortest texts and emails are frequently misread. I’m amazed at how many what-when-where-how-and-whys I receive in response to email or texts that specifically provide these.

There’s no getting around the fact that we like things speedy. But there are counter-movements growing. You may have heard of theslow food movement, a global response to fast food by organic farmers and foodies. There’s also the slow city movement (more park benches and public gathering spaces) and even a slow sex movement (from a 30-second orgasm to slow–motion tantric sex).

I’d like to make a case for the slow read.

Whether it’s a passage from the Bible or Koran, a poem, an essay or short story, magazine feature article or chapter of a book, a good, slow read is the best chance words have to resonate with us. It is, after all, what words do best.

I’ll go one step further and say that I believe that a slow thoughtful read keeps our listening skills whole. Whole body listening keeps us plugged into the moment. It allows an organic flow to and from our feeling chambers. When we rush through reading – a symptom of our overscheduled time – we keep ourselves from our feelings which can take a toll on important human character qualities like tuning in to ourselves as well as empathy and intimacy for and with others. We can easily get out of practice in feeling these. I recently read about a study showing that while screens allow us to read faster, we don’t understand or retain that information in the same way as we do from a printed page.

So it isn’t such a leap to say that reading can positively impact emotional, spiritual and even physical health.

Save the fast read for street signs, social media feeds, last night’s scores and blog posts like this. Give yourself the pleasure of one slow read a day.

Photo from freestocks.org.