Clarity, Doubt and Insanity: The Edit

Alexa Mazzarello

So, as you may know, I’m in revision mode on a memoir.

Last month, I decided to dedicate some space on this blog to document my journey to finish this project.

You can read about that here. I wrote that I wanted to make a record. To reveal moments of clarity, doubt and insanity; the process. That even as a writing coach, I, too, need a schedule and some witnesses to keep me accountable and encouraged.

To that end, here are some selected scenes from January for what I’m calling my periodic blogumentary.

Tuesday, January 2

I respond to every e-message and Facebook post as they arrive; run up and down the stairs  to stay on top of multiple loads of laundry; take my car in for a wash and balance my checkbook.

Thursday, January 4

First writing day of 2018. I dig back into a scene from the early nineteen-seventies where my mother checks in on my brother who, at 10, was quite shy. After I write this scene, my brother, now 55, calls to tell me about how he has taken a tough stance with the bank and car dealership so that we will not under any circumstances be going underwater with our mother’s car. 

Friday, January 5

I return to another scene from the early seventies, revisiting the moment my mother first sees me, post-auto accident. I remember her expression when she sets eyes on my mouth  – where my main physical injury occurred – and I am reminded of how she refused to look at her own reflection in the mirror when she was sick for so many months prior to her death last year.

Thursday, January 18

A coffee conversation with a friend who writes young adult fiction gives me the confidence to let go of sentences which didn’t read as authentically twelve for the section in my book written from a young girl’s perspective. She reminds me that what comes after trauma doesn’t come all at once, but in small bits, slowly. Later, I notice that I have more emotional distance from a pivotal scene with my father, which allows me to soften it and let the storyline create the scene’s poignancy.

 Monday, January 22

I take a treadmill break and am flooded with surety about adding a new “character.” She’s been in, then out, and in-and-out again. But with my heart rate up and sweat dripping down my brow, I suddenly recognize the mark she made on me as it relates to the narrative and when I get back to my laptop, my fingers can barely keep pace with the flow of my thoughts.

Tuesday, January 23

I write 3,500 words and take a long lunch break and watch “The Chew.” When I get back to my office to reread what I wrote, most of it is windup, but there are 250 really good words that are worth keeping.

Friday, January 25

I spend most of the day reading the entire manuscript – start to finish – making little tweaks here and there, and when I’m done, I think, this feels close to whole as I can get it today. I set it aside for a much-needed break.

Monday, January 29

I rise early and read certain sections of the manuscript again, the parts more recently written. I find typos, as well as phrases that need tightening or clarifying. A writer can endlessly edit. But I let out a long exhale, craft an email to my trusted editor, attach the document and press send. Several hours later, two ideas for new complete sections come to me. I sigh, grab my iPhone, and jot them down. A writer writes even when she isn’t writing.

Sunday, February 10

My editor tells me she’ll have notes for me in a few weeks. While I wait for feedback –  which we writers desperately need but desperately fret over, too – I am noticing more psychic space, more room for random thoughts even though many still have to do with the book. But I am also noticing an unhinged feeling, some rootlessness. A worrisome thought comes: Once this work is completed, who I will be?

Photo from Unsplash by Alexa Mazzarello.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recede and Retreat, Surge and Spurt

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When I titled this blog EBB & Flow, it wasn’t only for the letters that spell out my initials, but because I really do believe that the creative process moves like the ebb and flow of bodies of water. Our writing practices – like any creative process – recedes and retreats, surges and spurts, and then recedes-retreats once again. Like breathing. As if the process itself was alive.

And so, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when my year-long writing effort came to an abrupt halt last fall.

After years of flimsy starts and frustrating stops, I had managed to get a first draft of a memoir onto the page between August 2016 and August 2017. It was no small task to get a draft down in one year. A literary agent read the first 75 pages and generously provided me with notes and an invitation to send her the completed version. It felt confirming. Amazing. I took my experience and integrated it into lessons for my students and clients and the approaches appeared to resonate for them, too.

My plan was to revise and finish a second draft of the memoir between coaching and teaching during the fall of 2017.

Ah, plans. Designed to be made. So often destined to break.

In early August, my mother became ill and needed hospitalization. Because she lived out of town, I had to travel frequently to be with her. Then, I was offered a job teaching job that I couldn’t pass up and my private coaching schedule was becoming unusually full.

And so, the book revision drew back. My mother, and my students, moved to front and center. It was the right decision. My mother died the day before Christmas and though I am missing her deeply and profoundly, I believe I gave her everything I could in the short time we had left together. I hope I did the same for my students, too.

As the new year approached, I secured time to finish that revision. Actually scheduled it. I’m ready to finish this project. Ready to stream back into the flow.

Intellectually ready, at least.

Truth is, a lot has happened since I finished that first draft. For one thing, because it’s a memoir, my mother has a rather large role in my story and as her health was declining, I couldn’t help but think about how it was impacting the story I planned to tell. How much will what actually happened change the storyline and the themes? How long will it take for me to move back in the same rhythm of writing? Will I ever? Is it possible that the words and sentences will sound different because time has passed and my perspective has changed? Will I be able to write through the grief?

These questions led me to an idea. One that I believe will help me reunite with the flow and, also, offer some insight into creative process which is, after all, what I hope to deliver in this blog.

Over the next months, I’m going to use this space as a blogumentary to document my journey to finish this project.

To make a record. To keep me answerable. To reveal the process and discover some insights along the way. To connect and inspire you and me. Each month I’ll share my struggles, slip-ups and, hopefully, a few triumphs.

Even as a writing coach, I, too, need accountability, encouragement, a schedule and witnesses to remind me that when the flow recedes, the tide will indeed come in again.

Photo by Arif Iswanto, courtesy of Unsplash.

 

Significant Things

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“The seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant. They have meaning and they tell us something.”

 

Joan Didion

 

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

 

A Reluctant Professor. A Grateful Coach

ellen readingFor more than thirty years, I have earned a living – and even a few modest awards – as a writer and editor.

But when I was in middle school, when achievement tests became the standard by which writing and reading skills were determined, low scores indicated that I was struggling with reading comprehension. A teacher-parent huddle sealed the deal and I was sent to work with a tutor.

That’s how it felt at the time anyway.

At 13 and 14, with bad teeth and stringy hair, there was already plenty for me to be embarrassed about, but I remember being mortified about having to be tutored because I wanted to think of myself as a smart girl. And smart girls didn’t need tutors.

But the initial feeling didn’t last beyond my first session. The tutor turned out to be an amiable woman who very swiftly taught me to identify the unique way I absorbed information and how to organize it into words. More poignantly, I see now, she guided me in honoring my individual learning process. She was gentle but firm. Persistent but patient.

My test scores and grades improved after my tutoring sessions, but I was never a stellar student in high school. When I could choose courses in college and graduate school, I fared better. By then I had found my thing and that thing was reading and writing, the very things in which I struggled as a middle-schooler.

I never set out to teach writing. Frankly, it never occurred to me to teach anything at all. I believed I was firmly planted in publishing as a writer and editor. But a director of religious education whom I knew and respected seemed to believe that I had what it took and asked me to teach. I remember saying no the first time she asked. Teach? Me? The B student who needed tutoring? You’ve got to be kidding. A year later, she asked again. She was serious – and I was up for a challenge at the time –  so I gave it a go. And I liked it. A lot. Soon after, a former journalism professor asked me to coach a few students and not long after that, I was hired to teach my first university course.

As a university professor of writing for fifteen years now, I’ve only recently become aware that my teaching approach is borne out of those one-to-one sessions with that tutor. In a room full of students, my inclination is to lean to the individuals because that’s how I found the best stuff inside of me. I first came to understand and respect my own working process in a quiet, private space, working one-to-one in a room with no windows and one witness.

As a consequence, I have become hyper-aware of how each of us processes information differently. Some of us like to hear ourselves speak in the circle. Some of us would rather listen. Some of us read it and get it right there on the spot. Some of us need to read it over many times, away from the classroom, on our own.

Though I still love to teach groups – the energy in a circle of people can be electric and empowering  – working with people individually speaks to my heart. It can be incredibly potent. Like fertilizer for a writer’s growth. And, it’s also personal. In a way, I owe my career to that tutor, who gently pulled and tugged at me while simultaneously holding a mirror so I could see what was inside.

Which, I now recognize, is what I strive for when I work with people one to one.

In January, I am launching three new coaching programs that reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about how people work. Each program is designed to remove roadblocks to help a person reach a writing goal, while honoring the individuality and uniqueness of that person’s pace and style.

Whether it’s communicating better at work, writing a personal statement a degree application, improving written academic assignments, publishing an essay or writing a book, I have developed coaching scenarios to fit each mission and budget. Whether we work together in a room, face to face, or via technology, I know how to get that great stuff that’s inside a person to show itself on the outside. 

New Coaching Programs for 2018*

Plan to Page (One month)

  • business writing boost at the workplace
  • grade improvement for reading and writing at school
  • completion of a long-form academic writing assignment
  • personal essay for college or graduate school admission
  • preparing an essay for literary publication submission

Path to Publication (Three months)

  • outline for a book-length project
  • family story to the page (to or with an aging family member)

Memoir in Twelve Moons (One year)

Full Moon (weekly) or Half Moon (twice monthly)

  • complete a draft of a memoir or personal narrative collection

*Weekly unless otherwise noted.

To learn more about how these programs could fit your writing goals, email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com to schedule a free conversation.

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Photos courtesy of the Blum family, taken sometime in the early 1970s.

 

It’s Not Easy Being Short

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When I first read it, I, too, marveled over what was hailed as Hemingway’s* shortest story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” How amazing that entire universes could be created in just six words!

I’ve long been drawn to the short prose literary forms. Back in the mid 90s, I bought the essay collection In Short. And then, In Brief.  And then, Short Takes. I am still moved by the 750-word essays in Brevity and the 250-word pieces in River Teeth’s Beautiful Things.

I love them for the beauty in their concision. Their deftness in saying so much, with so little.

So it wasn’t too big a leap for me last year to think that it might be possible to make magic in 100 words for a publication that I called Stitch.

It would be an experiment. If nothing else, I thought, writing 100-word essays would make a great writing prompt for my students.

But just as the idea was taking shape in my mind, Jacqueline Doyle sent me a beautiful short essay titled, “Another Guy’s Shoes” and Frederick Charles Melancon sent me a very short essay titled, “The Wall.” It’s a sign, I thought. So in August 2016,  I launched Stitch on a page of the Thread site with two very short essays, not sure that it would ever take on a shape of it’s own.

In what felt like minutes, I began to receive submissions for Stitch.  After putting out a few calls for submissions on social media, Stitch has published a 100-word-or-less essay on the first of the month ever since.

I’ve been so heartened and inspired by the submissions that for it’s one-year anniversary,  I wanted to gift Stitch with its own identity on the site. So I asked Amanda Good, the graphic designer who branded Thread,  EBB & Flow, and my professional website to come up a design which you can see here:

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On November 1, Stitch released it’s new logo and it’s fifteenth essay.

Happy anniversary, Stitch! A big thank you to all of the writers – Jacqueline Doyle, Frederick Charles Melancon,  Andrea Isiminger, Michael Rabiger, Katie Beberian, Mindy Watson, Kurt Mullen, Kristine Langely Mahler, Nina Lichtenstein, Kim O’Connell, Rachel Hoge, Lori Dube, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Richard LeBlond, Tom McGohey, Heather Mangan and Jennifer Lang – who have given Stitch it’s fullness of personality. It’s big and diverse for such a small publication, one I’ve come to think of as Thread’s younger literary cousin.

If you’d like to give it a go, here’s the Submission page for details.

I’m taking the month of December off from reading submissions, but will return for reading on January 1, 2018.

Writing short essays is really hard work. On that very subject, Mark Twain is credited with writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

But they are so satisfying to write.

Poignant to read.

And incredibly rewarding to publish.

* Later I learned that Hemingway may or may not have been the author.
Photo: Stitch’s editor, Ellen Blum Barish, showing off her short stature next to a very tall Frankenstein on Halloween in the lobby of the Chicago Sun-Times. Photo taken by the desk manager.