Words that Move

 

Like so many people I know, I fell into despair after the election in the fall of 2016. As a usually upbeat person, I didn’t know what to do with these new dark feelings.

It hit me especially hard in the realm of my work. Throwing myself into writing, teaching and coaching  – work I love – always raised my spirits, allowing me to lift and support others.

But I couldn’t turn off the sound of a disturbing question that echoed in my head:

How was being a writer, and a teacher of writing, really going to make any difference now?

A few months later, though still anguishing, I was functioning, getting along. When I explored why, I realized that it was because of art. Art  – through humor, empathy, community and beauty – was anchoring me, steadying me. I mused about that here.

So when the gloominess returned this summer, it muddied up my heart and felt like a prompt to dig deeper.

I found myself searching for words that had made actual change in the world.

Some highlights I found across genres:

Song. As he tunes his guitar, Pete Seeger introduces “We Shall Overcome” (written by Charles Albert Tindley) with, “If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I got one sure remedy for you.”

Essay. James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” educated an entire generation about the civil-rights struggle.

Poem. Kevin Power’s essay, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself” credits Dylan Thomas’s poetry for pulling him through a serious post-war depression.

Memoir. William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, was identified as the book that opened up a public discussion of mental illness in a recent NPR interview.

Essay Anthology. Terry Tempest Williams’ Testimony: Writers of the West Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness made a mark on environmental policy when President Clinton held the book in his hands at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, dedicating the new Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument in 1996, saying, “This made a difference.”

Law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quite literally changed the laws around gender equality and equal rights with her legal arguments.

Fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the fuse that led to the Civil War inUncle Tom’s Cabin. The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood illustrated the perils of misogyny and male privilege. Censorship took a hit in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Opinion. I was writing this blog post, this piece de resistance in the New York Times and Barak Obama’s speech at University of Illinois materialized.

Do these examples raise my spirits?

Yes. Yes, they do.

But not all words are designed to make people change their mind or behavior. Not every Beatles song became a hit.

Some words expose, educate or simply entertain – remember the global reach of Pharrell William’s song ”Happy” ? – but it’s fair to say that words strung thoughtfully together share one mission: to move.

And movement – even if it’s temporary –   is a treasure. It can be breath allowing. Perspective giving.

We need the writer’s words to prod, stir, calm or badger. To remind us that we are still alive.

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The Fall Issue of Thread is now available for your reading pleasure!

Online.

For free.

Summer’s end. A healing creek. A Russian bath.
A New York subway ride.
An afternoon in California. A muse on checks and balances.

 


 

See September’s Stitch!

Looking for submissions.

Find out more here.

 


 

Interested in joining me for a writing workshop?

See if one of these works for your schedule this fall.

 

 

Photos courtesy of unsplash.com. Top by Val Vesa. Bottom by Greyson Joralemon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Hire a Writing Coach?

Years ago, I hired a closet declutterer to help me organize my office shelves.  And just last summer, I found someone to teach me how to set up a spreadsheet for business accounting.

None of these tasks came naturally to me. Neither did throwing a Frisbee, following a recipe or figuring out the tip for a restaurant bill!

But with guidance, I learned how. And I got better at them.

Writing isn’t any different. Finding that perfect opening sentence, riveting middle or satisfying ending doesn’t always come naturally. Some of us get stuck at the start. Some lose our way, midstream. Many of us can lose perspective  – and our confidence – in the whole project because we are just too close to the material.

That’s where an experienced, patient and tender-hearted writing coach can make a difference.

Maybe you are pursuing a degree and your academic writing assignments are taking far longer than you think they should. You need help organizing your thoughts and getting them onto the page.

Maybe you are good at your job, but your co-workers are not responding to your emails and reports as you would like. You know these could be better summarized, less wordy and more to the point.

Maybe you’ve been writing personal essays and you are ready to run them by a thoughtful reader. You want feedback from someone who can provide you with concrete suggestions about how to make them better. You want more feedback than what you feel you are getting with your critique group.

Or maybe you are looking to explore your creativity, to experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the flow, doing something for its own sake.

 To get your toes in the water, consider registering for one of my writing workshops this fall.

Three hours of coaching can jump start you on a project or help you complete one already underway.

For a ready-to-go project, – take a look at my one-month, three-month and one-year programs.

Shake your life up just a bit. Make something by hand.

What if writing – whether it’s for fun, publication, a business or school assignment – could open you up in a different way?

What if writing could lead you to personal discovery?

 

For more information, hop over to my website or send me an email.

 

Prompts for the Page and Publishing Progress!

 

While some people may arrive at the page overflowing with creative energy, others may need a gentle nudge to get started.

That’s where the writing prompt can help.

In recent years, prompts have become part of the DNA of the modern writing workshop. I offer a fresh one every week for my students so they have no excuse not to write.

A prompt can be simply a word, short phrase, paragraph, idea or image designed to inspire, spur or focus you in the writing process.

I was resistant to using prompts at first because I usually have plenty on my mind to start. But when they did such a good job inspiring my students, I was prompted to use them myself.  They have the ability to spin a topic in roundabout ways with very satisfying results. They can help you get unstuck from a piece currently under construction or surprise you by providing insight from the back door.

For a taste, here are twelve of my go-to writing prompts:

  • A treasured object. Identify and describe a beloved object in your home and write the story of how you got it.
  • A place you cherish. Write about a place that made you feel happy, safe or changed in some way.
  • A favorite food or meal. Make the reader understand why that food or meal has stayed with you.
  • A memorable scent. Bring a person, animal, meal, indoor or outdoor moment to life by way of its aroma.
  • A song with meaning. Why has a particular song stuck with you?
  • Allow a body part to speak. Write what a body part would say if it were able to speak.
  • Where were you when? Where were you and what were you doing during a major moment in history such as when Apollo landed on the moon, Kennedy was shot or when the towers went down?
  • An inherited trait. What gestures or behaviors — that you like or dislike — connect you to a family member?
  • Breaking a habit. Describe a moment that motivated you to make a change.
  • Send a letter. Write a letter to someone with whom you have unfinished business.
  • A do-over dialogue. Rewrite a conversation that you would like to redo.
  • Two voices. Take a memorable event and write it from your current age and perspective. Then, write it from your age and lens at the time.

Publishing Progress!  

If you have been following the journey of my memoir in its quest for publication, I’m now a step closer. In late June, I found an agent! The contract has been signed and we are now, officially, in sell mode. I promise to keep you posted.

Fall Issue in the Works

The Fall Issue of Thread is scheduled for a late September/early October release. Six compelling essays by six beautiful writers. An end-of-summer reflection on the end of life. An end of summer story set in the 70s. A perspective-altering subway ride. A sanctuary-offering creek. A cleansing Russian banya. And a meditation on the checkmark. Stay tuned for their release by subscribing for free, and following Thread on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Mark your Calendar!

Thread took a hiatus from live lit productions in 2018 but we’re gearing up for our biggest show yet! Save the date: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. in Skokie Theatre, Evanston, IL. As the Skokie Arts Commission pick for Artistic Excellence Award 2018, I wanted to throw some love back at my home city by celebrating Thread’s anniversary. Eight seasoned Chicago-area storytellers have been invited to celebrate Thread’s fifth publishing year by reading their work aloud. Storyteller and ticket information to come.

The Twenty-Fifth Stitch

“Daughter” by Gila Berryman marked the 25thedition of Stitch, the “flashiest” section of Remnant Publishing featuring essays of 100 words or less.  The reading period for Stitch and Thread is on a short summer hiatus, but submissions will be back up and running on August 1st.

Ellen Blum Barish
Photo by Aaron Burden, courtesy of Unsplash.

Sentences That Stick

When something we read has us nodding along, marking up the margins or shouting “Amento an empty rooma writer’s work has been done. The reader has been moved. The work as a whole may have moved us, but what stops and suspends us, gives us pause or the inclination to take out the yellow highlighter is one beautiful, true sentence or series of words.

These are the words of the sentences that make it memorable; that makes you want to read it again; what makes us fall in love with a piece of writing.

To illustrate, I offer a few examples from the Summer Issue of my literary publication Thread which was just released this week.

Some are the sentences that sold me on the piece. Some I came to love later. But each stands out in their own way – like we do as human beings – highlighting something thoughtful, funny or just human, beckoning you to read on, or, perhaps, write one yourself.

“Hawk” highlights beautiful detail. “Later, when my red skillet was drying — propped up in its usual place on the spindly dish rack on the green and white striped tea towel — I glanced up and saw my hawk in her usual place and I wondered if I went outside, if I tiptoed through the muddy frozen grass and stood straight and tall under the bare red oak, would I see the stain of blood seeping into the rotting wood of the fence that separates me from the other side?  Marie DeLean

 

“A Mother’s Curse” showcases scene. “So I went barefoot for weeks, which gave me a too-intimate connection to tar and pavement and all those tiny bits of gravel and glass the eye misses but the foot feels.” Roberto Loiederman

 

“Swing” plays with language. “His swings scared me, but not as much as his silence.” Noriko Nakada

 

“The Only One with Pants” sets up a nice opening pace. “Think of my story the next time you’re driving on a rural highway in the dark. Watch the taillights ahead of you, the headlights that advance from the opposite direction. Consider their origin, their aim, their destination. Imagine the quiet conversations, the sleeping children, the lost souls turning to God or talk radio.” Matt Forsythe

 

 

All are hard-working sentences but each represents an example of an element of what I call Ellen’s Eight — four microelements (detail, scene, language and pacing) and four macro elements (structure, theme, voice and storyline) that can be seen in the sentence as well as the piece as a whole.

I’ll highlight the macro elements in a blog post to come.

A sentence that moves us is like that blossom, or blossoms, in the garden that stand out, the ones that make us hover a few more seconds, losing ourselves in their beauty, daring us to paint it or take it’s photograph.

 

 

Stuck in midst of a writing project, Hemingway wrote that writers needn’t worry; all we need to do is break it down and write one true sentence.

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

Yet there’s something beautifully-simply-true here for all of us. Not just the writers.

Say one true thing, feel one true thing, do one true thing, think one true thing and then go on from there.

 

Photos (except for flower photo) courtesy of Unsplash:  Ben White, Rod Long, iam se7en and Gaelle Marcel.

 

Awards, Anniversaries, Dedications and Some Great Summer Reading

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Celebrating a blogaversary. Next month marks the tenth year of publishing this blog. Like me, it has shape-shifted over the past decade. The titles – or lack thereof –  tell the tale. When I first launched the blog in June 2008, it was a nameless, online repository for a column I wrote for a parenting newspaper. A year later — with my daughters in high school and college and mother-mode still fairly front and center — it became PERSONAL SPACE, which reflected what I needed at the time. When the girls were fully on their own seven years later, the blog became fused with my writerly identity and writing process and became what you are reading now — EBB & FLOW.

 

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Your summer reading. The Summer Issue of Thread, the tenth issue, will bloom in June. Six essays on six threads in the patchwork of life. A Facebook friendship. The swing of a baseball bat. A Mexican blessing. Strip teasing in the car. No shoes and twenty-five dollars. A hawk’s stare. Like EBB & FLOW, Thread has grown into a harmoniously diverse chorus of voices which now includes the publication’s first editorial/production intern, Alexandra Yetter. Her keen eye and inquiring mind are already bringing a fresh energy to the issue under construction. A smart someone to run things by is a divine gift for the solo editorpreneur. For more about Alexandra, see the Contributor’s page.

 

A hometown horn toot. When I learned that I would be receiving Skokie’s 2018 Individual Award for Artistic Excellence, I had to read the email three times to fully digest it. Apparently, I am the first literary-type to receive this award —  voted on by members of the village board, including Mayor George W. Van Dusen — which I now share with some incredibly gifted visual, performing and musical artists. I’ll be receiving a certificate on June 4 and my name will be added to a permanent plaque on display at one of my favorite theaters in the Chicago area:  North Shore Center for Performing Arts. I am honored and awestruck that my community recognizes artists in this way. Stay tuned to hear about my future plans to give some of that love back.

 

31520655_10155395367055718_4745688439716839424_n 2And a dedication. To Tom Wolferman — writer, reluctant storyteller and friend — who died, far too young, earlier this month. Tom was among a handful of writers to whom I reached out when I was launching Thread, asking for essays. When I first emailed him, he responded with this: “The potential not to squint in front of a mic with a death grip on five pages printed in 60-point font? Sounds intriguing.” The piece he sent, which ultimately became “The Paper Trail,” was about his copywriting exploits at a local newspaper in the 80s. In it, he refers to an “unsettling photo” that was taken of him in a corduroy bomber jacket, bell bottoms and a Walkman. When he sent the photo over, he wrote: “This pic is wrong on every level, but at least it validates that I am truthful in my nonfiction descriptives. Funk it up. Size it down. Add some red eye. Put it through 300 sepia filters that don’t make me look like a flunkie from ‘Welcome Back Kotter.’ I’m agreeing to this for the sake of art, right? Tell me it’s for art, Ellen. Regards, The artist formerly known as Tom.” His writerly voice was so sparkling, it ignited an email inbox. It’s dark right now where Tom used to be, but remembering him and reading his work keeps that light ignited. For those of us who deal in words, it’s a reminder that in addition to our lives, losses and loves, our work is our legacy.