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! 

 

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