My Inhale Year: How It Went

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Now that we are nearing the end of the year, the one in which I took an enormous inhale —  twelve months without writing  — I wanted to let you know how the experiment went.

Back in March, I wrote that I was taking a year off from writing anything other than social media and blog posts for three reasons that I was aware of at the time:

  1. a much-needed break
  2. to concentrate on the writing students in my life
  3. to work on publishing and business aspects related to Thread.

Halfway through the year, in May, I posted an update reporting more available time, but that some essential part of me was missing. A few months later, in August, I noted I was reading more. Earlier this month, I indicated that my adventure in not writing had revealed some very surprising, writerly, results.

That should catch you up.

But in the spring, there was a strange and surprising turn of events.

A longtime writing project that I had released the year before, thinking that it was completed, done, fini, drifted over and hung overhead. It moved deftly, left, right, up and down, like a handful of colored balloons in a light wind. They hovered and I swatted at them, hoping to push them away, feeling as if I had carried and nurtured them long enough.  I didn’t want them in my life.

Ah, but they weren’t going anywhere. I felt their presence for many weeks and sometime in late spring, as if they were tired of keeping themselves airborne, they popped, their skins falling right into my lap, into what appeared to be an actual shape.

It knocked me over, this wild and weird gift from above.

In moments, a structure appeared. And then, a title introduced itself. I took dictation, figuring I should at least scribble some notes. But it was more than mere scribbles. The balloon skins moved from flimsy to solidified, and in very short order I had an outline of a book-length memoir containing most of the elements of personal narrative that I teach my students: detail-scene-language-pacing-structure-storyline-voice-theme.

I’m calling the book,  Seven Springs, and – you can’t make this stuff up – I am halfway through a first draft. The process has been extraordinary, like no other I have known, as if the words that hid themselves from me for decades are now available for the plucking.

So I’m feeling a bit sheepish. I went into this thinking I knew myself. I was taking the year off from writing and I now have enough material to get a book proposal into the works. That wasn’t supposed to happen. A memoir was the farthest thing from my mind.

I think giving myself permission not to write made space for my own thoughts and the words of other writers. I tip-toed out on a limb, far from my comfort zone, on my own. My chest expanded and I breathed it all in. My inhale.

Instead of feeling like the wind or the sea that moves my projects  – my life – along, I see this year as the one in which I allowed myself to become a vessel – a receiver – and was gifted with gold.

Which is, of course, currency designed to share.

Stay close for more.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Change Looks Like

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It has been an unusually busy fall, enough to keep me from my twice-monthly posting. But I suspect your inbox has been as full of political email these past months as mine, which has made logging in even more overwhelming than usual.

May this message offer you a brief respite from all of that, bringing you literary news and perhaps a twinkle of inspiration.

Since we were last in touch, I’m delighted to share that Thread has:

More important to me than the numbers is what I’m seeing in the variety of submissions. I was determined to publish a diversity of voices across gender, age, perspective and geography. Contributors to Thread, Stitch and the live readings write from as nearby as Chicago to as far away as Switzerland and Spain and their experiences were formed in the United States, Great Britain, South Africa and Hawaii.

I’ve been teaching “Writing for Personal Discovery” workshops in my home since January and thrilled that the work of six students – John Hahm, Ellen Hainen, Marie Davidson, Nina Kavin, Brad Rosen, Michael Rabiger – made it into Thread, Stitch or a live lit reading this year. While it isn’t everyone’s goal to write for publication, I am committed to publishing emerging writers who are seeking just that.

Next winter and spring, I’ll be trying something different by offering shorter-length workshops  – one day and four-week sessions – for busy people who would like to give this personal narrative thing a try. I’m also teaching a morning workshop on Friday, December 16th titled “So That Your Values Live On: Writing Your Ethical Will” at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue. Check the Workshops page of my website for more about my winter and spring workshop schedule.

Finally, I promised to keep you updated on my inhale year. I’ll provide you with a complete report in my next post, but until then, let me say that the experiment in not writing has had some very surprising writerly results.

I leave you with a quote I found in a wonderful book I’m reading called The Artist’s Torah by David Ebenbach. He reminds us that creation is the result of destruction. Change is hard. Scary. Our tendency is to keep what we know, because even our current scary is a known one. But he reminds us that,

As artists we are asked to the truth we see, without and within. It asks us to be willing to grow – to destroy what we’ve been so that we can be something new.

What better example of this than in autumn’s own natural art exhibit?

Could next year be your year to start – or return to, writing?  Private coaching can make this happen. Gift certificates make a very thoughtful – and unique – holiday gift.

 

Making Room

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One evening in April of 2013, alone in my house for the first time in a long time, I gathered up all of my journals, placed them in a pile by my fireplace, and, accompanied by a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, read my way through each of them, one by one.

I read every page, then tore each from its binding and threw them into the raging fire.

And then I drank.

It was a dramatic and very drinky evening. Imagine choosing to douse yourself in every feeling you ever put down on paper. What kind of person does that sort of thing?

An emotional epicurean, that’s who.

I wanted to make it a ritual, so I savored each diary and took a video of the burning fire. You can read about that night and see the video here.

In the days that followed, I received a vast array of responses ranging from hallelujahs to horror which prompted this response. 

For the covers that remained, I had an art project in mind. I would find a way to attach them with thread, metal rings or glue and hang them over my office desk as a patchwork quilt representing decades of diary entries. To acknowledge the writing that led me to becoming a writer.

Just this week, while cleaning out my office closet, I came across the bulging plastic container with the shells of my former journals. It’s been more than three years since I stowed them there and I’ve talked about the wall hanging,  consulted artists about how do it and dreamed of how it would look on the wall. But up until now, it was just an idea taking up space in my mind and my closet.

Today, a new idea popped into my head, one that must have grown from the desire to pare down and also speaks to our digital times: I could lay them out on my dining room table, highlighting their color and texture, and photograph them.

Cue the angels!

The photo above is one version. The photo below, another.

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After thanking the covers for their service, I threw them unceremoniously into the garbage can.

How did it feel?

It felt good. Really good. Like the proper completion to the journal burning, which I now see as a three-part process.

First we let go. Then we make art. Then, we make room to do it all over again.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Hundred Words

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It might sound odd for a writer to say this, but I frequently wonder what it would be like to live in a world where people used fewer words when they communicate in writing. We’re flooded with words every day and I often feel as if I’m drowning in their abundance.

Of course, we need words. They make things happen; they move people physically, emotionally and spiritually. Words are like tiny engines that keep us putt-putting.

What I am really suggesting is that we choose them more wisely. Find the ones that say what we mean. Become friends with our dictionaries and thesauruses. Use them more efficiently.  As an editor, I’m probably extra sensitive to this. I’m not only interested in the art of word craft, I’m always thinking about the reader. I don’t want to squander her time. There are too many pieces to read.

To writers, and readers who don’t identify themselves as a writer, I offer a proposal:

Take something that you have written – an email to a colleague, a summary of a meeting, a page from an essay you are writing – and delete half of the words. It may sound extreme, but it can be very illuminating. It compels you to weed whack; get at your core idea and say what you want to more directly and more swiftly. You’ll see how long you wind up before you throw the ball.

Perhaps this is why I’m so attracted to the art of short form writing. My new flash nonfiction section, Stitch, features personal narrative pieces at 100 words or less. They tell a story, reflect on a memory, evoke a feeling or sensation in a way that feels … just right. Not as sparsely as poetry, which can leave a lot to the imagination, but enough to move us in some way.

I just published Stitch’s third flash nonfiction essay today – take a look – and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. Consider submitting a piece. I’m secretly hoping that in addition to moving readers, Stitch prompts us to write more concisely, to zero in on what matters most.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

On Not Writing. Part Three.

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 So I’m eight months into my year of not writing (see My Inhale Year and On Not Writing for the back story) and no surprise really: I’m reading more.

But what I didn’t expect is how much more deeply I’m taking writer’s words in. Without my own ongoing churning, there’s more space for concentration, as if I’ve put sound reduction headphones on and the voices, including my own, have been dialed down. There’s simply less noise.

Rather than freaking me out, I’m finding it rather liberating. I’m drinking the words in, swirling them around, allowing them to activate my tastebuds. Swallowing what tastes good and letting the rest go. I did, after all, designate this as my inhale year.

All of this ingesting has, however, made me more selective. It’s allowed me to take note of the writing I like best: work that stimulates my intellect, touches my heart or makes me laugh. I am identifying how my voice is similiar and different and what ingredients I might add or take away to access more of my own.

All in the hope that when I release them, my words will offer readers the tastiest version.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.