It’s Not Easy Being Short


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:

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.


The Giving Tree

Next week, summer transmutes into fall and here in the Midwest we are already seeing the signs when we look up into the trees and dab our runny noses with tissue. (Autumn allergies, anyone?)

I find myself in a similar state as I return to my memoir manuscript for revision. The roots and trunk of the tree – and most of its woody extensions – are in place. So are the leafy bits. But adjustments will be made; some pruning and trimming, repositioning and reshaping and fertilizing for growth.

Writing a complete draft of a memoir in one year was a promise I made to myself last August. I wanted to get that story that I’ve been trying to tell for so many years onto the page. It was a promise that, just a few weeks ago, was fulfilled.

When you give so much to a tree, it tends to give back.

I had deep doubts that I could actually do it. After all, just the year before I had committed myself publicly to full year without writing. But eight months in to not writing, a title and a structure for the story that has taking up lodging in my head, body and soul landed in my lap and I couldn’t help but begin to write. You can read about that here.

There have been a multitude of other broken promises: getting to that weekly yoga class, meditating, eating less bread and drinking less wine. Though these fell under the motivating category of mental, physical and spiritual health, there was something more compelling about capturing this story in words. The pull to write felt like an emergency; like my life depended on it.

Apparently this is a thing.

In her book, “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness” Emily Esfahani Smith writes that there are four pillars of meaning in a person’s life: belonging, purpose, transcendence and, I love this part, storytelling.

“Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn’t function otherwise,” Smith writes.

A traumatizing event from my childhood was stalking me, insisting itself on me because, as Smith suggests, “Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events of our lives, good and bad, because those are the experiences that we need to make sense of, those are the experiences that shape us.”

Which can be very illuminating, engaging stuff.

The writing has been incredibly challenging, but making room and time for it has not. I kept fairly close to my deadlines – it helped tremendously to work with an editor I trust on this project to whom I promised pages each month – but I certainly didn’t write every day. There were even some weeks that I couldn’t write, life getting in the way and all. But when I did sit down to write, I was focused and productive.

So I have a manuscript. It needs revision and expansion and this will take a while – probably months. But now I know – in my bones – that there are practical and creative ways to get a big story from one’s life onto the page in twelve months.

Since I’m making good on my promises now, I’ll boldly offer another: To keep you updated on my progress – the victories as well as the disappointments – to reveal the transformational colors of these pages from manuscript to book in the hope that one healthy tree might stimulate a forest.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.







Time to Swing

A confession that may or may not connect us:

I read my horoscope. Daily.

Actually, read isn’t entirely accurate. I’d say I’d consult. Study. Ponder. Sometimes twice in one day.

I’d call myself a woman of faith, Jewish in particular. I’m open to the mysteries –  even mystical aspects  – of life. I like to think of myself as a rational person with a healthy respect for logic and science. I may be prone to deep emotion but not to flights of fancy or superstition.

Yet, I pour over the writing, multiple writings, of those who study the stars and take them to heart. And every year, I put more stock in them.

Why? Because I have found great wisdom in them. Sparks of truth. I’ve learned that you can’t take the words literally. Best to read them abstractly. Metaphorically. More like poetry. For advice about addressing the day and making good use of it.

It’s been especially true for me this year. According to the sources I consult, things have moved slowly for Gemini these past few months. Though I’ve been really busy in my own sphere, my work hasn’t translated, externally speaking.

That is, until now. Things are picking up for Gemini. I’m doing a little less knocking on doors and feeling like there are more knocks on mine.

Mostly what reading my horoscope does is remind me of the ebb and flow in our personal and professional lives. That there really are up and down times, slow and fast times, right side up and upside down times. Of course we know this. But I need the reminding.

That there are times to hang. And times to swing. And I guess I’m swinging now.

To that end, here’s what’s happening:

I have a new manuscript review service.

I’m offering customized “Writing for Personal Discovery” workshops for small groups in private homes. A great idea for a one-time gathering of friends.

I still love coaching writers on their essay collections and memoirs.

Still reading Thread and Stitch submissions. I’m actively looking for 100-word essays for Stitch.

I’d love to have you on my EBB & Flow subscription list. You’ll get early notifications of all kinds of events and offers.

Chicago-area readers: Mark your calendar for Sunday, September 10th.  That’s when Fall Thread Live Lit Reading at Evanston Public Library from 3 to 5 pm.

Check back in September for the Fall Issue – number eight! – of Thread with six new beautiful essays.

And finally, whether or not you place any importance on the zodiac or the movements of the sun, stars or planets, may the coming weeks, especially Monday, August 21st, eclipse your expectations.

Photo by Jon Blum taken sometime in the 1960s.

More Light. Less Speed.

I am in the final month of the final section of the final chapter of the first full draft of a memoir. By August, I will have been working on the book for a year, longer really, as I’ve been writing pieces and parts and thinking about it since the late 1990s.

The process has felt at times like floodgate-opening relief and, at others, like trying to turn on a faucet hose that has been rusted solid. There have been glorious days where I could have been outside on a walk or at the garden or out with friends but instead I was inside on my behind on my office couch with my MacBook Pro in my lap wondering, especially on less productive days, why I was devoting myself to a project with no definitive paycheck or deadline that frequently brings pain, tears and the conjuring of difficult memories.

Yet, what finally got me to write, and keeps me writing, were the many more good reasons to do it, the ones outweighing the equally strong desire not to bother.

Among these were:

To make the story stop stalking me. To address it head on, to understand what happened. To listen to myself, in my own words. To heal.

To hone my craft. To capture a story, as beautifully and truthfully as I could, creating a long-form work that grabs and holds a reader’s attention, and hopefully, heart.

To witness myself writing it. To connect more deeply with my students and writer-colleagues who are writing memoir. So that I understand the process and can teach it better.

But as I am nearing the end of this first draft, facing a second and possibly third, I have been surprised to recognize more overarching reasons beyond little-old me.

I knew it was there, but now I have felt it and am certain of the energy-moving potency in identifying pieces of a life. Especially the broken ones. What it feels like to put them back together to reconfigure, shape them into art and make meaning from it. How it reveals new things about one’s life and one’s self.

Perhaps even more importantly, by addressing this personal business through art by reframing, understanding or making peace with it, we get the feeling of having turned something good from something not-so-good. Maybe it’s just that we made something out of what feels like nothing (but we all know it’s not nothing). We get to feel good, even just briefly, for having picked up our broken pieces and rearranged them. Like clearing out and organizing a drawer or closet so that it can be used more artfully, we can move a little more to the right or the left because there’s more room. Room and space to fill, repair, create or contribute something else. Which can bring us a sense of renewed or confirmed purpose and maybe even the chance to do some healing in the world.

The writing has, until recently, been going well. But lately I’ve had more not-so-good writing days, made all of the more poignant because I can see the end. It’s so close! Just a few days ago, for example, I realized that part of my ending would do a better job of inviting a reader into my story as the Prologue which then sent me into a long, arduous spell of rewriting. I really understand why some of my writing students stop, or take yearlong breaks, so far in. I see the temptation. The work can be hard and unrelenting.

But just as married people renew their vows, and businesses revisit their mission statement, I think we need to reaffirm our whys. To remember what we are doing it for. Maybe even to say it differently to match where we are now or possibly discover something new about why we are doing – or should continue to do – what we do.

In June, I gave myself a birthday present. A photography class. It’s so joyful to learn something new and so restorative for me to be away from words! I’ve learned that to highlight the subject you want and blur out the background – like the photograph above – you need to let in more light by way of a bigger aperture (the F stops), but the speed of the shutter needs to slow down (1/60 is the magic setting for no hand shaking). A good shot comes from a combination of how wide our eyes are open and the pace of a blink.

More light. And slowing down.

Reminders of what we need to focus on the things we want and let the rest fade away.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.




That Which We Call a Rose


Perhaps the image at the top of this page struck you as it did me when I first saw it by the cash register at my favorite café.

A one-dollar bill (maybe two) shaped into a rose?

Not only is it nicely crafted — see those delicate silken leaves and realistic stem? — it transforms a mundane object into something worth lingering on.

Now that’s what I call art.

About a year after my second child was born, I jumped at the chance for some creative stimulation and a break from mothering by registering for an evening writing class with a well-regarded instructor. Born in India, Molly Daniels, was a small woman with a big personality who wore flowy, multi-colored skirts and headscarves.

One night, she asked us to profile a parent. At the time, I was having difficulty with my father, so my subject sort of self-selected.

I began with, “My father is the tallest of two sons born to a short, stocky German-Jewish father and his four-foot-ten wife who was born and raised in Philadelphia. In college, he majored in philosophy and pursued a life in business and politics.”

As we scribbled in notebooks from desks configured in traditional lines, middle-school classroom style, Molly strolled the aisles, skimming our opening paragraphs, nodding and hhmmming.

When she arrived at my desk, she peered over my sentences and said, “Tell me about your mother.”

“But I wanted to write about my father,” I said. “There’s more drama there.”

“That may be true, but just tell me one thing – one unusual detail – about your mother.”

I struggled to think of something – I was low on sleep from being up at night with my infant daughter – but then, something came.

“My mother grew up in a hotel.”

“Ah!” she said excitedly. “That’s it! You must write about your mother.” And before I could argue, off she strolled to the next desk, her colored scarf billowing wildly behind her.

It was Molly Daniels who taught me about the potency of the well-selected detail and its window into storyline. The ones that come to mind when we first think of a person, the ones we recall long after reading a short passage or an entire book.

The tilt of a character’s eyeglasses. Dandruff on a coat. An arthritic finger.

Between the ages of 9 and 14, my mother would take the elevator down to the hotel dining room, order a bowl of cereal and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take to school for lunch and eat. By herself. She was like the children’s storybook character Eloise, the only difference was that she was not at The Plaza in New York City but at a hotel in Pittsburgh. Growing up in a hotel not only impacted her (lack of) kitchen skills – no stove or oven translated into zero chances to watch her mother cook or have recipes handed down – but were likely to have influenced her decorative leanings to something I lovingly call institutionally immaculate – shiny glass-topped furniture on cream-colored carpeting and beds made with hospital corners in a spare and pristine space.

Details that pull us into her storyline.

In my writing workshops, I talk about eight elements of essay, alliteratively referring them as “Ellen’s Eight.”

Detail. Scene. Language. Pacing. Structure. Theme. Voice. Storyline.

Each of these elements work hard either by their presence or absence to make a piece sing.

But if I had to choose the two elements that matter most to an initial reading, the two that I look for in essays by my students or submissions for Thread and Stitch, I’d have to say detail and storyline.

That one-dollar bill makes a fine detail in the right context. But sculpted into a rose opens the book cover and yanks me in. I begin to wonder about its story. Who made it? And how? Was it the café’s first earned dollar? Why was it placed by the cash register?

I am reminded of Molly’s lesson in part because I’m teaching a summer writing workshop and I want to elucidate this point for my students. But also because I’m finishing a memoir in which both of my parents make appearances. I am on the hunt for just the right illustrative details that express who they are, in part of course, to invite the reader in and help tell the story.

I’m searching for roses made from dollar bills. Word version.

Thank you, Molly Daniels.

(Molly died in 2015. May she rest in peace.)


Photograph of rose by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017. Taken at the Euro Echo Cafe.