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.

 

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.