A Two-City Girl

We know the places we know sensorially. We know what they feel-like, smell-like, sound-like, look-like and taste-like, as if they weren’t separate from our own body. We have a rich and raw relationship with these places. They have imprinted on us; perhaps we have imprinted on them as well. But either way, these places have been a part of making us, us.

I am Chicago born, but spent the bulk of my childhood in Philadelphia. I returned to this city of my birth for college where I have lived for the past four decades. I’ve spent a lifetime back and forthing between the east coast and the Midwest.

Last month I was in Philadelphia for the first time in years. Somehow five years had flown by – the longest time I’ve ever been between soft pretzels and a Philly cheese steak.


As I drove around the city and then into the suburbs visiting family and friends, the skin of my hometown city reached out and touched me again: the narrow wind of the roads, the extreme tilt of the terrain, the density of the tree line.

It felt sweet to be back on Philly’s twisty streets, rolling hills and dells, especially in early spring. There was such beauty in the variance of its landscape. But a thought crossed my mind: You can only see what’s right in front of you at the time.

Compared to the long view in Chicago, where from the window of an airplane you see an actual grid of the city just like a paper map. Where you can stand by a window in any skyscraper and see for miles to Indiana, even Wisconsin. Where you can bike for miles on long stretches of smooth level planes without breaking a sweat with uninterrupted thoughts.

I took note of this because I am writing a memoir in which the central action takes place in these two very different cities. It’s got me thinking about how place stimulates us. How place is a character in our lives, pushing us in one direction or another.

And I began to wonder about place’s impact on me as a writer.

According to the oldest record I have – a coverless, ringed notebook with wide lined pages scribbled with misspelled words in pen and pencil – I began my writing career on March 24, 1967 at the age of 8 with a poem titled “Happieness.”


Happieness makes the whole world gleem,

It makes the moom happy

Yes I have seen

Happieness is good and nice

It’s better than falling on the ice!




I was clearly a deep devotee of Dr. Seuss.

The ditties that followed, each signed “By Miss Ellen Blum,” featured imaginary kittens, birds and bunnies, friends who look like hens, toys, a car, my school, a pencil, an unidentified pet, my bed, a bay, a clock, the month of March, and then, my mother, my father, my grandparents, the sky and the outside world.

Most of these were written at my grandparent’s house in Oak Lane, just north of Philadelphia, where I spent so many sleepovers. I remember because I recall how it felt to finish one and immediately show it to my grandmother who would encourage me to write another. (I think she was trying keep me occupied so she could get on with her game of Solitaire.)

Writing wise, I didn’t get much farther than that ringed notebook. There were school assignments of course, and a handful of songs written on piano and guitar.

But writing didn’t take hold of me until I moved away.

So Philadelphia was the place where I started to write. About the things that were right in front of me.

But Chicago is the place where I became a writer. The kind of writer who dives into things that are hidden below the surface.

Could the wide-open spaces of the Midwest have beckoned, urging me to expose hidden ones I grew up around? Was there more room to think in Chicago? Was the beautiful rolling landscape of the east coast more like a writing obstruction rather than a writing prompt? Were there too many hidden spaces in Philadelphia? Did it not feel safe? If I hadn’t spent so many years in the City of Brotherly Love before returning to the Windy City, would I have been inclined to write at all? Was there something about the tension between these two places that set something in motion?

I just know that there’s a connection between place and who we are.

I just wonder how deep it goes, the impact of place to make us, us.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

One True Sentence


Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

“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.”

— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Last week, a writer friend and a rare day off gifted me with an opportunity to visit Hemingway’s childhood home in Oak Park, Illinois. What a treat!

I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until my friend, Annette Gendler, became the writer-in-residence there that I knew Hemingway’s House was less than 15 miles from my home. I’m hoping to prevent Chicago literary lovers from this terrible shame. Thank you again, Annette.

Hemingway was born and raised in this house. You can step into the bedroom where his mother delivered him. The home is in mint condition, brimming with actual or reproduced furniture, art and everyday kitchen and bathroom items from the late 1800s. Daily tours can be arranged. Writers-in-residence work in the studio/office in the third floor attic (off limits to tours) but Annette provided me with a glimpse. It is the quintessential writer’s garret.

Soaking up that Hemingway energy and talking shop with Annette, an essayist, memoirist and writing instructor, prompted me to revisit some of Ernest’s essays. I love the quote above from this incredibly prolific writer. His soul was clearly troubled, his life ending tragically by his own hand. But the quote suggests that he understood something about the ups and downs of writing.

Just one true sentence, he advised. “Write the truest sentence that you know.”

One more thing that’s true:

When you can, give yourself the gift of a day off.


Live Literary Events

Calendar these!

I’ll be telling my own stories, or hosting the stories of other writers at these locations through September.

Thursday, June 18th at 7 pm

Stories from the House of Truth at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, IL.

Thursday, August 6th at 8 p

Story Club North in Chicago, IL.

Thursday, October 8 at 7 pm

Curt’s Cafe South in Evanston, IL. The Fall Reading Series.



Slow Sentences


Like thousands of other writers, editors and publishers, I have just returned from literary mecca, the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) 2015. This year’s festival of words was held in Minneapolis, which provided us with a moody range of weather-systems – rain, sleet and snow leading to 60-degree sunshine on the final day, beckoning us from the convention center to lie in the grassy park across the street. It was an appropriate reflection of what may have been going on inside the panels, readings, book fair and overly long coffee lines. It’s always an intellectual and emotional roller coaster.

I’d say more about the conference but Dani Shapiro captured it so beautifully in the New Yorker, I urge you to read it here.

I suspect that some of the ripest pieces will squeeze their juices into this blog over the next several months.

After these overstimulating literary events, where you feel like you are among “your tribe,” it’s easy to deflate just a bit upon returning home. But I caught a break this year. Just two nights after my return, essayist, novelist and short story writer Jo Ann Beard was in Chicago and I was determined to go.

What a treat to hear a favorite writer read her work-under-construction in a small, intimate space. The reading was held in a medium-size auditorium on the second floor of Columbia College Chicago with about 25 people in attendance. Beard read from a short story titled “Calypso,” that she said she was writing to teach herself something new, “because I’m weak on plot,” she said. Weak on plot, huh? Have you ever read “The Fourth State of Matter?” Though she does use a good bit of digression in her work – and this story had its fill – we were all riveted.


Next to hearing Beard read new work and sign my books, I was delighted to hear her confirm something I had heard about her creative process. It’s literary legend that she writes one sentence a day. I liked the thought of that; the respect it suggests for sentence building and what that says about the architecture of a piece. I wanted to hear it from the writer herself, so I asked if she thought of herself as a slow writer.

“Yes,” she said, nodding. “Oh yes.”

“Once I write it, I refuse to cut,” she added. “A sentence goes down and it stays there.”

After the reading, and as she was signing her name in my well-worn books, she used the word unambitious to describe herself. Beard has written two books in the past seventeen years and has published just a handful of essays and short stories. At a time when it’s so easy for a writer to get so many words out there, it’s refreshing – inspiring even – to hear a writer say that she isn’t interested in amassing a pile of words.

To me, her work is the written equivalent of handmade wooden furniture, long in the making but every inch of it, fine craftswomanship.


 All photos by Ellen Blum Barish except for the one of Jo Ann Beard. Thanks, Angela Benander!



Family Tree

photo copy 3

Last week, the giant ash that has lived across the street for the more than two decades we have lived here, the one whose branches create an almost-arch over our street and whose leaves I could see when I was laying on my bed, which filled my window, always the first to turn colors in the fall, was cut down. My neighbor Ruthie told me it was just a twig when they moved in 42 years ago.

It was infected with emerald ash borer, the name of a green beetle who is so very unhappy to be away from it’s native Asia or Russia and is taking it out on Chicago area ash trees.  Those of us who happened to be around that morning – there were at least seven or eight of us – watched, our mouths in pout, as four strong men took their positions in and around the tree and two worked the chipper. It was loud and fast. Forty-two years for it to grow to it’s towering state. Gone two hours later.

Continue reading “Family Tree”

New York. Not Like I Pictured It.


I’m just back from New York City, a place I haven’t been in almost 20 years. My daughter was working there as an intern and we had big plans: A Broadway show. A Bobby Flay restaurant. The Guggenheim. Central Park. Katz’s Deli. A Woody Allen movie. We had a great time together – she and I – but the city shook me, rattled me and practically spit me out.

I think I’ve recovered now,  but it took about a week.

Continue reading “New York. Not Like I Pictured It.”