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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Your Mark

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Getting naked is the last thing we want to think about in winter. Especially those of us who live where snow falls.

But I think the more we mirror nature rather than draw the curtains on it, the closer we get to feeling balanced. Steady. A reasonable goal during these very unsteady times.

That’s my plan for this upcoming winter and early spring. To get a little bit naked. Bare a little more of my soul. Leave my mark in the world. In words.

Like the tree that falls in the woods when no one is around, your mark won’t reverberate unless you share it with others.

So let’s get naked together this winter and spring. I’m starting the year off with a one-day writing workshop in the woods (January 14th at Little House of Glencoe) and following it up with half-day, four-five-and-six-week workshops, as well as private coaching options.

Go to the Workshop page of my website for more details or email me with questions.

Let’s strip down to the bare essentials. We’ll leave quite an impression.

 

WRITING WORKSHOPS with ELLEN BLUM BARISH

WINTER/SPRING 2017

Half-Day & One-Day Workshops

Friday, December 16; 10:45 – 12:15 pm (Beth Emet The Free Synagogue)

Saturday, January 14; 10 – 4 pm (Little House of Glencoe)

Friday, February 3; 1-2:30 pm (Women’s Exchange)

Thursday, April 13; 9:30 – 11:30 am (Off Campus Writers Workshop)

Four, Five & Six-Week Workshops

Thursdays, March 2 – 23; 10:30 – noon (Women’s Exchange)

Tuesdays, February 7 – March 14; 1-3:30 pm (Skokie)

Wednesdays, May 3 – 31; 1-3 pm (New Trier Extension)

 

 

 

 

A Fire Burns in the Ice

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This year marks my tenth as a writing coach and it’s got me musing on how we end up doing things that we love that we didn’t set out to do.

I liked school well enough to pursue a graduate degree, but I wasn’t anything close to a stellar student. Enthusiastic, sure. Yet far from a star.

But I sure put that degree to use. My bylines appeared in Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Self, my essays aired on public radio and I helped several publications earn editorial awards. I felt really lucky to enjoy so many of the pieces of my chosen field – the reporting, writing, editing, and publishing. I even liked rewriting and proofreading.

Twenty years after I graduated, a former professor of mine at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications where I received my fine j-school education, recommended me for the editor post at the school’s alumni magazine. I was delighted at the offer and happily accepted.

During my three years there, that same professor thought I might be able help coach students who were destined for fine journalism careers but struggling with some aspects of writing. So in addition to my editorial duties, I coached a few students on the side. I keep up with a several of them on Facebook and boy have they have soared!

I’m not exactly sure what it was he saw in me then that promised some skill at working with people on their writing and helping them to reach some goal. I suspect it had something to do with my love for the work, dedication to excellence (even if I try and fail), and a certain gusto that I still carry with me.

Gusto, I guess, because I’m not that patient when it comes to other things. Very little else holds my attention like the process of making something appear — into what is often gorgeous and artful – out of nothing. There’s something extremely appealing to me about the blank page, something alluring and challenging that offers us a chance to capture an experience, a thought, an idea, a memory, or simply a series of words, that if handled in just the right way, provides an answer or a clue, is a gift to someone else or, perhaps most importantly, remains forever.

To leave a legacy behind, even a small one, made of static words on the page that have the power to move people. How cool is that?

Many years into a career, some folks burn out. I feel like the fire glows brighter for me now, especially at the sight or sound of a spark in the eyes, voice, or written words of the writer with whom I am working.

In the gem world, the tenth anniversary merits a diamond but because it’s below freezing here in the Midwest, I’m leaning toward readily available ice as my metaphor, with a multi-faceted look back at some of the successes I’ve seen in the writers with whom I’ve had the joy of working:

  • One of my first tutees from j-school has a high-level communications role in the Democratic National Committee.
  • Three personal essays of a writer I met at one of my book readings were recorded and aired on Chicago public radio.
  • Numerous stories that were struggling to leave the head of the writer, looking for a safe place to land, found their way to the page.
  • Many stalled final papers, dissertations and business proposals became unstuck.
  • Writing prompts given to four of my students turned into essays that I felt were good enough to publish in Thread.
  • I believe that the strong personal essays for graduate school applications helped send at least ten writing students into the programs of their choice.
  • A powerful story was published by one of my writing students in Shambhala Sun, another in More Magazine and a third in Blood Orange Review.

If you have been thinking about working with a coach, consider this year as the one where you make that dive.

Click here for more on my coaching.

Does working with others sound better to you? Try one of my workshops – online or live – that start next week!

Subscribe to Thread.

Submit to Thread.

Support Thread.

Read Thread.

Thoughts? Questions? Something you’d like to share? Comment below or email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

Writing Wishes Can Come True

heavysnow 2Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish

Is the prospect of a long, cold winter weighing you down?

Revise that old script you have for winter.  It’s a great time to get back to your writing!

If you’ve been thinking about working with a writing coach, but the price has kept you from giving it a try, this is the time!

Until December 31st, 2013, I’m offering  a 25% discount for a one-hour coaching session and a 30% discount for three or more sessions. So if you are working on a personal essay for publication or pleasure, a memoir, a family history, dissertation, academic paper or essay for college or graduate school applications, take advantage of this first-time-ever fee!

If you were thinking about purchasing coaching time for a friend, consider a gift certificate at this greatly reduced price. Certificates are good for 2014 but must be purchased before December 31, 2013.

For more information about this holiday purchase price or gift certificates, email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com.

All the best for this holiday season. Hope to see you in 2014!

Warm wishes,

Ellen