Petals and Vine

As I strolled through the botanic garden’s annual orchid exhibit last week –  giddy over my first day off in weeks,  the unusually warm temperatures and a break from working with words – I was hoping to capture the explosion of color, texture and shape with a few camera clicks.

What I didn’t plan on was the pattern that emerged as I looked through the final shots. For almost every floral subject, there were at least two versions: one zoomed in and one pulled far back.

The photograph above is the close up version of the image below.

In the first picture, you can see the petals and vines that constitute the color, texture and shape I was going for. In the second, you can see these, but there’s far more than the parts. It had become an entirely new whole.

I thought to myself, this is what it feels like to see creative work developing. 

It all begins with a few petals and some vine. But then the artist turns it into a gown. Being a witness to it is a lot like watching magic happen.

A very viney example from one writer’s effort in a workshop I facilitated last year:

Roberta was in the midst of her morning routine, mulling over what to write about for the weekly prompt assignment, when her hunt for her hairbrush took her to a closet which led her to a red box that she had forgotten about. Opening the box rerouted her but gifted her with the subject for her prompt. This is the moment in our story where it is important to know that in addition to writing, Roberta is artistically ambidextrous: she makes fabric, quilts, books and paper. After bringing in the results for a few in-class sessions of feedback, (“You’ve got to let go of the hairbrush and let us see that box, Roberta!”) she was moved to cross-pollinate her love of words, thread, paper and binding and make this beautiful handmade book that illustrates the story I’ve just summarized, but far more poetically and optically.

Here is the result, at medium range:

Here is a page, close up:

And then far back again:

A circuitous journey, like this blog post, which just took you from orchids to photographs to floral gowns to a writer’s workshop to a hairbrush to the accidental finding of a red box that turned into an actual book about finding a red box and then back to photographs again.

The creative path is a mysterious one. But as a frequent spectator I can tell you that one of its most potent qualities is contagion.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish. “The Red Box” written and crafted by Roberta Levin. Copyright 2017.








Over the past two years, I’ve submitted my own essay labors of love to more than fifty publications. I’ve been told by writer friends that this is a drop in the bucket, numbers-wise. They’ve argued that if I doubled or tripled that amount, I’d have far better odds of seeing my work published. I suspect there’s some mathematical truth to this. But, there’s really only so much rejection a girl can take, right?

The way I look at it, of those fifty-something attempts at getting my work published, four of my essays have found homes. I’m okay with that math. I’ll even reach and say pleased, because I know what I’m up against: There are a lot of remarkable essayists out there. And a growing number of outstanding literary publications that publish them.

It’s worth a moment to stop and look at the word submit.

To submit is to offer, present, put forward. These suggests something proactive. But the word also is defined as a yielding, a succumbing, a letting go. It’s this second definition that is, without a doubt, the hardest for any artist. We put an enormous amount of ourselves into our work; we edit, tweak, cut, add, shave, rework, and sometimes  start all over again. When we finally feel that our work is ready to send out –  a moment worth acknowledging, practically worth a small parade –  we are presenting it and surrendering it, simultaneously. Like a tree that put itself out there protectively, like shelter, but also appears, perhaps with one or two branches, to be letting itself go.

It’s with a deep understanding of this weird and wonderful creative process that I announce open submissions for Thread beginning on January 12th, 2015. That’s next week! Please do review the Submissions Guidelines on the site. I never fully understood what all the fuss was until I was in the position of reading vast amounts of content. The guidelines really help smooth the reading process. There’s less in the way and more room for the editor to experience the small universe those words create, the art you’ve poured yourself into.

At this writing, my plan is to publish two more issues in 2015, translating into eighteen essays, perhaps a few less as I have my eye on three or four pieces. Keep that in mind as you prepare to submit. Know that if there isn’t a fit between us this time, it may not be about the writing, but rather the content as I want to keep it diverse. That may feel like bad news to you. But the good news is that there are many excellent literary pubs out there for you to try, and I’m urging you to submit whenever and wherever you can.

Putting yourself out there and letting go is, by itself, a potent and worthwhile experience, a big part of the creative process and what draws us back to the page and screen, again and again.


So … A Needle Pulling Thread

In Separation, a poem that strikes me as having prose-essay elements, W.S. Merwin writes, “Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color.” Merwin appears to be referring to a person, but I think the your could be applied to almost anything; a thing, a feeling, something we do. This time of year, with its concentration on celebration and roving routines, I notice who I am without writing. Turns out, even when I’m not writing or thinking about writing or focused on editing or publishing, everything I do is still stitched with its sensibility. At its heart, writing wants to communicate, to connect, to unearth meaning.  I find that even when I’m not tap-tapping keys with my fingertips or scratching on paper with a pen, I still want those things. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. Writers and artists may be closer to all of this or perhaps more inclined to articulate it since expression is what we do. But dissecting our creative process doesn’t only give us a huge boost in our creative endeavors, there’s application for daily life. This seems to be a good time of year to ask, Who are you without your routine? What is your thread made of? And, finally, what are you stitching? I offer these as writing prompts, or as simply end-of-the-year questions to ponder what you’d like to weave into 2015 as you light your lights, trim your trees, hug your houseguests and sing your holiday songs, and what you might like to leave behind.

Hoping that whatever you choose will allow our paths to connect in 2015.

P.S. Looking for a last minute holiday gift? What about a gift certificate for a coaching session, manuscript review or discount on a New Trier Extension writing workshop? For more about that, email me at
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish


Seeing Up Close and Far Away


Our near vision blurs as we age. From what I’ve read it’s because our lenses thicken

and become less flexible. The less elastic the lens, the harder for the eye to focus up close which either leads to fuzzy vision or …. bifocals.

I’ve tried bifocals, twice – being able to see up close and far away so clearly does lure – but I just can’t bear them. The vision lines are too confining. I’d rather see less distinctly but have the ability to move between close up and far away more swiftly and with more fluidly than have to keep my field of vision within a tiny, prescripted space.

I think that’s what draws me toward photography which has taught me about three-layered seeing.

1) There’s what my naked eye sees.

2) There’s what my camera captures.

3) And finally, the resulting image that may contain elements I didn’t see at first.

Since late last year, I’ve been revising a series of older personal essays. I’ve been reframing and restructuring them and it’s very powerful work. It’s been grounding to be taking pictures (generating new work) during this process of taking what’s already written (working with what’s been captured) and then, in the revising, discovering a new layer or making something wholly new. What I’m learning is that the pieces that feel complete are doing what the eye was made to do: they allow us to see close up and far away at the same time.

I urge you to try out this three-tiered approach to your creative process. Create something new. Revise something old. Blend them together to make something entirely different or to highlight something you didn’t see before.

Dig out those old essays or stories that call to you, dust them off and enter them again to see what they have to tell you. Turn one into a poem. Or find that poem and write it as an essay. Take your short story to write it as a personal essay. Find a photograph you took and write what comes to you as you look at it.

Mix, match and make your mark!

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish, 2014.








Spiraling Toward a Creative Goal


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If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the creative process, it’s that it’s so not linear.

Certainly the process can be broken down into steps. And those steps can be taken one at a time. At your own pace. In a very organized way, if you so choose.

But that’s about it, as far as planning goes. Those steps aren’t the mere up and down variety. More like the spiral staircase. Once in, the process takes over and your best bet is to try not to look down or up – you may get dizzy – and simply go with it.

The piece you thought you were writing somehow goes in another direction. You put it aside, go for a walk or see a movie, and a connective thread comes to you, maybe a theme. You decide to try a different approach. And it feels better, sounds better. You read it out loud and you don’t like it. You put it aside again and pick it up later to read it and you see something in it you didn’t before. Perhaps it’s in there already or there’s a space for it, calling to you to fill it.

The process is so unlike the rest of what we do in a day. Or is it? We may be washing breakfast dishes but then get distracted by a phone call or something on TV. Or we may move from one room to another completely forgetting what we left for.

I think that day-to-day life is very much like the spiral of creative process. Some days it may feel more like non-connecting circles, which may feel repetitious and not very meaningful. But imagine what a bunch of balloons might look like in the sky. Now there’s a bunch of non-connecting circles! Lovely, right? Even, maybe artful.

This is what I’ve taken away from the past several months. Months in which I’ve taken a break from blogging to dive into photography, music, storytelling under the lights and also, more long-form essay writing. It’s been a rich time that has confirmed for me how useful it is to cross-pollinate one’s arts.  If you get the chance, I urge you to try it. Take a break from your writing to express yourself in another creative way. Abstract painting. Charcoal drawing. Electric guitar. Patchwork quilting. Baking sweet confections.

Time away from blogging deadlines also allowed me some distance to formulate my ideas about how I teach, how I facilitate the writing process for others. This is what I’ve concluded: I think writers are usually hanging out somewhere within one of these eight pieces, which are are, appropriately verbs:

They are in some version of being or looking for stimulation; writing; printing; sharing; feedbacking; revising; tweaking; or submitting (or telling).

I’m giving these verbs a try this summer over the course of eight weeks in the form of a facilitated writer’s circle that encourages writers to move through these eight steps (perhaps not in this exact order). For more about that, click on the Workshops page of my website.

And I am also launching new private coaching options, four different approaches that respond to what I’ve been hearing from writers about what they need and want. Because that’s the other thing I learned from my time away: I love being  there for other writers, to nurture and support you through your own creative process. It is so delicious to be a part of that, for you and for me, too!

For more information about any of these options, and for fees related to them, just send me a line at

Private Coaching Options


Single Coaching Session: If you are just starting out and want to see what coaching feels like, or for guidance for the intermediate or advanced writer looking for next steps. One hour session.


Three-Session Throughway: You are looking for the right project to settle in on, or to select pieces to submit for publication. Or you may be looking for feedback on a small body of work already in progress. Three one-hour sessions.


Three-Month Roundup: This is your chance to dive into a project with support and guidance. Two, one-hour sessions per month, over a three-month period in person, over the telephone or Skype, or via email manuscript exchange. 


Year-Long Mentor Program: For the writer who wants support and direction for a longer writing project, whether it is a series of connected essays, a memoir, a family story or business history.  Two, one-hour sessions per month for a twelve-month period that also includes  email and phone consultation in between sessions.


Writers with whom I have worked, or whose work I have reviewed have had their essays or memoir pieces published in The Sun, More magazine, Shambhala Sun, North Shore Magazine, Blood Orange Review and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. Many have also had pieces  published in essay anthologies or self-published books. I have taught, or currently teach writing to journalism and marketing graduate students at Medill School of Journalism, graduate students in nursing at North Park University, undergraduates at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and adult learners at StoryStudio Chicago, Writer’s Workspace, Ragdale, Off Campus Writers Workshop.


Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish.