Prompts for the Page and Publishing Progress!

 

While some people may arrive at the page overflowing with creative energy, others may need a gentle nudge to get started.

That’s where the writing prompt can help.

In recent years, prompts have become part of the DNA of the modern writing workshop. I offer a fresh one every week for my students so they have no excuse not to write.

A prompt can be simply a word, short phrase, paragraph, idea or image designed to inspire, spur or focus you in the writing process.

I was resistant to using prompts at first because I usually have plenty on my mind to start. But when they did such a good job inspiring my students, I was prompted to use them myself.  They have the ability to spin a topic in roundabout ways with very satisfying results. They can help you get unstuck from a piece currently under construction or surprise you by providing insight from the back door.

For a taste, here are twelve of my go-to writing prompts:

  • A treasured object. Identify and describe a beloved object in your home and write the story of how you got it.
  • A place you cherish. Write about a place that made you feel happy, safe or changed in some way.
  • A favorite food or meal. Make the reader understand why that food or meal has stayed with you.
  • A memorable scent. Bring a person, animal, meal, indoor or outdoor moment to life by way of its aroma.
  • A song with meaning. Why has a particular song stuck with you?
  • Allow a body part to speak. Write what a body part would say if it were able to speak.
  • Where were you when? Where were you and what were you doing during a major moment in history such as when Apollo landed on the moon, Kennedy was shot or when the towers went down?
  • An inherited trait. What gestures or behaviors — that you like or dislike — connect you to a family member?
  • Breaking a habit. Describe a moment that motivated you to make a change.
  • Send a letter. Write a letter to someone with whom you have unfinished business.
  • A do-over dialogue. Rewrite a conversation that you would like to redo.
  • Two voices. Take a memorable event and write it from your current age and perspective. Then, write it from your age and lens at the time.

Publishing Progress!  

If you have been following the journey of my memoir in its quest for publication, I’m now a step closer. In late June, I found an agent! The contract has been signed and we are now, officially, in sell mode. I promise to keep you posted.

Fall Issue in the Works

The Fall Issue of Thread is scheduled for a late September/early October release. Six compelling essays by six beautiful writers. An end-of-summer reflection on the end of life. An end of summer story set in the 70s. A perspective-altering subway ride. A sanctuary-offering creek. A cleansing Russian banya. And a meditation on the checkmark. Stay tuned for their release by subscribing for free, and following Thread on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Mark your Calendar!

Thread took a hiatus from live lit productions in 2018 but we’re gearing up for our biggest show yet! Save the date: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. in Skokie Theatre, Evanston, IL. As the Skokie Arts Commission pick for Artistic Excellence Award 2018, I wanted to throw some love back at my home city by celebrating Thread’s anniversary. Eight seasoned Chicago-area storytellers have been invited to celebrate Thread’s fifth publishing year by reading their work aloud. Storyteller and ticket information to come.

The Twenty-Fifth Stitch

“Daughter” by Gila Berryman marked the 25thedition of Stitch, the “flashiest” section of Remnant Publishing featuring essays of 100 words or less.  The reading period for Stitch and Thread is on a short summer hiatus, but submissions will be back up and running on August 1st.

Ellen Blum Barish
Photo by Aaron Burden, courtesy of Unsplash.

Clarity, Doubt and Insanity: The Edit

Alexa Mazzarello

So, as you may know, I’m in revision mode on a memoir.

Last month, I decided to dedicate some space on this blog to document my journey to finish this project.

You can read about that here. I wrote that I wanted to make a record. To reveal moments of clarity, doubt and insanity; the process. That even as a writing coach, I, too, need a schedule and some witnesses to keep me accountable and encouraged.

To that end, here are some selected scenes from January for what I’m calling my periodic blogumentary.

Tuesday, January 2

I respond to every e-message and Facebook post as they arrive; run up and down the stairs  to stay on top of multiple loads of laundry; take my car in for a wash and balance my checkbook.

Thursday, January 4

First writing day of 2018. I dig back into a scene from the early nineteen-seventies where my mother checks in on my brother who, at 10, was quite shy. After I write this scene, my brother, now 55, calls to tell me about how he has taken a tough stance with the bank and car dealership so that we will not under any circumstances be going underwater with our mother’s car. 

Friday, January 5

I return to another scene from the early seventies, revisiting the moment my mother first sees me, post-auto accident. I remember her expression when she sets eyes on my mouth  – where my main physical injury occurred – and I am reminded of how she refused to look at her own reflection in the mirror when she was sick for so many months prior to her death last year.

Thursday, January 18

A coffee conversation with a friend who writes young adult fiction gives me the confidence to let go of sentences which didn’t read as authentically twelve for the section in my book written from a young girl’s perspective. She reminds me that what comes after trauma doesn’t come all at once, but in small bits, slowly. Later, I notice that I have more emotional distance from a pivotal scene with my father, which allows me to soften it and let the storyline create the scene’s poignancy.

 Monday, January 22

I take a treadmill break and am flooded with surety about adding a new “character.” She’s been in, then out, and in-and-out again. But with my heart rate up and sweat dripping down my brow, I suddenly recognize the mark she made on me as it relates to the narrative and when I get back to my laptop, my fingers can barely keep pace with the flow of my thoughts.

Tuesday, January 23

I write 3,500 words and take a long lunch break and watch “The Chew.” When I get back to my office to reread what I wrote, most of it is windup, but there are 250 really good words that are worth keeping.

Friday, January 25

I spend most of the day reading the entire manuscript – start to finish – making little tweaks here and there, and when I’m done, I think, this feels close to whole as I can get it today. I set it aside for a much-needed break.

Monday, January 29

I rise early and read certain sections of the manuscript again, the parts more recently written. I find typos, as well as phrases that need tightening or clarifying. A writer can endlessly edit. But I let out a long exhale, craft an email to my trusted editor, attach the document and press send. Several hours later, two ideas for new complete sections come to me. I sigh, grab my iPhone, and jot them down. A writer writes even when she isn’t writing.

Sunday, February 10

My editor tells me she’ll have notes for me in a few weeks. While I wait for feedback –  which we writers desperately need but desperately fret over, too – I am noticing more psychic space, more room for random thoughts even though many still have to do with the book. But I am also noticing an unhinged feeling, some rootlessness. A worrisome thought comes: Once this work is completed, who I will be?

Photo from Unsplash by Alexa Mazzarello.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Never on Tuesday

“You cannot go Tuesday, but you can go Monday, Wednesday and Thursday to Friday Saturday Sunday. We chose Thursday, and dined at this charming little spot located at 261 S. 21st Street.”

So opens my first published article in the spring of my senior year of high school.

It was a restaurant review in my high school newspaper, The Earthquake, that I co-wrote with my friend Marianne, with whom I am still close. She became a painter and I, a writer but I remember that lead insisting itself on both of us.

It’s hilarious to read, now, forty years later.

For our hubris:

 “We were warmly welcomed by a young hostess and promptly seated at a table adorned with fresh flowers.”

A young hostess? Really? We were 17 or 18 at the time.

For our earnestness:

“We immediately noticed that the walls and ceiling were draped with billowing Indian fabrics. The menu was cleverly situated up high on a blackboard which was nestled among plants. Dim lighting and soft jazz music added to the cozy ambience of the restaurant.”

And our innocence:

After splitting a mocha walnut torte – dubbing it a “sublime delicacy” – we concluded:

“Our dinner was topped off with an uncommonly good cup of coffee and left us content and satisfied having enjoyed our dinner thoroughly!”

Coming across these six-paragraphs delights me for three reasons.

First, it’s a reminder of how long I have been honing my craft.

Second, what a lovely souvenir from my senior year.

Finally, though I never wrote another restaurant review in my life, discovering and critiquing new eateries is something that I still love to do with Marianne. We like what we like from an early age.

And it appears that we know how to pick ‘em, too. I just Googled the restaurant to see what might be in its place and would you believe, it’s is still there.

Just like we are, now.

But without this yellowed newsprint, there wouldn’t be proof that I was there, then.

I guess what I’m saying is, keep what you can, so you can take note of the miles you travel.

Marianne and I, many miles ago.

Cover image is page 5 of The Earthquake, March 11, 1977.

Ten Gifts to Stir Your Creative Soul

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For some of you, the last two weeks in December multiplies the items on your to-do list and pushes you to pick up the pace. For others, it may be a quieter time. But the shorter days, perhaps a few high expectations, and our cultural magnification on the holidays can make this a challenging time for psychic space to create.

So I urge you not to fight against it and instead give yourself a break from making and allow yourself the gift of taking. I’m not talking about things material (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) I’m talking about filling your creative well with inspiration, affirmation and perhaps an insight or two. Consider using the next few weeks to take in what others have to say about why creativity is a priority in their lives. Let them give you words that to help you appreciate what you do, creatively speaking.  Make it your end-of-the-year gratitude review.

To that end, I have some recommendations. Below are ten books that have provided me with this gift. Books that I go back to from time to time. Writers whose words on the subject of creativity, craft and the writing life ring bells for me and remind me why I spend so much time in its pursuit.

Certainly you can get your own thoughts down on the subject  –  it makes a great prompt – but when a writer articulates what you have long felt but never put into words (whether you’ve tried or not), it can be such a gift.

Gifts to stir your soul.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

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The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr

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Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

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Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

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The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers, Laura Oliver

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The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick

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Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser

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Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg

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Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington

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Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, Louise DeSalvo

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Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2015.