A Writer’s Work

The morning after the election, dazed and confused along with so many others, I found myself searching quotation databases for words of wisdom to soothe my soul.

Using key phrases like “moving through shock” and “coming back from defeat” and “when bad things happen,” I found encouraging words from Martin Luther King, Rabbi Harold Kushner and former President Bill Clinton (see below.)

Those post-election days are a blur to me now, but I’ll never forget how comforting it felt to find the right words.

I have been thinking about that moment as I watch my family and friends respond to and recover from the election of the man who turned the world upside down.

Some ranted, went mute, fishing, or to bed.

Some cried, cooked, collapsed.

But as bearings returned, so did action.

My rabbi invited local legislators and the community for a town hall-style meeting at our synagogue.

The Christian-Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group in which I have been a longtime member met for a heartfelt dinner and discussion at a local Turkish restaurant.

My daughter organized a fundraiser with other millennials for a women’s homeless shelter.

Journalists and news organizations debated the principles of real news.

Businesspeople innovated.

Women marched.

And it was good. This was action. We were facing this.

More accurately, people I knew were finding their place. I just hadn’t found mine yet. I couldn’t figure out how to plug in. What could I do to make an actual, concrete contribution?

I considered what had given me solace in the days and weeks post-election.

Laughter from Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway on Saturday Night Live.

Empathy from Sara Bareilles and Leslie Odom, Jr’s song, “Seriously.”

Community from Chicago storytellers expressing how they were feeling at live lit events.

Beauty through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds in words, photographs, poster slogans, political cartoons, films, paintings and sculpture.

 It’s ridiculous that it took me so long to see it. But I finally got it.

Comedy. Music. Storytelling. Words. Photographs. Film. Painting. Clay.

 All artistic expressions.

Art moves me to feel. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But feeling strongly moves me to get up and do something. Maybe that something is making art. But it can also be about inspiring others.

And this is where I can be helpful.

I’ve seen what can happen when people write stories from their lives. They lighten. They rise up a little.

But being inspired could also stir someone to change a vote, run for office, or create a ruckus.

I’m not the person who will turn a vote around or set up a foundation.

I will, however, show up. Offer my signature. Write a small check.

But I hope that I can generate a bigger impact – a larger noise – through making, and inspiring others to make, art or express themselves.

One piece of this is my commitment to infusing this blog space with inspiration on writing, creativity and craft. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I hope you’ll be one. It’s easy. And free. Subscribe here.

But I have another idea that is still marinating:

To curate a live lit storytelling event featuring personal narratives about the givens in our life – the color of our skin, the place we grew up and/or live and the religion in which we were raised (or not). I’m thinking of calling it “Race, Place and Divine Grace.” Stories about the parts of our lives that we can’t change in an effort to look at how we might, in fact, change. To hear one another – the full range of perspectives – a little better.

If you live near Chicago and have any thoughts about how we might co-mingle, let’s talk.

So this year, I’ve decided to go for more feeling, less reeling.

Will you join me?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

 

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Former President William J. Clinton

 

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

Leafy Inspiration

IMG_4251 2
Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2014.

 

Everywhere you look, we’re being framed in gold, orange and yellow. It’s my favorite quarter of the year where color takes the stage for a continuously changing runway walk and just the right amount of nip in the air keeps me perking along.  Autumn is the time to manifest dreams.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right now. Manifesting a lifelong dream to publish a literary magazine!

The design has been approved. Essays are in final edit. The online publication – featuring essays and photography – is currently under construction.  The launch is scheduled for early December. Watch this space for more on all of this in the weeks to come.

Wishes for leaves of inspiration to blow your way this season.

 

The Jewel in the Sentence

IMG_1534Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish

When I’m looking for inspiration, I frequently turn to the craft essays in Brevity, an online literary publication with great essays as well as process pieces. This one, called “Not Every Sentence Can Be Great But Every Sentence Must Be Good,” written by Cynthia Newberry Martin, offers up tangible ways to brighten up our sentences with some spit and shine. I’m taking the liberty to share the second half of her piece which is filled with tips. Click here for the complete essay.

Perhaps good is best defined by what a sentence is not: indifferent, slack, utilitarian, boring, Since it’s more effective to work toward a positive than away from a negative, let’s look at seven ways to revise a sentence – seven ways to take a sentence from boring to good.

1. Add detail.

a. An unusual detail and/or a detail that is personal to the narrator.

May Sarton in Journal of a Solitude: There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour—put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me (33).

Note: The detail of “putting out birdseed” emerges as unusual and specific in this list of tasks. Readers of May Sarton will recognize it as characteristic of her.

b. Framing details plus a dash of vagueness.

Neil Young in Waging Heavy Peace: Crosby had recently gotten straight, was recovering from his addiction to freebase, had just completed jail time he got for something having to do with a loaded weapon in Texas, and was still prone to taking naps between takes (3).

Note: Adding details to just one of the clauses brings this sentence to life. The details plus the spot of vagueness cause our minds to go to work imagining what might have happened in Texas.

2.    Add unusual repetition.

a.  Different forms of the same word.

Anne Enright in The Gathering: I close my eyes against the warm sunlight and doze beside the dozing stranger on the Brighton train (55).

Note: Enright repeats doze in the adjective form of dozing.

Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: Henry is the only man I’ve ever known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers (6).

Note: Houston repeats love in the noun form of lovers. And notice the rhythm of the sentence.

b.  The same word as different parts of speech.

Anne Enright in The Gathering: I was back to school runs and hovering and ringing other-mothers for other-mother things, like play dates, and where to buy Rebecca’s Irish dancing shoes (133).

Note: Enright uses other-mother both as a noun and as an adjective, where it supplies a frame for the vagueness of things, which she then frames even more by using examples.

3.  Incorporate a character’s voice.

David Foster Wallace in “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”  from Consider the Lobster and Other Essays: People keep asking Mrs. T’s permission until she tells them to knock it off and for heaven’s sake just use the phone already (138).

4.  Add a surprising or unusual perspective.

Anne Enright in The Gathering: The Hegartys didn’t start kissing until the late eighties and even then we stuck to Christmas (53).

Note: Enright enlarges the time frame: instead of referencing an event, she references an entire decade.

5.  Use sentence fragments.

Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras” from The Best American Essays 2005: So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment (30).

Thomas Merton in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: How the valley awakes (117).

Cheryl Strayed in Wild: Planet Heroin (53).

6.  Use compression—combine sentences to create density.

Pam Houston in Contents May Have Shifted: We were each locked inside our individual sorrows, didn’t know each other well enough to share, but we agreed, out loud, that like moose, pelicans were surely put on earth to act as suicide preventers, agreed we’d never kill ourselves within the sight of one (8).

Note: Multiple could-have-been-single sentences are contained in one sentence; notice how the compression creates a lovely rhythm.

7.  Delete a sentence.

From my novel-in-progress:

Original: Angelina went straight from Lucy’s to the gym. In the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, she could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.

Improved: But at the gym, in the face of matching clothes, mirrors, strutting, Angelina could feel her body regressing—curling in instead of opening out—and she reminded herself to breathe.

 

Our Universal Tongue

images 2There’s no denying that as a writer, I’m all about words. But when words are put to music and made into a song, a universal language is created that can move a mass of people all at the same time. Often it does the job better than mere words can.

I’m just back from my first trip to Nashville and the button of my music-loving soul has most definitely been turned on.  I road tripped down there with my husband and two dear, longtime friends for the annual Americana Music Association’s Festival and Conference http://americanamusic.org/who-we-are. Americana music is folk, country, rhythm and blues and rock and roll, often called roots music. All four of us love the many flavors of Americana music and the mess it makes with our emotions so we went down there to marinate in it.

Continue reading “Our Universal Tongue”