Words that Move


Like so many people I know, I fell into despair after the election in the fall of 2016. As a usually upbeat person, I didn’t know what to do with these new dark feelings.

It hit me especially hard in the realm of my work. Throwing myself into writing, teaching and coaching  – work I love – always raised my spirits, allowing me to lift and support others.

But I couldn’t turn off the sound of a disturbing question that echoed in my head:

How was being a writer, and a teacher of writing, really going to make any difference now?

A few months later, though still anguishing, I was functioning, getting along. When I explored why, I realized that it was because of art. Art  – through humor, empathy, community and beauty – was anchoring me, steadying me. I mused about that here.

So when the gloominess returned this summer, it muddied up my heart and felt like a prompt to dig deeper.

I found myself searching for words that had made actual change in the world.

Some highlights I found across genres:

Song. As he tunes his guitar, Pete Seeger introduces “We Shall Overcome” (written by Charles Albert Tindley) with, “If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I got one sure remedy for you.”

Essay. James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” educated an entire generation about the civil-rights struggle.

Poem. Kevin Power’s essay, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself” credits Dylan Thomas’s poetry for pulling him through a serious post-war depression.

Memoir. William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, was identified as the book that opened up a public discussion of mental illness in a recent NPR interview.

Essay Anthology. Terry Tempest Williams’ Testimony: Writers of the West Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness made a mark on environmental policy when President Clinton held the book in his hands at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, dedicating the new Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument in 1996, saying, “This made a difference.”

Law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quite literally changed the laws around gender equality and equal rights with her legal arguments.

Fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the fuse that led to the Civil War inUncle Tom’s Cabin. The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood illustrated the perils of misogyny and male privilege. Censorship took a hit in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Opinion. I was writing this blog post, this piece de resistance in the New York Times and Barak Obama’s speech at University of Illinois materialized.

Do these examples raise my spirits?

Yes. Yes, they do.

But not all words are designed to make people change their mind or behavior. Not every Beatles song became a hit.

Some words expose, educate or simply entertain – remember the global reach of Pharrell William’s song ”Happy” ? – but it’s fair to say that words strung thoughtfully together share one mission: to move.

And movement – even if it’s temporary –   is a treasure. It can be breath allowing. Perspective giving.

We need the writer’s words to prod, stir, calm or badger. To remind us that we are still alive.


The Fall Issue of Thread is now available for your reading pleasure!


For free.

Summer’s end. A healing creek. A Russian bath.
A New York subway ride.
An afternoon in California. A muse on checks and balances.



See September’s Stitch!

Looking for submissions.

Find out more here.



Interested in joining me for a writing workshop?

See if one of these works for your schedule this fall.



Photos courtesy of unsplash.com. Top by Val Vesa. Bottom by Greyson Joralemon.





















Family Secrets

ScanI never set out to write about my family. If anything, I ran and embraced the other direction when I chose the field of journalism. Reporting trained me to talk to all sides, focus on facts and keep my dang opinions out of it.

In an interesting twist, it was a j-school colleague with whom I worked at a publishing company after graduate school (and would become a dear friend ) who assigned me my first personal essay. At the time, she was the editor of women’s health publication for a Chicago-area medical system. The “Hers” column in the New York Times was popular then. I had just given birth to my first daughter and she asked me to write a short personal reflection about motherhood. The piece was titled “A New Vision of Motherhood” and I wrote about what had changed since becoming a mother for me, and also, in how I saw my mother. It was the first time I ever wrote about my family for a public audience. You can read it here: A New Vision of Motherhood.

There’s so much more to say about what happened next, but what I remember most about writing that essay was how amazing it felt to turn my skills as a researcher and writer of others’ lives to my own. It was potent. And complicated. But I was drawn – and hooked – on the form. I went on to write a monthly column about my family and ultimately a collection of sixty of those were edited into short essays that ended up in my book.

So I was delighted when, last year, StoryStudio Chicago asked me to teach a one-night workshop on writing family secrets. I have a few things to say about the subject. And some great essay snippets to talk about. The workshop is being reprised on Monday, March 18 at 6:30 pm. You can find out more about this one night workshop (and registration info) here.



Lesson from the Stairs

IMG_3187I snapped this photograph last December when I was in Southern California. The colors swept me up; such a contrast from the gray Chicago I had left behind.

But when I uploaded it into my photo files, I saw something else in these colored ceramic tile stairs: Vertical/horizontal. Pattern/solid. Movement (the step) and stillness (the landing.) I saw structure; the suggestion of structure for a piece of writing. For an essay that begins on the ground, then  steps up to a bold pop of pattern, then moves into solidity, then into a new and different pattern and repeats.

The stairs made me think of Bernard Cooper’s perfection of a short, structured essay in seven paragraphs, “The Fine Art of Sighing.” You can read it here.  Graf by graf, step by step, it moves us from present (the solid) to memory (pattern) to imagination (new pattern) to history (another pattern) and finally, back again to the present (the landing). At the top landing, we stand differently than we stood on the ground because we’ve been given a richly textured, guided tour of the stairs.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish 







Punctuating the Pezzo

s_OaE33cdqkDHwe37B_uVkmqb7pl2AgRLlQo19Qmxm-EYmSf98K1_xyE0jeA90o64OSxBQ=s89In my personal essay workshops, we’ve been discussing a short essay by Pico Iyer titled, “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”

You can click on it here:


It’s my not-so-very subtle way to honor, in essay form of course, the tools of punctuation.

The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away,” Iyer writes. “But the same could be said – could it not? – of the humble comma.”

He continues: “Punctuation is the notation in the sheet music of our words, telling us where to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges

that the meaning of our discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies not in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing.”

I love this. Makes the hairs on my arm stand up straight!

I love it because Iyer has tapped into a writing process metaphor that I’ve been working on for a while now: that we can improve our writing, especially  shorter form writing, by thinking about it as we do a piece of music. From note to stanza to verse to chorus. And structurally. (I’m actually at work on pulling thoughts together for a one-night workshop at StoryStudio North Shore, so stay tuned.)

Just think of the terms we use when we talk about our pieces: What do we want to accent? Where is the crescendo of the piece? What is the tone and is there too much (allegro non troppo – cheerfulness, but not too much.) And what about slow pacing  (adiago) and strong sound (fortissimo) and the pulsing in the piece, the vibrato?

You get the idea.

But back to punctuation. For fun, I looked up punctuate and I found words like: pause, interrupt, intersperse, scatter, disrupt, pepper, dot, litter, sprinkle, lace, break, disturb. Aren’t these great verbs?

The comma, of course, is the tool we use the most. The one, frankly, whose usage we ought to revisit. It, like the period, semi-colon, the colon, the dash, italics, quote marks make our words  – the notes of our writing – into music.