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.

 

 

 

My Inhale Year: How It Went

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Now that we are nearing the end of the year, the one in which I took an enormous inhale —  twelve months without writing  — I wanted to let you know how the experiment went.

Back in March, I wrote that I was taking a year off from writing anything other than social media and blog posts for three reasons that I was aware of at the time:

  1. a much-needed break
  2. to concentrate on the writing students in my life
  3. to work on publishing and business aspects related to Thread.

Halfway through the year, in May, I posted an update reporting more available time, but that some essential part of me was missing. A few months later, in August, I noted I was reading more. Earlier this month, I indicated that my adventure in not writing had revealed some very surprising, writerly, results.

That should catch you up.

But in the spring, there was a strange and surprising turn of events.

A longtime writing project that I had released the year before, thinking that it was completed, done, fini, drifted over and hung overhead. It moved deftly, left, right, up and down, like a handful of colored balloons in a light wind. They hovered and I swatted at them, hoping to push them away, feeling as if I had carried and nurtured them long enough.  I didn’t want them in my life.

Ah, but they weren’t going anywhere. I felt their presence for many weeks and sometime in late spring, as if they were tired of keeping themselves airborne, they popped, their skins falling right into my lap, into what appeared to be an actual shape.

It knocked me over, this wild and weird gift from above.

In moments, a structure appeared. And then, a title introduced itself. I took dictation, figuring I should at least scribble some notes. But it was more than mere scribbles. The balloon skins moved from flimsy to solidified, and in very short order I had an outline of a book-length memoir containing most of the elements of personal narrative that I teach my students: detail-scene-language-pacing-structure-storyline-voice-theme.

I’m calling the book,  Seven Springs, and – you can’t make this stuff up – I am halfway through a first draft. The process has been extraordinary, like no other I have known, as if the words that hid themselves from me for decades are now available for the plucking.

So I’m feeling a bit sheepish. I went into this thinking I knew myself. I was taking the year off from writing and I now have enough material to get a book proposal into the works. That wasn’t supposed to happen. A memoir was the farthest thing from my mind.

I think giving myself permission not to write made space for my own thoughts and the words of other writers. I tip-toed out on a limb, far from my comfort zone, on my own. My chest expanded and I breathed it all in. My inhale.

Instead of feeling like the wind or the sea that moves my projects  – my life – along, I see this year as the one in which I allowed myself to become a vessel – a receiver – and was gifted with gold.

Which is, of course, currency designed to share.

Stay close for more.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s Imprint

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A handful of out-of-town family members and two friends were in town recently and they all insisted that we visit the Art Institute of Chicago.

So we went. Three times in one week. I spent more time there than I had in years.

On that second visit I noticed that I was taking the art in differently. It wasn’t simply that I was viewing pieces for a second or third time. I was seeing them in a deeper way. Like I had been absorbed into them and was viewing them from the inside out.

The painting above is a great example. I was mesmerized by it. So crafted and chaotic at the same time. It conjured up the memory of a subway wall I saw in New York City a few years ago:

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Which is all chaos and no craft, but beautiful nonetheless. Just a wall. Exposed to the elements.

A few days later at the Chicago Botanic Garden  – I know where to take out-of-towners – I saw this rock:

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How amazing is this? It got me thinking about how life makes its mark. Not only on rocks and walls, but on us, too. In ways we can see like our scars, wrinkles, freckles and bruises. But also in ways that’s harder to see: The weather system of feelings and emotions that live inside us.

These moments made me grateful for art, nature and out-of-town visitors. But it also deepened my appreciation for personal narrative. For the process of getting it onto the page and the gift of reading or hearing it.

Which left me with this thought:  That the lines and curves in the letters that make up the sentences that constitute our essays and memoirs are the writer’s art. The visible marks of life’s imprint on us.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

A Few Minutes and a Well-Lit Screen

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Those who secured an egg salad sandwich or a small plate of veggies and hummus, a chair or section of couch and a spot to see the writers of Thread read their work, know it’s so: Thread: A Literary Publication enjoyed a magnificent launch last Wednesday evening at the cozy Curt’s Cafe.

But you who came out, parked and then couldn’t find a place to put yourself, who knew? I offer you free admission to the next reading!

For you who couldn’t be there, let me set the scene: An overflow crowd of people sat quietly as nine writers read their essays on a variety of subjects from Lee Reilly’s caregiving curiosity about the life of her charge in “Finding Nancy H.,” to the raging hormones of Anne Heaton’s mid-pregnancy in “Crazy Bird” to what it feels like to want to light up a joint in Timothy Parfitt’s “Smoke Screen,” remember something good about one’s not-so-terribly good father in “The Bath,” or be Tom Wolferman in a job, outgrown, in “A Paper Trail.” It was a night of stories reflecting human experiences across the lifespan. A celebration not only of writers and the premiere issue of Thread but an evening devoted to the truth and beauty of the personal essay. My favorite of all the written forms!

Here’s what the cafe looked like before it was filled with story lovers:

 

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And here’s what it looked like after:

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And if you wanted to get some air in between readings, this is what it looked like from the street:

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Thread will be hosting three readings a year – the next one in April – to coincide with the release of each new issue. I’m already looking for a larger venue, so stay tuned about that! But for those of you who can’t make it for the readings on a Wednesday night, you’ll just have to find a few minutes and a place where you can read from a well-lit screen to soak up these artful word journeys.

What I love about personal essays is that they are indeed personal – sometimes painfully so – and yet the best ones touch on something in the reader, something universally human, and it has the potency to not only move us but even, possibly, to change us just a little bit.  Take Robert Grubb’s “Imprint.” A connection is made from a grown son to his mother when a memory is evoked by a new puppy who is trying his patience.

Here’s what all of the writers – and I –  looked like after the reading:

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I’ll be looking for submissions for future issues beginning in mid-January 2015.  Go to the Submissions Guidelines page of the Thread site for more about that. And so that you don’t miss reading dates and publication releases and posts about writing and creative process, take a minute to subscribe to this blog and to Thread.

Photographs by Jill Howe