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.

 

 

 

A Fire Burns in the Ice

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This year marks my tenth as a writing coach and it’s got me musing on how we end up doing things that we love that we didn’t set out to do.

I liked school well enough to pursue a graduate degree, but I wasn’t anything close to a stellar student. Enthusiastic, sure. Yet far from a star.

But I sure put that degree to use. My bylines appeared in Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, Self, my essays aired on public radio and I helped several publications earn editorial awards. I felt really lucky to enjoy so many of the pieces of my chosen field – the reporting, writing, editing, and publishing. I even liked rewriting and proofreading.

Twenty years after I graduated, a former professor of mine at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications where I received my fine j-school education, recommended me for the editor post at the school’s alumni magazine. I was delighted at the offer and happily accepted.

During my three years there, that same professor thought I might be able help coach students who were destined for fine journalism careers but struggling with some aspects of writing. So in addition to my editorial duties, I coached a few students on the side. I keep up with a several of them on Facebook and boy have they have soared!

I’m not exactly sure what it was he saw in me then that promised some skill at working with people on their writing and helping them to reach some goal. I suspect it had something to do with my love for the work, dedication to excellence (even if I try and fail), and a certain gusto that I still carry with me.

Gusto, I guess, because I’m not that patient when it comes to other things. Very little else holds my attention like the process of making something appear — into what is often gorgeous and artful – out of nothing. There’s something extremely appealing to me about the blank page, something alluring and challenging that offers us a chance to capture an experience, a thought, an idea, a memory, or simply a series of words, that if handled in just the right way, provides an answer or a clue, is a gift to someone else or, perhaps most importantly, remains forever.

To leave a legacy behind, even a small one, made of static words on the page that have the power to move people. How cool is that?

Many years into a career, some folks burn out. I feel like the fire glows brighter for me now, especially at the sight or sound of a spark in the eyes, voice, or written words of the writer with whom I am working.

In the gem world, the tenth anniversary merits a diamond but because it’s below freezing here in the Midwest, I’m leaning toward readily available ice as my metaphor, with a multi-faceted look back at some of the successes I’ve seen in the writers with whom I’ve had the joy of working:

  • One of my first tutees from j-school has a high-level communications role in the Democratic National Committee.
  • Three personal essays of a writer I met at one of my book readings were recorded and aired on Chicago public radio.
  • Numerous stories that were struggling to leave the head of the writer, looking for a safe place to land, found their way to the page.
  • Many stalled final papers, dissertations and business proposals became unstuck.
  • Writing prompts given to four of my students turned into essays that I felt were good enough to publish in Thread.
  • I believe that the strong personal essays for graduate school applications helped send at least ten writing students into the programs of their choice.
  • A powerful story was published by one of my writing students in Shambhala Sun, another in More Magazine and a third in Blood Orange Review.

If you have been thinking about working with a coach, consider this year as the one where you make that dive.

Click here for more on my coaching.

Does working with others sound better to you? Try one of my workshops – online or live – that start next week!

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Thoughts? Questions? Something you’d like to share? Comment below or email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

 

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.

What a Stitch! Sensational Sentences, Part Two

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Sensational sentences are the threads of great writing.  And like thread – cotton or nylon, wool or silk – they are full of color, shine and texture. Sure, they pack more wow when followed by another great sentence and then, another. But the great sentence stands on its own, telling its own story.

I look for them and collect them. Because in their simplicity, they embody the craft of writing beautiful sentences.

You can find them in the most interesting places.

The specimens below were all posted on Facebook (yes, Facebook!), sprung from a sharp wit and keen, urban observing eye. I was delighted when the writer gave me permission to reprint them, as she doesn’t always say yes to her mother.

This time, she did. Note the well-selected details, use of senses (especially smell), dollop of imagination, mix of quote, observation and advice and, of course, humor.

On family reunions

Grandpa, referring to the Google map direction voice to the restaurant: “Hush, everybody! This woman is trying to take us someplace!”

On temptation

Every morning I don’t succumb to the siren song of bacon emanating from Longman & Eagle [a popular Logan Square restaurant] on my way to the train is both a victory and a loss.

City commuting

Sometimes, after it rains in the loop it smells like a giant fart cloud.

More on farting. Advice from a city girl on her lunch hour

If you’re wandering around Macy’s trying to kill time and you find you have to fart, just waltz into the perfume section.

On the winter of 2014

I’m moving to Hell for the weather.

Airport travel

Airport sushi is a sure fire way to miss your flight in more ways than one.

On St. Patrick’s Day

If I were really smart, I would have targeted the drunkest of drunk people, pretended to be a leprechaun, then stolen their wallets amidst their awe and confusion.

Thanks, Em!

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. 2014.