It’s Not Easy Being Short

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When I first read it, I, too, marveled over what was hailed as Hemingway’s* shortest story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” How amazing that entire universes could be created in just six words!

I’ve long been drawn to the short prose literary forms. Back in the mid 90s, I bought the essay collection In Short. And then, In Brief.  And then, Short Takes. I am still moved by the 750-word essays in Brevity and the 250-word pieces in River Teeth’s Beautiful Things.

I love them for the beauty in their concision. Their deftness in saying so much, with so little.

So it wasn’t too big a leap for me last year to think that it might be possible to make magic in 100 words for a publication that I called Stitch.

It would be an experiment. If nothing else, I thought, writing 100-word essays would make a great writing prompt for my students.

But just as the idea was taking shape in my mind, Jacqueline Doyle sent me a beautiful short essay titled, “Another Guy’s Shoes” and Frederick Charles Melancon sent me a very short essay titled, “The Wall.” It’s a sign, I thought. So in August 2016,  I launched Stitch on a page of the Thread site with two very short essays, not sure that it would ever take on a shape of it’s own.

In what felt like minutes, I began to receive submissions for Stitch.  After putting out a few calls for submissions on social media, Stitch has published a 100-word-or-less essay on the first of the month ever since.

I’ve been so heartened and inspired by the submissions that for it’s one-year anniversary,  I wanted to gift Stitch with its own identity on the site. So I asked Amanda Good, the graphic designer who branded Thread,  EBB & Flow, and my professional website to come up a design which you can see here:

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On November 1, Stitch released it’s new logo and it’s fifteenth essay.

Happy anniversary, Stitch! A big thank you to all of the writers – Jacqueline Doyle, Frederick Charles Melancon,  Andrea Isiminger, Michael Rabiger, Katie Beberian, Mindy Watson, Kurt Mullen, Kristine Langely Mahler, Nina Lichtenstein, Kim O’Connell, Rachel Hoge, Lori Dube, Judy Bolton-Fasman, Richard LeBlond, Tom McGohey, Heather Mangan and Jennifer Lang – who have given Stitch it’s fullness of personality. It’s big and diverse for such a small publication, one I’ve come to think of as Thread’s younger literary cousin.

If you’d like to give it a go, here’s the Submission page for details.

I’m taking the month of December off from reading submissions, but will return for reading on January 1, 2018.

Writing short essays is really hard work. On that very subject, Mark Twain is credited with writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

But they are so satisfying to write.

Poignant to read.

And incredibly rewarding to publish.

* Later I learned that Hemingway may or may not have been the author.
Photo: Stitch’s editor, Ellen Blum Barish, showing off her short stature next to a very tall Frankenstein on Halloween in the lobby of the Chicago Sun-Times. Photo taken by the desk manager.

 

Time to Swing

A confession that may or may not connect us:

I read my horoscope. Daily.

Actually, read isn’t entirely accurate. I’d say I’d consult. Study. Ponder. Sometimes twice in one day.

I’d call myself a woman of faith, Jewish in particular. I’m open to the mysteries –  even mystical aspects  – of life. I like to think of myself as a rational person with a healthy respect for logic and science. I may be prone to deep emotion but not to flights of fancy or superstition.

Yet, I pour over the writing, multiple writings, of those who study the stars and take them to heart. And every year, I put more stock in them.

Why? Because I have found great wisdom in them. Sparks of truth. I’ve learned that you can’t take the words literally. Best to read them abstractly. Metaphorically. More like poetry. For advice about addressing the day and making good use of it.

It’s been especially true for me this year. According to the sources I consult, things have moved slowly for Gemini these past few months. Though I’ve been really busy in my own sphere, my work hasn’t translated, externally speaking.

That is, until now. Things are picking up for Gemini. I’m doing a little less knocking on doors and feeling like there are more knocks on mine.

Mostly what reading my horoscope does is remind me of the ebb and flow in our personal and professional lives. That there really are up and down times, slow and fast times, right side up and upside down times. Of course we know this. But I need the reminding.

That there are times to hang. And times to swing. And I guess I’m swinging now.

To that end, here’s what’s happening:

I have a new manuscript review service.

I’m offering customized “Writing for Personal Discovery” workshops for small groups in private homes. A great idea for a one-time gathering of friends.

I still love coaching writers on their essay collections and memoirs.

Still reading Thread and Stitch submissions. I’m actively looking for 100-word essays for Stitch.

I’d love to have you on my EBB & Flow subscription list. You’ll get early notifications of all kinds of events and offers.

Chicago-area readers: Mark your calendar for Sunday, September 10th.  That’s when Fall Thread Live Lit Reading at Evanston Public Library from 3 to 5 pm.

Check back in September for the Fall Issue – number eight! – of Thread with six new beautiful essays.

And finally, whether or not you place any importance on the zodiac or the movements of the sun, stars or planets, may the coming weeks, especially Monday, August 21st, eclipse your expectations.

Photo by Jon Blum taken sometime in the 1960s.

That Which We Call a Rose

 

Perhaps the image at the top of this page struck you as it did me when I first saw it by the cash register at my favorite café.

A one-dollar bill (maybe two) shaped into a rose?

Not only is it nicely crafted — see those delicate silken leaves and realistic stem? — it transforms a mundane object into something worth lingering on.

Now that’s what I call art.

About a year after my second child was born, I jumped at the chance for some creative stimulation and a break from mothering by registering for an evening writing class with a well-regarded instructor. Born in India, Molly Daniels, was a small woman with a big personality who wore flowy, multi-colored skirts and headscarves.

One night, she asked us to profile a parent. At the time, I was having difficulty with my father, so my subject sort of self-selected.

I began with, “My father is the tallest of two sons born to a short, stocky German-Jewish father and his four-foot-ten wife who was born and raised in Philadelphia. In college, he majored in philosophy and pursued a life in business and politics.”

As we scribbled in notebooks from desks configured in traditional lines, middle-school classroom style, Molly strolled the aisles, skimming our opening paragraphs, nodding and hhmmming.

When she arrived at my desk, she peered over my sentences and said, “Tell me about your mother.”

“But I wanted to write about my father,” I said. “There’s more drama there.”

“That may be true, but just tell me one thing – one unusual detail – about your mother.”

I struggled to think of something – I was low on sleep from being up at night with my infant daughter – but then, something came.

“My mother grew up in a hotel.”

“Ah!” she said excitedly. “That’s it! You must write about your mother.” And before I could argue, off she strolled to the next desk, her colored scarf billowing wildly behind her.

It was Molly Daniels who taught me about the potency of the well-selected detail and its window into storyline. The ones that come to mind when we first think of a person, the ones we recall long after reading a short passage or an entire book.

The tilt of a character’s eyeglasses. Dandruff on a coat. An arthritic finger.

Between the ages of 9 and 14, my mother would take the elevator down to the hotel dining room, order a bowl of cereal and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take to school for lunch and eat. By herself. She was like the children’s storybook character Eloise, the only difference was that she was not at The Plaza in New York City but at a hotel in Pittsburgh. Growing up in a hotel not only impacted her (lack of) kitchen skills – no stove or oven translated into zero chances to watch her mother cook or have recipes handed down – but were likely to have influenced her decorative leanings to something I lovingly call institutionally immaculate – shiny glass-topped furniture on cream-colored carpeting and beds made with hospital corners in a spare and pristine space.

Details that pull us into her storyline.

In my writing workshops, I talk about eight elements of essay, alliteratively referring them as “Ellen’s Eight.”

Detail. Scene. Language. Pacing. Structure. Theme. Voice. Storyline.

Each of these elements work hard either by their presence or absence to make a piece sing.

But if I had to choose the two elements that matter most to an initial reading, the two that I look for in essays by my students or submissions for Thread and Stitch, I’d have to say detail and storyline.

That one-dollar bill makes a fine detail in the right context. But sculpted into a rose opens the book cover and yanks me in. I begin to wonder about its story. Who made it? And how? Was it the café’s first earned dollar? Why was it placed by the cash register?

I am reminded of Molly’s lesson in part because I’m teaching a summer writing workshop and I want to elucidate this point for my students. But also because I’m finishing a memoir in which both of my parents make appearances. I am on the hunt for just the right illustrative details that express who they are, in part of course, to invite the reader in and help tell the story.

I’m searching for roses made from dollar bills. Word version.

Thank you, Molly Daniels.

(Molly died in 2015. May she rest in peace.)

 

Photograph of rose by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017. Taken at the Euro Echo Cafe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Change Looks Like

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It has been an unusually busy fall, enough to keep me from my twice-monthly posting. But I suspect your inbox has been as full of political email these past months as mine, which has made logging in even more overwhelming than usual.

May this message offer you a brief respite from all of that, bringing you literary news and perhaps a twinkle of inspiration.

Since we were last in touch, I’m delighted to share that Thread has:

More important to me than the numbers is what I’m seeing in the variety of submissions. I was determined to publish a diversity of voices across gender, age, perspective and geography. Contributors to Thread, Stitch and the live readings write from as nearby as Chicago to as far away as Switzerland and Spain and their experiences were formed in the United States, Great Britain, South Africa and Hawaii.

I’ve been teaching “Writing for Personal Discovery” workshops in my home since January and thrilled that the work of six students – John Hahm, Ellen Hainen, Marie Davidson, Nina Kavin, Brad Rosen, Michael Rabiger – made it into Thread, Stitch or a live lit reading this year. While it isn’t everyone’s goal to write for publication, I am committed to publishing emerging writers who are seeking just that.

Next winter and spring, I’ll be trying something different by offering shorter-length workshops  – one day and four-week sessions – for busy people who would like to give this personal narrative thing a try. I’m also teaching a morning workshop on Friday, December 16th titled “So That Your Values Live On: Writing Your Ethical Will” at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue. Check the Workshops page of my website for more about my winter and spring workshop schedule.

Finally, I promised to keep you updated on my inhale year. I’ll provide you with a complete report in my next post, but until then, let me say that the experiment in not writing has had some very surprising writerly results.

I leave you with a quote I found in a wonderful book I’m reading called The Artist’s Torah by David Ebenbach. He reminds us that creation is the result of destruction. Change is hard. Scary. Our tendency is to keep what we know, because even our current scary is a known one. But he reminds us that,

As artists we are asked to the truth we see, without and within. It asks us to be willing to grow – to destroy what we’ve been so that we can be something new.

What better example of this than in autumn’s own natural art exhibit?

Could next year be your year to start – or return to, writing?  Private coaching can make this happen. Gift certificates make a very thoughtful – and unique – holiday gift.

 

In Search of Yarn, Stitched with Color

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“Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.” W.S. Merwin

 

The spindle of June has turned, allowing me to catch up on Thread submissions, update the site and rev up for my new publishing project within a publishing project, Stitch.

Stitch celebrates the short-form essay, otherwise known as flash non-fiction. It’s a magnificent mix of personal narrative and poetry; a challenging hybrid to write, but oh so satisfying to read. I’m choosing the 100-words-or-less variety and today, July 1st, I’m opening up the site for submissions, hoping to publish at least one new piece each month.

How do we define flash nonfiction? Because it’s art, there’s very little agreement. But I offer two articulate attempts:

In the introduction to The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, (2012), editor and essayist Dinty Moore writes that flash nonfiction is “individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.”

Essayist Bernard Cooper writes that short nonfiction requires “an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens … until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.”

I especially love Cooper’s line about being human. This idea is central to my essay sensibility. Thread explores the moments that expose and connect us and what it means to be human.

I was over the moon when Thread was reviewed recently and the writer noted this, saying that the pieces “describe every day events kissed by a haunting sense of larger meaning.” Yes! That’s exactly what Thread is going for.

So have a sensational summer, but don’t stray too far. I’ll be keeping you posted in my blog (you can subscribe for free here) and on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.