My Inhale Year: How It Went


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.







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 








imagesTense choice creates the scaffolding of building art with words. Whether it’s past or present impacts your verb choices throughout the construction process.

When you complete a draft, stand back and compare the tense you selected with its opposite. Read them out loud. Ask yourself which does the more authentic job of saying what you want to say and moving the piece along.

Then, look at your verbs.  These are the nails, glue and cement that hold the structure together.  How these connect the bigger structural pieces will indicate what the writer wants the reader to see.

Compare this active version of the verb “to bake:”

My mother-in-law baked chocolate chip mandel bread for the dessert table at the bar mitzvah.”

With this passive version:

“The chocolate chip mandel bread was baked by my mother-in-law for the dessert table at the bar mitzvah.”


In the first sentence, the main subject reads as the mother-in-law. We want to know more about her than we would the mandel bread (unless the reader is a pastry chef, I guess.)

The second sentence highlights the mandel bread. The mother-in-law is second in importance.

We’ve got the same subject and verb in both sentences. The same mandel bread and the same mother-in-law. But a mother-in-law who bakes mandel bread and mandel bread that was baked by a mother-in-law are different enough to shift emphasis. Be it planned or unplanned.

Take charge of your subject matter by staying mindful of its active and passive versions, just as you would the set up and rearrange the objects in the interior of a room in your home.