A Reluctant Professor. A Grateful Coach

ellen readingFor more than thirty years, I have earned a living – and even a few modest awards – as a writer and editor.

But when I was in middle school, when achievement tests became the standard by which writing and reading skills were determined, low scores indicated that I was struggling with reading comprehension. A teacher-parent huddle sealed the deal and I was sent to work with a tutor.

That’s how it felt at the time anyway.

At 13 and 14, with bad teeth and stringy hair, there was already plenty for me to be embarrassed about, but I remember being mortified about having to be tutored because I wanted to think of myself as a smart girl. And smart girls didn’t need tutors.

But the initial feeling didn’t last beyond my first session. The tutor turned out to be an amiable woman who very swiftly taught me to identify the unique way I absorbed information and how to organize it into words. More poignantly, I see now, she guided me in honoring my individual learning process. She was gentle but firm. Persistent but patient.

My test scores and grades improved after my tutoring sessions, but I was never a stellar student in high school. When I could choose courses in college and graduate school, I fared better. By then I had found my thing and that thing was reading and writing, the very things in which I struggled as a middle-schooler.

I never set out to teach writing. Frankly, it never occurred to me to teach anything at all. I believed I was firmly planted in publishing as a writer and editor. But a director of religious education whom I knew and respected seemed to believe that I had what it took and asked me to teach. I remember saying no the first time she asked. Teach? Me? The B student who needed tutoring? You’ve got to be kidding. A year later, she asked again. She was serious – and I was up for a challenge at the time –  so I gave it a go. And I liked it. A lot. Soon after, a former journalism professor asked me to coach a few students and not long after that, I was hired to teach my first university course.

As a university professor of writing for fifteen years now, I’ve only recently become aware that my teaching approach is borne out of those one-to-one sessions with that tutor. In a room full of students, my inclination is to lean to the individuals because that’s how I found the best stuff inside of me. I first came to understand and respect my own working process in a quiet, private space, working one-to-one in a room with no windows and one witness.

As a consequence, I have become hyper-aware of how each of us processes information differently. Some of us like to hear ourselves speak in the circle. Some of us would rather listen. Some of us read it and get it right there on the spot. Some of us need to read it over many times, away from the classroom, on our own.

Though I still love to teach groups – the energy in a circle of people can be electric and empowering  – working with people individually speaks to my heart. It can be incredibly potent. Like fertilizer for a writer’s growth. And, it’s also personal. In a way, I owe my career to that tutor, who gently pulled and tugged at me while simultaneously holding a mirror so I could see what was inside.

Which, I now recognize, is what I strive for when I work with people one to one.

In January, I am launching three new coaching programs that reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about how people work. Each program is designed to remove roadblocks to help a person reach a writing goal, while honoring the individuality and uniqueness of that person’s pace and style.

Whether it’s communicating better at work, writing a personal statement a degree application, improving written academic assignments, publishing an essay or writing a book, I have developed coaching scenarios to fit each mission and budget. Whether we work together in a room, face to face, or via technology, I know how to get that great stuff that’s inside a person to show itself on the outside. 

New Coaching Programs for 2018*

Plan to Page (One month)

  • business writing boost at the workplace
  • grade improvement for reading and writing at school
  • completion of a long-form academic writing assignment
  • personal essay for college or graduate school admission
  • preparing an essay for literary publication submission

Path to Publication (Three months)

  • outline for a book-length project
  • family story to the page (to or with an aging family member)

Memoir in Twelve Moons (One year)

Full Moon (weekly) or Half Moon (twice monthly)

  • complete a draft of a memoir or personal narrative collection

*Weekly unless otherwise noted.

To learn more about how these programs could fit your writing goals, email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com to schedule a free conversation.

Scan 2

Photos courtesy of the Blum family, taken sometime in the early 1970s.


Creativity is Contagious

Waterlogue 2

I am surrounded by some really creative people and in the past year this has had a profoundly productive effect on me.

It all started in March 2013, when my husband and I and a few folk and blues-minded friends  – Pam, John, Deb and Tom – formed a monthly, house-hopping gathering where we make music with our guitars, drums, harmonicas, accordions, violas and voices. The music loosened me up, shook off the cobwebs and opened up some room inside.

In June, I went to New Mexico with a group of painters with the plan to write, but the charcoal pencils and oil pastels found their way into my fingers and all I wanted to do was sketch and paint.

A month later, in July, because my innovative new friend  Jill asked, I read a personal essay I had written in front of a live audience at a Chicago bar which led to meeting a new group of writers and another reading night at an independent bookstore in January.

Then, in February, because Lori, another out-of-the-box thinking person asked, my photographs were hung on the walls of a nearby café that features local artists.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that a significant number of dear, longtime friends are in a similar state. All of us are women who are seasoned and ready to serve up what’s been marinating within us for a long time.

I feel compelled to share what they are doing so that you, too, might catch a whiff of the atmosphere that’s created by creative people.

My friend, Nina, an author and bibliophile, is opening an independent bookstore in Evanston.

Alysse, who makes sculptures and transforms landscapes from a wheelchair, is project managing an art exhibit made by people with disabilities at Moss Rehabilitation Center just outside of Philadelphia.

My oldest friend, Leah, whom I’ve known since we were five and is also a Philadelphian, has returned to something we did together as little girls: she’s writing beautiful songs on her guitar and is preparing to record them in a studio. You can hear them under construction on her Sound Cloud site.

Rebecca, director of Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, writes a column for The Business Journals on ways women can start and grow their businesses. She provides sound, non-nonsense professional advice.

Judith, a Chicago-based psychotherapist, author and activist in the health-at-every-size movement, just published the second edition of her book “Beyond a Shadow of a Diet.” 

Marianne, a painter and teacher in Denver, is transforming lives through the presence and practice of art. She was recently profiled in Colorado Expressions magazine.

My friend, Sean, a family archivist who lives across the street from me in Skokie, provided artifacts and memories and was interviewed for a documentary and museum exhibit about her amazing grandmother, Marjorie Lansing Porter who archived the music of the Adirondack region.

Kacky just went international from her home in Vero Beach, Florida, by launching an etsy site offering her beautiful handcrafted crochet, bridal and vintage jewelry. 

And Mary Ellen, a Chicago writer and blogger was nominated for an “Inspire to Aspire” award that celebrates bloggers who inspire through their posts and stories for “On the Wings of a Hummingbird,” her blog about joy.

Alll of this energy seems to have spilled over to my writing students several of whom have had their work published in the past year (see “Writing Dreams Do Come True” from earlier this year), as well as my husband, David, who was inspired to write and tell his own personal stories, one of which was recently featured in a Story Sessions podcast.

Creativity is contagious. Hope you catch it and then spread it around.

Many thanks to my very creative friend, Lori, who told me about a cool new watercolor app to apply to photographs.