Prompts for the Page and Publishing Progress!

 

While some people may arrive at the page overflowing with creative energy, others may need a gentle nudge to get started.

That’s where the writing prompt can help.

In recent years, prompts have become part of the DNA of the modern writing workshop. I offer a fresh one every week for my students so they have no excuse not to write.

A prompt can be simply a word, short phrase, paragraph, idea or image designed to inspire, spur or focus you in the writing process.

I was resistant to using prompts at first because I usually have plenty on my mind to start. But when they did such a good job inspiring my students, I was prompted to use them myself.  They have the ability to spin a topic in roundabout ways with very satisfying results. They can help you get unstuck from a piece currently under construction or surprise you by providing insight from the back door.

For a taste, here are twelve of my go-to writing prompts:

  • A treasured object. Identify and describe a beloved object in your home and write the story of how you got it.
  • A place you cherish. Write about a place that made you feel happy, safe or changed in some way.
  • A favorite food or meal. Make the reader understand why that food or meal has stayed with you.
  • A memorable scent. Bring a person, animal, meal, indoor or outdoor moment to life by way of its aroma.
  • A song with meaning. Why has a particular song stuck with you?
  • Allow a body part to speak. Write what a body part would say if it were able to speak.
  • Where were you when? Where were you and what were you doing during a major moment in history such as when Apollo landed on the moon, Kennedy was shot or when the towers went down?
  • An inherited trait. What gestures or behaviors — that you like or dislike — connect you to a family member?
  • Breaking a habit. Describe a moment that motivated you to make a change.
  • Send a letter. Write a letter to someone with whom you have unfinished business.
  • A do-over dialogue. Rewrite a conversation that you would like to redo.
  • Two voices. Take a memorable event and write it from your current age and perspective. Then, write it from your age and lens at the time.

Publishing Progress!  

If you have been following the journey of my memoir in its quest for publication, I’m now a step closer. In late June, I found an agent! The contract has been signed and we are now, officially, in sell mode. I promise to keep you posted.

Fall Issue in the Works

The Fall Issue of Thread is scheduled for a late September/early October release. Six compelling essays by six beautiful writers. An end-of-summer reflection on the end of life. An end of summer story set in the 70s. A perspective-altering subway ride. A sanctuary-offering creek. A cleansing Russian banya. And a meditation on the checkmark. Stay tuned for their release by subscribing for free, and following Thread on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Mark your Calendar!

Thread took a hiatus from live lit productions in 2018 but we’re gearing up for our biggest show yet! Save the date: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. in Skokie Theatre, Evanston, IL. As the Skokie Arts Commission pick for Artistic Excellence Award 2018, I wanted to throw some love back at my home city by celebrating Thread’s anniversary. Eight seasoned Chicago-area storytellers have been invited to celebrate Thread’s fifth publishing year by reading their work aloud. Storyteller and ticket information to come.

The Twenty-Fifth Stitch

“Daughter” by Gila Berryman marked the 25thedition of Stitch, the “flashiest” section of Remnant Publishing featuring essays of 100 words or less.  The reading period for Stitch and Thread is on a short summer hiatus, but submissions will be back up and running on August 1st.

Ellen Blum Barish
Photo by Aaron Burden, courtesy of Unsplash.

Sentences That Stick

When something we read has us nodding along, marking up the margins or shouting “Amento an empty rooma writer’s work has been done. The reader has been moved. The work as a whole may have moved us, but what stops and suspends us, gives us pause or the inclination to take out the yellow highlighter is one beautiful, true sentence or series of words.

These are the words of the sentences that make it memorable; that makes you want to read it again; what makes us fall in love with a piece of writing.

To illustrate, I offer a few examples from the Summer Issue of my literary publication Thread which was just released this week.

Some are the sentences that sold me on the piece. Some I came to love later. But each stands out in their own way – like we do as human beings – highlighting something thoughtful, funny or just human, beckoning you to read on, or, perhaps, write one yourself.

“Hawk” highlights beautiful detail. “Later, when my red skillet was drying — propped up in its usual place on the spindly dish rack on the green and white striped tea towel — I glanced up and saw my hawk in her usual place and I wondered if I went outside, if I tiptoed through the muddy frozen grass and stood straight and tall under the bare red oak, would I see the stain of blood seeping into the rotting wood of the fence that separates me from the other side?  Marie DeLean

 

“A Mother’s Curse” showcases scene. “So I went barefoot for weeks, which gave me a too-intimate connection to tar and pavement and all those tiny bits of gravel and glass the eye misses but the foot feels.” Roberto Loiederman

 

“Swing” plays with language. “His swings scared me, but not as much as his silence.” Noriko Nakada

 

“The Only One with Pants” sets up a nice opening pace. “Think of my story the next time you’re driving on a rural highway in the dark. Watch the taillights ahead of you, the headlights that advance from the opposite direction. Consider their origin, their aim, their destination. Imagine the quiet conversations, the sleeping children, the lost souls turning to God or talk radio.” Matt Forsythe

 

 

All are hard-working sentences but each represents an example of an element of what I call Ellen’s Eight — four microelements (detail, scene, language and pacing) and four macro elements (structure, theme, voice and storyline) that can be seen in the sentence as well as the piece as a whole.

I’ll highlight the macro elements in a blog post to come.

A sentence that moves us is like that blossom, or blossoms, in the garden that stand out, the ones that make us hover a few more seconds, losing ourselves in their beauty, daring us to paint it or take it’s photograph.

 

 

Stuck in midst of a writing project, Hemingway wrote that writers needn’t worry; all we need to do is break it down and write one true sentence.

“But sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

Yet there’s something beautifully-simply-true here for all of us. Not just the writers.

Say one true thing, feel one true thing, do one true thing, think one true thing and then go on from there.

 

Photos (except for flower photo) courtesy of Unsplash:  Ben White, Rod Long, iam se7en and Gaelle Marcel.

 

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:

Stitch_Logo.jpg
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.