We Steer the Boat, But We Don’t Alter the River

There are weeks when life feels like still, shallow water, attracting dust and flies.

And then, there are some like the past several weeks where flooded days rush at rapids pace, blurring the highlights along the rivers’ edge.

Life really does ebb and flow.

Thankfully, we have our calendars, memories and links. Because I am still navigating those rapids to some degree, I offer this month’s post as a clickable highlight reel of items relating to craft, creativity and the writing life.

See what inspires and steer your raft toward your own version.

 

 

In mid-March, I released the Spring 2019 Issue of Thread, the twelfth issue! Six new essays by six magnificent writers. How freedom smells. A light goes on – and off –  in a marriage. Springsteen as a salve for the soul.  A life-changing ride in an MG. The summer of Dahmer. Courtship with a cat.

 

 

I was interviewed by Aaron Masliansky for “Inside the Skev” on life as a writer, editor, teacher and coach. Have a listen!

 

 

On April 9, I was delighted to tell a story at Chicago’s longest-running live lit show hosted by Scott Whitehair, This Much is True.

 

 

There’s less than two weeks until Thread’s big anniversary celebration at the Skokie Theatre. Nine storytellers and a few special guests promises to loosen you up, laugh and feel the love. Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are going fast!

And for those who celebrate, happy holy week.

Rapids photo above is of me (far back, orange cap, cringing) and family members navigating the Roaring Fork River in Colorado several years ago.
Title is borrowed from a quote by Josephine Earp (wife of Wyatt Earp)

A First Love Returns

Long before my first crush, I had a first love and it was music.

I was nine when I heard “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams in the late 1960s played over a loudspeaker in my school auditorium and I remember how it stilled me, insisting on my listen.

A few years later, at 11, I was away at overnight camp when I first heard “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell played by my guitar teacher. That was it. I was in love with how much sound – and how much could be said – with seven notes.

Decades later when I discovered the personal essay, I had the sense that these two word-art forms were deeply connected, that they were like prose cousins. Both forms are personal narratives that rely heavily on voice, pitch and pattern, sound and rhythm as well as pause. So many gorgeous ways to communicate, tell stories – make art – in only 26 letters!

Just a few years ago, in the midst of a songwriting workshop at the Old Town School of Folk Music, my hunch was confirmed. Words like hook, intro, bridge, refrain, outro and melodic line, chord cycle and lyrical phrase began to take on more meaning. These were terms that applied not only to songs but essays, too.

Since then, I’ve been collecting song-like essays that are essay-like songs. Just this week, I led a one-night workshop on this topic with a group of writers at StoryStudio Chicago. We talked about how the elements that make a song pleasing and satisfying to us are also true of the successful essay. Essay writers can borrow the tools of the songwriter to infuse their work with more dimension. To make their words sing.

Elton John got us started in this video where he explains his writing process for “Tiny Dancer.” Our musical readings included works by Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright and Simon & Garfunkel. Our essays included work by Bernard Cooper, Abigail Thomas, Brian Doyle and Chloe Caldwell.

I fretted that there might not be enough to say – or enough material – to fill our time together but during the workshop, song and essay suggestions continued to spill from the writers in the room. There’s more than enough to get me thinking about a multi-week workshop on the topic.

Stay tuned. If you’re interested, email me and I’ll let you know when I can make that happen.

Coming up:

 

 

The Spring Issue of Thread has just been released!

Six new essays by six magnificent writers: How freedom smells. A light goes on – and off –  in a marriage. Springsteen as a salve for the soul.  A life-changing ride in an MG. The summer of Dahmer. Courtship with a cat.

 

 

Threadaversary! An Evening of Personal Stories

Join us as we celebrate five years of Thread for an evening of storytelling at Skokie Theatre.

What: A special one-of-a-kind evening featuring nine amazing Chicago storytellers and some special guests.

When: Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 7:30 pm

Where: Skokie Theatre

How can I get tickets?  Here.

 

 

Writing for Personal Discovery: Making Art from Life

Spaces still available for my final writing workshop of spring.

What: A five-week writing workshop focusing on the personal essay.

When: Monday evenings, April 1-29, 6:15 – 8:45 pm

Where: Ice House Gallery in Evanston 

How can you register? Here.

 

And yes, that’s yours truly in the photo above at 11 or 12. Check out that Marimeko bedspread! 

 

Words that Move

 

Like so many people I know, I fell into despair after the election in the fall of 2016. As a usually upbeat person, I didn’t know what to do with these new dark feelings.

It hit me especially hard in the realm of my work. Throwing myself into writing, teaching and coaching  – work I love – always raised my spirits, allowing me to lift and support others.

But I couldn’t turn off the sound of a disturbing question that echoed in my head:

How was being a writer, and a teacher of writing, really going to make any difference now?

A few months later, though still anguishing, I was functioning, getting along. When I explored why, I realized that it was because of art. Art  – through humor, empathy, community and beauty – was anchoring me, steadying me. I mused about that here.

So when the gloominess returned this summer, it muddied up my heart and felt like a prompt to dig deeper.

I found myself searching for words that had made actual change in the world.

Some highlights I found across genres:

Song. As he tunes his guitar, Pete Seeger introduces “We Shall Overcome” (written by Charles Albert Tindley) with, “If you would like to get out of a pessimistic mood yourself, I got one sure remedy for you.”

Essay. James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” educated an entire generation about the civil-rights struggle.

Poem. Kevin Power’s essay, “What Kept Me from Killing Myself” credits Dylan Thomas’s poetry for pulling him through a serious post-war depression.

Memoir. William Styron’s memoir of depression, Darkness Visible, was identified as the book that opened up a public discussion of mental illness in a recent NPR interview.

Essay Anthology. Terry Tempest Williams’ Testimony: Writers of the West Speak On Behalf of Utah Wilderness made a mark on environmental policy when President Clinton held the book in his hands at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, dedicating the new Grand Staircase-Escalate National Monument in 1996, saying, “This made a difference.”

Law. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quite literally changed the laws around gender equality and equal rights with her legal arguments.

Fiction. Harriet Beecher Stowe lit the fuse that led to the Civil War inUncle Tom’s Cabin. The Handmaid’s Taleby Margaret Atwood illustrated the perils of misogyny and male privilege. Censorship took a hit in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

Opinion. I was writing this blog post, this piece de resistance in the New York Times and Barak Obama’s speech at University of Illinois materialized.

Do these examples raise my spirits?

Yes. Yes, they do.

But not all words are designed to make people change their mind or behavior. Not every Beatles song became a hit.

Some words expose, educate or simply entertain – remember the global reach of Pharrell William’s song ”Happy” ? – but it’s fair to say that words strung thoughtfully together share one mission: to move.

And movement – even if it’s temporary –   is a treasure. It can be breath allowing. Perspective giving.

We need the writer’s words to prod, stir, calm or badger. To remind us that we are still alive.

——————————————————————————————————————

The Fall Issue of Thread is now available for your reading pleasure!

Online.

For free.

Summer’s end. A healing creek. A Russian bath.
A New York subway ride.
An afternoon in California. A muse on checks and balances.

 


 

See September’s Stitch!

Looking for submissions.

Find out more here.

 


 

Interested in joining me for a writing workshop?

See if one of these works for your schedule this fall.

 

 

Photos courtesy of unsplash.com. Top by Val Vesa. Bottom by Greyson Joralemon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.