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)

So Hard to Say “I’m Sorry”

 

I am wrapping up a workshop on writing wrongs and am now certain of three things about apology and forgiveness:

First, to feel sorry  – or to need an apology  – is uniquely human.

Second, saying you are sorry – or that you forgive – is really hard.

And finally, apologizing and forgiving can be expressed artfully and in infinite ways.

It’s this last point that got my attention, as well as for the writers in my workshop.

What a rich topic to explore! It’s a subject that never gets old; as true to the zeitgeist of today as it is of yesterday.

Saying we are sorry – or granting forgiveness – can be a thorny proposition. But exploring it in words can coax out the color, the bud. If we’re lucky, the flower.

If more of us give it a go, who knows? We might be able to populate more gardens, seeded with love.

To get a taste for how magnificently the subject can be addressed in words  – as well as animation – I share just a few materials that we relied on for our discussions and writing prompts that ranged from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Bo Jack Horseman.

One or more of these is likely to move you. I encourage you to let it.

“I’m sort of sorry.”

Bo Jack Horseman  comes to Herb’s death bed to apologize, but it doesn’t go well.

“You should feel sorry.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates describes what not feeling safe can look like in his own neighborhood.

“I forgive you and I understand.”

Sarah Vowell sees herself in her dad, in spite of their vast differences.

 “I am sorry but I want to do better.”

On her Facebook page last fall, Elizabeth Gilbert, offered a profound self-integrity check. 

  • Did I give Bill Clinton a complete and total pass on being a lying skank about women, because he was my guy and I liked his politics? Answer: Yes.
  • Do I preach love and courage and peace and inclusion, but then use my social media platforms to spew rage and fear and panic and condemnation? Do I constantly use the language of war, with the delusion that this will somehow lead to peace? Answer: Yes.
  • Do I make blanket proclamations about how “we women are angry,” or “we women will rise up and take our revenge” — ignoring the fact that literally millions of women have completely different beliefs from me? Answer: yes.
Interested in future writing workshops?
In March: “Reading and Writing the Personal Essay”
Also in March: “Essay as Song: What Essayists Can Learn from the Songwriters”
In April: “Writing for Personal Discovery: Making Art from Life”
For more workshop info, click here.
Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Turning an Unwelcome Wait into a Powerful Pause

 

 

It’s winter, the season most likely to deliver the blues. Or if you live in the Midwest, an expanse of gray.

A few weeks after we reset the clocks and the light dims, a light will frequently go out inside me, creating my own personal darkness.

Winter is, after all, designed as a slow season. Every year, even though I know it’s coming and can, to some degree, offset it with extra Vitamin D and exercise, the season does its thing. I get through what I have to and all other commitments are negotiable. Especially when it’s a choice between staying in or going out at night. Amy Collier captured this feeling perfectly in her essay, “Your Apartment Tries to Talk You Out of Going to a Party.”

We long for light, but instead we get an unwelcome wait for it. An overly long pause.

And …. Hold!

It was in the middle of a dance class when I had my pause epiphany. We were dancing to swing when the teacher instructed us to stop for a beat after a three-step. The music stopped and she called out, “Wait for it!” We all froze. Then, “And …. hold!” It looked very dramatic in the mirror – twelve sweaty dancers holding still and then, suddenly, moving in unison again. It got me thinking about the power of a pause not only in dance, but also in music.

After that, I noticed how the pauses in a well-told tale or comedian’s monologue hold my attention. How the white breaks on a page do, too. They give the reader a chance to take in what came before and get ready for what’s to come.

We all wait for something. For our prescription at the pharmacy. For a boss to respond to our work. For our coffee in the café. For a response to an email.

But the wait has its benefits. It puts us completely in the present tense. It can amplify a moment. It can highlight and dramatize it, insisting that we see it and take notice.

What Waiting is Worth

As I write this, my memoir is being read by editors at several publishing houses. Waiting for their responses these past months has sometimes felt unbearable! But in the weeks and months that have passed since I completed the manuscript, sections of it are revising in my head. I am reworking parts that will make the book stronger. Now I can’t wait to dive back into it, tweaking, rearranging and letting go of parts here and there.

Only the slowing of time would have allowed me to get here.

This winter, I’m going to try to embrace the waiting in my work and my life. I’m going to let it encourage me to stop so those one-of-a-kind moments don’t slip away without me.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Two Strands Become One

We live and tell stories from our life every day but finding the words to commit to the page can be really challenging.

We want them to be the right words. We want them to sound great, like the writers we admire.

But our lives contain many more than one storyline. These crisscross and intertwine like the yarn in a complex tapestry.

Which color? How much? And in what order? These choices make it hard to pull out that single thread we want to express for that article you may be writing, presentation you are preparing, social media promotion, academic assignment, essay, memoir or story for the stage.

But it can be found and when we do, it’s so gratifying! To communicate an idea, write or tell a story from your life, speak your mind, say what you want to say so that others understand is an extraordinary experience. It’s like the first moment a child is understood by someone else – it’s a hallelujah! There’s been a successful exchange. In the language of the weaver, it’s called “double ending”  – two ends are woven as one. Down deep, I believe that’s what we all want. To be heard. Understood. Seen.

It may begin as the work of the mind, but once it moves from our heads through our hearts and into our hands and onto the page, it’s handwork, craftspersonship. It enables us to leave a part of ourselves in the world.

This year, I took enormous pleasure in helping to facilitate and witness others find their storyline as a coach and teacher. I learn so much during this process.

From the psychotherapist working on a feature article, I was reminded of how we struggle to find a balance between our professional and personal voice on the page.

From the educator preparing a multi-media presentation illustrating how she approached sensitive topics with women in other countries, I learned how productively we can exchange ideas without a shared language.

From the activist who wanted to improve his social media posts, I saw how content and passion can often be more compelling than spelling and grammar.

From the writer who sent draft after draft in an effort to understand her origin story, I was moved by how determined we are to make meaning from our experience.

From the novelist-turned-memoirist, I was struck by the impact of changing the sentences from she/he to “I.”

And when a student becomes a contributor to Thread or Stitch, what a gift for the writer, the editor and reader! Four pieces generated by current or former students in my workshops were a fit for Stitch this year. Check out the beautiful 100-word work of Renee Moses, Marie Davidson, Carol Skahen and Sarah Crewe (forthcoming in March.)

This month also marks the end of a robust year for Thread and Stitch:

  • Thread earned its second notable in Best American Essays and celebrates five years of publication! Watch for the Spring Issue in March/April 2019. Save May 2, 2019 for an evening of stories at the Skokie Theatre, a night we’re calling Threadaversary.
  • Stitch posted its 30th flash essay.
  • A shout-out to Alexandra Yetter, who gifted both publications with her astute administrative, editorial and production support as our first intern.

It has also been a productive year in my own realm as a writer and storyteller which energizes and allows me to support others:

Holiday discount offer! In appreciation for my students, coaching clients and readers – and in time for the holidays – I am offering discount incentives for getting a project underway. Contact me before December 31, 2018 and schedule an appointment for January, February or March, and you will receive a 10% discount on one or three-hour coaching session. (That’s $30 off a three-hour session and $15 off one hour!)

To the festivity of the season and a more peace-filled new year!

Find Thread and Stitch on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

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.

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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.