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.

 

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My …

Lions. March comes in like a lion …The Spring Issue of Thread – the ninth issue – is now, officially, released, offering essays that are funny, poignant, reflective, sensorial, playful and surrendering. Six essays by six wildly different writers explore what it feels like to be in the wrong job, feel the suffering along with a loved one, reflect over things not said, listen to the sound from a jail cell, mull over the multiple meanings of words and let go in the midst of life changes. The Summer Issue of Thread will be released in June. Watch for Stitch on the first of every month.

Tigers. After months of revision, fingers shaking, I mustered up my inner tiger and pressed SEND last week. My memoir manuscript is now in the hands of an agent. Now, the wait. I’ll keep you posted.

Bears. To be bearish is to be frank, open, direct, candid, honest, outspoken, straightforward and sincere. All of these things happen in writing workshops when we talk about published personal narratives (appropriate when the facilitator’s name is Barish!) The discussion makes us better readers and writers and we have a ton of fun doing it! My six-week, summer writing workshop starts June 20 through August 1. Email me if you’d like to save a spot.

Oh my! I will be offering coaching programs, writing workshops and work-in-progress reviews designed to boost your personal, creative or business goals beginning June 2018. Could one work for you?

New One-to-One Coaching Programs

Do you want to complete a draft of a memoir or personal narrative collection in one year? Develop an outline for a book-length project? Improve your grades, boost your business writing skills or complete an academic writing assignment? You have three ways to get your work started, moving or off of your desk to meet any budget. See more here.

Workplace Writing Workshops

Could you  – or members of your staff  – use a boost for their business writing skills? Consider scheduling a lunchtime learning writing workshop for your staff. For more information, email me.

Work-in-Progress Reviews

Have you been thinking of submitting to Thread or Stitch or some other publication but you feel like you could use some feedback on your work? For $95, I can provide you with a detailed review of your essay. You’ll get a thoughtful response to your work with concrete suggestions for revision. To learn more about how to set up a review, email me at ellen@threadliterary.com.

For updates on these and other goings-on, find me on Facebook.

 

 

Clarity, Doubt and Insanity: The Edit

Alexa Mazzarello

So, as you may know, I’m in revision mode on a memoir.

Last month, I decided to dedicate some space on this blog to document my journey to finish this project.

You can read about that here. I wrote that I wanted to make a record. To reveal moments of clarity, doubt and insanity; the process. That even as a writing coach, I, too, need a schedule and some witnesses to keep me accountable and encouraged.

To that end, here are some selected scenes from January for what I’m calling my periodic blogumentary.

Tuesday, January 2

I respond to every e-message and Facebook post as they arrive; run up and down the stairs  to stay on top of multiple loads of laundry; take my car in for a wash and balance my checkbook.

Thursday, January 4

First writing day of 2018. I dig back into a scene from the early nineteen-seventies where my mother checks in on my brother who, at 10, was quite shy. After I write this scene, my brother, now 55, calls to tell me about how he has taken a tough stance with the bank and car dealership so that we will not under any circumstances be going underwater with our mother’s car. 

Friday, January 5

I return to another scene from the early seventies, revisiting the moment my mother first sees me, post-auto accident. I remember her expression when she sets eyes on my mouth  – where my main physical injury occurred – and I am reminded of how she refused to look at her own reflection in the mirror when she was sick for so many months prior to her death last year.

Thursday, January 18

A coffee conversation with a friend who writes young adult fiction gives me the confidence to let go of sentences which didn’t read as authentically twelve for the section in my book written from a young girl’s perspective. She reminds me that what comes after trauma doesn’t come all at once, but in small bits, slowly. Later, I notice that I have more emotional distance from a pivotal scene with my father, which allows me to soften it and let the storyline create the scene’s poignancy.

 Monday, January 22

I take a treadmill break and am flooded with surety about adding a new “character.” She’s been in, then out, and in-and-out again. But with my heart rate up and sweat dripping down my brow, I suddenly recognize the mark she made on me as it relates to the narrative and when I get back to my laptop, my fingers can barely keep pace with the flow of my thoughts.

Tuesday, January 23

I write 3,500 words and take a long lunch break and watch “The Chew.” When I get back to my office to reread what I wrote, most of it is windup, but there are 250 really good words that are worth keeping.

Friday, January 25

I spend most of the day reading the entire manuscript – start to finish – making little tweaks here and there, and when I’m done, I think, this feels close to whole as I can get it today. I set it aside for a much-needed break.

Monday, January 29

I rise early and read certain sections of the manuscript again, the parts more recently written. I find typos, as well as phrases that need tightening or clarifying. A writer can endlessly edit. But I let out a long exhale, craft an email to my trusted editor, attach the document and press send. Several hours later, two ideas for new complete sections come to me. I sigh, grab my iPhone, and jot them down. A writer writes even when she isn’t writing.

Sunday, February 10

My editor tells me she’ll have notes for me in a few weeks. While I wait for feedback –  which we writers desperately need but desperately fret over, too – I am noticing more psychic space, more room for random thoughts even though many still have to do with the book. But I am also noticing an unhinged feeling, some rootlessness. A worrisome thought comes: Once this work is completed, who I will be?

Photo from Unsplash by Alexa Mazzarello.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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

 

The Giving Tree

Next week, summer transmutes into fall and here in the Midwest we are already seeing the signs when we look up into the trees and dab our runny noses with tissue. (Autumn allergies, anyone?)

I find myself in a similar state as I return to my memoir manuscript for revision. The roots and trunk of the tree – and most of its woody extensions – are in place. So are the leafy bits. But adjustments will be made; some pruning and trimming, repositioning and reshaping and fertilizing for growth.

Writing a complete draft of a memoir in one year was a promise I made to myself last August. I wanted to get that story that I’ve been trying to tell for so many years onto the page. It was a promise that, just a few weeks ago, was fulfilled.

When you give so much to a tree, it tends to give back.

I had deep doubts that I could actually do it. After all, just the year before I had committed myself publicly to full year without writing. But eight months in to not writing, a title and a structure for the story that has taking up lodging in my head, body and soul landed in my lap and I couldn’t help but begin to write. You can read about that here.

There have been a multitude of other broken promises: getting to that weekly yoga class, meditating, eating less bread and drinking less wine. Though these fell under the motivating category of mental, physical and spiritual health, there was something more compelling about capturing this story in words. The pull to write felt like an emergency; like my life depended on it.

Apparently this is a thing.

In her book, “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness” Emily Esfahani Smith writes that there are four pillars of meaning in a person’s life: belonging, purpose, transcendence and, I love this part, storytelling.

“Our storytelling impulse emerges from a deep-seated need all humans share: the need to make sense of the world. We have a primal desire to impose order on disorder – to find the signal in the noise. We see faces in the clouds, hear footsteps in the rustling of leaves, and detect conspiracies in unrelated events. We are constantly taking pieces of information and adding a layer of meaning to them; we couldn’t function otherwise,” Smith writes.

A traumatizing event from my childhood was stalking me, insisting itself on me because, as Smith suggests, “Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events of our lives, good and bad, because those are the experiences that we need to make sense of, those are the experiences that shape us.”

Which can be very illuminating, engaging stuff.

The writing has been incredibly challenging, but making room and time for it has not. I kept fairly close to my deadlines – it helped tremendously to work with an editor I trust on this project to whom I promised pages each month – but I certainly didn’t write every day. There were even some weeks that I couldn’t write, life getting in the way and all. But when I did sit down to write, I was focused and productive.

So I have a manuscript. It needs revision and expansion and this will take a while – probably months. But now I know – in my bones – that there are practical and creative ways to get a big story from one’s life onto the page in twelve months.

Since I’m making good on my promises now, I’ll boldly offer another: To keep you updated on my progress – the victories as well as the disappointments – to reveal the transformational colors of these pages from manuscript to book in the hope that one healthy tree might stimulate a forest.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.