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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More Light. Less Speed.

I am in the final month of the final section of the final chapter of the first full draft of a memoir. By August, I will have been working on the book for a year, longer really, as I’ve been writing pieces and parts and thinking about it since the late 1990s.

The process has felt at times like floodgate-opening relief and, at others, like trying to turn on a faucet hose that has been rusted solid. There have been glorious days where I could have been outside on a walk or at the garden or out with friends but instead I was inside on my behind on my office couch with my MacBook Pro in my lap wondering, especially on less productive days, why I was devoting myself to a project with no definitive paycheck or deadline that frequently brings pain, tears and the conjuring of difficult memories.

Yet, what finally got me to write, and keeps me writing, were the many more good reasons to do it, the ones outweighing the equally strong desire not to bother.

Among these were:

To make the story stop stalking me. To address it head on, to understand what happened. To listen to myself, in my own words. To heal.

To hone my craft. To capture a story, as beautifully and truthfully as I could, creating a long-form work that grabs and holds a reader’s attention, and hopefully, heart.

To witness myself writing it. To connect more deeply with my students and writer-colleagues who are writing memoir. So that I understand the process and can teach it better.

But as I am nearing the end of this first draft, facing a second and possibly third, I have been surprised to recognize more overarching reasons beyond little-old me.

I knew it was there, but now I have felt it and am certain of the energy-moving potency in identifying pieces of a life. Especially the broken ones. What it feels like to put them back together to reconfigure, shape them into art and make meaning from it. How it reveals new things about one’s life and one’s self.

Perhaps even more importantly, by addressing this personal business through art by reframing, understanding or making peace with it, we get the feeling of having turned something good from something not-so-good. Maybe it’s just that we made something out of what feels like nothing (but we all know it’s not nothing). We get to feel good, even just briefly, for having picked up our broken pieces and rearranged them. Like clearing out and organizing a drawer or closet so that it can be used more artfully, we can move a little more to the right or the left because there’s more room. Room and space to fill, repair, create or contribute something else. Which can bring us a sense of renewed or confirmed purpose and maybe even the chance to do some healing in the world.

The writing has, until recently, been going well. But lately I’ve had more not-so-good writing days, made all of the more poignant because I can see the end. It’s so close! Just a few days ago, for example, I realized that part of my ending would do a better job of inviting a reader into my story as the Prologue which then sent me into a long, arduous spell of rewriting. I really understand why some of my writing students stop, or take yearlong breaks, so far in. I see the temptation. The work can be hard and unrelenting.

But just as married people renew their vows, and businesses revisit their mission statement, I think we need to reaffirm our whys. To remember what we are doing it for. Maybe even to say it differently to match where we are now or possibly discover something new about why we are doing – or should continue to do – what we do.

In June, I gave myself a birthday present. A photography class. It’s so joyful to learn something new and so restorative for me to be away from words! I’ve learned that to highlight the subject you want and blur out the background – like the photograph above – you need to let in more light by way of a bigger aperture (the F stops), but the speed of the shutter needs to slow down (1/60 is the magic setting for no hand shaking). A good shot comes from a combination of how wide our eyes are open and the pace of a blink.

More light. And slowing down.

Reminders of what we need to focus on the things we want and let the rest fade away.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

A Two-City Girl

We know the places we know sensorially. We know what they feel-like, smell-like, sound-like, look-like and taste-like, as if they weren’t separate from our own body. We have a rich and raw relationship with these places. They have imprinted on us; perhaps we have imprinted on them as well. But either way, these places have been a part of making us, us.

I am Chicago born, but spent the bulk of my childhood in Philadelphia. I returned to this city of my birth for college where I have lived for the past four decades. I’ve spent a lifetime back and forthing between the east coast and the Midwest.

Last month I was in Philadelphia for the first time in years. Somehow five years had flown by – the longest time I’ve ever been between soft pretzels and a Philly cheese steak.

 

As I drove around the city and then into the suburbs visiting family and friends, the skin of my hometown city reached out and touched me again: the narrow wind of the roads, the extreme tilt of the terrain, the density of the tree line.

It felt sweet to be back on Philly’s twisty streets, rolling hills and dells, especially in early spring. There was such beauty in the variance of its landscape. But a thought crossed my mind: You can only see what’s right in front of you at the time.

Compared to the long view in Chicago, where from the window of an airplane you see an actual grid of the city just like a paper map. Where you can stand by a window in any skyscraper and see for miles to Indiana, even Wisconsin. Where you can bike for miles on long stretches of smooth level planes without breaking a sweat with uninterrupted thoughts.

I took note of this because I am writing a memoir in which the central action takes place in these two very different cities. It’s got me thinking about how place stimulates us. How place is a character in our lives, pushing us in one direction or another.

And I began to wonder about place’s impact on me as a writer.

According to the oldest record I have – a coverless, ringed notebook with wide lined pages scribbled with misspelled words in pen and pencil – I began my writing career on March 24, 1967 at the age of 8 with a poem titled “Happieness.”

 

Happieness makes the whole world gleem,

It makes the moom happy

Yes I have seen

Happieness is good and nice

It’s better than falling on the ice!

 

 

 

I was clearly a deep devotee of Dr. Seuss.

The ditties that followed, each signed “By Miss Ellen Blum,” featured imaginary kittens, birds and bunnies, friends who look like hens, toys, a car, my school, a pencil, an unidentified pet, my bed, a bay, a clock, the month of March, and then, my mother, my father, my grandparents, the sky and the outside world.

Most of these were written at my grandparent’s house in Oak Lane, just north of Philadelphia, where I spent so many sleepovers. I remember because I recall how it felt to finish one and immediately show it to my grandmother who would encourage me to write another. (I think she was trying keep me occupied so she could get on with her game of Solitaire.)

Writing wise, I didn’t get much farther than that ringed notebook. There were school assignments of course, and a handful of songs written on piano and guitar.

But writing didn’t take hold of me until I moved away.

So Philadelphia was the place where I started to write. About the things that were right in front of me.

But Chicago is the place where I became a writer. The kind of writer who dives into things that are hidden below the surface.

Could the wide-open spaces of the Midwest have beckoned, urging me to expose hidden ones I grew up around? Was there more room to think in Chicago? Was the beautiful rolling landscape of the east coast more like a writing obstruction rather than a writing prompt? Were there too many hidden spaces in Philadelphia? Did it not feel safe? If I hadn’t spent so many years in the City of Brotherly Love before returning to the Windy City, would I have been inclined to write at all? Was there something about the tension between these two places that set something in motion?

I just know that there’s a connection between place and who we are.

I just wonder how deep it goes, the impact of place to make us, us.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

Petals and Vine

As I strolled through the botanic garden’s annual orchid exhibit last week –  giddy over my first day off in weeks,  the unusually warm temperatures and a break from working with words – I was hoping to capture the explosion of color, texture and shape with a few camera clicks.

What I didn’t plan on was the pattern that emerged as I looked through the final shots. For almost every floral subject, there were at least two versions: one zoomed in and one pulled far back.

The photograph above is the close up version of the image below.

In the first picture, you can see the petals and vines that constitute the color, texture and shape I was going for. In the second, you can see these, but there’s far more than the parts. It had become an entirely new whole.

I thought to myself, this is what it feels like to see creative work developing. 

It all begins with a few petals and some vine. But then the artist turns it into a gown. Being a witness to it is a lot like watching magic happen.

A very viney example from one writer’s effort in a workshop I facilitated last year:

Roberta was in the midst of her morning routine, mulling over what to write about for the weekly prompt assignment, when her hunt for her hairbrush took her to a closet which led her to a red box that she had forgotten about. Opening the box rerouted her but gifted her with the subject for her prompt. This is the moment in our story where it is important to know that in addition to writing, Roberta is artistically ambidextrous: she makes fabric, quilts, books and paper. After bringing in the results for a few in-class sessions of feedback, (“You’ve got to let go of the hairbrush and let us see that box, Roberta!”) she was moved to cross-pollinate her love of words, thread, paper and binding and make this beautiful handmade book that illustrates the story I’ve just summarized, but far more poetically and optically.

Here is the result, at medium range:

Here is a page, close up:

And then far back again:

A circuitous journey, like this blog post, which just took you from orchids to photographs to floral gowns to a writer’s workshop to a hairbrush to the accidental finding of a red box that turned into an actual book about finding a red box and then back to photographs again.

The creative path is a mysterious one. But as a frequent spectator I can tell you that one of its most potent qualities is contagion.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish. “The Red Box” written and crafted by Roberta Levin. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

A Writer’s Work

The morning after the election, dazed and confused along with so many others, I found myself searching quotation databases for words of wisdom to soothe my soul.

Using key phrases like “moving through shock” and “coming back from defeat” and “when bad things happen,” I found encouraging words from Martin Luther King, Rabbi Harold Kushner and former President Bill Clinton (see below.)

Those post-election days are a blur to me now, but I’ll never forget how comforting it felt to find the right words.

I have been thinking about that moment as I watch my family and friends respond to and recover from the election of the man who turned the world upside down.

Some ranted, went mute, fishing, or to bed.

Some cried, cooked, collapsed.

But as bearings returned, so did action.

My rabbi invited local legislators and the community for a town hall-style meeting at our synagogue.

The Christian-Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group in which I have been a longtime member met for a heartfelt dinner and discussion at a local Turkish restaurant.

My daughter organized a fundraiser with other millennials for a women’s homeless shelter.

Journalists and news organizations debated the principles of real news.

Businesspeople innovated.

Women marched.

And it was good. This was action. We were facing this.

More accurately, people I knew were finding their place. I just hadn’t found mine yet. I couldn’t figure out how to plug in. What could I do to make an actual, concrete contribution?

I considered what had given me solace in the days and weeks post-election.

Laughter from Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway on Saturday Night Live.

Empathy from Sara Bareilles and Leslie Odom, Jr’s song, “Seriously.”

Community from Chicago storytellers expressing how they were feeling at live lit events.

Beauty through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds in words, photographs, poster slogans, political cartoons, films, paintings and sculpture.

 It’s ridiculous that it took me so long to see it. But I finally got it.

Comedy. Music. Storytelling. Words. Photographs. Film. Painting. Clay.

 All artistic expressions.

Art moves me to feel. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But feeling strongly moves me to get up and do something. Maybe that something is making art. But it can also be about inspiring others.

And this is where I can be helpful.

I’ve seen what can happen when people write stories from their lives. They lighten. They rise up a little.

But being inspired could also stir someone to change a vote, run for office, or create a ruckus.

I’m not the person who will turn a vote around or set up a foundation.

I will, however, show up. Offer my signature. Write a small check.

But I hope that I can generate a bigger impact – a larger noise – through making, and inspiring others to make, art or express themselves.

One piece of this is my commitment to infusing this blog space with inspiration on writing, creativity and craft. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I hope you’ll be one. It’s easy. And free. Subscribe here.

But I have another idea that is still marinating:

To curate a live lit storytelling event featuring personal narratives about the givens in our life – the color of our skin, the place we grew up and/or live and the religion in which we were raised (or not). I’m thinking of calling it “Race, Place and Divine Grace.” Stories about the parts of our lives that we can’t change in an effort to look at how we might, in fact, change. To hear one another – the full range of perspectives – a little better.

If you live near Chicago and have any thoughts about how we might co-mingle, let’s talk.

So this year, I’ve decided to go for more feeling, less reeling.

Will you join me?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

 

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Former President William J. Clinton

 

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.