We’re Just Drawn That Way

 

Earlier this year, I decided to stretch my literary ligaments by reading books outside of my regular go-to genre. So it’s been novels instead of my usual steady diet of essay collections and literary memoirs.

I really enjoyed Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng.) I loved The Friend (Sigrid Nunez.) And I’m really enjoying Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. But I wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng), Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) and City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) more. I started two or three other novels that I just couldn’t finish.

All of which brings me to: We like what we like.

An eloquent essay elevates me.

A meaningful memoir mesmerizes me.

It all began for me in the early 90s when personal essays were showing up in women’s magazines, the Sunday papers and on public radio. It was the era of the New York Times Hers column. Later it was the Lives column. There was Anna Quindlen’s “Life in the Thirties” column and Marion Winik’s radio essays on NPR and then, Modern Love. The essays explored work, motherhood, family, relationships, life, death and health in layered and honest ways.

I moved from essays to memoirs: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.These writers showed me how to make art from life with a willingness to go deep, choosing well-chosen words and metaphor. Then I discovered  Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Brenda Miller, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Roiphe, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro. There were male writers, too, of course: Jean Dominique-Bauby. David Sedaris. Brian Doyle. Phillip Lopate. James McBride. Darin Straus. Augusten Burroughs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But among the writers who wrote in all genres, what I leaned toward were the stories they wrote from their lives.

Friends – literary and otherwise – recommend, give or loan me their favorite fiction, insisting that I’ll love it. I do try them. If a writer doesn’t grab me in 50 pages, I simply have to move on. I have a life to lead. But rarely, if ever, did I fall in love with a novel like I have with a memoir or essay collection.

I take that back. I can think of one: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It’s one of the rare books – novel or memoir – that I actually read twice.

It’s the job of a writer to take her reader by the head, hand or heart, I tell my writing students, to keep that reader engaged.

Too much to ask? Maybe.

But in this current attention-challenged climate, I think it’s even more important for writers to ensure that their readers get lost in their words.

I tend to like concise, thoughtful, spare and honest writing. Writing that’s funny and self-aware. I know there are plenty of novels and short story collections with these qualities. But for me, it’s more about the approach to the subject matter, the lens through which the writer is looking. I am pulled toward material that explores the psychological and the mysterious. Pieces that rely on curiosity about human nature with a hunger for insight and wisdom. Stories that invite the writer and reader to journey together to make meaning from them.

I’d like to think of myself as reader-curious. I often wish I was more genre-fluid. But I do think it’s worthwhile to be able to name the kind of work we like best. It tells us something about ourselves. For those of us who write, it’s valuable information that may help identify the form we want to explore with our own words.

Our choices are, after all, a miniature mirror. They are a small reflection of our authentic selves.

Whatever you are reading this summer, may it be full of exploration, escapism and self discovery.

 

Thinking ahead to Fall? Check out my selection of day and evenings workshops here.

 

 

 

 

Ellen’s Eight

There’s no sure-fire formula to teach creative writing. I don’t believe there’s a prescription to teach any kind of art.

Instead, I think writing teachers and coaches do our best when we create a safe space. The more comfortable the writer, the easier the “brain dump” and the chance to capture words on the page or screen.

Creative process is as varied as people are. There’s no one method to get those words out.

However, I do rely on a post brain-dump checklist.

I call them Ellen’s Eight Elements of Essay and they are applicable to all forms of personal narrative after the first draft is down.

On the sentence level, there’s detail, scene, language and pacing.

For the work as a whole, there’s storyline, structure, voice and theme.

I could write volumes on each one, but there isn’t space for that here. Besides, it’s more efficient to talk about them within the context of an essay or piece of memoir – a conversation that is the foundation of my workshops for many years now.

But lately I’ve been thinking that these eight elements don’t just apply to essay and memoir.

The more I talk about them as they relate to a piece of personal writing, the more I see that they are a pretty good checklist for living a meaningful life.

Starting small:

Detail. You’ve heard the expression, The divine is in the details. I’ll just leave that right there.

Scene. Paying attention to the scene you are in is living wholly in the present tense.

Language: The words we use are not fleeting. They can be a reflection of ourselves. In fact there’s some science behind this.

Pacing. The rhythm of our sentences and the pace of the story is a mirror to our mood.

Moving larger:

Storyline. You are living your story, telling your story and you can reframe both.

Structure. We are comfortable with how our lives are shaped and organized, or not.

Voice. Your voice is the  your vision. How do you define yours?

Theme. What would your life’s mission statement look like? What matters most to you?

Ted Talk author Emily Esfahani Smith’s defines a meaningful life as one filled with belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling. I believe writing provides all four. The storytelling, for sure. The hours lost in the writing can feel transcendent. The subject you are writing about can give purpose to your life. And belonging can come from connecting with a reader or being with other writers.

Making art isn’t just about making something expressive, poignant or beautiful. When we make art, we make meaning.

 

Read my recent craft essay on the Brevity Blog!

 

A new month, a new Stitch! So much said in so few words.“Tied and True” by Ruth Rozen.

 

Watch for the Summer Issue of Thread to be released this month! Missed the Spring Issue? Read it here.

 

I’m taking a much-needed break from reading  Thread submissions this summer, but will continue to review pieces for  StitchCheck out the Submission Guidelines.

 

We’ve only just stepped into summer, but it isn’t too early to think about writing in the fall. Take a look at my offerings for fall.

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

 

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