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.


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.








Over the past two years, I’ve submitted my own essay labors of love to more than fifty publications. I’ve been told by writer friends that this is a drop in the bucket, numbers-wise. They’ve argued that if I doubled or tripled that amount, I’d have far better odds of seeing my work published. I suspect there’s some mathematical truth to this. But, there’s really only so much rejection a girl can take, right?

The way I look at it, of those fifty-something attempts at getting my work published, four of my essays have found homes. I’m okay with that math. I’ll even reach and say pleased, because I know what I’m up against: There are a lot of remarkable essayists out there. And a growing number of outstanding literary publications that publish them.

It’s worth a moment to stop and look at the word submit.

To submit is to offer, present, put forward. These suggests something proactive. But the word also is defined as a yielding, a succumbing, a letting go. It’s this second definition that is, without a doubt, the hardest for any artist. We put an enormous amount of ourselves into our work; we edit, tweak, cut, add, shave, rework, and sometimes  start all over again. When we finally feel that our work is ready to send out –  a moment worth acknowledging, practically worth a small parade –  we are presenting it and surrendering it, simultaneously. Like a tree that put itself out there protectively, like shelter, but also appears, perhaps with one or two branches, to be letting itself go.

It’s with a deep understanding of this weird and wonderful creative process that I announce open submissions for Thread beginning on January 12th, 2015. That’s next week! Please do review the Submissions Guidelines on the site. I never fully understood what all the fuss was until I was in the position of reading vast amounts of content. The guidelines really help smooth the reading process. There’s less in the way and more room for the editor to experience the small universe those words create, the art you’ve poured yourself into.

At this writing, my plan is to publish two more issues in 2015, translating into eighteen essays, perhaps a few less as I have my eye on three or four pieces. Keep that in mind as you prepare to submit. Know that if there isn’t a fit between us this time, it may not be about the writing, but rather the content as I want to keep it diverse. That may feel like bad news to you. But the good news is that there are many excellent literary pubs out there for you to try, and I’m urging you to submit whenever and wherever you can.

Putting yourself out there and letting go is, by itself, a potent and worthwhile experience, a big part of the creative process and what draws us back to the page and screen, again and again.


So … A Needle Pulling Thread


In Separation, one of my favorite poems that contains essay elements, W.S. Merwin writes,

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle

Everything I do is stitched with its color.”

The “your” in the first line could be applied to almost anything; a thing, a feeling, something we do.

This time of year, with its concentration on celebration and roving routines, I notice who I am without writing. Turns out, even when I’m not writing or thinking about writing or focused

on editing or publishing, everything I do is still stitched with its sensibility. At its heart, writing wants to communicate, to connect, to unearth meaning.  I find that even when I’m not tap-tapping keys with my fingertips or scratching on paper with a pen, I still want those things. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Writers and artists may be closer to all of this or perhaps more inclined to articulate it since expression is what we do. But dissecting our creative process doesn’t only give us a huge boost in our creative endeavors, there’s application for daily life. This seems to be a good time of year to ask:

Who are you without your routine? 

What are your threads made of? 

Is there something that you want – or need – to be stitching?

I offer these as end-of-the-year questions to ponder what you’d like to weave into the coming as you hug your houseguests and sing your holiday songs, and what you might like to leave behind. Hoping that whatever you choose will allow our paths to connect.

P.S. Looking for a last minute holiday gift? What about a gift certificate for a coaching session or manuscript review? For more info, email me at

Photo by Kelly Sikkema. Courtesy of Unsplash.




Seeing Up Close and Far Away


Our near vision blurs as we age. From what I’ve read it’s because our lenses thicken

and become less flexible. The less elastic the lens, the harder for the eye to focus up close which either leads to fuzzy vision or …. bifocals.

I’ve tried bifocals, twice – being able to see up close and far away so clearly does lure – but I just can’t bear them. The vision lines are too confining. I’d rather see less distinctly but have the ability to move between close up and far away more swiftly and with more fluidly than have to keep my field of vision within a tiny, prescripted space.

I think that’s what draws me toward photography which has taught me about three-layered seeing.

1) There’s what my naked eye sees.

2) There’s what my camera captures.

3) And finally, the resulting image that may contain elements I didn’t see at first.

Since late last year, I’ve been revising a series of older personal essays. I’ve been reframing and restructuring them and it’s very powerful work. It’s been grounding to be taking pictures (generating new work) during this process of taking what’s already written (working with what’s been captured) and then, in the revising, discovering a new layer or making something wholly new. What I’m learning is that the pieces that feel complete are doing what the eye was made to do: they allow us to see close up and far away at the same time.

I urge you to try out this three-tiered approach to your creative process. Create something new. Revise something old. Blend them together to make something entirely different or to highlight something you didn’t see before.

Dig out those old essays or stories that call to you, dust them off and enter them again to see what they have to tell you. Turn one into a poem. Or find that poem and write it as an essay. Take your short story to write it as a personal essay. Find a photograph you took and write what comes to you as you look at it.

Mix, match and make your mark!

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish, 2014.