Spiraling Toward a Creative Goal


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If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the creative process, it’s that it’s so not linear.

Certainly the process can be broken down into steps. And those steps can be taken one at a time. At your own pace. In a very organized way, if you so choose.

But that’s about it, as far as planning goes. Those steps aren’t the mere up and down variety. More like the spiral staircase. Once in, the process takes over and your best bet is to try not to look down or up – you may get dizzy – and simply go with it.

The piece you thought you were writing somehow goes in another direction. You put it aside, go for a walk or see a movie, and a connective thread comes to you, maybe a theme. You decide to try a different approach. And it feels better, sounds better. You read it out loud and you don’t like it. You put it aside again and pick it up later to read it and you see something in it you didn’t before. Perhaps it’s in there already or there’s a space for it, calling to you to fill it.

The process is so unlike the rest of what we do in a day. Or is it? We may be washing breakfast dishes but then get distracted by a phone call or something on TV. Or we may move from one room to another completely forgetting what we left for.

I think that day-to-day life is very much like the spiral of creative process. Some days it may feel more like non-connecting circles, which may feel repetitious and not very meaningful. But imagine what a bunch of balloons might look like in the sky. Now there’s a bunch of non-connecting circles! Lovely, right? Even, maybe artful.


Writers with whom I have worked, or whose work I have reviewed have had their essays or memoir pieces published in The Sun, More magazine, Shambhala Sun, North Shore Magazine, Blood Orange Review and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. Many have also had pieces  published in essay anthologies or self-published books. 

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish.












Beginner’s Mind


Ira Glass on patience and the beginner’s mind.

For those of us just starting to tap into our creative juices and those of us who have been doing it a while, but have hit a slump.

Things Ira wishes he had been told. Lucky us that he shared it.




Family Tree

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Last week, the giant ash that has lived across the street for the more than two decades we have lived here, the one whose branches create an almost-arch over our street and whose leaves I could see when I was laying on my bed, which filled my window, always the first to turn colors in the fall, was cut down. My neighbor Ruthie told me it was just a twig when they moved in 42 years ago.

It was infected with emerald ash borer, the name of a green beetle who is so very unhappy to be away from it’s native Asia or Russia and is taking it out on Chicago area ash trees.  Those of us who happened to be around that morning – there were at least seven or eight of us – watched, our mouths in pout, as four strong men took their positions in and around the tree and two worked the chipper. It was loud and fast. Forty-two years for it to grow to it’s towering state. Gone two hours later.

Continue reading “Family Tree”

Growing Season

I’m a late-bloomer gardener, gardener a generous term to call the repotting and repositioning that I do in my backyard with plants purchased from Home Depot.

Each year, I notice that I pay just a little more attention to how well they do in the places I put them. Pre-potted blooms are expensive! I want them to last all summer and perhaps, if brought indoors, through the winter months. And I’m frequently rewarded with lessons on life – and writing – from Mother Nature.

Here’s the lesson, so far, of this growing season:

The plants that I fuss over, like the hibiscus in the sunniest spot in my yard, whose dirt I keep moist and brown-edged leaves I clip, hasn’t bloomed since I brought it home.  I know it’s a tropical plant and here in the midwest, it hasn’t been very hot and moist. It’s just a lovely pot of thick, healthy green leaves at the moment.

But the plants I have not fussed over at all, like this one that I forget to water, that hangs by the hammock under an umbrella of tree branches:


is doing just fine, thank you.

And check this out: See this little green growing thing?


Guess where I found it and at least eight others like it?


When I opened my shed door, the little red wagon filled with potting dirt that lives there in the dark with an assortment of varmints and only the tiniest bit of light coming through a broken window.

I suspect someone with botanic brawn will let me know the science of this – I’m sure there there’s an explanation – but what interests me at the moment is how well things grow; how much things want to grow, without any human help at all. Nature is … extremely self sufficient.

You might be asking how does my excuse for a real garden relate to writing process?

As a gentle reminder not to over-water, over-feed, over-fret and over-work our creations. To first give them a chance to find their own place in the sun and intervene, if necessary, later.

I’ll keep you posted.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish



The Light in the Letters

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Over the past week or so, I’ve been reading –  and rereading –  The Book of Letters by Lawrence Kushner. Drawing on Talmudic commentary, Hasidic folk tales and insights from the Kabbalah, Kushner explores the meaning and metaphor of the Hebrew letters in this exquisitely calligraphed book.

He writes that the letters exist independently of ink, paper and even, words. That they have been around since before the creation of the world and are linked with the creative process. That each letter has it own shape and sound, waiting to be heard and gazed upon. That when Moses shattered the first set of tablets at Mount Sinai, the letters ascended to “the One who gave them,” like vessels carrying light and wisdom.

The idea that letters could be, in and of themselves, holy, has really stuck with me. I’ve been  thinking a lot lately about how many letters are needed to make words that build the sentences we send into the Twitter-sphere and blogosphere. I find myself wondering if it’s possible to overproduce them. Or if overusing them diminishes their potency. Or if we should be thinking about them like we do our limited natural resources like water, trees and clean air.

Are we closing in on too many words and not enough meaning?

I have no answers, but I wanted to pose the questions to my fellow writers. I want to find a way to infuse our writing, and our writing practices, with more thoughtfulness and, perhaps, reserve. So we focus more on finding just the right words to express exactly what we mean.