Catching Butterflies


For the past thirty years, I have earned a living, and even a few awards, as a writer and editor.

But in middle school, around the time that achievement tests became the standard by which writing and reading skills were determined, my scores led my teachers and parents to conclude that I was struggling with reading and writing. This led to a meeting with my parents that led to many long hours in a windowless closet of a room at school with a reading and writing tutor.

As a teenager, there was already plenty to be embarrassed about, but I remember being really mortified about having to be tutored because I thought of myself as a smart girl.

Luckily that feeling didn’t last beyond my first session. My tutor turned out to be an amiable, patient woman named Mrs. Stoner. (To my GFS friends, this is Caroline’s mother!) She taught me to identify the way I absorbed information, how to squeeze it out and organize it into words. But perhaps even more poignantly for the career that was to come, was how she guided me in honoring my individual learning process.

Funny how life works. I never set out to teach or coach writing. I was never a stellar student. The opportunities came, ironically, from two teacher/mentors. My deep appreciation goes to Hyma Levin for seeing the teacher in me and to Abe Peck for thinking I could coach.  I’ve been teaching and coaching writing for a decade now but only recently did I recognize that my approach – my teacherly soul – is based on what these gifted educators gave to me. Find your own process first and work the details around that.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve witnessed numerous approaches in my students. Each writer, or person with a writing task, takes unique steps toward her goal. But I’ve noticed that there are patterns. I’ve grouped and listed them here. I’m very process oriented so I’d love to hear yours, or if you think I’ve missed any. Feel free to comment below or drop me a line to let me know at

Catching butterflies. Writing is like a net that catches the words – like butterflies –  as it moves through the air.

Empty glass. When this writer gets really quiet, words fill the space.

Gold mining. The writer moves her hands and fingers and the letters and words materialize and she goes back and searches for the gems.

Architectural blueprint. He prepares an outline like a foundation and adds the words as if they are the bricks or stucco.

Labor and delivery. This writer scrunches up and pushes, like she is delivering a baby.

Scratch and erase. The writers writes, then reads what he wrote and revises. He writes some more, reads that and revises. Sentence by sentence or graf by graf.

Altered state writing: She drinks (or eats). Then writes. Then she stops, drinks or eats some more, and writes. And on it goes.

Photo of butterflies taken at Ellwood Butterfly Grove in Santa Barbara, California by Ellen Blum Barish