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






Ten Gifts to Stir Your Creative Soul

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For some of you, the last two weeks in December multiplies the items on your to-do list and pushes you to pick up the pace. For others, it may be a quieter time. But the shorter days, perhaps a few high expectations, and our cultural magnification on the holidays can make this a challenging time for psychic space to create.

So I urge you not to fight against it and instead give yourself a break from making and allow yourself the gift of taking. I’m not talking about things material (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) I’m talking about filling your creative well with inspiration, affirmation and perhaps an insight or two. Consider using the next few weeks to take in what others have to say about why creativity is a priority in their lives. Let them give you words that to help you appreciate what you do, creatively speaking.  Make it your end-of-the-year gratitude review.

To that end, I have some recommendations. Below are ten books that have provided me with this gift. Books that I go back to from time to time. Writers whose words on the subject of creativity, craft and the writing life ring bells for me and remind me why I spend so much time in its pursuit.

Certainly you can get your own thoughts down on the subject  –  it makes a great prompt – but when a writer articulates what you have long felt but never put into words (whether you’ve tried or not), it can be such a gift.

Gifts to stir your soul.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert


The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr


Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott


The Story Within: New Insights and Inspiration for Writers, Laura Oliver


The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick


Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser


Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg


Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington


Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, Louise DeSalvo


Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2015.

A (Not-So) Modest Proposal

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If you haven’t heard of Elizabeth Gilbert, you have most likely heard of her best-selling spiritual memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. It’s the story of her yearlong search for pleasure, spirituality and balance after she discovered that a married life  — with the possibility of children in the suburbs  — was not for her. She set out for gastronomic pleasures in Rome, Italy; communion with the divine in an ashram near Mumbai, India and a balance between the two in Bali, Indonesia.

The fact that all of the countries’ names begin with the letter “I” was not lost on her as she was in search of herself.

It’s a wonderful book. Honest. Insightful. Funny. But as a married woman with children who lives in the suburbs – one who also has spiritual curiosity and an adventuresome spirit – I wondered why she felt that the two worlds had to be mutually exclusive. I began to fantasize about writing a book of my own based on Gilbert’s model but with mothers in mind. And so, acknowledging  (and apologies for lifting) Gilbert’s idea, I present the following proposal:

I’d title it: Eat, Pray and Sit Down for a Minute, Will You? My readers would be busy mothers because I believe this population is hungriest and neediest for pleasure, spirituality and balance. The book would be far fewer pages than Gilberts’, honoring a mother’s lack of time, and would be something I could produce if, and only if, a combination of the following events and support mechanisms coalesced:

  • a stretch of time that doesn’t collide with my husbands’ or two children’s work and school schedule;
  • my husband’s support and time;
  • a reliable sitter, driver or neighborhood mother materialized to fill in for emergencies;
  • a working car;
  • a tank full of gas – and a stretch of reasonable gas prices;
  • and a good GPS system.

I couldn’t take a whole year off like Gilbert did. I could only spare a long weekend. Four days tops.

Like Gilbert, I am in search of pleasure, spirituality and balance, especially as I look ahead to my empty nest years. Because of time and budgetary considerations, a cross-continent trip is simply out of the question. Since I am a Midwesterner, I would travel to Illinois, Indiana and Iowa for this adventure. (Note that these states begin with the letter “I.”)

In Chicago, Illinois — my Rome — my first stop, I’d visit the best hot dog joints and deep-dish pizzerias and ponder their flavors, aromas and digestibility. I’d consume large quantities, just like Gilbert did in Italy, and be forced to unzip the top of my pants at the end of the day. I’d interview the folks at the Vienna beef factory and ask them what makes their dogs different from Oscar Meyer’s and I’d save room to compare Malnati’s pizza to Giordano’s and Uno’s. I’d talk to locals with the most authentic Chicago accents and befriend one so I wouldn’t have to eat alone.

Stop two would be Richmond, Indiana — my Mumbai —home to Quakers and their quiet meetinghouses. I would attend Meeting for Worship and interview Friends about how their silent worship and emphasis on a simple life keeps them so peaceful and calm. I would ask for advice about how to apply these ideals to the life of a busy suburban mother’s and I would quote them liberally just like Gilbert did of her ashram friend in India, and one, maybe two, might become oft-referred icons of spiritual advice.

The final stop – my Bali – would be Iowa City, Iowa. There, in search of balance between the orgy of taste buds and expansion of my waistline and the peace from silent worship, I’d feast my eyes on the Iowa flatlands and finger the hard and soft cover reading material generated by the writers on the campus of University of Iowa. I would lose myself in the inspiring and thought-provoking sentences and soulful readings and vow to read and write more.

Upon my return home to my red brick and slate gray Georgian in the suburbs, I’d write about my journey during the available working hours when my children were at school and after-school activities. At this pace, and with this schedule, it would only take a few years to get the manuscript into presentable shape, but I believe that once pulled together, like Gilbert’s memoir, it could be a potential best-seller and may also have the added benefit of doing a little something for Midwest tourism, too.

And the end of her journey, Gilbert found love. After her memoir was published, she married him, though I am pretty sure she did not return to the suburbs.

I may discover something equally as surprising at the end of my journey. For instance, I may uncover a previously buried desire to farm the land and I would move to Idaho to become a potato farmer. (Wouldn’t this make a great epilogue?)

Eat, Pray and Sit Down for a Minute, Will You? would answer the question: Who says suburban mothers can’t find pleasure, spirituality and balance in a four-day driving trip through the Midwest? It would address the idea that you never know where you’ll find a pearl of wisdom or a moment of clarity.  Not so surprising, really, that Gilbert experienced  transcontinental epiphanies after back-to-back Italian meals, conversations with a Balinese healer and long periods of meditation at an ashram in India. Isn’t it more compelling to find spiritual clarity in the middle of the United States? Having left one’s family to fend for themselves, interrupted by frequent cell phone check-ins? Gilbert’s aha moments would pale in comparison to the ones I would certainly have after chowing down a Vienna hot dog or deep dish pizza, sitting silently on a wooden bench in an Indiana meeting house and standing in the back of a crowded university auditorium in Iowa City listening to writers who would do almost anything to exchange places with me and my big advance.

This is something adventure-hungry mothers could get excited about. Something with which spiritual seekers could resonate. Something that both editors and marketing departments could work around. The book could not only be marketed as a hot new memoir, but as a how-to manual for localizing one’s own low cost, do-it-yourself spiritual quest … recession version.

And then, for the sequel (because you know there would be one),  I would travel in a similar but expanded manner to the east coast to Maryland, Maine, and Massachusetts, then south to Mississippi, and perhaps onto Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, and then west to Montana. Because with my previous book’s success, it will be all about me.

First published June 2008. Copyright Ellen Blum Barish