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









Nurturing the Pages


January brought a stunning selection of essays for Thread. Such gifts! Reading them is like being seated at a magnificent banquet, a glorious tasting of my favorite recipes. In less than three weeks, I found six beautiful expressions of the human heart that touch on, among other things, memory, geography and epiphany. I can’t wait for you to read them.

But wait, we must. Because as easy and swift as it would be to copy and paste these writers’ words into the site and insert the images I’ve taken or collected to highlight them, I’ve entered that time in publishing that’s unique to literary publications: edit mode.

That final edit is a reminder of why I’m doing this. Not only because a careful edit reduces misspellings and typos.  Sure, that’s a huge part of the process. But a good edit also brings out what’s best in a piece; it can make the words more true, encourage some of the words to actually pop off the page, to make the whole piece sing.

I’ve certainly posted lightly edited lines on Facebook, Twitter and sent quickly crafted emails. But I’m old school when it comes to publishing.  I think the time consuming, detailed nature of editing is what makes literary publications different from everything else. I think this is why we enjoy reading them. Well edited words leave a trace; a light, fragrant scent of being well nurtured like a fine, hot house plant.

So the Summer issue of Thread is slated for an early April release. The reading will take place in late April, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday, April 29th. (Place to be determined but it’s likely to be one of the two Curt’s Cafe locales in Evanston.)

Which means that submissions from here on out will be considered for the Fall 2015 or Spring 2016 issues. To find out more about what I’m looking for, go to the Submissions page of the Thread site. Stay current with news about issues and readings, as well as links to interesting articles about the creative process by liking Thread on Facebook.

In other related news:

Those of you who live in the Chicago area: Come on over to Max and Benny’s in Northbrook later this month for an evening devoted to the essay at the February Chicago Jewish Authors Literary Series. I’ll be reading selections from my book of essays, Views from the Home Office Window, and talking about Thread. The event is free. Monday, February 23rd at 7 pm.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish








Love Letter

RDNwatercolor version

The second loss.

That’s how Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, captured it.

In her introduction to my essay, “Strawberries in the Driveway,” released today on her literary magazine site, Full Grown People,  she wrote,

How do you memorialize someone you lost first to depression, then to death?

This is almost literally my worst nightmare, but Ellen Blum Barish writes about her old college friend in such a tender way that I know someone out there reading this is glad to have this balm.

A second loss is exactly how it felt.

First to depression, then to suicide.

It wasn’t a topic I set out to write. How can we ever hope to make sense of either of these life-takers? But I was compelled to try. And it came from a real-life prompt.

Last July, I shared a story on the Story Sessions stage at The Dog’s Bollox on Lincoln Avenue about keeping house. It was a muse on the various influences that dictate our housekeeping skills. I was bit by the storytelling bug. Producer Jill Howe wrote me a letter of introduction to Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin, producers of Essay Fiesta and they scheduled me for January 19, which turned out to be a typo (because that third Monday in January was the 20th) but it jumped out at me all the same.

Douglas’s birthday.

I took it as invitation to grapple with his death and the result was the essay below.

My appreciation to Willy and Karen for the Essay Fiesta spotlight and the prompt and to all my Friends with Words for the support and encouragement as it was under construction.

But my gratitude especially goes to Susan and John (whom you will meet later in the piece) and my dear friends Steve, Myra, Dave, Becky and their amazing children who gathered with my husband, David, daughter and I last Labor Day on the Northwestern University campus to articulate our goodbyes.

“Strawberries in the Driveway.”

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Circa 1978-1979.


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.