We’re Just Drawn That Way


Earlier this year, I decided to stretch my literary ligaments by reading books outside of my regular go-to genre. So it’s been novels instead of my usual steady diet of essay collections and literary memoirs.

I really enjoyed Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng.) I loved The Friend (Sigrid Nunez.) And I’m really enjoying Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. But I wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng), Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) and City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) more. I started two or three other novels that I just couldn’t finish.

All of which brings me to: We like what we like.

An eloquent essay elevates me.

A meaningful memoir mesmerizes me.

It all began for me in the early 90s when personal essays were showing up in women’s magazines, the Sunday papers and on public radio. It was the era of the New York Times Hers column. Later it was the Lives column. There was Anna Quindlen’s “Life in the Thirties” column and Marion Winik’s radio essays on NPR and then, Modern Love. The essays explored work, motherhood, family, relationships, life, death and health in layered and honest ways.

I moved from essays to memoirs: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.These writers showed me how to make art from life with a willingness to go deep, choosing well-chosen words and metaphor. Then I discovered  Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Brenda Miller, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Roiphe, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro. There were male writers, too, of course: Jean Dominique-Bauby. David Sedaris. Brian Doyle. Phillip Lopate. James McBride. Darin Straus. Augusten Burroughs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But among the writers who wrote in all genres, what I leaned toward were the stories they wrote from their lives.

Friends – literary and otherwise – recommend, give or loan me their favorite fiction, insisting that I’ll love it. I do try them. If a writer doesn’t grab me in 50 pages, I simply have to move on. I have a life to lead. But rarely, if ever, did I fall in love with a novel like I have with a memoir or essay collection.

I take that back. I can think of one: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It’s one of the rare books – novel or memoir – that I actually read twice.

It’s the job of a writer to take her reader by the head, hand or heart, I tell my writing students, to keep that reader engaged.

Too much to ask? Maybe.

But in this current attention-challenged climate, I think it’s even more important for writers to ensure that their readers get lost in their words.

I tend to like concise, thoughtful, spare and honest writing. Writing that’s funny and self-aware. I know there are plenty of novels and short story collections with these qualities. But for me, it’s more about the approach to the subject matter, the lens through which the writer is looking. I am pulled toward material that explores the psychological and the mysterious. Pieces that rely on curiosity about human nature with a hunger for insight and wisdom. Stories that invite the writer and reader to journey together to make meaning from them.

I’d like to think of myself as reader-curious. I often wish I was more genre-fluid. But I do think it’s worthwhile to be able to name the kind of work we like best. It tells us something about ourselves. For those of us who write, it’s valuable information that may help identify the form we want to explore with our own words.

Our choices are, after all, a miniature mirror. They are a small reflection of our authentic selves.

Whatever you are reading this summer, may it be full of exploration, escapism and self discovery.


Thinking ahead to Fall? Check out my selection of day and evenings workshops here.





Finding Your Story and Writing it … for Self Discovery

 Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.  

Maya Angelou

There’s a story you want to write. It hovers. Pokes at you. Maybe even stalks you. You’ve thought about it – in fact you have taken a seat, a pen and pad in hand, but you just didn’t know how where to start and you hoped the feeling would pass.

But it hasn’t. You’ve shared parts of the story with friends and they have urged you to write it down. It felt really good to tell it. You think it would feel as good — perhaps even better — to get it into words. Words that you could return to and read aloud, to feel it again and share with others. A bird, compelled to sing her song.

Anais Nin wrote that we write to taste life twice. Writing offers second chances, writes Jonathan Safran Foer, and allows us to reframe our life, to take it in and give it back differently,  “so that everything is used and nothing is lost,” write Nicole Krauss.

There are so many reasons to write your story but, sadly, there are more reasons not to.

And most of the time, we chose not to because it’s so big … so time-consuming …  so complicated … so scary… so personal … so private …. so hard.

I know all this because I have felt all of these feelings as I considered, struggled or walked away from writing personal narrative. But allow me to share three secrets about writing personal stories.

1)   Finding and writing the personal story is better (not easier, just more pleasant) with someone – a knowing, trusted someone – rooting you on.

2)   Having captured your story (or “having written,” as Dorothy Parker wrote) is one of the most satisfying, joyful experiences you can have in life. (Okay, I’m a little biased, but this I can guarantee.)

3)  The third and perhaps best secret, so well expressed by Anna Quindlan,  is about writing is for self discovery. She wrote:

I read and walked for miles at night along the beach, writing bad blank verse and searching endlessly for someone wonderful who would step out of the darkness and change my life. It never crossed my mind that that person could be me.

Thinking about working with a private writing coach? I work with writers of all levels – face to face, via telephone, email or Skype –  that is as unique as the individual and the project. I’ve rarely worked the same way, twice. Feel free to email me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com to set up a free telephone consultation to see if private writing coaching is what you need to find your story and begin to write it.