More Light. Less Speed.

I am in the final month of the final section of the final chapter of the first full draft of a memoir. By August, I will have been working on the book for a year, longer really, as I’ve been writing pieces and parts and thinking about it since the late 1990s.

The process has felt at times like floodgate-opening relief and, at others, like trying to turn on a faucet hose that has been rusted solid. There have been glorious days where I could have been outside on a walk or at the garden or out with friends but instead I was inside on my behind on my office couch with my MacBook Pro in my lap wondering, especially on less productive days, why I was devoting myself to a project with no definitive paycheck or deadline that frequently brings pain, tears and the conjuring of difficult memories.

Yet, what finally got me to write, and keeps me writing, were the many more good reasons to do it, the ones outweighing the equally strong desire not to bother.

Among these were:

To make the story stop stalking me. To address it head on, to understand what happened. To listen to myself, in my own words. To heal.

To hone my craft. To capture a story, as beautifully and truthfully as I could, creating a long-form work that grabs and holds a reader’s attention, and hopefully, heart.

To witness myself writing it. To connect more deeply with my students and writer-colleagues who are writing memoir. So that I understand the process and can teach it better.

But as I am nearing the end of this first draft, facing a second and possibly third, I have been surprised to recognize more overarching reasons beyond little-old me.

I knew it was there, but now I have felt it and am certain of the energy-moving potency in identifying pieces of a life. Especially the broken ones. What it feels like to put them back together to reconfigure, shape them into art and make meaning from it. How it reveals new things about one’s life and one’s self.

Perhaps even more importantly, by addressing this personal business through art by reframing, understanding or making peace with it, we get the feeling of having turned something good from something not-so-good. Maybe it’s just that we made something out of what feels like nothing (but we all know it’s not nothing). We get to feel good, even just briefly, for having picked up our broken pieces and rearranged them. Like clearing out and organizing a drawer or closet so that it can be used more artfully, we can move a little more to the right or the left because there’s more room. Room and space to fill, repair, create or contribute something else. Which can bring us a sense of renewed or confirmed purpose and maybe even the chance to do some healing in the world.

The writing has, until recently, been going well. But lately I’ve had more not-so-good writing days, made all of the more poignant because I can see the end. It’s so close! Just a few days ago, for example, I realized that part of my ending would do a better job of inviting a reader into my story as the Prologue which then sent me into a long, arduous spell of rewriting. I really understand why some of my writing students stop, or take yearlong breaks, so far in. I see the temptation. The work can be hard and unrelenting.

But just as married people renew their vows, and businesses revisit their mission statement, I think we need to reaffirm our whys. To remember what we are doing it for. Maybe even to say it differently to match where we are now or possibly discover something new about why we are doing – or should continue to do – what we do.

In June, I gave myself a birthday present. A photography class. It’s so joyful to learn something new and so restorative for me to be away from words! I’ve learned that to highlight the subject you want and blur out the background – like the photograph above – you need to let in more light by way of a bigger aperture (the F stops), but the speed of the shutter needs to slow down (1/60 is the magic setting for no hand shaking). A good shot comes from a combination of how wide our eyes are open and the pace of a blink.

More light. And slowing down.

Reminders of what we need to focus on the things we want and let the rest fade away.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.




Petals and Vine

As I strolled through the botanic garden’s annual orchid exhibit last week –  giddy over my first day off in weeks,  the unusually warm temperatures and a break from working with words – I was hoping to capture the explosion of color, texture and shape with a few camera clicks.

What I didn’t plan on was the pattern that emerged as I looked through the final shots. For almost every floral subject, there were at least two versions: one zoomed in and one pulled far back.

The photograph above is the close up version of the image below.

In the first picture, you can see the petals and vines that constitute the color, texture and shape I was going for. In the second, you can see these, but there’s far more than the parts. It had become an entirely new whole.

I thought to myself, this is what it feels like to see creative work developing. 

It all begins with a few petals and some vine. But then the artist turns it into a gown. Being a witness to it is a lot like watching magic happen.

A very viney example from one writer’s effort in a workshop I facilitated last year:

Roberta was in the midst of her morning routine, mulling over what to write about for the weekly prompt assignment, when her hunt for her hairbrush took her to a closet which led her to a red box that she had forgotten about. Opening the box rerouted her but gifted her with the subject for her prompt. This is the moment in our story where it is important to know that in addition to writing, Roberta is artistically ambidextrous: she makes fabric, quilts, books and paper. After bringing in the results for a few in-class sessions of feedback, (“You’ve got to let go of the hairbrush and let us see that box, Roberta!”) she was moved to cross-pollinate her love of words, thread, paper and binding and make this beautiful handmade book that illustrates the story I’ve just summarized, but far more poetically and optically.

Here is the result, at medium range:

Here is a page, close up:

And then far back again:

A circuitous journey, like this blog post, which just took you from orchids to photographs to floral gowns to a writer’s workshop to a hairbrush to the accidental finding of a red box that turned into an actual book about finding a red box and then back to photographs again.

The creative path is a mysterious one. But as a frequent spectator I can tell you that one of its most potent qualities is contagion.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish. “The Red Box” written and crafted by Roberta Levin. Copyright 2017.






Chaos Wants to Be Art


It may be inconsistent with most childhood experiences and unintentionally un-American, but I’ve never liked fireworks. Especially the elongated, grandiose versions set off on July 4th.  Sound, sight and sensation reign supreme and the whole spectacle jangles my nerves. Even with children of my own who loved the pageantry, I was grateful for a husband who shared their enthusiasm and would, every year, leave me to a quiet house.

So it was extremely atypical for me to be anywhere near fireworks on the fourth of July when I found myself in the midst of them at a music festival in Milwaukee earlier this month. My husband and I had driven up from Chicago to hear The Indigo Girls with college friends. When the show was over, we were heading back to the car and suddenly there was a BOOM! And then a THWACK! And then, BOOM BOOM! And, THWACK THWACK! And then the OOOOHS and AAAHHHHS, not only from the crowd, but from my husband and my friends.

I was surrounded by explosive-loving loved ones. I was going to have to surrender to this experience.

We found seats at a nearby picnic table and I kept my head down to concentrate on acclimating. I was giving it the old college try.

When I looked up, the showers of colored light made the gondolas pop into view. That’s when I slipped my iphone out of my pocket and starting taking pictures.

I must have taken at least 50 shots. The click of my telephone camera couldn’t compete against the booms and the thwacks but standing behind it, I felt just the slightest bit protected, even though I was cursing the fact that I left my new SLR camera at home.

The next day as I was looking at the images on my large desktop screen, you could hear the SWOOSH SWOOSH of deleted photo after deleted photo as I sent them to the trash.

Then I came across this dark, unsuccessful shot:

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My finger was just about to hit delete when I noted that there were three decently shaped firework bursts in this picture. I had recently learned in a photography workshop that compositionally speaking, three was a sort of magic number (one is its own thing, two can be a coincidence and three is an actual pattern).

So I put it aside, deleted 40-plus more, and concluded that fireworks and I would never live in harmony together. I couldn’t even turn them into art.

But I was wrong. Something made me click onto the photograph again, as if it was calling out, yearning for another chance. I placed it into editing mode and heightened the exposure and saturation, just a bit.

And it transformed into this:


A perfect picture it isn’t. My Canon could have done far better and I’m not even sure what that yellow light in the far left corner is. (I didn’t want to crop it too tight.)

But it’s cool, right? A little bit magical, even. I think it’s my favorite shot … ever. So of course I posted it on my Facebook page.

One friend, a painter, commented that it looked like vintage Asian art.

Another friend, also an artist, wrote that it made her heart thump.

My youngest daughter wrote, “You actually watched fireworks??”

Rescuing the photograph from the trash, enabling it to reveal its beauty has me thinking, once again, that often, what we think of as chaos simply wants to be art.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.














Leafy Inspiration

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Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2014.


Everywhere you look, we’re being framed in gold, orange and yellow. It’s my favorite quarter of the year where color takes the stage for a continuously changing runway walk and just the right amount of nip in the air keeps me perking along.  Autumn is the time to manifest dreams.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right now. Manifesting a lifelong dream to publish a literary magazine!

The design has been approved. Essays are in final edit. The online publication – featuring essays and photography – is currently under construction.  The launch is scheduled for early December. Watch this space for more on all of this in the weeks to come.

Wishes for leaves of inspiration to blow your way this season.


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.