When Two Strands Become One

We live and tell stories from our life every day but finding the words to commit to the page can be really challenging.

We want them to be the right words. We want them to sound great, like the writers we admire.

But our lives contain many more than one storyline. These crisscross and intertwine like the yarn in a complex tapestry.

Which color? How much? And in what order? These choices make it hard to pull out that single thread we want to express for that article you may be writing, presentation you are preparing, social media promotion, academic assignment, essay, memoir or story for the stage.

But it can be found and when we do, it’s so gratifying! To communicate an idea, write or tell a story from your life, speak your mind, say what you want to say so that others understand is an extraordinary experience. It’s like the first moment a child is understood by someone else – it’s a hallelujah! There’s been a successful exchange. In the language of the weaver, it’s called “double ending”  – two ends are woven as one. Down deep, I believe that’s what we all want. To be heard. Understood. Seen.

It may begin as the work of the mind, but once it moves from our heads through our hearts and into our hands and onto the page, it’s handwork, craftspersonship. It enables us to leave a part of ourselves in the world.

This year, I took enormous pleasure in helping to facilitate and witness others find their storyline as a coach and teacher. I learn so much during this process.

From the psychotherapist working on a feature article, I was reminded of how we struggle to find a balance between our professional and personal voice on the page.

From the educator preparing a multi-media presentation illustrating how she approached sensitive topics with women in other countries, I learned how productively we can exchange ideas without a shared language.

From the activist who wanted to improve his social media posts, I saw how content and passion can often be more compelling than spelling and grammar.

From the writer who sent draft after draft in an effort to understand her origin story, I was moved by how determined we are to make meaning from our experience.

From the novelist-turned-memoirist, I was struck by the impact of changing the sentences from she/he to “I.”

And when a student becomes a contributor to Thread or Stitch, what a gift for the writer, the editor and reader! Four pieces generated by current or former students in my workshops were a fit for Stitch this year. Check out the beautiful 100-word work of Renee Moses, Marie Davidson, Carol Skahen and Sarah Crewe (forthcoming in March.)

This month also marks the end of a robust year for Thread and Stitch:

  • Thread earned its second notable in Best American Essays and celebrates five years of publication! Watch for the Spring Issue in March/April 2019. Save May 2, 2019 for an evening of stories at the Skokie Theatre, a night we’re calling Threadaversary.
  • Stitch posted its 30th flash essay.
  • A shout-out to Alexandra Yetter, who gifted both publications with her astute administrative, editorial and production support as our first intern.

It has also been a productive year in my own realm as a writer and storyteller which energizes and allows me to support others:

Holiday discount offer! In appreciation for my students, coaching clients and readers – and in time for the holidays – I am offering discount incentives for getting a project underway. Contact me before December 31, 2018 and schedule an appointment for January, February or March, and you will receive a 10% discount on one or three-hour coaching session. (That’s $30 off a three-hour session and $15 off one hour!)

To the festivity of the season and a more peace-filled new year!

Find Thread and Stitch on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.


Photo 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.


Telling Stories

italy 2

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

I was struggling and close to tears with every step on a steep mountain climb in Italy – as the least physically prepared of seven adults – when I rediscovered the potency of story telling.

Our guide, Claire, gifted not only in sheer strength and selection of the perfect cafe or watering hole after a long hike, also had the gift of gab and could tell a great yarn. As a single American woman living abroad for more than a decade, she had great stories to tell.

She was quick to see that it was going to be a really long day if I couldn’t keep pace with the others. So she dropped to the back of the line and proceeded to spin a series of very extended and hilarious stories that got me up and down that immense mountain. (You can see photograph above to help set this scene.)

Her voice took me into her story and out of my own body consciousness, allowing my legs and arms to go into automatic. Stories, quite literally, got me over the mountain that day.

When I was very young, I loved hearing an animated adult read a story. My children expected them as part of the bedtime ritual. I knew I still loved reading stories, but I didn’t have any idea how much I’d still love to hear them (let alone tell  them),  all grown up.

That trek up the mountain brought me back to the simple beauty of storytelling (now if I could only get back to Italy!) For many years, I wrote and recorded pieces for WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio, but even those stories were higher tech, enhanced with background music and fine editing.

What’s encouraging to me, as a writer, writing coach and supporter of the arts, is how many story telling venues have surfaced, especially in Chicago. How packed these venues get. How reasonably priced they are for one’s entertainment dollar. (Some just ask for donations.) How so many of these venues give money (or instruction time) to young children in the arts. How community building it is for artists. How it gets an artist’s work out there in a new way. How much feedback it gives to the artist. How satisfying it is to hear as an audience member and how much fun they are as an evening out.

As a frequent audience member, I never once thought that I would be standing there with a microphone in hand reading one of my stories. Writing is a solitary pursuit and I was drawn to it for that. I went with with my students to encourage them, to hear what was on writer’s minds. But the more I listened to the voices telling those stories, the more I returned to that happy place – the contented, peaceful state that helped me fall asleep as a little girl, that I created by reading to my daughters, and got me over that dang mountain. This delicious feeling, plus the desire to get my work out there, work that wasn’t getting published in traditional literary publications, got me thinking about trying this form. And then I met Jill Howe

So I’m beyond thrilled to be one of the tellers at Story Sessions this Sunday, July 21st. It’s been great to massage my print writing voice into more of a speaking writing voice. It’s been good for me and for the writing. Tickets for this show are sold out, but there will be podcasts and another show next month (and the month after that) and you can, at the very least, put on your earphones and hear a story to help you get over whatever mountain you are climbing at the moment. (Or, if you prefer, lull you to sleep.)

You can read more about the storytelling movement in Chicago in the Tribune’s story here and if any of this talk of telling appeals or inspires you, email me and we can set up a time to talk about how to get your work from the page to the stage.