Oh Yes, Virginia: Words Can Be Worlds Unto Themselves

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A few weeks ago, I listened to a 1937 BBC radio broadcast in which Virginia Woolf, yes, that Virginia Woolf, offered a unique take on the tools of a writer’s trade. She suggested that words aren’t static, but rather, they are alive in some way.

“Words hang together in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time,” she said. Then added, “…they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change … Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity – their need of change. It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that.”

As if they lived and breathed.

Painters talk about the aliveness in their horse-hair brushes; knitters and weavers twist the once-living fur of animals into wearable art and a sculptors’ clay is dug from its fertile place in the ground.

So I like Woolf’s idea that the writer’s tools carry previous lives of their own, especially since so many of us no longer use ink (from plants) and paper (from trees). Words are miniature universes of meaning unto themselves that become something else when strung together.

“Words belong to each other,” she said. “[They] don’t live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.”

An edited version of her thoughts were folded into the essay titled, “Craftsmanship,” in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays published in 1942, a year after she died. I’ve brought “Death of the Moth,” into my workshops numerous times. It’s a gem. Brilliant, actually, as on the surface, her inspection of the death of a moth on a window sill appears mundane, but on closer inspection, she’s writing about her depression and, perhaps, her own impending death. Which makes this spoken meditation, amazingly crackle-and-fuzz-free for such an antique, worth a listen. Just to hear her speak is a treat. I share it here, with thanks and appreciation to Brain Pickings for the link.



Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2015.

Writing as Risk



She’s writing a memoir of that year in Paris to remember. He wrote the academic journal article on book preservation for professional advancement. She’s finishing a personal essay on that anxious stretch of time during her pregnancy for fun. He described how his dreams inform his painting for that college application essay. She wrote a summary of a medical journal article for a school assignment.  He’s putting the final touches on a collection of essays on family life that spans fifty years for posterity.

Writers bring their words to the page or screen for a range of reasons and in a multitude of forms. But with each project – work I’ve been witnessing from my private coaching clients – no matter what the mission, there is risk in the writing.

There’s so much at stake. Hurting someone’s feelings. Inaccuracy. Negative response. Rejection. Changing your mind. Putting your work out there. Getting your work out there, and not feeling seen or heard. Like taking a running leap from a lush green pasture into a white, open sky.

Continue reading “Writing as Risk”

Your Voice, When No One is Listening


IMG_0002Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

“At its core, writing is about cutting beneath every social expectation to get to the voice you have when no one is listening. It’s about finding something true, the voice that lies beneath all words. But the paradox of writing is that everyone at her desk finds that the stunning passage written in the morning seems flat three hours later, and by the time it’s rewritten, the original version will look dazzling again. Our moods, our beings are as changeable as the sky (long hours at any writing project teach us), so we can no longer trust any one voice as definitive or lasting”

Pico Iyer, from his New York Times Book Review essay, “Voices Inside Their Heads,” April 14, 2013





The truth is, we don’t have an easy language for emotional life. That’s why we have writers.

— Susie Orbach



Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.

— Tom Stoppard



A Hundred Words

images-2I’m sad to say it, it being my business and all, but there are just too many out there. Words, that is.  As an essayist, I’m biased toward less is more, but I’m also a consumer of words, too and the truth is that I get so much more from what I’m reading  – I remember it – when the right words carry the load.

Consider the text message. See if you get a profile of who the texter is here:

I don’t need you to get me.

Can we go bathing suit shopping?

Please call me.

Be out in front in 10.

Can you please drive me to work today?

Awesome I meet you outside.

Can we make dinner tonight? Caesar salad, chicken shnitzel and potatoes? I’ll help.

In study hall.

Can you pick me up?

Bought planner $5.

I’m at Marina’s.

There are less than 100 words above, but I think the reader gets that the texter is young (awesome) – probably high school age (study hall) –  probably female (bathing suit shopping), active (pick me up; take me to work), social (I’m at Marina’s) and clearly a lover of chicken schnitzel. We also get that she is in fairly regular contact with the receiver, who is likely to be her mother (all those rides!)

These are the actual text messages sent to me by my eldest daughter when she was a sophomore in high school (when I did indeed feel like most of what I was going was picking her up and dropping her off!)

We don’t need gestures or words that tell us her tone. We just can hear her speak. The rhythm and word choices do that as do the topics.

Experiment with writing spare. When you focus on the nouns and the verbs, you get to the core of the character. Get that onto the page and after you have a sense of what’s there, you can bring in the poetic language.