OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

April 5, 2021 § 25 Comments

By Ellen Blum Barish

When I sent those twenty pages with my application to a writing residency in 2012, I was thinking of it as the beginning of a memoir about a childhood trauma. It was what I called my marker story, that moment in life after which everything changes. Where nothing is the same, whether you know it or not.

I had been writing about what happened after a terrible collision between the car in which I was getting a ride home from school and a Mack truck. It was a crash that ended my friend’s mother’s life too early and changed the course of three girls’ lives.

After my two weeks at the residency that following fall, I had confirmation: The book was about silent suffering and voice finding, brokenness and healing. It was a trauma memoir.

Three years later, stalled in the writing because much of it had been retraumatizing, I shared a short version with a storytelling producer who invited me to tell it on stage. A very large stage. Something very powerful happened to me after that telling.  My four-decades long silence had been cracked open by speaking into a microphone in front of 100 witnesses. I felt altered. Better.

I thought, okay, maybe my story wasn’t meant for the page but instead to be heard on the stage because it’s mission was to break a silence.

While my higher self was pleased, my writerly self was majorly bummed.

A year later, I was sitting in my living room mindlessly scrolling when two words fell into the screen of my mind: Seven Springs. The words shot me out of my chair to the plastic bins filled with journals in my office closet. In a maniacal frenzy I paged through my source material and discovered that there were, indeed, several springs in my life that seemed unusually dramatic. Big things tended to happen to me in spring, the anniversary season of the accident as well as the time of year in which a conversation at a high school reunion rearranged my understanding  of the experience. But there were only six, not seven.

But I was planning to go to my 40th reunion, scheduled for the following spring.

Super meta. Yeah, I know. But it was the moment that I saw the arc of seven springs.

I returned to the story and the writing began again. This time, there was new energy. The new structure provided a safety net for me. As it turned out, perhaps not so strangely, the 40th reunion brought a profound insight and denouement to my story.

By the spring of 2018, I had a final draft. By that summer, I had secured an agent. But after six months, there were no takers and the agent and I went our separate ways.

That’s when revisions began. I invited more minds and eyeballs. One very thoughtful writer friend suggested that an ending scene in which I recited a Jewish prayer as I boarded a plane might make an excellent prologue. I agreed. Once I moved it, the book suddenly had a different framing. It was still about trauma and healing but I saw things I didn’t see before. My journey had a spiritual quality. There was mystery. Signs. Doubt. Faith. Redemption.

In all, I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism. Once I could comfortably embrace the work as a spiritual memoir – a genre in which I had some resistance because What? Me? A lay person with a roller coaster history of faith and doubt? Write a spiritual book? – the book had found its mission and I began to send queries to indie book publishers interested in spiritual content.

Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.

Then, in the midst of a global pandemic, three publishers expressed interest and the book found a home. There isn’t anything like the feeling in which your long-labored over words have touched the heart and mind of someone whose mission is to bring books to readers.

If all of this wasn’t enough to capture the book’s identity, toward the end of my last revision, I came across a quote by the Jewish spiritual writer Rachel Naomi Remen which secured it.

“And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world broke and were scattered into a thousand fragments where they remain deeply hidden. We are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.” (Quote edited for space.)

_________________________

Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) is scheduled for Spring 2021 release. Her essays have been published in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of the literary publication Thread which earned four notables in Best American Essays and author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen teaches writing at Northwestern University and offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.

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§ 25 Responses to OMG! I Didn’t Know I Was Writing a Spiritual Memoir

  • jerrywaxler says:

    I love this article, Ellen. I love that it’s a spiritual memoir, and even moreso that you tell of the spiritual journey to find the spiritual memoir. I thought the comment about “super meta” was funny. Isn’t the act of writing a memoir the ultimate meta? Our heroic journeys to tell the stories of our heroic journeys. We’re all meta here.

    (I signed up for your mailing list)

    Best wishes
    Jerry Waxler
    Author of Memoir Revolution

    • ellen55thread says:

      Yes! You are so right, Jerry. Writing a memoir is so very meta, all the way around! Delighted to have you on my mail list – thank you – and many thanks for reaching out.

  • Wonderful—filled with wonder.

  • Loved this, thank you! Funny how we often don’t know what we’re writing until it’s done.

  • This is an awesome story of you listening to your inner wisdom that came through you.

    I love this “I revised the work seven times, appropriate for a book titled Seven Springs. I later learned than seven is the number associated with completion in mystical Judaism”.

    It’s inspriattional because I’m so lost in “my book”, I thought was something else and now I write and wait and and in a quanderment.

    Sounds like and amazing story. Thanks for sharing! 💖🌷

  • kperrymn says:

    I love this line so much, “Only when you tell yourself the truth can your truth stir others.” And I love that you found that truth as you changed the structure of your book. Thank you for this wise and honest essay.

  • The spirit, its journey in God’s hands makes us whole. A trip my spouse and I made to Jerusalem for the first time embedded that in my soul just two years ago. It’s is an astonishing place. May your journey bear much fruit as it surely has in this lovely essay.

  • Your description of your writing journey models the need for perseverance and openness to listening for what a book wants to be. Congratulations on the forthcoming publication of Seven Springs; I look forward to reading it.

    • ellen55thread says:

      Yes, Iris! Indeed. I learned that we could all do better around listening, both for what our art wants to be, as well as to one another! Thank you for your kind words and for you support.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Way to go, Ellen! This is a lovely explanation of how your memoir came to be. I love those “a-ha!” moments!

  • Amy McIntyre Kramer says:

    This was a wonderful read. Congratulations Ellen! I’ll now look forward to your book.

  • All the best for your book! Spiritual memoirs are always inspiring..

  • Cathy Beres says:

    Really admire your ability to stick with it through so many revisions and come out the other side with what I’m sure is a beautiful memoir. Guess I have at least five more revisions to my manuscript. You’ve helped me realize I should not throw in the towel just yet. Congratulations on your book publication!

    • ellen55thread says:

      I appreciate that, Cathy. And yes. I’m a big believer in revision. Especially for memoir. We get closer to the emotional truth with every version. Don’t stop writing! Stay patient. And keep that towel close by!

  • tripperjam says:

    I love the great sharing and how it was written. Straight from the heart.

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