September 3, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Marcia Meier
One of the things we know about memory is it’s faulty. Brain science also tells us that when something traumatic happens to us, our brains move to shut out or compartmentalize the trauma. Both cases apply in Ellen Blum Barish’s touching new book, Seven Springs.
When Barish was twelve, she was being driven home from school by a friend’s mom. The two girls were in the back seat, relieved to be picked up after a full day of school and after-school activities. A truck careened into the car at an intersection, and Ellen’s friend, Jenny, and Jenny’s mother and sister were seriously injured. Ellen suffered a lost front tooth.
The experience launched Ellen into a silence that she neither understood nor sought to understand for more than two decades. At their twenty-year high school reunion, Ellen and Jenny encountered one another again, and began a years-long exploration to uncover the truths that memory had obscured.
The title, Seven Springs, is from events that occurred in seven different springtimes. Moving back and forth in time, Barish masterfully weaves the story of her unfolding memories and her late-in-life embrace of her Jewish heritage and faith. Ultimately, Barish discovers long-hidden secrets about the accident and its aftermath, and she regains her childhood friendship with Jenny, plus finds new peace in her Jewish roots.
Barish’s parents were cultural but unobservant Jews, and she and her brother grew up with little understanding of the faith. She writes of her parents,
If asked, my parents would say they considered themselves Reform Jews, but in the loosest sense of the words. Neither was interested in ritual or tradition or their Jewish roots. There wasn’t a single prayer book or Shabbat candle or anything with a Hebrew letter anywhere in the house we grew up in….The only spiritual book I ever saw in the house was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
On the night of the accident, when her parents sent her to her room, still bleeding from her mouth, her grandmother showed up when she most needed comfort and succor. Her grandma, a devout Jew, came in, led Ellen to the bathroom and drew a warm bath, then sat with her as she settled into the soothing water. Then she toweled off Ellen, helped her into a warm nightgown, and led her back to bed. Many years later, Barish discovered her grandmother had cared for her in accordance with the Jewish tradition of bikur cholim, a Jewish etiquette for caring for the sick or injured. It was the beginning of Barish’s exploration of her Jewish heritage.
After meeting Jenny at the high school reunion, Barish began unraveling the mysteries of the accident, including why she had little memory post-accident and felt bereaved at her perception that her friend Jenny had stopped communicating with her. Barish discovers that her family sued Jenny’s family, a betrayal made more shocking by the fact the two families’ parents instructed their children not to talk about it or acknowledge it. Barish remembers only that for some reason her friend Jenny abandoned her after the accident. She couldn’t understand why her friend would stop talking to her.
But Jenny knew. Jenny spent months in a coma in the hospital, her sister and mother were seriously injured, and Jenny’s mom spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
When Barish sought enlightenment from her then seventy-something parents, her mother said she didn’t recall the details of the suit because that was her father’s doing. Barish’s father was equally as vague, and would only say his attorney advised them not to talk about it. Her father seemed to have been concerned only with recouping their medical expenses.
Ultimately, through renewed friendship with Jenny and her own search for meaning through faith, Barish comes to terms with the secrets she had stowed away or been shielded from.
As I read Seven Springs, I was struck by Barish’s determination to uncover not only the mysteries of the accident and its aftermath, but by her gentle persistence to unlock memories that had been deeply buried for decades. Some people who suffer trauma try to leave it in those locked-away places. That is what I did. I suffered a severe injury at the age of five, and endured twenty surgeries over the next fifteen years. When I went off to college, I stuffed all of that trauma down to a deep place and tried to ignore it for thirty years.
But trauma almost always resurfaces, either in response to an event that triggers the memory, or through the realization that it is affecting one’s life. Research has shown that unresolved trauma can lead to serious problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, inability to develop intimate ties with others, suicidal thoughts, and a host of other difficulties. While it may not seem important to others, it can sometimes mean life or death for the person struggling with it. For me, I was forced to revisit my trauma when at the age of fifty my life began to fall apart, and I ultimately came to realize I was experiencing many of the symptoms of complex trauma, including fear of intimacy, lack of self-esteem, and a tendency to abuse alcohol.
Barish’s brave memoir, Seven Springs, reminds us that understanding our trauma can be a first step toward healing. It also is a beautiful story of a blooming faith.
Marcia Meier is the author of Face, A Memoir, published by Saddle Road Press in January. Face was shortlisted for the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award grand prize and won honorable mention in the memoir category.
June 7, 2022 § 6 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
We may risk being disappointed by meeting someone we admire, but if that someone inspired us to become who we are now, don’t they merit a closer look no matter what we’ll find?
This was my thinking after Joan Didion died. She was among a small handful of women writers who inspired me to study personal narratives. Like Joan, I began my writing career as a journalist and was drawn to the ‘I’ after writing a monthly newspaper column that ultimately became an essay collection. In my essay and memoir writing workshops, I always include at least one Didion essay on our reading list—oh the many ways readers respond to “Goodbye to All That”!
But with her death, I felt she deserved a deeper dive.
So I took the plunge.
I’ve been rereading her essays, devouring what’s been written about her, rewatched “The Center Will Not Hold,” and revisited her interviews.
Didion was an innovator. In the 1960s, she boldly brought herself into her reporting in what was later dubbed the new journalism movement along with Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer. The idea was to let readers know who was guiding them and where the writer’s lens was located. She was an early adopter of flash cuts and quick scene changes separated by white space in what would become known as a collage structure. Didion was known for punctuating her prose with a great many proper nouns and observing her subject (s) without joining them.
In “Goodbye to All That,” she writes
To an Eastern child, particularly a child who has always had an uncle on Wall Street and who has always spent several hundred Saturdays at F.A.O. Schwarz being fitted for shoes at Best’s and then waiting under the Biltmore clock and dancing to Lester Lanin, New York is just a city, albeit the city, a plausible place for people to live.
She was also a stylist. In “Why I Write,” she wrote, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” In that same essay, she added, “…images do shimmer for me.”
In the opening of the Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion shimmers indeed:
The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.
In The New Yorker, Nathan Heller points out her mastery in that passage:
There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.
As for what she did it all for, she famously wrote that she writes “entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” And she has been—and will likely continue to be—imitated for decades.
But digging around into her work and life also reveals contradictions.
Didion confessed in interviews that though she saw herself as an outside observer much of the time, she didn’t always understand what she was seeing. Her essays have been critiqued for leaving the reader without a sense of the meaning of what she was reporting.
There was also finger wagging at her inspiring young reporters to do less reporting and more opining. But at the same time, she was lauded for allowing the vulnerability of the writer to be more transparent.
Some have called her work romantic individualism. Others say she held an unsentimental gaze.
So, you might ask: What is the merit in taking apart the work of a beloved writer?
The value is in acknowledging that our writerly heroes are not larger-than-life, cardboard cutouts. Didion was a human being with a pen in her hand whose “most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”
As it turned out, my deep dive into Didion’s words did not disappoint. Her voice on the page was authentic.
Besides her body of work and the beauty of her craft, there’s much to learn from Didion’s journey away from words, too. She brought her life, her own baggage, to the page, a reminder that in spite of her literary status, she was made of flesh and bone.
Ellen Blum Barish will be teaching a virtual one-day workshop on “Deconstructing Didion” at Story Studio Chicago on June 29.
Ellen Blum Barish’s essays have been published in Tablet, Lilith, Full Grown People, Literary Mama and the Brevity Blog and have aired on Chicago Public Radio.. Her memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts) was published in 2021 and she is author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Ellen offers adult education workshops and private coaching. Visit her at ellenblumbarish.com.
December 10, 2021 § 4 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
I first came across Ona Gritz’s work when she submitted an essay to my literary publication, Thread, in 2015. The piece was titled “Should I Feel Anything Yet?” and I was in from the first sentence: “It was the eighties but we wanted it to be the sixties, those of us in divided Boulder who claimed Pearl Street, ‘the mall’ as opposed to ‘the hill’ where the University of Colorado students fratted or whatever they did besides look down on us through their Ray-Bans.”
I was immediately struck by the poetry, details, and contrasts. The eighties versus the sixties, “the mall” and “the hill.” How she othered herself from the University of Colorado students who “looked down on” her through Ray-Bans.
Gritz captured those transitional twenties by nimbly moving from falling for “the classical guitarist with green basset hound eyes” to concerns over her runaway older sister to a square of blotter acid that looked like “the sugary button candy of her youth.” She tells us that she had “guiltily smoked pot twice in high school,” but ultimately decided to take that tab of acid. That between she and her sister, she was “the angel,” and her sister, who was murdered along with her boyfriend and infant child, was an angel of another kind.
“Now that she was the angel of the family,” Gritz writes, “who should I be?”
It was Gritz’s agility in juggling opposite truths at the same time that won me over, and the essay was published in Thread’s Fall 2015 issue.
So earlier this year when I learned that she was releasing a collection of essays, I wanted in again and was delighted to discover this tension of twos is a deep theme in Gritz’s life. The notion that two contrasting things may be simultaneously possible appears in many of the essays in this sensitive and elegantly composed collection.
From the first few lines of the opening essay in Present Imperfect, we learn that Gritz lives with a form of cerebral palsy she describes as dividing her in half. She determines the temperature of water with her left hand. With her eyes closed, she would have to move a coin into her left hand to distinguish it from a paper clip. And there’s a limp.
But it’s not only her body that is divided.
There’s her sister Angie, the runaway, who did heroin and meth and didn’t like school and called Ona “Miss Educated.”
“My two hands are sisters,” Gritz writes. “Left beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs.”
There’s a marriage that failed in part because it was with an able-bodied man, which, at first, felt like it meant that she wasn’t truly disabled but she would later come to understand after being in a successful bi-disability one. After her divorce, she writes, “Thankfully, by then I understood that my tie to him wasn’t what made me whole.” Of her second marriage to a man who is blind, she writes, “These days, disability is a mere factor in our daily routines.”
There’s raising an able-bodied son who is learning to drive. He is “almost a man now, testing his power. Carrying both of our lives, the way I once did, but with none of my fear.”
In “Deluge,” she writes, “Love can be the wall of water, the brigade of rain. It can drown the things you felt sure you couldn’t live without, dependable things you thought were just humming along.”
Like her essay that was published in Thread, which I was delighted to see as one of the fourteen essays in this collection, Gritz investigates a life that feels split. These essays strike me as an exploration of opposites. The book’s title, Present Imperfect, is a grammatical reference to action in the present tense that is continuous. Action implying something in the past. Continuous, suggesting that it is not yet over. It’s as if she is suggesting that we drag the stuff of our life around with us into the present, whatever that may look like.
Ona Gritz on the page is a warm, wise, and concise confidant who deftly turns the craggy rocks of life into touchstones.
“Maybe it’s not about the body and its limits,” she writes. “Maybe it’s a destination, everyone hobbling there as best we can.”
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.
October 1, 2021 § 2 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
A curious girl who grows up around people who keep secrets is like a balloon filling with water. It’s only a matter of time until it bursts.
But secrets don’t stand a chance against a girl who can find the words. And Judy Bolton-Fasman is one of those girls.
With sophisticated sleuthing and tender prose, she investigates her secret-keeping parents in Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets, the book she wrote to “release the pull of a mystery that had taken up sprawling real estate in my mind for too long.”
That her birth name is the same as the fictional girl detective Judy Bolton popular in the 1930s and 1940s, only fuels her curiosity. “It was the case of a lifetime,” she writes. The book is her personal, emotional detective story.
The prologue sets the tone and the tension. In the summer of 1985, a thick envelope arrives at Bolton-Fasman’s New York City apartment from her father who has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She’s hopeful that the envelope might contain some sort of final confession that could put an end to her lifelong questions about his trastiendas, the word her Cuban mother used to describe secrets.
“The letter might be telling me that my father no longer had dreams to comfort him,” she writes. “After all, a trastienda is a dark, dank place, and this letter carried a whiff of that because no one’s trastiendas were more hidden away than those of my parents.”
But just as she is about to open it, she sees the flickering red light of her answering machine. Thinking it might be her ex-boyfriend whose swift departure has left her reeling, she hits the play button and hears her father’s voice imploring her not to open the letter. He says, “I need you to burn it.”
Another daughter might ignore that request. But when it came to her father, she writes, “obedience had always prevailed.” She placed a lighter to the envelope and dutifully let it burn in a metal garbage can, watching as the trastiendas disintegrated into ash—secrets she suspected “had the power to crack open the sky.”
I, too, would have wanted to know the contents of that package. But like Bolton-Fasman, I was a good Jewish girl who sensed that something wasn’t quite right: that there was a missing piece, a truth unspoken, a successful silencing.
But one needs to be ready. Bolton-Fasman writes, “If I opened the envelope, I would come face to face with secrets I was still too afraid to learn.”
What follows is a sensitively written account of her fact-finding quest for answers—many of which she finds, some not conclusively—powered by her curiosity and her strong Jewish faith. Ultimately reciting the traditional Jewish Kaddish prayer for her father after his death helped bring her some clarity.
“…Kaddish was symbolic of a spiritual anechoic chamber in which my public acknowledgment of God’s presence harmonized with the private silence of my grief. Even after I had finished the eleven-month ritual, the words of the Kaddish played out in the endless symphony of silence my father had left behind.”
The book’s title does a beautiful job of framing the story in metaphor. Bolton-Fasman grew up on a street named Asylum, in Hartford, Connecticut. This word is simultaneously associated with the idea of protection and security, but also an institution supporting the mentally ill. She describes her Cuban mother as a “beautiful hysteric” and “an emotional terrorist” and her Connecticut-born father as “a noble man” whom she followed around the house because he knew how to do practical things. Growing up on Asylum Street was both “refuge and madness,” she writes.
This tension holds the reader’s interest, while mirroring Bolton-Fasman’s internal struggle. She was a curious girl living in a family of secrets—two things that usually don’t go well together. Yet, her deep desire to know illustrates how the search to unlock secrets through words can be its own reward.
There’s a Jewish teaching, Bolton-Fasman writes, that an uninterpreted dream is like an unopened letter from God. Asylum is a return to that unopened letter from her father that allows her to share her own interpretation.
Ellen Blum Barish’s memoir, Seven Springs (Shanti Arts), about breaking a long-held silence, was published in May 2021. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Full Grown People, Literary Mama, and the Brevity blog, and have aired on Chicago Public Radio. She is the founding editor of Thread, which earned four notables in Best American Essays, and the author of the essay collection Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life (Adams Street Publishing, 2007). Barish teaches writing and offers private coaching for essayists and memoirists.
April 5, 2021 § 28 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.
May 24, 2019 § 19 Comments
By Ellen Blum Barish
“If you want to find the secrets of the universe,” wrote Nikola Tesla, “think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
Tesla was talking about physics. But because I believe that energy, frequency, and vibration are integral to the writing process as well, doesn’t it follow that writing can help us get closer to understanding the secrets of the universe?
It may not look like it when we’re sitting in a café, laptop or notepad on the table, coffee mug in hand, and our mind lost in thought, but writing is a physical activity. Energy is harnessed from our head through our heart and into our hands and into letters placed on a keyboard or page. The tap-tapping of fingertips or scratch-scratching of lead or ink across paper is the frequency, no matter how regular or irregular the rhythm. And a mix of concentrated thought with repeated contact of fingertips to a keyboard or page can make the writer’s whole body vibrate, literally or metaphorically.
A visual will help. Take a look at this 3-minute video of salt responding to changes in energy, frequency and vibration. Salt is randomly shaken onto a flat, black metal surface and subjected to different vibrations. The salt shape-shifts into distinct, beautiful patterns. When the frequency and vibration are increased, the salt rearranges into even more intricate designs that boggle the mind and dazzle the eye.
After I saw the video, I thought, yes! Scientific proof that chaos wants to be art. If we define chaos as something that throws us out of whack, forcing us to face big questions – loss, illness, pain, accident, healing, joy or mystery – natural laws can rouse its expression. And that expression has the potential to be magnificently beautiful. Resonant. Memorable. That’s what so many of us who read, write, edit and teach personal narrative look for in an essay or memoir.
Writing shakes the salt loose inside of us. Sometimes that salt finds its way into old wounds. It activates our memory and we feel it again, which sets the art making in motion. That writers choose to go back and feel old pain – on purpose – reflects our deep curiosity (or neurosis, but I speak for myself.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about chaos and art lately as I have been writing a memoir about the aftermath of a car-and-truck collision I experienced as a young girl. I’ve been working on it for so long now that it feels like I’ve given myself an endless, writing prompt. There’s so much material to draw from, so many directions I can go. But when I return to the page, I discover some new facet of the story. Gain some new insight. Sometimes there’s even some healing. I’ve tried to stop writing it more than once. But I find myself compelled to continue, as if the chaos itself yearns to become art. To make meaning from its experience.
Like Tesla, Carl Jung also thought about chaos. But he wasn’t talking about physics when he wrote, “In all chaos, there is a cosmos. In all disorder, a secret order. ” Jung was talking about chaos as a way to encounter one’s own soul. The descent is perilous, he wrote, but it yielded great rewards. “If one opens up chaos,” wrote Jung, “magic also arises.”
We may feel as if we are using every ounce of force – our own as well as what we can grab – to shake chaos loose enough from our psyches, spirit, body and mind to transform it into words onto the screen or page. But what magic when the words land and they are just right! When the words open a window or a door and for a moment, we may feel as if we have, indeed, come to understand some small secret of the universe.
Beyond the beautifully strung together words we leave on the page, we also leave behind concrete proof that we survived. Those lines, curves, dots and squiggles in the letters and punctuation that make up our sentences are the visible marks of chaos’s imprint on us.
Ellen Blum Barish is editor and publisher of Thread and Stitch. Her essays have been published in The Chicago Tribune, Literary Mama, Tablet, Full Grown People, Brevity Blog and have aired on WBEZ/Chicago Public Radio. She teaches writing at Northwestern University and StoryStudio Chicago and privately. Ellen is author of the essay collection, Views from the Home Office Window and is completing a memoir. She blogs at EBB&FLOW.
June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments
Among the countless decisions I needed to make when I launched Thread, my independent literary publication, was whether or not the issues would be themed.
Topping the do it side was that themes provide prompts for writers, natural organizing principles for editors and stimuli for art.
On the don’t do it side, there’s the risk that a theme might not appeal to writers and readers, that it raises the challenge of blurry definition boundaries and the pressure to find and fill each issue with thematic work.
I seesawed for months before making the final choice not to go with themes for Thread. In the end, my decision had less to do with being for or against themed content and more about what I believe about how we read, write and process personal narrative.
It appears that I believe three things:
Publications have built-in themes. At the café where my students read their work aloud for family and friends on the last night of our workshop, my smart-phone camera snapped an accidental photo of a rag rug on the floor. The image – and its serendipity – got me thinking about the beauty in multi-colored, braided cords, how we talk about finding the invisible thread in our work, how we recall our life in short strands, and how a needle has to break through material before it can bring fabric together. The metaphor began to work for me. When I chose the word, Thread and its subtitle, An exploration of human experience through essay and image, I was committing the publication to a persona right off the bat, one that I hope conjured a collection of poignant and provocative personal narratives that expose and interconnect us.
Writers write thematically. A theme can act as a prompt to help a writer find a way into a personal narrative that she or he may have had trouble accessing. Themes can also be just the kick needed to get writing. But there’s just no getting around the fact that the best personal writing explores what a writer is curious about; what captivates and invites us in. I believe that we are drawn to one or two, possibly more themes in our lives. Theme is what we are talking about when we ask, “What is this piece about?” Some writers know their themes. Some discover them while writing. Some don’t have a clue about what their themes are, and some simply don’t care. But I like to think that identifying themes in our work can go a long way toward self-discovery. Themes either express a burning question in our life, encourage us to articulate something we didn’t know we knew, illustrate our passion or uncover something true or simply entertaining. Like personal mission statements.
Themes present themselves in a curated body of work. I’ve been struck by the discovery of unconsciously selected themes that pop up once an issue is released. In the Spring 2015 premiere issue, self-discovery. In the summer issue, losses and finds. At this writing, I’m working on the Fall 2015 issue and the theme isn’t yet clear. But I’m waiting like an excited child in line for ice cream for the moment when it does, when it reveals itself.
I want to publish work that wants to be written; stories that pull a writer to the page out of that desire to dive in. Believing this makes sending rejections my least favorite part of this process, but so far, it’s the only part I don’t enjoy. Everything else about publishing Thread has turned out to be the deepest professional joy I’ve ever known.
Stitching Thread together is the result of a dream to publish essays and photographs that make us think, feel and connect. Like that braided rug: a chance to repurpose material from our lives to make art.
A NOTE TO WRITERS: Thread accepts submissions all year. For now, there’s no fee to submit. The writers and photographers, including its solo editor-preneur, offer their work for the love of the art and the joy of publication.
It’s my hope that the publications’ companion live reading series in Chicago (see Thread at Curt’s Cafe South) will help make Thread self-sustaining so that I can pay writers and photographers in the near future.