Chaos Just Wants to Be Art

May 24, 2019 § 19 Comments

Bbarishy 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.





An Introduction to Thread: Essay and Image

June 4, 2015 § 4 Comments

threadA guest post from Ellen Blum Barish, editor of Thread: A Literary Publication

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.

to read Thread, go to For my blog on craft, creativity and the writing life, go to EBB  & Flow:



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