The Practice of Creativity

This week, I’m sharing some recent posts and articles that I’ve found interesting and provocative. They, of course, have to do with my twin passions- writing and creativity. Enjoy!

250 words vs. 500 words a day

So, I’ve been writing quite a bit about the Magic Spreadsheet and the transformational effects of writing 250 words a day. Speculative fiction writer Jamie Todd Rubin has a slightly different take on what target word count works and shares his wisdom on the power of writing 500 words a day. He’s on a streak of writing 373 consecutive days straight (!) and gives excellent tips about how to keep going. I love his idea of having an “emergency scene” as a stash for the times he needs it the most. Check out his post ‘How I Kept a 373-DayProductivity Streak Unbroken’.

Do you need a writing app?

I’m a professor and the semester has started. I know that I will have to adapt my creative writing schedule to accommodate being back in the classroom and juggling various research projects. At this time of year, I’m always open to anything that will help keep me on track. I have discovered the world of writing apps! And, it is quite a world. These writing apps can help you with story structure, organization of files, and idea generation. Below are two excellent posts on writing apps. You might want to try one out to add to your writer’s toolkit.

‘The Best Apps for Any Kind of Writing

’12 Best iPad Writing Apps and Other Tools’

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

Diversity in publishing is an important topic. NPR did a story this week looking at the Twitter activism of a group of writers (#WeNeedDiverseBooks), that began as a conversation to raise awareness about the lack of diversity in children’s literature. The NPR story delves deeply into the structural issues that contribute to the lack of diversity in most aspects of the publishing industry. It’s a sobering piece.

Move around and get creative!

I had the distinct pleasure of conducting a creativity workshop this week for local United Way leaders. They were a lively audience. One of the participants, Chris Holleman sent me his blog post about the importance of moving to stimulate creativity (especially in the workplace). Thanks Chris!

‘Walking Meetings and Creativity’

 

In late June, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop called ‘The First Draft is The Easy Part’ with author and coach Stuart Horwitz. I had already checked out his new book Blueprint Your Bestseller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method and was planning on buying it as it looked like a unique approach to revising. When I arrived at the workshop, I was thrilled when I was handed a signed copy of his book that came as part of the registration packet. The workshop was packed and we were treated to a presentation that was informative, humorous and also included a live action short film. It wasn’t a typical workshop and Stuart’s book is not a typical one about writing. As a matter of fact, it’s not a craft book per se. It’s about structure and how to truly revise a manuscript instead of tinkering with it around its edges. I read the book in two days. His method has given me the courage to radically revise my first novel that I had put aside because of its ambitious nature (e.g. multiple person POVs, non-linear time sequences, over 200,000 words, etc.). His book offers a flexible method that enables a writer to uncover the flaws and strengths in their work as they revise. And, I’ve found that using his method, I’m actually having fun rethinking my sprawling novel.

Stuart Horwitz is the founder of Book Architecture, a firm of independent editors based in Providence and Boston. He has spent over fifteen years helping writers become published authors. His clients have reached the best-seller list in both fiction and non-fiction. Stuart brings a synthesis of academic theories of narrative structure and his hands-on experiences as an independent editor, book coach and ghostwriter to thinking about how to revise effectively.

Blueprint Your Bestseller was named one of 2013’s best books about writing by The Writer magazine. I thought I’d invite Stuart to the Practice of Creativity to discover more about his unique take on writing. I’m delighted to welcome Stuart Horwitz to this blog.

 

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-Why did you write Blueprint Your Bestseller? What’s in store for readers?

I was teaching a class called “Blueprint Your Book,” in which I was trying to show my students how to structure a book-length work. One of my students came up to me after class and asked me, “Where is the book that tells me how to do all this?” Naively, I said, “I’ll buy three from the bookstore and then whichever two you don’t want, I’ll just return.” Well, needless to say, there wasn’t one there.

As for the second part of this question I would venture to say, the book presents a sane way of looking at plot/structure — through a method, not a formula. There may in fact be a deep structure that exists in our psyche that influences how we receive narrative. But we don’t get there through formulas, through exploiting how we think that structure operates ahead of time like all those Hollywood beat sheets — you know, start the love interest in minute 20, have the main character contemplate death in minute 80… Instead we use a method to discover how your work may be resonating with that deep structure and how you are approaching it originally.

Or maybe you just wanted me to say “it’s about revision.” Ha! It’s both.

-What is the ‘book architecture method’ and how did you discover it?

This wasn’t what I was going to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an angry young man novelist in Border’s “New Voices” program. Good thing that didn’t work out — for many reasons. I would be stuck in a person and Borders is closed.

The Book Architecture Method is a twenty-two step process for organizing and revising your manuscript. It has helped bestselling authors get from first draft to final draft.

I don’t know; this has always just been the person I am. I got a Father’s Day card from my 15 year-old that said, “Please don’t travel so much next year (from my book tour) — things are much more systematized when you’re here.” High praise!

-Most writers find revising longer pieces frustrating, unsatisfying, and often tinker around the edges indefinitely without tackling the most demanding elements of the revision. As a coach how do you help writers stay motivated through the tougher aspects of revision?

True, all of that. I think people try to get out of doing the analysis part that is the heavenly consort of the creative part. We like to say around the office, “Intelligent planning is not the enemy of creative genius.” Well, we don’t really say it, but it is posted on the wall. Point being, if you actually spend some time between drafts in deep-ish analysis of what you have created, you can enjoy the heck out of the next draft as it returns you to the creative problem solving and immersion that many people think is more fun. But we have two halves of our brain for a reason.

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- You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, entrepreneur, an active workshop leader and instructor.  How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

I’m pretty bad at relaxing. I like to have a lot of priorities, including my wife and kids, my community, a stab at personal health, etc. and to immerse myself in all of them when I am doing that particular thing. Life tends to spread out wonderfully when we only do this one thing at a time, like talking to Michele. That’s the one and only thing I am doing right now.

-What’s the next project you’re working on?

Book Two! HOW PLOT WORKS: How Book Architecture Can Build Your Strongest Story Ever. If Book One was about organization and revision, in Book Two I promise to reveal the secret to understanding great narrative. I promise that if I can do that I will be done writing books on writing.

-What’s your best writing tip you’d like to share?

Writing is supposed to be a transformation of the self, first. That’s how you choose your subjects, your characters, your formats. That’s how you know how many drafts to engage in — if you are still transforming yourself, you keep going. If you are done getting what you needed personally from it, then you better clean it up in a hurry and get it out into the world, however that happens. That’s also the value of the work. People talk a lot of crap about why they write: they want to change the world; they want to make money, blah, blah. The primary reason is none of those. We want to see if we can do it, and we want to do something we can proud of. Then we have to let the work change us — surprise us and challenge us — that’s when it gets good. Otherwise we should just be doing crossword puzzles.

 

Stuart is an award-winning essayist and poet, who has taught writing at Grub Street of Boston and Brown University. He holds two masters degrees—one in Literary Aesthetics from NYU,—and one in East Asian Studies from Harvard with a concentration in Medieval Japanese Buddhism. He lives in Rhode Island. Visit his site to learn more.

I admit it—I’m crushing hard. Two months ago, I wrote about a free motivational tool called ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ developed by Tony Pisculli. This is one of the most helpful writing ideas I’ve come across in a long time and I can’t speak highly enough of it.

Here is a link to my first post that goes into detail about the Magic Spreadsheet, its origins and how to find the links to join.

Since I’ve become such a fan, I thought I’d report back about why I think the ‘MS’ is so great and what it’s has been like to use it.

Recap: The ‘MS’ is a fun way to get past the twin challenges of motivation and momentum regarding writing. The commitment is to write 250 words every day (you can always do more) and to enter your word count into a public Google spreadsheet. The program keeps track of your daily word count (like magic). And, you get awarded points and levels along the way for consistency and higher word counts. The points and levels add a cool element of ‘gamification’ to the Magic Spreadsheet. And, if you write 250 words a day, in a year you’ll have a draft of a book.

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Motivation: It can be very hard to stay motivated to write, especially when working on long projects. Think about the chapter, report, or essay you are trying to finish right now. It’s hard to get up the motivation to tackle something so big. But, writing 250 words a day feels very easy to sustain. Most of us can muster up the motivation to write 1-2 paragraphs that will take about 15-20 minutes. If you do more, that’s great. But if you don’t, at least you’ve got your 250 words done for the day and you’ve moved some project along.

Momentum: Momentum is such an important component in a writer’s life. It makes the difference between finished projects and unfinished ones. How does one develop momentum? It’s much easier if you are consistent, which means writing frequently.

Walter Mosley in his essay, ‘For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Every Day’* makes this point with care: “Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.”

The MS helps to strengthen your momentum.

When you get too far away from a project (days, weeks or even years), it’s harder and harder to muster the motivation to pick up where you left off. Once you fall out of a writing rhythm, it becomes harder and harder to recapture the momentum that you once had. I also find that steady momentum helps keep those pesky inner critics at bay. They see you doing the work and shut up (or at least pester you about other things).

More: I love the ritual that I have gotten into in using the MS.  When I’m done with my words, I go and log them in to the MS. This act now completes my writing ritual. I also enjoy looking at other people who are on my page (each page or tab has hundreds of people). Although I don’t know them, by occasionally scrolling down through their entries, it reinforces a feeling that we are all in this crazy writing business together. Everyone has challenges getting motivated and sustaining momentum. I feel less lonely looking at all the other people attempting their 250 words a day like me. And, I’ve even looked up some the writers to find out more about them.

Results

I decided to use the Magic Spreadsheet to track my creative work only. Some people are using it to track their dissertations, academic articles, etc., and the MS works well for that, too. I also knew I wanted to work on multiple projects. Many people use the spreadsheet just for new writing or moving forward on a first draft of a novel, memoir, etc.

My 7-days a week, 250+ words practice has generated:

-One essay submission

-One poem that I had in draft form for two years

-A new short prose poem. I wrote this the same day I revised the other poem.

-Three columns for the Chapel Hill News

-Revisions on 4 short stories

-A conclusion to a story that I was having trouble with for several months

-Several blog posts (including this one)

-Two 3 page synopses of possible novels that I’m auditioning for in preparation for NaNoWriMo

-6 character sketches for one of the above possible novels

-Drafting and outlining for my old unfinished novel

-30,000 words in 65 days

Some of these pieces might have written because of standing deadlines, but most would not have been written without the nudge of the Magic Spreadsheet. And, much of the work has felt effortless.

I’m a believer. I’m a convert. I’m in love with the MS. Try it. It just might change your writing life.

*You can find Mosely’s essay in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times (2001).

What does an editor want? How can I make my work stand out when submitting to anthologies? What counts as too much backstory to include in a short work of fiction? Writers constantly wrestle with these questions. I’ve asked Karen Pullen, friend and mentor, to share some insights as editor of a new and successful anthology.

 

giraffe walrus cclllWhat do a giraffe, a walrus, and the short-story anthology Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing have in common?*

 

Last August, a batch of short stories arrived in my inbox. I had promised to edit an anthology written by members of Sisters in Crime who lived in the Carolinas. The anthology was a project of the Triangle chapter of SinC, and its theme was sex. Yes. Crime stories motivated by lust, love, and longing.

I am a fiction writer too, and I empathized with the writers of these stories. Each writer had hunched for hours, even days, over her keyboard. She wriggled, sighed, scribbled notes, talked to herself. Typed, deleted, typed, deleted. Moved sentences, changed a word, changed it back again. Eventually she had a draft. She showed it to her critique group, wrote a revision. Wrote another. She submitted it for consideration in our SinC anthology, and it was accepted, conditionally: subject to a satisfactory revision.

Now her story was in my hands. My goal was to work with her to make the story more – more polished, more engrossing, more true to the writer’s vision, more satisfying for the reader. Without changing the writer’s style and voice.

I spent the better part of two months working with the nineteen authors. Here is what I discovered about myself as an editor: I’m a wriggling mass of inconsistencies. The top five:

 
1) I loathe backstory, except when I don’t. Ordinarily I recommended the excision of every speck of backstory; it’s a digression, a drag on forward motion, and usually unnecessary. Unless . . . it isn’t. For example, backstory that explains a character’s behavior or mood can be sprinkled in judiciously.

2) It’s a short story. So shorten it. Delete the second scene with the cops, delete one of the multiple points of view, delete characters that only appear once. Unless . . . you’ve taken shortcuts. Instead of telling us the soon-to-be-murdered boss is a jerk, show us how he treats his employees. Instead of telling us the busboy is in love with the stripper, write a scene where she invites him to her apartment. A full page of pure undiluted dialogue? Ask your characters to interact with the setting. Add emotional reactions, a bit of interior monologue.

3) Plot. I like organic plots. Give me characters who want something, put obstacles in their way, and conflict will ensue. The story will almost tell itself. Unless . . . the characters are passive victims of external forces. So light a fire under your character, make sure there’s something at stake for him, and set him loose.

4) Surprise me. I love a good reversal, a twist, a surprise, a shift in a character’s perception or the reader’s understanding. Unless . . . it comes out of nowhere, results from an impossible coincidence.

5) Language. Clarity and precision, people! Eliminate empty words, phrasal verbs, words ending in –ness and –ing, lazy adjectives like lovely, wonderful, beautiful, adorable, horrible, nasty, terrible, pretty, silly, tautologies. Make the thesaurus your friend. Unless . . . a florid writing style overwhelms the story with its cleverness. Then it must be dampened, a little. Also, I don’t hate adverbs as much as I’m supposed to.

The authors were troupers. They re-wrote then re-wrote some more. They may have gnashed their teeth, pulled out their hair, and stuck pins in my likeness, but they did the work.

I couldn’t be more proud of the result. Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing was published by Wildside Press in paper and e-book formats. It’s available through online retailers and these bookstores in the Raleigh-Durham area: McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge, and Flyleaf. Many of the authors will be reading at Flyleaf in Chapel Hill on August 9 at 2 PM.
*Fifteen months gestation.

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Karen Pullen’s stories have appeared in Sixfold, bosque (the magazine), Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Spinetingler, Every Day Fiction, and anthologies. Her first novel, Cold Feet, was published by Five Star Cengage in 2013. She lives in Pittsboro, NC where she occasionally teaches in Central Carolina Community College’s creative writing program.

Check out an interview that I conducted with Karen about her first novel, Cold Feet.

Tip 5:  Hone Your Performance Skills

A few weeks ago I wrote about how important it is to practice being a ‘public writer’, especially getting comfortable reading one’s work. I got comments both on the blog and by email about how challenging it is for some of us to read our work and claim our writing identities. I wanted to return to this subject and I first went to my bookshelf to see what insights other writers have shared. I have many many writing books and to my surprise most of them are completely silent on how to cultivate our performance skills as a writer. This is so striking given that writers labor to bring our work before an audience. Dare I say, many of us dream of that time when we will stand in front of an audience reading from our published work. How interesting then it is that we have gaps in preparing for that dreamed of day. Most writing guides will say ‘practice’, but often leaves out the ‘how’.

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So here are some things that may be useful in honing one’s skills for readings, specifically at open mics:

1) Practice what you will read. OK, you already know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Practice for the rhythm of the words. Feel free to eliminate some words, if that makes for a smoother reading. Practice at least ten times. And, usually when people are nervous, they read faster. Try to get a sense of what reading faster will look like for your piece.

2) When you get up to the mike, pause and smile. It relaxes you and the audience. Remember, they are on your side. Don’t get freaked out if you have to adjust the mike, take a moment to get it right.

3) Don’t use up your time by going into a long detailed account of yourself and your work. I’ve seen many writers use a third of their time going into a lengthy biography. We can’t possibly grasp the complexity of you or your work in 5-8 minutes. Think seduction and foreplay. Less is more. Make them want more. Keep it short and they will. They will come up later and ask you plenty of questions.

When I read, I’ll usually say something like: “I’m Michele Tracy Berger [say your name even if the announcer has said it. People are often talking or drinking in between one writer leaving the stage and another coming to it ], I’m a fiction writer and I’m working on a collection of speculative fiction short stories. I’m reading from an excerpt from the story….” Let people know if you are reading from the beginning, middle or end.

4) Dress nicely—whatever that means to you. Remember, you are cultivating yourself as someone who wants to paid for their writing. A professional. You never know when a potential editor, agent or buyer is in the audience.

5) Nerves are fine, but if you are super anxious, think about drinking some calming tea beforehand or investigating some homeopathic remedies that deal with anxiety (e.g. Bach Flower Rescue Remedy).

6) Choose a piece that you can be a clear channel for when you read it to the audience. You need some emotional distance from a piece in order to convey the power of it. Ironic, I know.

7) Print out your piece in a large font, so it is easy to read. Decide whether you want to staple it or slide the pages across the podium (if there is one). Practice your technique. I’ve seen people who get their pages out of order, fumble and/or drop their papers.

8) Bring some cough drops (e.g. Fisherman’s Friend or Hall’s or Ricola). [this tip I learned from Marjorie Hudson]

9) Have a bottle of water with you. Nervousness closes up the throat.

10) Know the piece well enough so that you can look up and engage the audience periodically. You may want to have 1-2 lines memorized.

11) Be aware of your posture. Stand up straight.

12) Time your piece and find the most appropriate place to end. Try not to get caught by the buzzer, bell or emcee. End at a juicy and interesting place. I actually like to go 30 seconds under time.

13) Smile when you finish and remember to say ‘Thank you’. Someone just witnessed your work and tried to be present for it. Also, thank the organizers of the event (or, you can also do this when you introduce yourself). Hold the space as people are applauding (even if the applause is just polite).

14) Don’t hustle out of there after you read—that’s bad open mic etiquette. Stick around and be that supportive presence for other writers.

Got tips on this topic? Please share.

How do you design a life and work that really work? How often do you throw up your hands in frustration about the way one facet of your life is going? Cornelia Shipley, a master coach, has spent much of the last decade refining her transformative approach using her ‘Design Your Life’ process to explore the hidden reasons why people don’t experience the level of satisfaction, fulfillment, and freedom they want in their life. Her new book Design Your Life: How to Create a Meaningful Life, Advance Your Career and Live Your Dreams grew out of a painful moment in Cornelia’s life. She used that moment, however, to develop a framework that helps people to develop their vision, create ‘say yes’ standards, understand the power of a personal brand, and create a ‘money mindset’ to empower them to reach for their dreams.

I met Cornelia many years ago when I was doing holistic financial coaching and she was transitioning from the corporate world to that of an entrepreneur. She had already built a successful consulting practice and my work was to support the incredible vision she held for her business. From my first conversation with Cornelia, I was inspired by her energy, passion and dedication to helping people bust through self-defeating blocks.

Cornelia Shipley PCC, BCC, ELI-MP, is Founder and President of 3C Consulting, a leadership development firm specializing in Executive Coaching and Strategic Planning.  A member of the coaching faculty at the University of Wisconsin Professional Life Coach Certification Program and the GPSS Coaching Model, Cornelia works with organizational leaders.

Cornelia is a sought-after speaker and coach.  She leads strategic planning workshops for senior leaders across the US, is creator of the annual women’s leadership conference ‘Design Your Life’ and serves as a board member for Women for Coaching Community Change.  Cornelia has a strong passion for systems theory, which she uses in her Leadership Boot camp and Executive Impact programs.

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Cornelia was recently featured on my tele-summit ‘The Creativity Bonfire Series: Sustaining Your Flame: Secrets from Wildly Inspired Creators’ where she captivated audiences with snippets from her new book Design Your Life. She made me eager to learn more. I’m delighted to welcome Cornelia Shipley to the ‘Practice of Creativity’.

 

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Tell us about your new book Design Your Life: How to Create a Meaningful Life, Advance Your Career and Live Your Dreams. What sparked your interest in writing this book? 

The concept for the book came to me while I was living in Melbourne, Victoria in Australia. I was so amazed at how present people were in their own lives and their ability to leave the expectations of others behind and simply live life on their terms. When I got back to the United States the cultural contrast was so clear to me. Over the next almost 9 years I would start and stop writing the book. Just before my wedding in 2012 I committed to begin work on the manuscript when we returned from our honeymoon. Little did I know how much my life would change in the span of a week. I went from being single to married and planning the funeral of my mother who passed away unexpectedly only 5 short days after our wedding. Over the three weeks we spent planning for her services I became acutely aware of the HUGE benefits I was experiencing because of the choice I made in 2006 to live a designed life. In the face of the tragic loss, I was well supported and able to meet the needs of those around me. I felt called to finally put pen to paper and share the process I was using so successfully with the world. No longer could I sit by and watch as people lived unfulfilled, frustrating lives. So I got busy writing, rewriting and in April of this year began the pre-launch of the book which became available TODAY worldwide on Amazon!

You advocate for people to break out of their conditioned ‘shoulds’, in order, to experience an extraordinary life. What are some of the features of the ‘design your life’ system that helps people pursue their dreams?

Wow, what a great question Michele. I am going to stay with the “shoulds” of your question as it is so critical to remove the “shoulds” from your life – the external expectations and noise of others. In so many cases we are living based on what someone else said we SHOULD want, do, be or have. So we start by looking at the stories of our lives to discover what desires we have that are ours and which ones have been imposed on others. Readers are invited to clarify their values, operating principles and standards. From there we being the process of creating a personal brand that speaks for you and supports you in achieving your personal goals and objectives. We spend some time with your personal definition of success, creating a reward system and finally expanding your mindset to embrace the big vision you have for your life. It has been interesting watching readers’ response to the book. So many have started the book thinking it will be a “quick read” and find themselves STOPPED by the provocative questions in the designed action section in each chapter.

 What was the most difficult chapter to write (and why)?

OK, Michele so the truth is the hardest part for me was the final review of the last chapter. I kept putting it off. I am sure you have had that happen when you are so close to the finish line and for some reason you just can’t make it those last 10 yards. I would read a page and take a 2 hour break and it went on like this for almost a week until I realized that I didn’t want to finish writing the book because my mother was not here for me to call to share in the accomplishment. When I realized what was holding me back, I spent some time crying, called a good friend, finished the final edit and then met my friend to celebrate. I followed my own process to get unstuck. I allowed the truth to surface (me missing Mom) sat in the truth (cried and talked with my friend) made the choice to complete what I started (finished the edit) and went to celebrate (met my friend for some good food and great laughs).

What’s the most surprising thing to you thus far about being a published author?

There have been two things that have surprised me, the enhanced credibility I have as a professional and the almost immediate “celebrity” status I get in some circles having written a book. I think the best thing about being the author of this particular work is hearing the positive impact that the stories and the process is having on people’s lives. I am amazed at the bold action and outstanding results people are getting from doing their work and committing to create a future that excites them.

This book was written over a number of years. How did you keep yourself motivated to finish it? 

For several years I did absolutely nothing. I knew that when I returned from my honeymoon I would have an amazing story to tell about finding love, and living my definition of success. I think ultimately my commitment to finish the book going into my marriage and my mother passing so quickly after my wedding created the perfect storm and final push. Although, at one point when I got stuck I simply booked my first signing which gave me all the final motivation I needed to get the book finished.

 What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

I never pictured myself as an author, so for me it was important to follow my process and to get help from a seasoned writer and editor to help me think through the layout of the book, make sure the process was clear to readers who would be new to the material and ensure the overall tone and flow was what I wanted. Bottom line as a writer you have to be willing to follow your unique creative process without judgment.

 

Cornelia Shipley holds an MBA in Management Consulting and Strategy from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Communication from the University of Michigan, is a Board Certified Coach and Master Practitioner of Energy Leadership (IPEC).

To find out more about Cornelia’s ‘Design Your Life’ system and the book, visit her website.

To find out more about Cornelia, click here.

 

 

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Randi Davenport while she was a colleague at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as the Executive Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and taught Honors students for Carolina’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. After a couple of meetings, we soon recognized each other as kindred spirits with similar backgrounds in the liberal arts, a deep passion for teaching, and an interest in women’s studies. It was also thrilling to find another academic who was pursuing a creative writing life. Randi has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature, both from Syracuse University. Over the years, I have been inspired by Randi’s dedication to writing.

Randi’s first book, a memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes: A Mother’s Story is about her developmentally disabled son Chase’s psychotic breakdown at age 15. She chronicled being a single parent and the challenges of dealing with the medical industry. This blurb by Alice Hoffman is indicative of the high praise the book received: “A heartbreaking, disturbing, and truly courageous story of one mother’s fight to save her son.”

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Randi Davenport is the author of the novel The End of Always (Hachette/Twelve, 2014) and of The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). In 2011, she received the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award for Creative Non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award and nominated for a Ragan Old North State Cup Award for Non-fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Ontario Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Women’s History Review, Literature/Film Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, among others.

I have been looking forward to speaking with Randi about her new novel The End of Always that is partly based on her family’s history. And, I am thrilled to announce that the novel has just been nominated for a National Book Award! I am delighted to welcome Randi Davenport to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in The End of Always, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?

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I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired The End of Always. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.

It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.

Talk a little about the title The End of Always. What does this phrase mean to you?

In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.

More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.

The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Hachette/Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.

Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate The End of Always, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?

The End of Always is a novel. It’s not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s  Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.

But to the extent that The End of Always shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is disruptive in that way as well.

What does your writing practice look like?

I’m a writer so I write. If you come across me during work hours, it might not look like I’m writing. It might look like I’m staring into space. Or like I’m pulling my hair out. When I was more able, I’d go for long walks. I do lots of thinking before I begin but I don’t do outlines of any sort. I often talk to myself. Depending where I am in the process, I might be sobbing. No. Just kidding. It rarely comes to that. I also write every day. In the morning, before I do anything else. I’ve always done it this way. When my kids were little I’d get up two hours before they did to write. Now that they’re grown, the habit of writing first thing in the day stays with me.

What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.

 

To find out more about Randi Davenport, visit her website.

 

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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