The Practice of Creativity

NaNoWriMo update: We’re now wrapping up week three of NaNoWriMo. I’ve got about 31,000 words which is great. But, I’ll need to write about 2500 words a day to finish by next week. I have to say that I got a little cocky earlier because the words were coming so easily. I literally felt that my characters were talking to me and all I had to do was listen. This is rare for me. My characters are not quite as chatty now and I am definitely working hard for every scene. Like many NaNoWriMoers, I will be working a lot during the Thanksgiving break. Send me your good vibes this holiday week.

Here’s a treat for you: Writing coach Rochelle Melander’s insights on how to boost your creativity. Her work is phenomenal, so check out her link at the end of this post. Enjoy!

 

Three Tools to Boost Your Creativity by Rochelle Melander

 

Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere. —Albert Einstein

 

In 2006, I launched Dream Keepers, a writing program for at risk children and teens in Milwaukee. Since then, I’ve taught at dozens of libraries, schools, and churches. In the past year, I’ve noticed that many of the young people have difficulty imagining. When I ask them to write a scary story, they write what they’ve seen in movies and on television. When I push them to create something of their own, they stare at me like I’m from outer space.

My own ability to imagine has taken a hit in recent years, too. Too much time hooked up to the computer has made me much more likely to research than question. Research backs me up. A 2010 study done by Kyung Hee Kim, a creativity researcher at the College of William and Mary, discovered that creativity has decreased in children since 1990, along with the ability to imagine.

So how can we address the problem of our dwindling creativity? We need to practice imagining and immerse ourselves in creating. No doubt, our creative play will support our writing. If you’re up for a little fun, try these exercises:

  1. Don’t look it up, make it up! Have you noticed how public wonderments have turned into competitive research sessions? You’re standing in a park talking and someone says, “I wonder what people did for fun in Milwaukee in the mid-1800s?” Then five people pull out their smart phones and race to find out first. (Actually, the answer for that, like the answer for all things Milwaukee, is easy: they drank beer.)

Your assignment: Next time you wonder, don’t pick up that phone (or tablet). Quickly make up

5-10 answers. If you’ve got time, develop one of them into a short story.

  1. Play the “What If?” game. As a chronic worrier, I play the “What If?” game all the time—what if my kids flunk out of school and have to live on my couch forever, what if that chicken I ate for lunch was bad, what if I never get this book published! Far better to play the “What if” fantasy game: what if squirrels were really super intelligent and took over the world? What would life look like then?

Your assignment: Create 5-10 crazy “what if” sentences. Then take one of them and follow it to its strangest conclusion.

  1. Invent it. Earlier this summer, my dog had a giant sore on his ear (I know, yuck). It stunk and worse, every time she scratched, it bled all over the house. Before we brought her in to have the sore removed, I spent a lot of time devising ways to keep her from itching it. (She can’t use the Elizabethan collar.) Believe it or not, I had lots of fun trying to invent a protective ear device.

Your assignment: Invent a solution for a pesky problem in your house. If you don’t have any problems (lucky you), get a bunch of stuff from your junk drawer and see what you can create with it.

Bonus Tips:

+Do something impractical and creative every day.

+Read about artists and inventors.

+Visit places that honor art, science, and creative endeavors.

 

Write Now! Coach Rochelle Melander is an author, a certified professional coach, and a popular speaker. Melander has written ten books including Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (And Live to Tell About It). As the Write Now! Coach, she teaches professionals how to write books fast, get published, and connect with readers through social media. Get your free subscription to her

Write Now! Tips Ezine at http://www.writenowcoach.com.

 

 

“It’s a simple equation. Subtracting your dependence on some of the things you take for granted increases your independence. It’s liberating, forcing you to rely on your own ability rather than your customary crutches.” –Twyla Tharp

It’s day sixteen of the NaNoWriMo challenge and I’m right at the word count I should be: 25,000 words. I’m actually shocked and periodically I have a strong desire to shout: ‘Who’s in the house? A NaNoWriMoer is in the house! And, she’s writing!’

Almost half done. Shocking!

To complete NaNoWriMo, I know that I will have to give up a few things. At least temporarily. Some things, in the next few weeks, will be easy to shed: cleaning my home office, tweeting, clothes shopping, talking on the phone. I’ve already said apologies to my partner and friends. The process of trying to write 50,000 words brings on an intense focus and concentration. It makes you ask the question: What lifestyle “fat” can be cut during an intensive creative challenge?

cutting

The incredible choreographer and creative thinker, Twyla Tharp reminds us that giving up something can create a sacred container for the work to come:

“The act of giving something up does not merely clear time and mental space to focus you. It’s a ritual, too, an offering where you sacrifice a portion of your life to the metaphoric gods of creation. Instead of goats or cattle, we’re sacrificing television or music or numbers—and what is a sacrifice but a ritual?”

I’m willing to give up checking Facebook as much as I do. I probably can gain back a half hour of my day, if I just refrain from mindlessly checking Facebook.

I have to give up the rather comforting rhythm I’ve established this semester which is to write late at night when I get home. I’ve been getting up around 5:30 am and trying to write for two hours.

For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, what kind of fat have you been cutting?

If you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, how do you maintain focus on a demanding a creative project? What is easy for you to cut? Would love to know.

 

 

 

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NaNoWriMo update: I’m pleased to say that after the first week of NaNoWriMo, I am on track with a word count of over 15,000 words. And, I haven’t overindulged in caffeine or pulled any all-nighters. I attribute this success mostly to drawing on an outline that I wrote during the summer. As I said in an earlier post, I tend to be a discovery writer (or ‘pantser’). However, for this project I am experimenting with using an outline. I have found Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and The Writing Life extremely helpful on the topic of outlines. She encourages writers to do a step outline (basically a list of scenes), for each section of the book and then write a plot outline. Since I am working on a mystery, where plot is essential, these have been helpful tools. I also have been experimenting with the well-known ‘Snowflake technique’ that helps with structuring a story.

This foundation has been a lifesaver, especially since I missed three days of writing. The other thing I do before I begin writing is to compose a nice note or affirmation about my writing. It’s usually something short and sweet: “Michele, you create magic when you write.” I find that taking the time to say something positive helps my mental outlook. For more thoughts on writing affirmations and how to use them, see this post. Also, NaNoWriMo’s organization and communication with us is great. I have enjoyed receiving emails this week from NaNoWriMo that tell me about ‘writing sprints’ organized on Twitter. The NaNoWriMo website is a treasure trove of help, support and encouragement. When inspiration (and willpower) during the month flags, writers can check out the “Pep Talkers” section, where bestselling authors including Brandon Sanderson (“Mistborn”), Jim Butcher (“The Dresden Files”), and Kami Garcia (co-author of the “Beautiful Creatures” series) will provide encouragement.

One of the ways I treat myself (and also sometimes procrastinate) is to listen to podcasts about writing. I thought I’d share my favorites with you. I hope these stimulate and inspire your creative work. I’d love to hear about any writing podcasts that you adore, too.

I Should Be Writing: host, Mur Lafferty

‘Winner of the Podcast Peer Award and the Parsec Award, this is a show about a writer going from wanna-be to pro. Focusing on the emotional road blocks one finds in a writing career, this show speaks to over 8000 listeners every week. ‘

What I love about it: Mur is a speculative fiction writer and this is one of the longest running podcasts of its kind. Mur’s honesty about the ups and downs of the writing process really speaks to me. She’s very encouraging and a master at sharing tips on how to keep one’s self writing (and why it is important to do so). She periodically conducts interviews and also an occasional feedback show where people can send in questions that she answers.

New Letters on the Air, host Angela Elam

‘New Letters on the Air is the half-hour radio companion to the literary quarterly magazine New Letters. Each week the program features intimate conversations with contemporary writers who reveal secrets about their creative methods, read a few favorite passages, and inspire the listener’s imagination.’

What I love about it: This podcast makes me feel like I am sitting in the audience, listening to excellent writers talk about craft and read their work. I don’t get to enough readings and this podcast introduces me to many literary poets and novelists that I might not know about otherwise. Angela asks smart and thoughtful questions of each guest.

Writing Excuses: hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells

‘To educate aspiring writers in the ways of the author. Writing excuses is a fast-paced, weekly podcast covering topics related to writing genre fiction.’

What I love about it: This podcast’s tagline is ‘Fifteen minutes long, because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart’. All joking aside, this is an insightful podcast hosted by some of the most well-respected and successful writers and artists working in fantasy, horror and science fiction. They work well as a team and cover a wide range of topics about novel writing. And a bonus is that at the end of every episode, they offer a writing prompt.

The Dead Robots’ Society Podcast: hosts, Paul E. Cooley, Jason Macumber, Terry Mixon, and Scott Roche

‘This podcast is by aspiring writers for aspiring writers. The Dead Robots’ Society was created by Justin Macumber in an effort to offer advice and support to other aspiring writers. It was inspired — in part — by Mur Lafferty’s podcast “I Should Be Writing.” Over the course of the show’s storied life it’s had a bevy of co-hosts.

All the hosts, current and former, have writing experience of some kind. They gather on a weekly basis to share stories of their individual journeys and discuss topics important to the world of writing. Occasional forays into the territories of brown dragons, taco eating cowboy space ninjas, or random discussions involving monkeys are all considered rumor at best and none of the hosts are willing to admit any of that actually happened.

What I love about it: These hosts are funny, bawdy and pretty rowdy. They cover the business of writing (especially self-published and small press) and also how to stay motivated.

The Roundtable Podcast: hosts, Dave Robinson and Brion Humphrey

‘The Roundtable Podcast is about nurturing ideas, fostering inspiration, and getting the creative juices flowing.  It’s also about mistakes and blind alleys, harsh reality and uncomfortable truths.

Each week we invite publishers, editors, and authors to get on the line with a writer who presents an idea on the table… an idea for a story they want to write.  And then everyone digs in, asking questions, pointing out problems, and proposing solutions.  Characters are dissected or dismissed, plots reinforced or torn apart altogether, and hopefully what started as an idea, becomes something more.’

What I love about it: I’m a new listener to this podcast. I’m captivated by the variety of formats they have: interviews, workshops and themed conversations. They try to create ‘literary alchemy’ with each podcast. I think they do.

Every first draft is perfect because all the first draft has to do is exist. It’s perfect in its existence. The only way it could be imperfect would be to NOT exist.
Jane Smiley

 What is a fun and intense way to get a lot of writing accomplished in a 30 day period? Participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! NaNoWriMo is in its 16th year. Basically a group of writers got together and challenged themselves to ‘binge write’ and complete a novel in a month. Crazy, I know! They found that fast, fresh and uninhibited writing helps get past one’s cranky internal editor. A creative movement and nonprofit (with the same name) was born.

Writing a 50,000 word novel breaks down to a little over 1600 words a day. It’s free to participate and NaNoWriMo runs on an honor system. There’s only one rule. You can write all the character biographies and plot summaries that your heart desires. But, you can’t write one actual word of your novel until Nov 1. How is that for anticipation? (And, when as an adult was the last time you had that bursting at the seams, I-can’t-wait-to-try-this feeling? Not that often, right?)

Then on November 30th, you upload the novel and the NaNoWriMo staff officially validate the word count.

The goal is get the shape of one’s novel on paper. Bad (or imprecise) words count, in this instance, as much as good words. Making that daily word count is a challenge. Many people do writing sprints on the weekends.

Don’t want to write a novel during NaNoWriMo? OK. There are plenty of folks who use the energy of NaNoWriMo to deepen their writing practice. There are also the ‘NaNo rebels’ who work on graphic novels, poetry collections, etc. The key is to undertake sustained writing and creative activity during the month.

This year, I’m all in.

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Reasons Why I’m Doing NaNoWriMo

It will be intense and fun!

I’m determined to teach myself how to write a novel from start to finish.

I’m basically a discovery writer or ‘pantser’ meaning that I usually don’t outline my stories or start with the end in mind. I like to write my way into a story. Over the last year, however, I have been pushing myself to do more outlining of longer works. This has felt good and yielded some successes.

I’ve been preparing for this marathon event since the summer. I have wrapped up almost all the edits on the short story collection I’m working on. Additionally, I’ve outlined the idea that I’m working on for NaMoWriMo and have most of the character sketches completed.

I’m not so worried about the daily writing part. That can be a hurdle for many when attempting NaNoWriMo. For me, writing has become a daily routine. I have multiple creative projects going plus my academic life, so there is always more writing to do. I also have become a fan of the Magic Spreadsheet which I have raved about for the last few months. Tracking my words through the MS has increased my output.

Re: the blog: I imagine most of my posts during November will be about my NaNoWriMo progress. But, I am also working on getting some interviews lined up for next month, too.

Motivators

I’m super goal oriented. I want the bragging rights of saying I completed NaNoWriMo.

Intense deadlines motivate me.

I love online writing communities and NaNoWriMo has a fantastic one. A few years ago, I halfheartedly attempted NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t take advantage of the encouraging NaNoWriMo community. I won’t make that mistake again. I also wasn’t on Twitter and I also wasn’t using Facebook as a place to build online community through writing which I do now.

The NaNoWriMo website hosts a treasure trove of information. Looking for the best way to poison someone? Need to know the courtship rituals of medieval Europe were? What exactly are the origins are of Ildiko, a Hungarian goddess? There are moderated forums to access all kinds of help, across all genres of writing. Additionally, there are opportunities to connect with local writers, face to face, by checking out the activity in one’s ‘home region’. Well known writers will also provide ‘pep talks’ during the month.

NaNoWriMo has two things going for it—structure and accountability. The structure is built in—write for 30 days. The more people I let know that I’m doing NaNoWriMo helps with a sense of accountability.

I love card games and growing up I played a lot of Spades. The best part about most games is that it gives you a chance to talk junk, boast and be playful. My friends and I had a saying while playing Spades, “Go big or stay home.” Meaning that when feasible, don’t be timid. Play a trump (a spade), high card or a joker.

NaNoWriMo is all about going BIG. It’s about amateur and professional writers drawing on raw courage, inspiration, and grit to get their ideas onto paper in the midst of their very busy lives.

It’s not easy for creative people to launch their dreams. NaNoWriMo provides a vehicle to push past one’s limits in an intense and fun way.

We are going BIG.

So, what about you? Are you ‘noveling’ this month or using the energy of NaNoWriMo to create something that you’d been dreaming about? I hope so.

If you want to find me on the NaNoWriMo site, my user name is mtberger. Add me as your writing buddy.

 

I never get tired of reading books about writing and/or creativity. Over the last two decades or so I have collected almost fifty books about writing. I enjoy reading how established writers solve the same challenges that I face. Some writing books are old friends that I return to again and again. One of my rewards for completing a particularly demanding set of writing goals is to acquire a new writing book (or two).

I hadn’t bought any writing books in awhile and I let anticipation build up. Below are the writing books on my desk, my new friends.

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Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction by John McNally

A few weeks ago, a writing buddy handed me a story that was recently published in The Sun and said, “I think you’d like this. His work reminds me of yours.” Flattery indeed! The story was ‘The Magician’ and it was by John McNally. Although it was not at all speculative, the story had a completely mesmerizing and otherworldly feel to it. I fell in love with it. It was the kind of story that kept me up at night pondering both about the content (about a young girl’s disappearance) and how he made the story hang together (he used the ‘we’,  a plural narrator’s voice, which is unusual, e.g. We never forgot the way she looked). I had never heard of John McNally before, but after reading that one story, I believed I could learn something from him. Indeed, I wanted to learn a lot from him. So, when I saw that he had a book about writing (and he teaches writing at Wake Forest University), I grabbed it. He has published novels and short stories and another book about writing called The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide: Advice from an Unrepentant Novelist.

Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities that Keep Readers Captivated by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is a major figure in speculative fiction. She’s best known for her book Beggars in Spain which garnered major acclaim. I have never read her fiction, but have read many of her articles about writing. I finished her book Beginnings, Middles and Ends recently which is one of the most useful books I have ever read about writing. Creating characters is one of my strengths, but I’m eager to learn new tricks.

Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint:  Top of Form: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints by Nancy Kress

As I said, I’m a fan of her work.

The next two books are considered classics in the field:

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction by Robert Olen Butler

Butler makes a case that in order to write well, you must engage the unconscious and he offers some pretty unique exercises to do just that.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway, Elizabeth Stuckey-French and Ned Stuckey-French

This book explores the crafting of literary fiction. It examines stories by contemporary authors and discusses different writing techniques.

The Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods and Goddesses by Judika Illes

This is not a writing book, but an amazing reference guide. I came across it in the public library two years ago and have periodically checked it out. I never want to return it once I have it in my possession.  A completely fascinating guide to the lore and legend of many magical creatures and supernatural entities. The book covers many cultures. Every time I read a few entries, I get ideas for stories.

So that’s on my shelf. What’s on yours? What writing books are you reading right now or hope to read in the near future?

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m a big believer of keeping a ‘creative accomplishments list’ nearby. I’ve blogged about the importance of why you should start one and what kinds of things you can count. So, do you have such a list? If not, see this post.

Most creative work takes a long time to bring into fruition. And, our creative labor and devotion is often invisible to others. It is easy to forget or minimize the ways in which the creative life is sustained. If we don’t have tangible reminders about our accomplishments, it’s also easy for pesky inner critics to raise doubts about the value of what we do. A list is evidence of our deep intentions that we can turn toward during moments of skepticism about our progress.

The great thing about a creative accomplishments list is that it celebrates both process and product. You decide what counts and I encourage you to be as inclusive as possible. You can list process oriented activities that often aren’t celebrated (e.g. getting up at 6am for the last two weeks to work on your poems, or renewing a subscription to Poets and Writers, or that you made yourself go to an art opening, even though you didn’t feel like going, introduced yourself to the owner and talked intelligently about your work).

In this vein, I am sharing some latest accomplishments that are on my list:

-been writing at least 250 words a day since June 4th. I keep track using ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’. Haven’t heard about the remarkable Magic Spreadsheet? Check it out here.

-sent several emails to my writing group about places where they could submit their work

-reached out to an author I didn’t know personally to see if they would be interested in an author Q&A

On the product side, I’m so delighted to share that my two poems ‘Ode to Shari Belafonte in her Calvin Klein Jeans’ and ‘Jackie’s Feathers of 1982′ have been published in Glint Literary Journal, a publication of the Department of English at Fayetteville State University.

They have done a beautiful job with the online version.

I also have to give a quick shout out to Mariah Wheeler, owner of the wonderful art gallery The Joyful Jewel, who hosts an annual ‘Voice and Vision’ event. Before the event, writers are encouraged to come to the gallery and write about one of the art objects. At the event, the writer reads his or her piece and is joined by the artist who talks about making the art. It’s a fabulous cross-pollinating type of experience and over the years I’ve had two wonderful pieces emerge from it. One is  ‘Jackie’s Feathers of 1982′. When I saw Marty Broda’s series of feather earrings, it took me back to my early adolescence and that got me writing.

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I also wrote a piece called ‘The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank’ which was eventually published, too.

Check out Glint Literary Journal, tell your friends and if you are a writer, think of submitting–they are opening calls for submissions on Oct 15: http://glintjournal.wordpress.com/

Autumn is here and it requests our attention.  At each change of season, I turn to Seasons of Grace: The Life-Giving Practice of Gratitude by Alan Jones and John O’Neil. Seasons of Grace traces gratitude through the metaphor of the four seasons, encouraging readers to practice gratitude in new ways.  It’s a remarkable book that has taught me so much about the power of gratitude as a foundational practice.

I have found that gratitude is a creativity enhancer. The more that we can cultivate gratitude, the more we can withstand the ups and downs, the boons and dry spells of a creative life.

They begin their chapter on Autumn in this way:

“The fruits of the harvest are gathered and stored. The trees shed their leaves and reveal their true forms. The days grow shorter and darker, reminding us of how brief our time on earth really is. It’s autumn:  a season for reflecting on what it means to be truly alive, and for giving thanks for the gifts an authentic life bestows.

It’s no coincidence that autumn and authenticity are linguistic cousins. Both share the Latin root aut-, meaning “to increase or grow.” Autumn brings the harvest bounty:  the earth’s increase. Authenticity brings the reward of increased self-knowledge and awareness, of a life augmented (another word cousin!) through integrity. As autumn represents the ripening of the crops, so authenticity represents the coming into maturity of our characters. The link is gratitude, which allows us to ground ourselves in humility and recognize our authentic nature. When we live gratefully, we become more truly ourselves.”

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Autumn presents us with an opportunity to reflect on our inner and outer harvests. Here are some writing prompts to feed your creative impulses as you explore the gifts of fall:

-Look at the following two words—autumn and authenticity. What connections between these two words do you sense?

-What’s most authentic in your creative work right now?

-When do you feel the most authentic? Alone? With others? At work? In nature?

-Write about the gifts from summer. What came to fruition? What didn’t? What are you letting go of for fall?

-What is your creative bounty?

-Finish the sentence:  If I were living more authentically, I would…

-What are the 10 things you’re grateful for right now?

-What’s a lesson from the summer that you resist being grateful for?

-Explore the list of seasonal words and phrases below. Pick one or two words or phrases that carry the most energy for you and free write about them for 5 minutes. Then choose one or two words or phrases that carry the least energy for you and free write about them for 5 minutes.

I’d love to hear your reflections on any of these prompts!

Seasonal Words and Phrases

Inner and Outer Harvest

Fruit

Light and Shadow

Waning light

Yearning

The out breath

The in breath

Change of color

Change of form

Surrender

Yield

Journey

Inner equinox

Wheel of seasons

Going Within

Cyclical

Season of preparation

Fallen Leaves

Opening

Closing

Balance

Turning

Radiate

Joyful completion

Roots

Autumn Light

Abundant core

Living in gratitude

Deepening

Mellowing

Maturing

Bountiful

The harvest is stored

Labor

Lady of the Sunset

Blessing

Harvest Moon

Revision

Practice

Letting Go

Seasonal Change

Ripening into autumn

Gathering and storing

Bird migrations

Wonder and Awe

Winds of Change

 

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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