The Practice of Creativity

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.

Participant-2014-Web-Banner

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

 

Last week I wrote about how writing short fiction, especially flash fiction, can be a very good way to develop one’s writing credentials. I also discussed my own challenges in learning the craft of short fiction.

Given the great comments I received and questions, I’m exploring this topic further. I want to provide examples from my own work and suggest some places to submit your short fiction.

Here are some working definitions of short fiction, in terms of length, that may be helpful:

Micro fiction 100 words or less, flash fiction 350-1500 words, short story 2,000-6,000 words (this seems to be the sweet spot for many publications), longish short story 7,500-10,000 words, novella 20,000-50,000

One of my teachers shared her organizing frame for the feel of writing different lengths of fiction. She said that novels are like a good marriage. Everything in a novel is rich, developed, and complex (i.e. characters, plot, subplots, etc.). In writing a novel, you have the leisure of deep exploration. By comparison, she said the novella is like ‘the one who got away’, enticing, sensual, complicated, but yet somehow elusive. In writing a novella, you have some time to develop a substantial subplot and a few characters, but you still will leave some things implied. And, flash fiction, by comparison is like a one night stand– don’t ask too many questions, just make it good while you’re there.

I’m not sure I completely agree with that frame, but short fiction definitely demands a type of narrative velocity and compression that distinguishes it from its longer cousins. You’re looking to plunge a reader into a situation very quickly. Last year, I took two exceptional semester long classes on the short form. One was with Ruth Moose and the other with Melissa Delbridge. Most of my short fiction that is finding its way into publication came out of working with them.

I got a prompt in Ruth’s class to write about someone in a workplace. She gave this prompt after we analyzed John Updike’s famous “A&P” story. I took this in two very different directions. One story I wrote called “Urban Wendy” is a speculative one about a girl who leaves one fast food chain for another and strange things ensue:

Urban Wendy

Marisol pulls another strand of red hair from a perfectly glazed Dunkin’ Donut, holds it up and looks at the stray bits of delicate pink icing clinging to the hair. Marisol reminds herself that her other team members working this shift don’t have red hair, nor does anyone else working here. Wendy is here.

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When Marisol announced she was leaving Wendy’s to work at Dunkin’ Donuts, two weeks ago, her co-workers warned her.

“Expect a visit from Wendy,” they said. Marisol looked at the goofy-looking freckled girl on the napkins she had handed out so many times to snot-nosed kids, harried mothers and dope addicts.

“She doesn’t like it when we leave without warning,” one of them whispered.

“You gotta to be kidding me. I’ll tell her a thing or two,” Marisol said. She filed their concerns of Wendy the phantom stalker, under ‘another urban legend’ and said good bye to the drab brown uniform, the never ending work of keeping the salad bar clean and organized, and sought her fortune among coffee and donuts.

Marisol’s first week away from Wendy’s had been peaceful at Dunkin’ Donuts. No dreams, no nightmares, no prognostications from any cartoon characters with red hair. By the second week Marisol fielded daily complaints about bad donut batches, curdled creamer, and mixed up orders.

Urban Wendy won a prize in the Carolina Woman Writing Contest last year. You can read the full story here.

I also wrote a story about a teenage boy who is coerced to deal drugs through his father’s limousine service. Here is an excerpt from ‘”Invisible Son” recently published in the anthology Flying South.

                                                                                                                                                                     Invisible Son

“No one suspects you’re a dealer when you’re in a limo,” Brian said to Cara, his school’s social worker. When he talks with her, Brian feels time slow down, melt, and thicken, allowing him to think, and recently that had loosened his tongue. She appears now in his mind’s eye for a moment– a brown giantess, who wears spectacularly large gold hoop earrings, loud orange vests, and sometimes even a jumpsuit. She looks kind of hip for an old black lady, especially when she wears combat boots. Not like the others over the years.

Now, he closes his eyes for a moment and leans against the leather headrest that fits him perfectly, letting the music of Marvin Gaye reach through him. His dad’s favorite. He likes it, too.

“Three stops.” His father turns down the music.

Brian nods. They’ve already done five stops (three girls’ night out trips, and two anniversaries), all legit rides and when Brian looks out the window, he sees late night, the stars are out.

He has his father’s mop of dark blonde hair and at fifteen is almost as tall as him. His dad is bulky, he fills out a suit; Brian is wiry, he can live on protein shakes like his dad, lift weights constantly and maybe gain two pounds.

When did you start working with your father?

Since I was twelve, after mom died he wants to say out loud, but swallows instead. Stupid, you’re letting her creep in. He wants the social worker’s voice to be quiet. Cara’s not here with him in the night.

First Stop

The Lincoln Mega stretch limo eases to a stop behind a row of apartment buildings. A man emerges from the shadows. His father makes the tinted passenger side window slide slow, just enough so it’s level with Brian’s eyes. Dad looks out for me just fine. Brian reaches down and carefully peels away a small white packet that’s taped behind his belt buckle. He knows his father’s right hand rests on a Glock 17, but there won’t be trouble here.

 

“Invisible Son” was heavily inspired by the brilliant short story, “The Solutions to Brian’s Problem” that appears in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s collection of short stories, American Salvage. In this story, a husband is considering his options in dealing with his wife and mother of his child who also happens to be a hard core meth addict. The sections are titled “Solution #1, Solution #2, etc., through to Solution #7. The solutions get progressively more desperate. Gripping.

All fiction requires a good hook, but flash fiction survives on it. In writing short fiction, I’ve worked a lot on my my beginnings and its made me attentive to beginnings in my longer works, too. Here is a great post about how to write arresting flash fiction openings by Cathy Colbron called “Top Five List: Unlike a Pickup Line, A Good Opener in Flash Fiction is Perfectly Acceptable.”

So, where to submit? The good news is that there are plenty of magazines and contests that accept short fiction. Here are a few to look into:

Prime Number Magazine (accepts flash fiction and longer work, plus they sponsor the monthly ’53 Word’ Contest). They are published by Press 53, a small press making a big impact in the literary scene.

Gemini Magazine-frequent flash and short fiction contests

WOW-Women on Writing (quarterly contest 250-750 words; and they only allow 300 people to enter each contest)

Potomac Review (up to 5,000 words)

The Pinch Literary Journal (they have a reading period and accepts fiction manuscripts up to 5,000 words)

A great list by Becky Tuch on where to submit flash fiction: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/flash-fiction-list-resources

Michael Alexander Chaney’s got a great list of markets seeking ultra short fiction.

 

I haven’t been able to take a writing workshop in some time, so I was looking forward to taking a ‘flash fiction’ class from acclaimed poet and short story enthusiast, Ruth Moose. I am still doing daily writing and am moving various projects forward, but there is a deliciousness and spontaneity that comes with creating fresh writing in a workshop. Until the last few years, I didn’t even believe that I could write flash fiction or short fiction. Every time I tried to write a short story, it would come out as a novella. After a semester long class with Ruth and exploring the form of short stories, I started to understand the demands of the short form. I also started voraciously reading short fiction. One time Ruth described the short story as having the length and character of a lovely dinner party. I understood then that one of my problems was that in many of my stories the characters were staying much longer and making it a sleep over party!

The workshop last week was so invigorating. We explored a variety of short fiction that ranged in style and content. We read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s ‘The Hit Man’ that chronicles the life of a hit man in episodic moments. It is both abstract (the hit man is always described with a black bag over his head), yet chilling. The piece below is an excerpt:

Excerpt:

Father’s Death

At breakfast the Hit Man slaps the cornflakes from his father’s bowl. Then wastes him.

Mother’s Death

The Hit man is in his early twenties. He shoots pool, lifts weights and drinks milk from the carton. His mother is in the hospital, dying of cancer or heart disease. The priest wears black. So does the Hit Man.

Sylvia Mullen Tohill’s ‘The Unfaithful Wife’* is about a woman who slyly undresses from her pajamas each night while her husband sleeps. This is her first paragraph:

Under the covers, she sometimes slipped out of her pajamas and slept nude beside her husband. She waited until he was snoring, then eased out of the bottoms—one leg, then the other—slipped an arm out of one sleeve, the other sleeve, then a time of listening before she lifted the top over her head and slid both garments under her pillows.

In the stories, we looked for where things turned and in short fiction, that moment is usually well delineated. We also noted that many times the main characters aren’t named.

We also read Jamaica Kincaid’s well anthologized ‘Girl’ and Carolyn Foushee’s ‘The Colonel’.

Ruth said that she loves the short form because of its complexity and yet accessible nature. She also loves it because there is currently a strong market for micro fiction, flash fiction and very short stories (100-1,000 words). Although short fiction requires a beginning, middle and end, I find that it is possible to leave some questions lingering and resonating then having everything perfectly wrapped up. I now enjoy writing short fiction and writing more of it has also allowed me to enter contests and get my work published.

Here are some writing exercises to try; try to keep these in the 200-750 word range:

-Write a short piece that is based on giving advice. In Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, the narrator is a young girl who hears her mother’s voice in her her head interspersing sexual advice with everyday ‘ladylike’ ways of being in the world:

Excerpt: this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile at someone you like completely

-Write a short piece about someone who comes close to telling an important truth, but stops

-Write a short piece about a couple standing in front of a door about to go into a party who begin to argue

-Write a short piece about a character standing in someone’s home and being troubled by what they notice displayed on their friend’s refrigerator

It’s been a busy week. I launched a new research project, got a new computer and had all my data migrated from my old computer to the new, taught my classes, attended a colleague’s book reading, and mentored students. And, those are just the things I can remember in the moment! Although I kept up both my daily academic and creative writing counts during the week, by the time Friday arrived, I really did not feel like writing. You might have a day like that from time to time, too.

hand-writing1

The part of me that would rather not do my daily writing said things like: “It’s Friday. You deserve a day off. You’re tired. You have to clean your office.” You know, the usual.
It also went into existential territory, including “What does it matter anyway?”

I have a list of things to try (or remember) when a strong and persistent feeling hits that makes it difficult to write. I went to it on Friday. Maybe you have such a list, too. Here’s mine:

 

1. Stay put and write. Even writing one sentence can be the momentum that pulls you forward.
2. Remember the quote by author Barbara Sher, “Moods are very short, projects are very long.” The ‘not feeling in the writing mood’ will dissipate pretty quickly by actually writing.
3. Remember writing is not what I ‘have to do’ but what I ‘get to do’.
4. Small amounts of daily writing moves work forward. There are people who have finished books and got them published by writing as little as 100 to 250 words a day.
5. Remember that when I get my writing done, I stop having to pay the “worry tax”. The “worry tax,” is the mental tax you’re paying when you keep thinking about writing but don’t make any concrete plans to write. The worry tax is a joy killer.
6. Order a book about the craft of writing that I’ve been wanting for some time. Then start writing.
7. Take a few minutes to read interviews with writers. The site www.talkingwriting.com has wonderful interviews with writers including Connie Willis, Robert Olen Butler and Susie Bright.
8. Exercise and then come back to writing.
9. Switch gears and genres. I like to have multiple writing projects that I can move between when I get stuck on a particular one. Usually playing around a few minutes on whatever I deem the most fun project in my life, at the moment, can coax me into a good writing mood.
10. Take a break from the computer and write for a few minutes in my journal: “What I really want to say about X is…”

What’s your favorite way to coax yourself back into writing when you’re in one of those ‘not wanting to write’ moods?

 

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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