Archive for the ‘creative writing’ Category
Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing some insights about how to prepare for the coming New Year and lay the foundation for making headway on our creative dreams. Today when Rochelle Melander’s wise newsletter landed in my inbox, I knew this was a perfect prompt to begin introspective work.
The Reckoning by Rochelle Melander
Truth walks toward us on the paths of our questions…as soon as you think you have the answer, you have closed the path and may miss vital new information. Wait awhile in the stillness, and do not rush to conclusions, no matter how uncomfortable the unknowing. —Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs
I’m a huge fan of Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series featuring Maisie Dobbs, a private investigator working just after the end of World War I. At the end of every case, detective Maisie Dobbs sits with her case map and does a reckoning. She reviews her notes, makes decisions about how to deal with any loose ends, and thinks about how she’ll use what she’s learned in her life and with future cases.
Before we dream up a brand new exciting year of writing, we need to take a look at 2013 and do our own reckoning of sorts. Yeah, I know you’re still living it. But you have enough of the year under your belt to reflect on what rocked and what didn’t.
Here’s a brief process to help you start your reckoning:
1. Make a list of the creative work you’ve done in the past year. Include everything in your list, even the stuff you do because you have to (like hanging out on Twitter, doing research, or sending out invoices.)
2. List what you value most about your work as a writer. Again, include everything from the philosophical (exploring new ideas) to the practical (earning money, working at home).
3. Evaluate how this past year’s creative endeavors (list #1) matched up with your values (list #2). In other words:
–Did you get to do enough of the stuff that brings you joy?
–Did you meet your practical needs through writing?
4. Finally, as you review the two lists, ask:
–What kinds of creative work do I want to do less of?
–What kinds of creative work do I want to do more of?
That’s it for now: make your lists, check them twice. Then hold onto them: there’s more reckoning to be done. And some dreaming, too.
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.
We’re at the beginning of a long holiday season. This can be a time for relaxation and much needed connection with friends and family members. It can also be a time when our creative work goes out the window. Here are a few tips to keep one’s creativity ignited.
- Work in smaller chunks of time. During the holidays there are many demands on our time with planned and spontaneous social engagements. Just like keeping ourselves healthy with more frequent workouts during the holidays is advisable, the same could be said for creative work. With all the imbibing, late nights and celebrating, trying to find solitude for creative work can be in short supply. Decide to work in smaller increments of time.
- Stay connected to discussions about creativity. If you’re traveling for much of the holidays and that interrupts your creative routine, find ways to stay connected to your interests. I’ve become a big fan of Mur Lafferty’s ‘I Should Be Writing’ podcast and plan on catching up on several episodes during holiday travel.
- Design a ‘Creativity Permission Slip’. While you are writing your holiday cards, take a moment to design a big beautiful ‘creativity permission slip’. This permission slip empowers you to take at least an hour a week for yourself and do something related to your creative life. Post it in your creative space.
- Play with a Creativity TA-DAH List. We all know our ‘to-do’ lists grow exponentially during the holiday season. What about having a ‘ta-dah’ list? Right now, if you throw your hands in the air and say TA-DAH!, I bet you’ll smile. Motivational speaker and humorist Loretta LaRoche, in Relax: You May Only Have A Few Minutes Left, recounts being at a conference on health and wellness that felt deadly serious. Later, in the hotel, Loretta saw a girl of about three waltz down the corridor, twirl her arms and yell ‘TA-DAH!” Many of the adults stopped in their tracks and grasped that “the child knew what they had paid hundreds of dollars to find out: how to enjoy life in the moment.” Your ta-dah list could be composed of anything that makes you smile during the next five weeks. It could also be a celebration of every creative thing that you’ve done this year. Let the ta-dahing begin!
- Treat yourself. Go and purchase the one gift that will support your creativity that you’ve been meaning to give to yourself all year. Think of it as a down payment for the great work you will produce in 2014!
How will you keep your creativity flowing during this holiday season?
I credit Marjorie Hudson, my writing teacher and friend, for jump-starting my writing life several years ago. She is a kind, wise and generous teacher and I have often blogged about lessons learned from her about the writing life.
She published a book about her search for Virginia Dare in 2002, and this year Searching for Virginia Dare is out in a new edition from Press 53, with some new travels and research. Her ongoing obsession has taken her to Rome, London, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
One reviewer said the book was a guide to how to write a book. Another said she had invented a new genre, one that “parted the authorial curtain” to reveal the writer’s process. In a review I wrote about Searching for Virginia Dare, I said, “This book lives in multiple genres including mystery, history, memoir, and adventure…This is a book to be read aloud to a friend on a dark winter’s night.” I love this book.
Marjorie recently decided to take another look at her book to see if there were lessons there for her and others about writing. I’m so happy to welcome her guest post here on ‘The Practice of Creativity’.
Here Be Dragons: Going off the Map to Find the Story
By Marjorie Hudson, author of Searching for Virginia Dare
Fourteen years ago I went searching for Virginia Dare.
What I found was a new confidence and freedom in my choices as a writer. I learned how to go off the map edges to the wild uncharted places beyond.
Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World, part of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island.
Her fate is an obscure footnote in American colonial and women’s history, yet the story is so fascinating, it should be more well known. Truthfully? For me, it’s become a kind of obsession.
In 1587 England sent a colony to the New World, 116 men, women, and children. Virginia was born on August 18 amid tangled scuppernong vines and live oaks on Roanoke Island. She was baptized August 24.
That’s about all the documentation there is of Virginia Dare’s life on earth. The entire colony disappeared, leaving a message carved in a tree, and nobody has ever quite figured out what happened to them.
Now, the problem for a writer about history is that you have to have documentation. You have to have expert commentary. You have to have facts.
What I had, instead, was a tapestry of extraordinary people and events that take a role in the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. There was John White, the governor of the colony, an English painter who turned the New World into a kind of life-drawing class, documenting the Native women, children, and villages there, and drawing exquisitely accurate maps of the coastline.
There was Elinor Dare, White’s daughter, five months pregnant when she shipped out of Portsmouth, three months’ trans-Atlantic travel ahead of her before she set foot in the American wilderness.
There was Manteo, England’s first Lord in the New World, and her first Native American ally.
If you put a compass point in a map of this story and drew a circle around it, the circle would also contain the Queen Elizabeth, the English Renaissance, the Spanish Armada, pirates and hurricanes and many more fascinating Native American people. On the corner of the map would be the mark of old: Here be dragons.
The story is rife with mystery: Why did the colonists leave Roanoke Island? Where did they go? Did they survive at all? There were also more subtle mysteries: Why did the Queen pick an artist to be the governor of the colony? Why did John White return to England, abandoning his granddaughter and his daughter, just days after the child was born?
English documents revealed extraordinary images – deer grazing in abandoned huts, scuppernong vines overflowing the land into the sea, abundant pearls and strange fishes, a word carved in a tree: Croatoan.
They also revealed terrible moments: a colonist found with 16 arrows in his gut; a ship’s captain with a pike through his head; a lost anchor, a great storm, and a ship blown southward, past all hope of finding the surviving colonists.
Later discoveries included stones marked with messages from Elinor to her father, left in a trail from the Chowan River in northeastern Carolina to the Chattahoochee River in Georgia—a hoax? — and sightings of blonde children living among the Indians on the Chowan River. But did anyone really know what happened?
There were dangers in this story for any writer who dared venture there. There were so many strands to this story, so many questions. I was determined to find a way to make sense of all the pieces and put them, like Humpty Dumpty, together again.
I fell back on the structures I learned in journalism school: read the background; consult the experts. I traveled around North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, talking to everyone from university archeologists to Lumbee Indian artists to guys in bars. Nobody had answers. Everyone had stories. I got lost a lot on back roads. I got lost in imagination. I got lost in memories about my own lost times.
The story of Virginia and her mother in the wilderness began to haunt me. Perhaps this girl and her mother may have felt, just a little bit, like me when I was growing up, adventuring alone in the world. My explorations took me hitchhiking across the US, squatting in derelict houses, and finally settling in rural North Carolina.
Well, it was preposterous to draw parallels, I knew. But I also knew that stories tell you their forms. I decided to trust the messiness, let all the disparate map-lines to the heart of the story be known and valued, including the dragons.
I decided to reveal my patterns of thought and feeling in response to the story, my struggle to understand, my mind’s turn toward imagination, and forays into deep memories of the young girl I once was, terrified and alone in the world, and the repeated pattern of mystery and loss that is my life. The story of Virginia Dare became a map of a writer’s mind in process.
I let the material find its own shape, like water running downhill, eroding to the bone-honest story underneath, the story that only I could tell.
One reviewer said Searching for Virginia Dare was like “a road trip with your best friend.” The story and the mystery both have been great company for me. I carry them with me, like secret treasure, wherever I go, along with a new compass in my bag of writer tools: let the story find its own map.
Marjorie Hudson writes about newcomers encountering the South and about contemporary people encountering history. She is author of the story collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention, and her honors include an NC Arts Council Fellowship and two Pushcart Special Mentions for fiction. She is founder and director of the Kitchen Table Writers Workshops.
Marjorie Hudson: www.marjoriehudson.com
Buy the book: http://www.press53.com/BioMarjorieHudson.html
John White Drawings: http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/jamestown.html
John White map showing dragon: http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/debry123.html
Photo Credit: Brent Clark
Yesterday was World Gratitude Day. Did you celebrate it? World Gratitude Day was officially started in 1977 by the United Nations Meditation Group. The idea for it was seeded some years before at a dinner with spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy. World Gratitude Day provides us an opportunity to express appreciation to others and reflect on what we’re grateful for in our lives. How nicely the reminder to practice and extend gratitude leads us into the marvel of the first day of fall.
Autumn requests our attention in a way that feels different than the other seasons. Autumn invites us to reflect on the nature of our harvest and make sense of a way forward. We know the fallow period of winter is not far away.
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? (Authors Alan Jones and John O’Neil note that both of these words share the Latin root aut-, meaning “to increase or grow”.)
-When do you feel the most authentic? Alone? With others? At work? In nature?
-What is in your harvest?
-Write about what you’re most grateful for.
-Write about what you feel like you should be grateful for but aren’t.
-Write about a time when you felt bountiful.
-Write about the three most authentic people you know. What do they have in common?
-Write about the gifts from summer. What came to fruition? What didn’t? What are you letting go of for fall?
Creative Harvest Meditation:
Sit in a comfortable position. Rest your hands on your belly. Take several deep breaths noticing how the belly expands on the in breath and contracts on the out breath. As you settle into your body allow yourself to imagine (in your mind’s eye and through sensations in the body) a feeling of great warmth flooding through the stomach and low back. Breathe in the feeling of expansion. Let your mind’s eye experience the different colors associated with fall: blazing yellows, scarlet reds, pumpkin oranges, rusty browns and deep majestic purples.
Feel the richness of your inner landscape with each breath.
Slowly repeat the following phrases to yourself (in your mind or aloud, whatever feels right in the moment)—The harvest asks of me, the harvest intends for me, the harvest gives me…(you can also substitute ‘autumn’ for ‘harvest’).
Invite the energy that has gathered in your core to offer bodily wisdom. Repeat these phrases over a few times and then freewrite the first responses that come to mind.
How do different people view an unusual event in nature? Is it a disaster? Is it a miracle? Is it a sign of life out of balance? Barbara Kingsolver explores these questions through the prisms of class, region, science, love, loyalty and family. Kingsolver’s main character, Dellarobia Turnbow, is someone who has been let down in many parts of her life. She got pregnant young, married the wrong guy, is tolerated by her in-laws, doesn’t like church and is constantly overwhelmed as a housewife and mother. The novel opens as she finds herself about to take a drastic step to escape this life when she comes face to face with an experience that will shape and redefine her in unimaginable ways. The writing is unflinching as Kingsolver skillfully takes aim at the media, the decline of public education (and the critical thinking that comes along with it), and the effects of globalization that has taken a toll on Turnbow’s isolated Tennessee community.
Climate change is at the heart of this book, but Kingsolver never loses sight of her characters, their daily struggles, biases and complexities. My only minor criticism, initially, was how dense the first chapter seemed. It was rarely broken with dialogue or Dellarobia’s inner thoughts. But, I see how Kingsolver used the richness and layering in that chapter, to great effect, as a touchstone throughout the entire novel. Dellarobia’s humor, insight and curiosity create an irresistible pull for the reader. After the first chapter, I was hooked.
What I love about this book is the way Dellarobia confronts her own biases, blindspots, and does some hard thinking to make up her own mind about the world around her.
Claiming Creative Space
How does one find and cultivate good ideas – from big thrilling ones to small stepping stone ones? This is a constant question for people who seek to be more creative.
Part of the answer rests in the power to claim physical space for our creative endeavors and to become aware of the types of metaphors we use to describe the psychological experience of generating those “aha” moments. To help creativity flow with the power of a waterfall, as opposed to an occasional trickle, requires us to dedicate physical space to support our efforts and cultivate new ways of imagining an inner repository for our good ideas.
Let’s start with physical space first.
A central question that I pose to clients is “Do you have a space where you create?” I receive a range of answers that include “That space is now where I fold my kids” clothes to “It’s cluttered” to “There’s no space that I can call my own.” I find this especially true for mothers with young children. Mothers often struggle with finding time and support for their creative lives. They routinely have to fight the feeling of being selfish versus “self-focused” when they claim time and space to create.
Designating space for one’s passion is a key creativity enhancer and important for two reasons. First, many people do not feel entitled to a creative life. To allocate space makes one’s work (and desires) real, visible, and enables a person to create from a feeling of worthiness.
Space affects us emotionally and cognitively. Psychologists, architects and neuroscientists are in conversation with each other and are developing studies that assess how to design spaces that promote creativity in buildings and micro spaces.
Second, when you claim a space it means you don’t have to recreate the wheel every time you want to work on your short story, collage series, ideas for planning a beautiful garden, or collection of songs. If you have designated space (or spaces), then you can go to it and work. Plain and simple. A specific space eliminates 75 percent of the challenge to creating.
Chris Cassen Madden, designer and author of “A Room of Her Own: Women’s Personal Spaces” reminds us that we don’t even need an entire room to begin claiming creative space. We can “carve out a corner, if you have to, in your living room or bedroom, with a chair and a basket filled with things you love – books, pictures, CDs…etc., If you don’t create the space, you might not take the time.”
I’ve had clients claim creative space in a secret garden, a barn, a window seat, an office in a newly remodeled attic, and on the table top of your dresser. Designating a physical space cultivates an inner authority to continue capturing and acting on ideas.
How do we cultivate metaphors for the “inner space” where musings are captured and brought to our attention?
If in our imagination, we mark those mysterious places where ideas seem to reside, it’s easier to know the path back to them when we’re lost.
I heard Booker T, a noted musician use the metaphor of a “potato hole” as where he gets and keeps his ideas.
He explained that during slavery, African Americans (and I’m assuming poor whites) didn’t have wood floors in their homes; they had dirt or earthen floors. There was no place to keep vegetables cool. So, enslaved folks dug what they called deep holes in the earth that allowed them to keep vegetables fresh. A potato hole is the central metaphor to describe where he gets fresh ideas from and also where other notions incubate. I fell in love with this unique description of an inner creative space literally rooted in conditions of struggle. His use of the potato hole honors the creativity of everyday folk long gone.
Even though I’m always cajoling people to think outside the box, one of my inner creative spaces that I return to for stimulation is a golden box filled with light. When I get stuck, I think about reaching in this big box of light and pulling out what I need. The writer Stephen King writes about his muse coming up from the cellar and bringing him beer. The image of an “inner cellar” stimulates his fresh thinking. I’ve heard other people say that tapping into their inner space for creativity is like imagining oneself at a great boisterous dinner party. All you have to do is sit back and listen.
This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 8/23/2013
Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.
We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.
For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.
That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.
I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.
As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).
Case closed, right?
After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.
After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?
Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”
Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.
However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.
I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.
Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.
Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.
Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.
This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013