The Practice of Creativity

It’s March. Wow! We’re now eight weeks + into the year and we might feel that our creative impulses are in deep freeze and that we’ve lost focus. It’s the time that we look incredulously at our lofty New Year’s goals, resolutions and intentions that were drawn up with such enthusiasm, when everything seemed doable and delightful.

It’s usually in late February and early March that I get a flood of calls requesting coaching. A client begins by saying, “Help, it’s MARCH and I’m way off track on my goals. I’m stuck and I don’t know what’s happened. I don’t feel like doing anything.”

We tend to lose focus and steam in March. Why? A possible cold snatched away two weeks where we were just about to take another step on our creative projects. Weather delays. Also, a sense of the mundane has had an opportunity to settle back into our lives. The mundane voice says to us: Who cares that you want to get your novel done by August? Taking a big step to set up that non-profit organization that you want can wait until June, can’t it? Why did you think you could teach yourself how to write a screenplay, anyway?

Although we dream of spring with its promise of renewal, we surely can’t put our creative projects on hold until then, can we? What can we do?

March is a great month to stock your creativity comfort kit. What is a creativity comfort kit? It’s the 2-3 essential items that you stock somewhere (drawer, gym bag, altar, etc.), that are mood shifters, dream re-vivifiers and self-love boosters. You use the kit as a jump-start for your creative engine. Your creativity comfort kit’s goal is to literally and symbolically remind you of the following:

1) Creativity ebbs and flows, but we still must make a daily or weekly contribution, so that we do not become too distant from its rhythm.
2) We must ‘create in the middle of things’, because that is the nature of being alive. If we wait for the perfect mood or ideal time, we will not fully develop our creative life and become resentful of our everyday lives. And, if we view creativity as a type of practice, then perfect moods or perfect timing is less important than consistency and connection to our creative impulses.
3) Self-affection and self-affirmation support our creative efforts.

My creativity comfort kit contains: 1 audiotape of Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ ‘The Creative Fire’ and 1 audiotape of Estes’ Women Who Run with the Wolves’ (abridged), a doodle pad with markers, several sheets of positive statements about myself and my creative work. And, yes, I know that audiotapes are old school! This year I have also added a small packet of dried lavender.

For me, listening to the soothing voice of Estes, a master storyteller, transports me from the mundane world back into the inner world of ideas and imagination. In winter, we want food and décor that soothes and comforts. During winter, our creative lives need symbolic soothing and comforting as well.

Tip: Spend a few minutes thinking about what items you might stock in your creative comfort kit. You might have everything already at hand and just need to gather the items together in one place.

 

Last week, I wrote about the lovely time I had at the ‘Love and Lonely Writer’ Valentine’s Day reading being featured with Marjorie Hudson.

One of the questions I asked Marjorie was ‘what would you do differently now if you were just starting a writing career?’ She said among other things, she’d be less shy about announcing herself as a writer. And, she’d also let go of the inner fear of ‘not being good enough’ a lot quicker.

She then asked me the same question. I didn’t expect this for some reason and so I answered it quickly. I said that I would have joined a writing group and sought community a lot sooner.

Although what I offered was true, I felt I left something else important unsaid. And, this unsaid thing has nagged at me for the past week.

Here is what I wished I would have said:

I wish I would have realized earlier that there is no one path to being a writer or embodying a writing life. Some people take years rowing across acidic lakes of self-doubt before getting the courage to write a single word. Some people come to writing because they have a great idea and want to express it and know little about craft or technique. Others have always dreamed of being writers and feel it deep in their bones. Some writers come to writing after retirement. Some want to make lots of money with their writing and others just want to be published in The New Yorker. Some writers are introverted and others will drink with you all night. Some writers have felt marginalized for most of their lives and others have felt entitled. Some writers write every day and others in uneven cycles and spurts. Some people study literature in college and others study Jackie Collins at the laundromat. Some writers are anxious no matter what their output and others settle into a Zen like calmness. Some writers quit again and again and others commit from day one. Some writers get their inspiration from role playing games and others from nature. Some writers define their creativity in spiritual terms and others don’t. I had all kinds of notions in my head about what it meant to be a writer and to actualize a writing life. Some were helpful, but most were junk and prevented me from enjoying the journey. Writers (and creative folk generally) come to this life from a dizzying number of perspectives and life experiences.

manypaths

Let’s honor our individual paths and the wisdom they reveal and reflect back to us.

Have you had to discard any unhelpful ideas about what a writer’s life should be like? I’d love to hear.

 

Last night I had the distinct honor of being featured as an ‘emerging writer’, at Quail Ridge Books, alongside my writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson. The event was called ‘Love and the Lonely Writer’ and it was organized by the Raleigh Review Literary and Arts Magazine. They periodically host the ‘Southern Recitations’ series where they invite an established writer to give a weekend workshop and then host a reading with that writer and an invited ‘emerging’ writer.

There's nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

There’s nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

As this was an nontraditional way to spend Valentine’s Day, I wasn’t sure if we would have much of an audience. I just thought of the event as a way to spend time with Marjorie and talk about writing in public (two of my favorite things), and honor anyone that showed up. And, I used it as an opportunity to hone my performance skills (see here for tips about public readings). Although I tried to play down the event in my mind, it was a BIG DEAL. Quail Ridge Books is one of most well-established and respected bookstores in the region. I told friends about it, posted on Facebook and reached out to local writers. And, I said, hey I know this event falls on V-Day, but it would be great if you could stop by. There’s nothing like asking for support when you really need it!

I’m happy to say the turnout was great. We had a packed house. People were so kind and lovely.

Current and former students of mine!

Current and former students of mine!

Marjorie spent some time talking about the importance of developing a writing community. For most of her life, she didn’t have a writing community and she often felt isolated.

I talked about how Marjorie is an exemplar teacher not just because she can teach craft or introduces her students to other writers. She’s an amazing teacher because she helps empower writers to create a vibrant and nurturing community.

I always say that before I met Marjorie, I wrote mostly by myself. I’d take a workshop here and there, read tons of writing books and sporadically joined writing groups. I would occasionally send things out for review. I taught myself many things during that long spell, but my output was slow and more importantly, I was often miserable.

In the five years since meeting Marjorie not only have I become a stronger writer and more widely published, but I actually have so much more joy and enthusiasm for writing. Cultivating a writing community (everything from writing buddies, online writing community, being in a writing group, etc.), has a been a great source of pleasure and support.

Yeah, it was a Marjorie and Michele lovefest!

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We both read works. I read ‘Ode to Shari Belafonte in her Calvin Klein Jeans’ recently published in Glint.

Marjorie often uses the method of timed writing to specific prompts. This technique gets to fresh writing that’s kind of ‘shaggy’, but often powerful and can take you to unexpected places. She asked me to read an unrevised poem that came from one of those prompts. I read that and she read a short piece from her novel-in-progress.

I read a love letter to my mother based on one of the columns I wrote for The Chapel Hill News last year. She read some steamy scenes from ‘The Clearing’, a story in her collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas.

We did Q&A and ended the evening by handing out chocolates and a writing prompt. It’s a fun prompt that you might want to try. Marjorie will post some of the entries on her blog!

 

A writer’s prompt for Valentine’s Day:

Write a letter to someone whose writing you love, or who has encouraged you or helped you with your writing.

If possible, find the person’s address and mail it, snail style.  I will post some of these on my blog—so send me a copy if you’d like to

ktwriters15501@gmail.com

Subject: Valentine

 

 

All in all, one of my best V-Days ever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Public affirmation for writing and creative work is often in short supply when we need it the most. I was in a craft store the other day picking up some pens and I ambled over to the aisle that is devoted to scrap booking and has tons of stickers and materials. I thought I might find something fun there related to writing that I could use for my journal (related to fiction writing) or for my folder (academic writing). There seem to be stickers for just about every life event (weddings, birthdays, travels, celebrating newborns, graduations) and even specific interests (e.g. car racing). But, there were no stickers that related to the peaks and valleys of writing or any other creative activity. There were a few very generic stickers that had the words creative, dream, imagine, with images of bland looking pens and pencils.

We’re a week away from Valentine’s Day (at least in the U.S), and I always find this a good time to remember to court and celebrate the relationship we have with our creativity. Just like any other relationship that we value, we must make time for our creativity. And, just like any other relationship, feelings of pleasure, kindness and affection make us and others feel good. So creative friends, in honor of V-Day, I am sending you virtual stickers that say things like:
1. Your writing will matter to someone, so finish it.
2. Nothing from my creative flow is wasted. All of it is endlessly recombined in new ways.
3. I claim my creative talents even in the face of envy, doubt and fatigue.
4. Creative self, remind that my playful nature can always lead me to new discoveries.
5. The inner critic’s main sources of nourishment are doubt, fear and helpings of low self-esteem. Put it on a diet!
6. Own your creativity, even in the face of naysayers and saboteurs.
7. I appreciate my creative self’s firework moments and subtle whispers.
8. I treat my creative self as a most treasured companion.
9. I finish my creative projects in a timely manner and with ease.
10. Every cell vibrates with my intention to create.

 

Enjoy!

illogicon

Although I primarily like to write speculative fiction (generally known as ‘sci-fi’), it’s been years since I’ve attended a science fiction convention. Probably around twenty years. Science fiction conventions or ‘cons’ are gatherings that take place across the country. They feature writers, editors, illustrators, gamers and lots of people who love reading science fiction and fantasy. There are typically panels about writing, panels about the genre itself, costume competitions, author readings, and lots of people really into sci-fi. The work of any con is done by volunteers, by devoted (and organized) people who love the field. Con organizers are amazing people.

A few months ago, a local writer suggested that I check out an upcoming local con. This happened to be ‘illogiCon iv’, a local con happening about forty minutes from where I live. As an upcoming writer, cons are a great place to meet fans, other writers, and soak in the field from a variety of perspectives. My writer friend even suggested that I email the organizers and see if they needed a moderator. I decided to do just that and so a few weeks ago I got to attend Illogicon! I moderated two panels: ‘Social Scientists’ Science Fiction’ and ‘Why Does it Take an Editor a Year to Read a Book?’

I loved illogiCon! I attended great, thought-provoking panels, discovered new authors, networked and utterly enjoyed myself. My only regret is that I didn’t stay at the hotel instead of commuting. Next year I won’t make that mistake. At most cons, the panels and performances run until 11pm. And, then there are the room parties!

I was happy to see that there was an explicit no harassment policy (as this has been an issue historically at many cons) and also that a wide variety of people across age, race and ability attended.

illogiCon offered a wide variety of panels. Everything from ‘How to Create a Podcast’ to ‘Diversity and Representation in Genre Fiction’ to ‘Steampunk to Cyberpunk: A History’ to ‘You’ve Finished Your First Draft. Now What?’ And, I’m very sorry that I missed the performance by the ‘League of Extraordinary Belly Dancers’.

I’m splitting this post up into two parts because there’s so much I want to share with you.

What follows below is a brief summary of some of the points made at two of the panels I attended. I have generally taken some liberties by paraphrasing panelists’ comments.

All Roads Lead to… (a discussion of publishing across the spectrum—self-publishing, small/medium publishers and large publishers)

Lynn McNamee, Clay Gilbert (absent due to illness) Michael G. Williams

This was a lively panel. Lynn is the owner of Red Adept Publishing, a small publishing house and Michael is primarily self-published.

Some takeaways-

-Everyone should self-publish something because you learn so much about the business of being an author
-If you self-publish make sure to use a professional editor, cover designer
-A small publisher is looking to find novel ways for you to enter a reader’s ‘eco-system’
-Google+ is turning out to be a good community for self-published authors
-Smaller publishing houses often work very hard to support an author and should not be dismissed as an option
-Working to get an agent is a good thing as they can enable you to concentrate on writing while they concentrate on rights and other issues

Building Your Brand: Promoting Your Book or Project on Social Media (Whether you are published by the Big 5, marketing your book online is still largely up to you.)

Panelists: Gail Z. Martin, Lynn McNamee, Susan Griffith, Chris Kennedy, Clay Griffith

This was a fantastic panel with established authors who shareed how they manage social media and marketing.

-When you engage with fans, be 100% present
-Building a brand is different than building your personality
-When thinking about your brand, consider: What is that you want you and your stories to be known for?
-Relationships (in person with booksellers, fans, etc.) are just as important as selling books
-Some authors pay to ‘boost a post’ on Facebook once a month
-Engage readers on a personal level; keep it warm
-Make sure the cover represents your book and genre; remember that 53% of purchase decisions for books are based on a cover (if you are self-published, make sure you have a good cover!)

 

Stay tuned for part 2!

 

Last night I looked in my gratitude jar that I kept during 2014. I learned about gratitude jars from a friend in 2013. The idea is simple…get a big jar, write one thing you are grateful for at the end of the day and put it in the jar. The jar offers a visual touchstone of joy as you see it filling up with entries during the year.

Although I didn’t have anywhere close to 365 entries  (75 entries this year), I had a great time adding entries, during the year, when I remembered. And, I definitely loved reading about all the special moments that happened last year that I had forgotten. I noticed that the majority of the entries related to giving thanks for some aspect of my creative life going well. I was grateful that I had gotten a submission accepted, or someone had offered kind words on a reading I gave, or I had a day where good ideas seemed to flow endlessly.

gratitudejar

The powerful benefits that stem from a gratitude practice are ones that science now validates and that spiritual traditions have always claimed.

The jar is now empty and I will start all over again. This year, I am going to focus on being grateful for every teeny tiny thing that allows me to support my and others’ creativity.

What about you? Why not grab a jar and dedicate it specifically for your creative practice/life/ dream/goal? Or you can put something in the gratitude jar before you start work on your novel, book of essays, musical score, etc. List what you’re grateful for before you begin or end a project. There are many uses for a gratitude jar. There’s actually so much that goes right on our creative paths, if we just slow down and notice.

This is a practice that you will wind up loving! Promise!

One of the great writing gifts of 2014 was connecting with Lisa Harris, an alum from Bard College. We are kindred spirits although I graduated from Bard in 1991 and Lisa in 1974. In February, Lisa gave a terrific interview about writing and the creative process. We have been corresponding ever since. Her guest post today is perfect for January as many of us are grappling with order and our intentions for a creative life.

 

In All Weather, Under Any Circumstance
by Lisa Harris ( ‘Geechee Girls-–2013, Allegheny Dream—2014, Ravenna Press)

My friend tells me, “You have a high need for order in your life.” Of course this is a relative concept, but she is also right. Open a closet, what tumbles out? Open a cupboard, what falls? Reach in a drawer to locate the correct pair of socks, only to leap back at the mess, then grab the first pair and shut the drawer. I unintentionally leave trails, not of breadcrumbs, but of wrappers and tissues and apple cores. In my gardens, grass root plants spread. At first I welcome them by letting them grow. But when they begin to overtake the bed, I yank them. Within days, they wiggle out from beneath stones, and push up through darkest mulch, defiantly resurrected.

In my studio, stacked papers appear as orderly, but peruse them, and you will discover unresolved drafts of poetry collections, novels in progress, sketches of life observed, a quagmire of thoughts and an abundance of observation. Order is an illusion that prevails until it is exposed by life. My true compulsion for order shows up when I write: I work to get the words in the correct order, based in my presumptions about sound and word weight, texture and effect. Try as I might to banish the poet in me, I cannot. No matter how many shields I put up, no matter my effort to block out the noise of the world, I am still held captive by cadences and melodies, the search for the perfect verb and noun, in an effort to reveal, compel and heal.

LisaHarris2EDIT-300x199

As writers we are drawn to the tumbling, falling, spilling, wheedling, charging disorder of creativity—in all weather and under any circumstance. If we could ignore it, we would, but we cannot; it is how we live.

Allegheny Dream, my second published novel, has been a work in progress since 1982 when I wrote poems about the former and formative landscape of my life, my childhood memories, my ancestors’ stories, the Appalachian culture of honor—the petty, lovely, and horrible. I had to recreate to release these ghosts and mine the emotional truth while avoiding memoir or autobiography. This novel had many previous forms: Collisions, a novella of linked short stories; Resurrecting the Quick, a hopelessly dark saga; and Boxes, the emergence of what it was to become—a study in shame and sorrow evolving into a picture of love redeemed. Allegheny Dream eventually stepped into the world whole, like its heroine, Eliza Schnable Friday, who used the Civil War, Gilgamesh, Hamlet and her ancestral knowledge as a compass to relocate herself.

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So, here is the clincher. We cannot ignore the weather or circumstance, the earthquake or the mundane. In fact, we have to experience them, survive them, reflect upon them, and then report. We have to go for walks day and night, in the rain and snow and fog and sun; we have to sit and do nothing, or read, cook, play—all as counterpoint to the deep work of imagining, of making connections between ourselves and the gigantic cosmos—listening for the birthing cicada as it crawls from a rotten log, its wings still wet from emerging; watching the English ivy creeping back despite all attempts to discourage it; and feeling the insistent, finite thumping of our hearts.

And what about losing faith and doubting yourself when you are tired, rejection slips are piling up, and you are overextended with responsibilities? You need to do something visceral with Doubt; spit on it, or light a candle and burn it away. Do not let it prevent you from writing.

My daughter gave me a wall hanging, which reads, “Your story matters. Tell it.” Get a wall hanging. Your story, the one that teases you and nags you, that interrupts your sleep and mocks you, the one that cries to be held and demands to be let go, has only you to tell it. Sequester yourself; pick up your tools and begin.

 

Lisa Harris is a writer, artist and educator. She has many publications to her credit. Her poems have been published by Puerto del Sol, Fennel Stalk, Bright Hill Press, The Cathartic, Karamu, Stillwater, The Ithaca Women’s Anthology, and ginsoko. Her stories have been published in ginosko, The MacGuffin, The Distillery, RiverSedge, Nimrod International, The American Aesthetic, and Argetes. Two of her stories won the Bright Hill Fiction Prize, and one story was anthologized in The Second Word Thursdays Anthology. Her most recent novel is Allegheny Dream with Ravenna Press. Find out more about Lisa at http://lisaharriswriter.com/

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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