The Practice of Creativity

The beginning of the year has been a whirlwind, in a good way. I was invited to lead a craft workshop for the students attending Carlow University’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, taking place in early Jan, in Pittsburgh, PA.

I was very excited, honored and nervous. I am an educator by training and routinely teach undergraduate and graduate students in my areas of my research expertise (e.g. women’s and gender studies, sociology, and political science). Although I have given craft talks, I have never designed and solely led a workshop for MFA students. Even though I have taught writing workshops alone and with others, I have never taught in an actual MFA program.

I received the invitation in September. Once I accepted, an annoying inner critic voice popped up and said, “Who does she think she is to teach MFA students, especially when she doesn’t have an MFA?”

I had to repeatedly say to myself, “This is not about your ego or degrees. You are here to serve the students and offer up what you think will be useful to them.” One of the reasons why I was invited was because they have had students express an interest in writing speculative fiction. The administrators gave me complete freedom to design the workshop in any way that I wished.

Once I reminded myself that I had something unique to offer and that it was OK not to be perfect on the first round, I totally got into designing the workshop.

The MFA students sign up for the classes they want to take about a month before, so I sent some preliminary questions about their goals, challenges, interests, etc. I used their answers to guide me as I developed the workshop.

I taught about speculative fiction and my path as a winding path as a writer (i.e. why I went to get a PhD in political science instead of an MFA). I integrated mindfulness and contemplative practices as resources for sustaining their writing. I also had them generate lots of material through prompts and free writing. We looked at some ways that writers can play with premise, setting and character as part of speculative work. I drew on a wide variety of authors and my own work as demonstrations of particular approaches.

Boy, does two and half hours fly by!

The students were amazing and generous to me and each other.

I so enjoyed watching students dive deep in the exercises and claim some of their buried interests, including horror and dark fiction.

The fantastic MFA students I worked with at Carlow.

I absolutely loved teaching the workshop.

I’m glad I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. I’m also glad that without acting like a know-it-all, I could share with them some lessons I’ve learned as well as hear what their writing lives are like. As in all adult learning communities, you know some things and they know some things. Learning happens in the middle.

The only thing I would do differently would be to send some of the short readings ahead of time, so we would have more time for in class writing and reading our work.

I was honored to read alongside Patrice Gobo (center) and Lynn Emmanuel. We read poetry, memoir and fiction and our selections all complimented each other.

The faculty and staff were welcoming and it was a joy to be with them. I loved reading with the other faculty, too.

Creatives, don’t we just light up when we are with other creatives?

Below are two of the exercises that I used as warm-up material. I absolutely adore Dena Metzer’s Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey (a more spiritual approach to creativity, but some of the deepest writing advice I’ve ever seen and great prompts throughout the book)

The Dream Police

We are what matters to us. Our identity materializes through images, memories, events and through things.

Suddenly there is a knock on your door. A trusted friend enters to warm you that the Dream Police will arrive in twenty minutes. Everything, everything in your life that you have not written down will evaporate upon their arrival. You have a short time—twenty minutes-to preserve what is most previous in your life, what has formed you, what sustains you. Whatever you forget, whatever you have no time to record, will disappear. Everything you want must be acknowledged in its particularity. Everything to be saved, must be named. Not trees, but oak. Not people, but Alicia. As in reality, what has no name, no specificity, vanishes.

*set the timer for 20 minutes and GO. This is great prompt to help us dig deep and go from the abstract to the concrete. Every time I do this exercise, my list looks different.

The Dream Police #2 (also from Writing for Your Life)

Imagine you are an anthropologist who has unearthed this list of “possessions” that once belonged to some unknown person. Write a brief portrait of fleshing that person out, speculating on his or her character and life.

-The anthropologist writes about this subject in the 3rd person, (i.e. he, she, they)

My addition: circle 3-5 items, images, memories from this list that interest you. How might you approach what you have created as the basis for a new character? What kind of trouble or setting might be interesting to explore with this character sketch?

Photo credit

 

January has started off well for my writing.

File this under the category: Believe in your work. As creators, I believe we have to pursue a variety of storytelling modes that are available to us. I’ve started to enter my published work into contests that help pitch the work and get it adapted for film and TV. Nussia, my novelette published in 2017 by Book Smugglers just made it to the quarter finals in the ScreenCraft Contest (Cinematic Short Story Competition)!

I love the cover that Book Smugglers had commissioned for Nussia.

They chose about 200 people from over 1,200 submissions. Here’s my logline: “In this sci-fi psychological dark/horror story, Lindsay, an African American girl “wins” an extraterrestrial in a national contest only to find her family’s life upended. It’s E.T. meets Fatal Attraction.” It’s set in NYC in the 1970s. Wouldn’t you want to see that story told? Please send me good vibes so that I advance to the next round. And, bookmark this contest for your future entries (they have contests for published and unpublished work, plays, etc.).

Screencraft Contests.

If interested, you can read Nussia for free here

I’ve had to sit on VERY GOOD NEWS for a few months, so I am happy to share my contract news and publishing story with you.

Many of you know that my sci-fi novella Reenu-You was published in 2017 by Book Smugglers Publishing, a very small press. What many of you don’t know is that in Nov 2018, BSP decided to get out of the publishing business. The two women who ran the press were wonderful and committed publishers, but they realized that after running it for almost six years, they would need to quit their full-time jobs to take the business to the next level.

This left me and all of their other authors without a publisher. Reenu-You became unavailable in any format by Dec 2018. You can imagine how I felt. I was definitely not expecting this turn of events. It had taken me so long to get that story into the world!

Here was my little novella doing well, garnering great reviews, finding its audience, making its way in the in the world and then BAM—it was GONE.

I have since discovered such is the life of tiny presses and the state of publishing. BSP told me that I should approach other local publishers that might be interested in acquiring it. They believed that it would find a good home. I was daunted by their advice, but I believed in the work.

Luckily, I reached out to the wonderful John Hartness, author and publisher of Falstaff Books to see if he was interested in acquiring the rights to Reenu-You. I had met him the year before at a local sci-fi con and when the local bookseller didn’t show, he did me a favor by selling copies of Reenu-You through his booth. In that intervening year, I also met many of his authors and knew that as a local publisher with a wide distribution network, he was actively recruiting speculative fiction authors who were with presses that had folded.

Last year we had a great meeting. He read the novella, liked it and asked me what I was working on. I had looked at his catalog before our meeting and saw that he didn’t have very much horror and so pitched him my idea—a horror novel that takes place in the Great Dismal Swamp. He loved it and said he would buy that and reissue Reenu-You!

I now have signed contracts and can make the official announcement. Reenu-You will re-emerge later this month and I will be delivering a horror manuscript to him in the summer.

Sometimes, life works out better than one can imagine. There’s so much we can’t control about publishing, but we can control or greatly influence things like building professional relationships, being persistent and believing in one’s work

I am incredibly thankful and honored to officially join the author family of Falstaff Books. Before joining, I knew some of the authors by their fantastic works including Samantha Bryant, Nicole Smith, Michael Williams, Alledria Hurt and Jason Gilbert. Now, I know how kind, supportive and generous they are as a community of writers who uplift and support each other.

If you like speculative fiction, please check out Falstaff’s catalog.

I, of course, will keep you updated as this new publishing journey unfolds.

Hi and holiday greetings! I hope you are having a restorative and joyous holiday season. I’m hoping that you can help me spread the word about the North Carolina Writers Network’s contest season. If you are a writer that lives in North Carolina, please check out the various competitions that open in the first quarter of the year, including Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize (Jan 2), Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition (Jan 15), Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize (Jan 30), and Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition (March 1). If you don’t live in NC, please still consider sharing to your writing networks–you never know who might see the announcement.

Please also help me signal boost the second year of our newest literary prize, the Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize. It honors the best short prose by African-American writers in North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill alum Cedric Brown helped get this award off the ground. This award honors Harriet Jacobs and Thomas Jones, two pioneering African-American writers from North Carolina and seeks to convey the rich and varied existence of Black North Carolinians. The contest is administered by the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The winner receives $1,000 and possible publication of the winning entry in The Carolina Quarterly.

I am a Trustee on the Board of the North Carolina Writers Network and am very proud of the fact that the Network awards more than $4,000 annually in prizes through our various competitions.

Details for the above competitions can be found here.

The Witches, Warriors and Wise Women fantasy anthology was successfully funded! Thank you for sharing the link and/or contributing. I was approached late into the project and I thought our fundraising goal was pretty high ($3400) for the time period we had (about 21 days). Like most people, I don’t particularly like asking others for help related to my writing projects (trying to be better about that). So, even though I completely believed in the project (and don’t mind helping others), I had to work up the courage to ask my networks to share and/or contribute and to ask often. I posted the link in almost every online community I’m in. And, I saw every writer connected to the project doing the same thing. Jason Graves, the editor, led the way in posting persistently pleasant updates about the status of the Kickstarter project and asking for support. It was truly a group effort.

A lesson I needed to be reminded of is that people LOVE to help and the writing community is overall a supportive one. Also, It takes less than 10 minutes to craft a thoughtful ask and less than a few minutes to post. Another lesson: readers are interested in reading work that excites them and are willing to invest in new projects.

We were funded above what we asked, too!

Another perk of asking is that I now have my first ‘Tuckerization’. Someone pledged at a level that they will now be written into my story. How fun!

The anthology will be available in June.

Now that the anthology is funded, I can get back to writing. My story is due at the end of the month!

 

 

I’m doing something I have never done before. I’m sharing a few paragraphs from my WIP for WITCHES, WARRIORS AND WISE WOMEN the Kickstarter funded anthology. The tentative title for my story is ‘Ditch Girl’ and is set in a post-apocalyptic world with a smidgen of urban fantasy. There are definitely witches in this story. This is a draft for your reading pleasure only.

BTW, we are 66% funded with only 3 days to go. I’d LOVE it if you would consider supporting this project and/or sharing the link. And, thanks to all of you who have already supported the project in various ways!

There are still VERY cool rewards and pledge levels available—help us fund this project and get some extra goodies for yourself. But hurry—the clock is ticking!

It will feature new fiction by me and Gail Martin, Paige Christie, Darin Kennedy, Alexandria Christian, Nicole Smith, JD Blackrose and many others.

Details here.

“Ditch Girl”

The cemetery never scared Welcome, even as a child.  Cutting through it to get home provided the quickest route and allowed unrivaled use of her imagination. She would make up stories about people, looking for the oldest headstones. Most days after school, before it got dark, she’d pick an interesting gravestone, settle in and strike up a conversation. She’d share things that didn’t sit right in her mind.

She might say, “Ana Sterling of 1950, if you were here, I’d show you around Thistleview. Not that there’s very much to see. In your day, I bet you use to go into that old city called Tulsa, not too far from here. It’s not there anymore now, Ana.”

Or, “One day the preacher’s wife slapped me for not wearing a slip. After service, she asked me to come in the back to talk to her and before I knew it she had her beefy hand on me.

The preacher’s wife said, “Welcome, can’t you see your breasts are falling out that dress? Do you want to end up like your mother?”

Mama never said I had to wear a slip, Ana. I don’t even have a slip. I stopped going to church after that. The preacher’s wife don’t bother me no more. She don’t even speak to me at all. She just looks right through me as if I’m some piece of old cobweb. Were slips big in your day, Ana? I bet they were. People had money back then from what I’ve read. They went places that needed slips.”

On this day Welcome made her way through the forested part of the cemetery, where the red cedars were thickest and some of the oldest headstones lay. She paused and sniffed, noticing the coolness in this part of the cemetery. She then heard words sung by a female voice:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart

Goosebumps pebbled her pale skin and she hunched into her ragged coat. The phrases repeated and Welcome looked toward the nearest stand of trees. She darted behind one and then another thinking that she had been followed by some of her stupid classmates.

After a few minutes of frantic searching and finding no singers (she knew no one in town that sounded as good as that voice), with every vein straining in her face, she listened.

Another female voice rang out, this one heavier:

We’re trying to come throu…

Come to us!

The moment seared her like when she waited for the once a month afternoon train. Pricks of excitement and danger bit into her, making her hop from foot to foot. She couldn’t make herself stand still. Nothing she had heard so far in her life sounded as good as these voices. They made her feel as if her favorite butterscotch candies were melting on her tongue. No, it was as if she floated in warm butterscotch candy. She ran up and down the stretch of the cemetery. Welcome overturned rocks, peeked behind headstones, climbed a small tree and searched for the origin of those voices until she could barely see in front of her.

Exhausted, she remembered her responsibilities. Mama will wonder where dinner is.

“Please, whatever you are come to me,” she said at last, the frustration catching in her throat. On rest of the walk home as the sun sank, a feeling of utter sadness swept over Welcome. Maybe everyone in town is right. I’m going crazy, like Mama.

***

I hoped you enjoyed this snippet. I’m sure that my opening and entire story will go through several drafts before I’m happy with it and send it on. I look forward to working with Jason Graves, publisher of Prospective Press and editor of this anthology.

 

My writing community and life became infinitely richer when in 2015, on the suggestion of a writer friend, I attended illogicon, a local sci-fi convention. Michael G. Williams was one of the featured panelists that year (and many years since). Michael was just being himself on those panels and he probably didn’t know he was inspiring a lot of us in the audience with his candor, humor and deep knowledge of the genre. I was also inspired by the fact that he writes across several genres. He’s kind and encouraging of new writers. He’s also a vocal and visible advocate of diversity in gaming, geekdom, and speculative fiction and media. Fast forward many years later, I feel lucky to have appeared on several panels with him.

His recent book A Fall in Autumn is one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It’s sci-fi noir and unlike anything I have read before. The world-building is amazingly complex and I really loved the voice of Valerius Bakhoum, the main character. You can read a sample chapter here.

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & NailDeal with the DevilAttempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.

I wanted to hear more about the influences that helped shape his writing. I’m so delighted to welcome Michael G. Williams to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your new book, A Fall in Autumn? What’s in store for readers?

A Fall in Autumn is a far-future science fiction detective story about Valerius Bakhoum, a washed-up private eye taking what he expects will be his last case. It’s got the voice of a hard-boiled detective story but the setting and characters of the more fanciful end of science fiction: human-animal hybrids, genetically modified people, and golems (which we would call androids).

It’s set far enough in the future – 12,000 years from now – that from Valerius’ perspective you and I are living in Atlantis. They know that people were alive in our time, and they know there are stories of a highly advanced society, and they know there are stories of that phase of human civilization completely wrecking the planet and destroying itself in its hubris, but Valerius and his contemporaries aren’t totally sure any of that is actually true.

At the time of the story, humanity’s technological forte is genetic manipulation and genetic engineering. In theory, the Vrashabh Empire – the dominant political entity, and the nation of which Valerius is a citizen – is a completely egalitarian society, in which all citizens are equal. In practice, the 25% of the population who are what Valerius calls “floor models,” designed from scratch or upgraded or otherwise genetically enhanced, are the ruling elite. The rest of humanity is overwhelmingly human-animal hybrids purpose-built for various roles in the economy, from manual labor to specific “white collar” jobs. There’s a very thin slice, maybe one percent of one percent, socially situated in the middle. These are Artisanal Humans, people who were made the old-fashioned way by people who are likewise unmodified. They’re considered a sort of “backup copy” of the human genome, and are supposed to live in genetic preserves where they have fewer exposures to environmental mutagens. Valerius is one of the Artisanal Humans, and so finds himself simultaneously fetishized as admirably pure and reviled as a grotesque throwback.

-What did you like to read growing up and/or as a young adult and are there any of those influences in your work?

I read boatloads of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, and those are definitely influences on what I write now!

My household had a ton of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew novels, and I really envied her lifestyle. She had her own car, an absentee parent, and a couple of friends to get into trouble with her. Who needs more than that? Dracula was one of my favorite books of childhood for the same reason: this deeply personal tale of a group of friends and lovers overcoming evil by trusting in one another and fighting bravely for one another despite the world’s refusal to believe what they’re experiencing? That seemed like exactly what I needed as a gay kid in the middle of nowhere.

I read classic sci-fi, tie-in novels for Star Trek by the wheelbarrow-load, Stephen King, and anything else I could find. But I also read a lot of classic literature, and Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books of all time. Given where and when I grew up, and how I grew up – specifically, being raised by evangelicals in isolation from a lot of pop culture – I wanted every book I could beg, borrow, or steal, and I read constantly.

-Much of your published work employs vivid first person narration. What draws you to use that point of view?

I love to get inside a character’s head and really unpack what makes them tick. For me, as a writer, nothing is more interesting and more motivating than the chance to sit with a character’s take on the world and learn their strengths, their weaknesses, the scars they bear from past wounds, and the secret wells of principle within them. Good characters constantly surprise us, and I want to give the perspective character the maximum opportunity to effect that surprise. With Valerius, the more of him I wrote the more complexity I find in his perspectives and attitudes. The story would not have been the same from a third-person perspective. It would have been significantly weaker.

Compelling stories are driven by characters making choices we can fully understand. That’s what drives both the horrifying inevitability of tragedy and the cathartic triumph of a hero overcoming her foes to claim victory. Learning a character inside and out is a great way to build our skills for empathy, too, and I think increasing empathy may be the only way we have to prevent the social, economic, and political downfall that destroyed our world in the fictitious history of Valerius’ future.

-While reading A Fall in Autumn one can’t help but ruminate on questions of memory, identity and personhood. Have you tackled these or similar concepts in your other work, or is this fresh territory for you?

Every single one of us struggles with the tension between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Ultimately, that’s at the root of every conflict between two people: a parent and their rebellious teen, two co-workers who both think they should be in charge, two spouses who disagree with how one or the other spent their money or their time, and so on. I think the only truly universal experience is of finding out someone else does not see us the way we see ourselves. And that’s certainly been at the heart of the greatest struggles of my personal life. I grew up gay in a remote mountain town, surrounded by people whose sets of acceptable outcomes for my life turned out to have almost no overlap with who I actually was. Who I am today is partly who I actually am and partly a reaction to others’ prejudiced demands and incorrect assumptions about me – and that’s true for everyone. I call A Fall in Autumn “queer sci fi” in part because Valerius is an explicitly queer character and in part because it’s a story about the power of identity to drive who we are, and how others see us, and the way a conscious examination of our own identity may close off certain paths for our life but it opens up other ones, new futures in which we get to be much more honest, much more authentic. That, more than anything, is the modern queer experience: that of people discovering who we are and choosing to lead lives that honor our self-revelation rather than obscure it.

My now-completed vampire series The Withrow Chronicles (which starts with Perishables) absolutely centered around those, as Withrow found himself over and over again confronting the difference between who he thought himself to be, who others thought him to be, and who he needed to become to survive that story. Throughout those books Withrow repeatedly assures us – in the course of trying to assure himself – that he’s a monster now, not a person, and that “person rules” don’t apply. Even in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (which starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion), the heroes’ biggest personal questions are around how they are perceived by others versus how they perceive themselves, and what that says about how much they value the people and places they’re trying to save.

The same is very true of Valerius, who is constantly running into other people’s conflicting ideas of who he should be, how he should behave, and what’s “acceptable” for him. He occupies a place in society that some consider privileged and others consider reprehensible, and I really wanted to play with what it does to a person to get it from both sides like that. I think in many ways that’s very typical of the current queer experience, in which straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in sports bars and right-wing politicians write dehumanizing laws intended to keep us marginalized and afraid.

-What is one area of craft that you knew you were weak in (or just OK), when you started writing that you rock now? How did you get there?

Different characters having different voices, probably. No, wait: real emotional depth in the characters’ perspectives and experiences.

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

No, wait, can I just list myself as being weak in everything? I’m not yet convinced I rock any of them. 🙂

(But seriously, I think I used to really stink at giving different characters their own voices and now I’m at least OK at it.)

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

Don’t worry about genre. Don’t think about where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or what categories it would have on Amazon. Those are important, sure, sort of, but they’re not as important as writing a story that makes you excited to tell it. It doesn’t matter what your book is about as long as you’re enthusiastic when you try to pitch it to others. If you have an idea that you love, and you think it might blend things together too much or be too “all over the place,” guess what: readers love that. Readers want to see an explosion of big ideas. Readers want you to lean in close and give them the elevator pitch of their lives: gay werewolves in space! Gothic romance but no one realizes everyone else is a secret vampire, too! Friday Night Lights but also they’re hedge wizards! I have had people walk away from my books because they were cross-genre, yes, but I’ve had many more drawn to my books because mixing things up and blending things together leads to the exceptionally pleasant experience of novelty.

Michael G. Williams is a prolific and award-winner writer. He writes novels across multiple genres and likes to subvert and mashup genres from time to time.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Find out more about him here.

 

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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