The Practice of Creativity

This has been a good week for celebrating women artists; both their individual and collective achievements.

Not having a community of supportive peers and not seeing yourself represented in artistic expression is something many creative women face*. She Writes and Misty Copeland remind us of the importance of community, perseverance and staying true to one’s vision, even in the face of bias.

Six years ago, writer and visionary Kamy Wicoff began She Writes (with Deborah Siegel), as an online home for women writers to understand “the rapidly changing, head-spinningly complex world of publishing.” They felt that “women writers in particular–needed a place to come together to share what they were learning, be inspired, and gather information about the craft and the business of writing.” As she has said recently, they “created what they most needed.” They began with 40 members and now have 26,000 enthusiastic members around the world. They are the largest community of women writers online. Both emerging and well-established writers find She Writes to be a thriving and significant hub.

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During the past six years, Kamy and her team have worked hard to demystify publishing and empower women to value their words and develop confidence in taking those words into the publishing marketplace.  She Writes has grown up alongside the increasing acknowledgement by many that there are gender equality issues in contemporary literary culture (see VIDA: Women in Literary Arts for research and history).

Membership to SW is free. I discovered it almost four years ago and have found it to be a treasure trove of resources, intelligent discussion and incredible writerly support. On SW, you can blog, network and join over 360 groups representing every aspect of writing and publishing imaginable including ‘Mothers Write!’ ‘Funny Women’, ‘Authors of Interracial/Multicultural Romance and Fiction’, ‘Literary Fiction Writers v. 2.0′, ‘Google Analytics’, ‘Prompt Monster’, ‘You Go Girl Poetry’, etc. I’m a member of the groups ‘Blooming Late’ (women who started writing seriously after the age of 40) and ‘What Did You Blog About Today?’.

Kamy and her amazing team has also recently ventured into publishing and created She Writes Press. Their mission is to elevate the words and stories of women and offer a new model of publishing. Check them out!

Keep up the great work, She Writes!

 

African American ballet dancer Misty Copeland was recently promoted to principal ballerina at American Ballet Theatre. A historic accomplishment and long overdue. Copeland persevered. This recent honor speaks to her extraordinary personal accomplishment, but also her courage in calling attention to the unspoken biases about body size, stereotyping and race that have shaped the world of American ballet.

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Only nine years ago, I remember clipping and ruminating on the article “Where Are All the Black Swans?” in the New York Times. The article highlights how class and race bias show up in the ballet world, from early schooling to professional opportunities. It is very hard to accomplish something creative if you can’t envision it and envision someone who looks like you succeeding at it. Misty Copeland’s dedication to the craft of ballet and her own vision will have ripple effects for many aspiring, young female dancers, especially girls from underrepresented groups.

 

Photo of Misty Copeland: Henry Leutwyler

For the last ten days, I have been spending time with family and friends in WI and MN. Most of the time I was in remote places with no wi-fi or cellphone reception. It felt great to rest, rejuvenate and look up at the stars each night. Summer vacations encourage us to expand and try new things. I tried paddle boarding for the first time and loved it! On a vacation without access to wi-fi, I find that I come up with completely fresh ideas. I often create my own writing prompts based on pictures that I take while on vacation. I set the timer for ten minutes and begin freewriting. Writing to a visual prompt is a great way to get your creative juices flowing.

Here are some fun prompts for you to try. You may use them to flesh out an existing set of characters, or you might find yourself writing something completely unexpected! Enjoy!

 

What is at the bottom of this lake?  What object is at the bottom of this lake? What childhood memories does your character have from visiting this lake? There has been an accident here. How does it affect the POV character and community? What do people remember about the accident? There is a cabin that the POV character passes and imagines was a place they lived. What does this cabin look like? Why is it so appealing to the POV character? What life do they wish they had that the cabin symbolizes?

What is at the bottom of this lake?
What object is at the bottom of this lake?
What childhood memories does your character have from visiting this lake?
There has been an accident here. How does it affect the POV character and community? What do people remember about the accident?
There is a cabin that the POV character passes and imagines was a place they lived. What does this cabin look like? Why is it so appealing to the POV character? What life do they wish they had that the cabin symbolizes?

Someone picked this flower from the lake. Who picked it? Who is it for? What happened right after this flower was given to the intended person? Did the giver and receiver run off to make love? Did the receiver put it down and begin to make breakfast, leaving the giver feeling slighted?

Someone picked this flower from the lake. Who picked it? Who is it for?
What happened right after this flower was given to the intended person? Did the giver and receiver run off to make love? Did the receiver put it down and begin to make breakfast, leaving the giver feeling slighted?

Your POV character is playing the game Risk with some family members and is losing badly. How does he or she respond to losing? Does a sibling use this moment as an opportunity to talk about their childhoods? How does your POV character respond to the story the sibling spins?

Your POV character is playing the game Risk with some family members and is losing badly. How does he or she respond to losing? Does a sibling use this moment as an opportunity to talk about their childhoods? How does your POV character respond to the story the sibling spins?

This is a meal served in an Ethiopian restaurant. Usually, the meal is shared. Your POV character is someone who does not like to share food (they didn't choose this restaurant). But, they are also meeting someone they consider important. How does your POV character act in this situation?

This is a meal served in an Ethiopian restaurant. Usually, the meal is shared. Your POV character is someone who does not like to share food (they didn’t choose this restaurant). But, they are also meeting someone they consider important. How does your POV character act in this situation?

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The clerk that made this sign feels like her creativity is not being used well. Today, she will meet a man that will offer her something that will change the course of her life. Who is the man? What does he have for the clerk?

Deena Metzer’s Writing for Your Life: A Guide and Companion for the Inner Worlds is a cherished writing book of mine. This book helps writers explore their creativity through journals, autobiography, stories, fairytales, dreams and myths. It is chock-full of the most unique self-discovery exercises that I’ve ever come across.

More than 20 years ago, I completed an exercise of hers:

Make a list of everything you must not write about. List what you must not write about because:

  • It is generally not considered important enough from the point of view of literature.
  • It is too private and therefore trivial from the point of view of literature.
  • It would embarrass you to speak about it.
  • It would embarrass or offend your family and associates.
  • It would embarrass or offend the reader.
  • It is taboo.

Once the list is complied, she directs you to choose “three or four subjects, images, or experiences that made you the most uneasy or that hold the greatest emotional charge for you. Then momentarily set aside your inhibitions and concerns and attempt poems on these subjects.”

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This was a powerful exercise for me because I got to identify ideas, feelings and experiences that I wanted to explore but was afraid to. Over the years I have thought about and reviewed my list, and the things that still haunt me, though I haven’t found a way to write about all of them. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the craggy, difficult, ugly and painful things that are on my list.

On my list is a very cruel thing that my mother did to me during my childhood. When I write about my mother, I usually keep to subjects that affirm her courage and compassion. But all these years, I have been circling this significantly cruel event trying to find a way to write about it.

Finally, two weeks ago, I was able to sit down and write a poem titled, ‘The Shells of Pink Bodies’ that drew on aspects of my experience.

I knew on a visceral level that this poem was emotionally true and very powerful. Although I have written poems and had a few of them published, I always say that I am an untutored poet. Still, after writing it, I had a strong sense that this poem was one of the best ones (if not the best), I had ever written, in both craft and content.

I met with my writing group recently and the response I received from them, about the poem, was very affirming. One reader was moved to tears. Others told me they were able to touch and investigate their own sadness and despair through my poem.

I probably couldn’t have written that poem 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. I had to write a lot of terrible unformed, half-baked things. I had to circle this incident on my list, hide from it and try again. I had to look at my list and keep probing.

Someone in my group shared that she wanted to ‘go to that vulnerable place and write from there’, but she was scared.

I told her, I’m scared too. But, my desire to map the painful places and write through them has become stronger (in some moments), than the fear of disapproval. And, Metzger’s exercise helps to remind us that as creators, we get to decide what material is valuable to us, despite what imagined and real critics may say.

I wish I had told her about Deena Metzger’s exercise. I will the next time we meet.

What are you circling? What have you been waiting for years to write about? What would your list look like? What are the things that keep haunting you?

I invite you to set a timer for 10 minutes and try Metzger’s exercise.

Dedicate v. 1. To set apart for a special use. 2 To commit (oneself) to a course of action. 3. To address or inscribe (e.g., a literary work) to someone. (Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary, 2nd ed.)

Spring possibilities are about to cede to summer pleasures. I’ve been ruminating on the importance of spring cleaning for your creating life and have covered the first two steps—reassessment and reorganization. The third step is the most powerful one—rededication. To rededicate ourselves to something we deem as special in our lives strengthens and amplifies our commitment.

Rededicating ourselves to our creative life sends a joyful message to our ‘Creative Self’. Our Creative Self loves to be wooed. Its language includes ritual, ceremony and demonstrative acts of appreciation.

 

What aspects of the creative life would you like to rededicate yourself to as you move into summer’s rhythms?

Here are some to consider:

I rededicate myself to knowing that my creative work will matter to someone, so I must finish it.

I rededicate myself to owning my creative impulses, even in the face of naysayers and saboteurs.

I rededicate myself to claiming my creativity despite bouts of envy, doubt and fatigue.

I rededicate myself to curtailing the diet of my inner critics, who feed on fear, and instead nourish my Creative Self with periods of rest and play.

I rededicate myself to appreciating my Creative Self’s firework moments and subtle whispers.

I rededicate myself to taking incremental steps to finish my creative projects.

I rededicate myself to looking for support, for my creative work, in new ways. [i.e. critique groups, mastermind groups, creative buddies, mentors, etc.]

 

Here are some aspects of the writing life that I’m rededicating myself to between now and fall:

I rededicate myself to sending more of my work to professionally paying venues. [I am aiming for paying semi-pro and professional speculative fiction magazines.]

I rededicate myself to naps, a restful schedule, and daydreaming, all of which nourishes my Creative Self.

I rededicate myself to cultivating time for reading.

I rededicate myself to remembering that I am here to seduce and delight the reader.

I rededicate myself to finding ways to make writing fun and feel like a game.

[I discovered word sprints during last year’s NaNoWriMo. I find them to be so fun. How many words can you type in 10 or 20 minutes? Last November, I wrote 7,000 words in about 5 hours using timed sprints (100 words=10 minutes, 200 words=10 minutes (2x), 300 words=20 minutes, 100 words=10 minutes…at the end of an hour, you may have written anywhere from 700-1,000 words). This works very well for messy first drafts.]

I rededicate myself to looking at revision as a way to honor my writing by keeping the right words and setting the rest free for another day.

I rededicate myself to spending time honing my social media presence.

Desire for an idea is like bait. You’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The desire is the bait that pulls those fish in—-those ideas. David Lynch

 

We just have a few more weeks to go before summer will officially arrive. In March, I began a series on spring cleaning for your creative life. There are three steps in the process:

1) You reassess your space, your schedule, and patterns of mind to see what is supporting or not supporting your creative life.

2) You reorganize your space, schedule, and patterns of minds to allow you to create with more ease.

3) After reassessing and reorganizing, you rededicate yourself to having a productive and joyful creative life!

If you’ve spent some time reassessing your space, schedule and patterns of mind, in connection to your creative life, then you should be in great shape for the next step which is reorganizing.

Reorganizing is an essential component of this process. And, this is where we can get stuck very quickly. In dealing with physical reorganization, if we don’t plan carefully, we’ll leave lots of stuff just laying around.

Besides thinking of what’s working or not working in your physical space, you might also want to evaluate how and when you schedule your creative work. Really, it’s about having a creative rhythm. The word schedule conjures up the endless to-do-list.

Spring and then summer usually bring new rhythms into our life that can support our creativity. We are often making time for fun travel, to being outside more, and to taking much needed breaks and naps. All of this can be used in service of establishing a different creative rhythm.

How can we reorganize our schedule to take advantage of this energy? How do we cultivate the patience and spaciousness of mind so that we catch those wonderful ideas that David Lynch refers to?

Here are some easy tips:

-Move your practice outside for some of this season. If your tendency is always to be tucked away in a home office, take opportunities to write at the beach, at the lake, or at a state park.

-Take more advantage of the longer periods of light this season. Can you rise an hour earlier to shoot your photographs or try writing later in the day during the season’s glorious sunsets?

-Keep an idea journal. This is a place for all your ideas as they bubble up. Give yourself lots of permission to allow this idea journal to be filled with musings that delight you. Don’t put any pressure on yourself to turn these ideas into ones that have to ‘become something’. The idea journal should be a place to have fun and play.

Ever look at the words ‘flailing’ and ‘failing’?

One definition of flail is ‘to wave or swing vigorously; thrash’. The word flail always reminds me of Grover from Sesame Street with his blue arms up in the air running around, being dramatic.

Writing often feels easy, until it’s not. We get stuck, hit a bump, and don’t know how to fix it.

I’ve always like the word flail because that is what I feel like I do on the page sometimes when I get stumped.

We can try writing prompts, freewriting, word sprints, delete sections, move the end to the beginning, write six fresh ways to open the essay or story, etc. If we’re being kind to ourselves, we know flailing about in our writing is no big deal. We just keep trying new things.

If our inner critic is awake and cranky, it will tell us that we are ‘failing’. It will tell us that if we were really good writers, we would have figured it out perfectly the first time (or something to this effect). When I was younger, I believed my inner critic(s) and often stopped writing when I got stuck and consequently didn’t finish pieces that I loved.

Now, I know that while flailing on the page looks and feels dramatic, it’s what’s needed to get to the Land of Completion.

Flailing is not failing.

Toni Morrison in her recent interview for the NEA Arts Magazine discusses creative failure and revision. It’s worth a read. Knowing that a great writer like Toni Morrison sometimes has to start over with a piece of writing and go in a different direction is quite comforting. She reminds us that we each have the power to “write and erase and do it over.” And, that there’s no shame in not getting it right the first or fourth time.

When fears are attended to, it clears the way for clear and simple writing that comes from your heart. Even the briefest attention can melt fear. Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (SARK)

In March, I began a series about spring cleaning for your creative life. There are three steps in the process:

1) You reassess your space, your schedule, and patterns of mind to see what is supporting or not supporting your creative life.

2) You reorganize your space, schedule, and patterns of minds to allow you to create with more ease.

3) After reassessing and reorganizing, you rededicate yourself to having a productive and joyful creative life!

Reassessing your physical space is a great place to start because it is visible and you spend a lot of time there. Another thing to reassess during spring cleaning are your ‘patterns of mind’. By this I mean, the habitual ways of thinking and responding to your creative life. I’ve been looking at the pattern of fear.

Fear can show up in so many ways in a creator’s life. We fear to write, draw, and sing badly, we fear rejection, we fear we won’t reach our potential, we often fear the blank page, canvas, music studio, etc. Fear often causes us to procrastinate.

Recently, I noticed that I was procrastinating on contacting an editor of a magazine that I met in January. This editor encouraged me to send him a story of mine. I’ve known for months exactly the story that I want to send him. Sending him my story has been at the top of my to-do list, but I have had some fear around taking action. Ironically, I’m not afraid of getting rejected. I’ve been writing long enough to not be undone by rejection. I know rejection is part of the writing process. What was it then? It was a ‘taking the next step’ fear. Since I’ve met him, he’s not a faceless editor anymore. Sending my work to him because I met him and he was encouraging made it harder, not easier. I know this sounds weird. Fears are far from rational! And, because he wanted me to send it to his assistant, and not through the regular submission process, it triggered a fear of ‘not getting it right’. These twin fears around ‘taking the next step’ and ‘not getting it right/doing it right’ are familiar patterns of mind that I am paying attention to this spring.

To put fear in its place,  this weekend, I set a deadline for myself. I wrote a very nice email to his assistant and sent my story with it while I was also so sending out other submissions for this month. I keep a submission sheet to record where and what I have sent out to contests and journals.

Fears never go completely away, but I’ve now got these two on the run for at least a few more weeks.

Do you have pattern of mind that needs some attending to during spring cleaning?

 

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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