The Practice of Creativity

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My 90 day fast draft novel challenge is done! I finished up last week. I ended up with a little under 55,000 words. Not bad for a first draft. I had a few setbacks though, including losing 6,000 words (!) due to a computer glitch in a recent Microsoft Word update for the Mac. Losing that much material really sucked, but overall, I feel inspired about the progress I’ve made on my nascent horror novel.

Why This Challenge Worked for Me:

-I love a good writing challenge! Doing a fast draft appeals to me for the same reason that doing NaNoWriMo appeals to me. Both challenges provide structure and encourages and rewards daily effort. I love stretching past what I think I can do. With NaNoWriMo, you also get community through numerous online support via their website. Since I was posting my word counts on my author Facebook page, many folks cheered me on there.

-I also love the first drafting process. The first draft, as Jane Smiley has said, “only needs to exist.” In first drafts, I can put all my crazy ideas, flights of fancy, strange characters, and meandering subplots in. Although I was thinking some about the reader experience while writing, I was mostly writing to discover what I thought about the setting, the characters, my themes, etc.

-It gives me something to revise later. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass he said that when revising, you should look at a first draft and figure out the themes and ideas you were interested in exploring and then in the next draft to consciously write toward them.

-Writing 800-1,000 words five days a week was demanding, but also doable. I took Mondays and Tuesdays off which gave me some time to mull over what I was writing. NaNoWriMo’s daily word count of 1,667 words is not for the faint-hearted. This lower word count was just enough of a challenge to keep me focused, but it wasn’t so demanding that I had to keep the breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

-This challenge requires writing all the way to the end of the story. It forces you to construct some type of ending, no matter how provisional.

The only thing that I didn’t like about this challenge was that the research, writing and reading in the field was so all-consuming I couldn’t work on much of anything else during the 90 days. My submission rate plummeted. So, if I do this again, I will be more intentional about using one of my off days to stay on top of my submissions.

What’s next?

This big messy draft exists somewhere between an extended outline and fully fleshed out scenes and chapters. I’ll sit down in the middle of October, read it, make a new outline and write the next draft.

Want to know more about 90 day fast drafting? Check out Racheal Herron’s inspiring video.

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I am excited to share my first experience co-hosting a podcast! I love the Writer’s Well: Conversations about writing from craft to wellness podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn. Rachael Herron and J. Thorn are friends and full-time writers and they share observations about the challenges and joys of the writing life. Each person poses a question to the other; it’s an unscripted and fun process. I’ve been listening to them for about two years. I really enjoy how supportive they are of each other and their larger community. The advice they give is invaluable and their warmth and affection for each other is joyous.

I’m in their private, once a month Mastermind group along with author Amy Taksuda. I’ve been in the group three months and like I say on the show, it is the best thing I’ve done for my writing life this year. They coach us on our writing challenges and Amy and I also brainstorm with each other. Our group has got great synergy. We were honored that they asked each of us to co-host an episode, with Rachael, during September while J was traveling. I jumped at the opportunity as I love the show and enjoy speaking on podcasts when I have the opportunity.

Rachael posed the question to me: ‘How does physicality affect your writing?’ True to the show’s format, the question was fresh for me. We talked about yoga, writing routines, swimming, Zumba, staying healthy as a writer, outsmarting your inner critic and more.

Not having the question ahead of time and being spontaneous was a good practice for me. I often over prepare for most engagements and consequently can miss being present with what is actually happening. Don’t we all have control issues, lol? Of course, after the show I thought of all the additional things I wanted to say! But, you can tell from listening to our conversation that is was fresh, lively and surprising to each of us.

She made me feel so welcome. It was so fun and such an honor.

Check it out here when you have a moment!

 

Two conversations, in the past few months, has me thinking a lot about readers and the lengths they will go to for the authors they love. And, as writers, how do we put our attention even more squarely on creating an amazing reader experience.

This author has created very loyal and responsive fans

One of my colleagues recently shared a story with me about how completely determined she was to obtain the latest release of a Louise Penny novel. At the time, she was traveling in Michigan and the bookstore that she usually visits while there had already run out of LP’s novel. She was scheduled to take a plane home later that day. She was so determined to get this novel that she called several bookstores in the area and then wound up driving over 45 minutes to a bookstore that still had the novel in stock. * She almost missed her plane in search of this book. That’s devotion.

One of my dearest friends and I were recently discussing what we were reading. Since I knew that my friend was also a fan of LP, I mentioned that my colleague was looking forward to diving into the latest LP novel. My friend paused and said with intensity, “Louise Penny is the only author that I make sure I do a pre-order for, so that the day of her release, the book arrives at my door. And, then I drop everything for a few hours to read it.”

I was struck by both conversations. Also, on a recent episode of the fantastic ‘The Writer’s Well’ podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn, Rachael mentioned that a writer she knew had fans who would call in sick on the day of a new release. That’s commitment!

Having fans that make it a priority to read your work is every writer’s dream. It made me think about the question posed in the blog post title: What Lengths Are Readers Willing to Go to Read Your Work?

The deeper question is: How do we craft stories that readers can’t put down? Stories that keep them coming back for more.

This, as you already know, is a million-dollar question and there is no magic answer. I do think a piece of the answer is consistently thinking about one’s ideal reader. Over the years, I made an important realization—I am ultimately writing for reader experience and engagement, not just my own personal pleasure. Twenty years ago, I really didn’t think much about reader satisfaction or engagement—it was all about MY MESSAGE. Or, it was all about HOW CLEVERLY I USED LANGUAGE. This sounds so dumb and pretentious as I write it here, but it is the truth. Now, for me, managing and heightening reader experience is where the gold is and is always in the forefront of my mind. The first draft of anything is still just for me, my flights of fancy and risk-taking. Each subsequent draft though, I try to hone the kinds of emotions I want the reader to feel in each scene and across the whole manuscript. I also pay much more attention to where I might lose the reader in a story.

While teaching at the Table Rock Writers Workshop a few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a fantastic book talk by Emily Nunn, author of The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart and former writer and inventor of the “Table for Two” column in The New Yorker.

She shared the grueling writing process she went through her after book proposal for a memoir (based on her experiences being in a psychiatric facility) was sold with relative ease. Her book is about the circumstances that got her into the facility and after leaving, how she healed by traveling to see friends and cooking together. She shared with us that she really wanted to include a chapter about her time in the psychiatric facility and someone on her team (I can’t remember if it was her agent or editor), said no and told her to take the chapter out. She was very upset with this advice. She had labored over that chapter and to her it represented the heart of the book. They, however, felt that the tone of the chapter was completely out of sync with the rest of the overall upbeat feel and transformational tone of the book. This same person said something along the lines of, “You don’t want to eject the reader from the book.” And, that chapter, in their opinion, though well-written would have created such incongruities for the reader, there was a potential of ejecting them out of the book. Thinking about what ejects the reader out of our work struck me as a useful bit of advice. We never want to eject the reader from our work! Ejecting the reader can look many different ways, right?

For example: Sloppy dialogue, a wandering plot, undeveloped characters, shoehorning one of our darlings into a book that just doesn’t fit (Nunn made it clear that the chapter she was being asked to cut was one of her favorites and she considered it important). Nunn added though that in retrospect, the advice was solid—the chapter didn’t fit in the current version of the book and could work instead as an excellent essay. Her team was thinking about the reader’s experience.

Many writers don’t read their reviews for a variety of reasons. I have found it helpful to look at the reviews of my work and pay attention to emails I receive or in person responses. What they like (or don’t like) are hints to their reader experience.

Sometimes when soliciting feedback on a draft, I will ask someone to mark in the text, exactly where they were able to out the book down. I go to that spot(s) and ask hard questions about what is either not working, or what is working but in a very uninteresting way.

No one starts out writing something that they know readers will devour; if you’re lucky you grow into a gifted storyteller over time. The writers who consistently create work that makes people stay up late, almost miss planes, and tell others about it have cracked something valuable about reader experience. The answers are out there in others’ work and our own, if we are brave enough to dig for them.

How do you understand the role of the reader’s experience? Are there questions you ask yourself when rewriting that focus on reader experience? I’d love to know!

*You may be wondering why she didn’t order it on Amazon—she doesn’t use Amazon and prefers to support independent bookstores.

Photo Credit-Louise Penny

Photo Credit-Emily Nunn

Over the last few years, several people have asked me about tips and strategies to promote their new book. I have often replied to each person individually via email. Since the publication of my novella in 2017, I feel like I have learned a lot about the mysterious world of book promotion.

I decided to compile some thoughts here, written similarly to the personal emails I have sent. I’ve also rounded up some links for you, too. Some of the ideas below apply to indie authors and traditionally published authors alike. Adapt and modify as you see fit. I can say that when I have asked traditionally published authors what they would do differently post-launch, they all say without hesitation—start preparing earlier than you think you should for your launch and spend money on a good publicist.

 Enjoy!

 ***

I’m sure you are excited about this next phase of getting your book into the world and you should be! Writing and promoting a book is something that most people dream about and that you are accomplishing!

Here are some suggestions for ways to get started:

 General:

-Your publisher should help you build a press kit. A press kit is a blueprint tool that creates a foundation for you as you promote the book over the next several months and years.

-I am also assuming that you have a website or some place on social media where people can find you. That is important, even if you have just one place (i.e. website or Author Facebook page).

Don’t be afraid to try new ways of promoting your book: https://insights.bookbub.com/creative-ways-authors-announced-book-launch/

Digital:

-I would conduct a Google search and target people that write blogs about YOUR SUBJECT and pitch yourself for either an author Q&A or a guest blog post. You’ll want to create a couple of formats and word counts; guests posts can run anywhere from 250-1000 words. People always need content. You can also pitch Huffington Post (which doesn’t pay its writers but has GREAT exposure) about an article based on your book. Blogs are still an important way for people to find out about new authors. I have provided a link to here to one of the interviews I’ve conducted with writers so you can get a sense of the kinds of questions most bloggers will want to ask you–so you can prepare some copy. Of course, bloggers will tailor the interview to your content.

-You might also start a channel on YouTube and post 1-2 minute videos of yourself reading from the book.

-Research podcasts that might be interested in having you as a guest. I talk about preparing for a podcast interview here.

 In person events:

 -Think about the various angles of your book–how does it inform or educate as well as entertain? What can you teach people or share with them at a book talk besides what is expected? Think about the kinds of “hooks” you can use to entice people to say yes to having you come and speak. You may not always sell a lot of books right away at local talks, but exposure is important as is word of mouth.

-Start planning your book talks early–do one locally where you can get your friends and family to come. You might also want to team up with another author as it helps with promotion.

-Is your book the kind of book that might interest civic organizations, including: Elks Clubs, Kiwanis, The Shriners, etc.  What about historical societies?

 -Don’t forget to pitch a talk or reading your local library and libraries near you.

TV/Radio

 -Getting onto local TV stations (or major networks) and/ radio tends to be a bit easier for those who are traditionally published. However, creativity and innovation in coming up with pitches that catch a producer’s eye will be rewarded.

-Consider pitching your book to the local National Public Radio station (NPR). They usually have a local show that will have authors on as guests. In NC, we have ‘The State of Things’. Think of how your work might tie in to current events, holidays, etc. There may also be community radio shows that would enjoy having you as a guest.

Remember:

You don’t need to do everything all at once (whew!), so choose one or two areas to focus on and then build out. Think about what success, as a new author, promoting yourself (besides sales of books) will mean to you in the next couple of months. A great book party? Lots of podcast appearances? An online presence?

Pace yourself and enjoy knowing that your baby is now going to have adventures in the world!

Here are some trends to watch: https://insights.bookbub.com/book-promotion-trends-bookexpo-2019/

I’m winding down from a terrific and transformative week co-leading a workshop called ‘Opening the Writer’s Heart’ with the amazing Marjorie Hudson. We integrated yoga, mindfulness, breath work and prompt writing.

We were at the Table Rock Writers Workshop in the mountains. It’s held at the Wildacres Retreat Center. It’s a special place that encourages generosity of spirit, conviviality, and community. Loved connecting with our workshop participants, the many writers and creatives in attendance and the faculty. Gratitude to organizers Georgann Eubanks and Donna Campbell for saying yes to our proposal.

I’ve been to a number of writing retreats and residencies and this one is incredibly special and I totally understand why it is both beloved and kind of a secret!

The Prep

Showing off our blue toes as we get in the car to drive up to TR. We didn’t even plan on having the same color!

Marjorie teased me about how much stuff I was taking, but I reminded her that I was taking workshop materials, my own work, books to sell, clothes (didn’t know how cold it was going to be–turns out it wasn’t cold at all), and snacks!

Great stop in Little Switzerland for a bite to eat on the way up to Table Rock. I told Marjorie, I’d have to restrain myself if I went into the used book store. I have a ‘situation’ at home with books piling up behind the door in my office. It’s a fantastic bookstore though!

What Makes Table Rock Special?

I had heard about Table Rock for years, but knew little about before Marjorie and I pitched our workshop. It is a week-long retreat that many writers attend year after year. When we arrived everyone made us feel welcome and told us how much we would love the experience. People were pretty emphatic that we would love TR. I nodded, smiled and thought, OK, people are really into Table Rock. Not that I didn’t believe them, but I needed to just allow the experience to unfold. After just a few hours there, I felt a shift and by the end of the first full day, I knew what everyone was talking about!

Here are some things that struck me about Table Rock:

-The workshops are kept small, both in class size (no more than 12 people; we had 6 participants) and overall number of people. The size leads to an intimacy over meals and gatherings. It also contributes to community-building.

The wonderful dining hall where connections deepened over meals. And, what a gift to not have to cook for a week!

-there’s a daily social hour and people hang out and really get to know each other

-the faculty have been teaching there for many many years. These are people working at the top of their craft and teaching at an extraordinarily high level. Participants raved about their instructors, and many participants come back and take the same workshop with their favorite instructor. That’s high praise! They also enjoyed experiencing new teachers (such as myself and Marjorie). We were the new kids on the block. The faculty made us feel so welcomed (as did everyone)! They also shared tips about the writing life and their own journeys. We were so honored to be part of this group and add our own special sauce, so to speak. One of participants, Cyndy gave us the nickname M-squared!

This year’s Table Rock faculty (left to right): Philip Shabazz, Joseph Bathanti, Abigail DeWitt, me, Judy Goldman. Back row: John Claude Bemis, Dawn Shamp (editor in residence), Marjorie Hudson (photo credit: Judy Goldman)

-The Table Rock ethic is to support each other’s writing and to recognize we have a lot to learn from everyone in the room, not just faculty. It’s not about competition. Established writers and newbies get to mix it up at TR. People are interested in who you are, not just what (or where) you have published. People are encouraged to listen deeply to each other.

-Participants get to read their work and so do faculty. Folks in the audience are attentive and supportive.

-It’s a beautiful space that both inspires and restores.

A wonderful space to read, write and enjoy the natural beauty.

-It’s a creative hub. Not only are fiction, poetry and memoir writers at Table Rock, there are also a dozen or so songwriters attending their own workshop. Both groups get to hang out, cross-pollinate and the songwriters also perform for the community on Thursday eve.

A rocking concert by performers who had written and scored songs just that week!

Our Workshop!

Our participants were fabulous! They were a mix of emerging and experienced writers. All had prior yoga experience (though that was not a requirement). All opened their hearts to each other. We were blown away by the quality of their writing and how deep they went with the prompts we offered.

The table was set! The space we taught in was spacious and we had plenty of room for yoga. Flowers from Marjorie’s garden adorn our table.

Our sessions were from 9am-12pm and we opened with yoga and gentle movement, a brief meditation and then launched into writing exercises (people would write anywhere from 5-15 minutes). Folks would read aloud from what they wrote and the group would note what struck us and where they could go next if they wanted to develop the piece. Sometimes, Marjorie and I would read selections aloud from poetry or a novel in preparation for a prompt. We’d provide another prompt, take a stretch break midway through, do another exercise, read aloud some more and offer homework to continue with the prompt. They were always free to scrap the prompt and write something else.

Our themes for opening the writer’s heart and qualities you need on the writer’s path included:

-practicing courage

-practicing connection

-practicing gratitude

-practicing silence

We also allocated some time for ‘instant coaching’ about the writing and publishing life.

A prompt for you!

We spent time talking about what kinds of things open the heart (e.g. courage and dealing with fear) and what closes it (e.g. lies, secrets). This is one of the prompts I offered:

“I didn’t tell the truth for the first forty years of my life. I thought that reason I lied was that I thought I was protecting other people, but the truth is, it was to cover my own behind. I lied to my kids to get them to do what I needed them to do. I lied to my friends to get whatever it was that I needed. I lied to myself but I would never have known they were lies…This is what I realize: Being able to tell the truth makes being able to write the truth easier. And writing the truth is the beginning of healing the heart.” (emphasis in original) —
–Nancy Aronie

-Write about a lie you have told (5 minutes)

Then for homework, I suggested the following:

“Take a situation or topic or an event that you haven’t talked about honestly yet; something that is still stuck in your throat, like a tiny fishbone, small enough not to choke you to death but big enough to let you know it’s still there.

Work on it in small amounts. Truth is all you need to write. No gorgeous phrases, no sparkling syntax, just truth. Write until you’ve written the whole story.” Nancy Aronie

Write for 30 minutes.

Or: write about a major lie told to you

Our group went deep with this prompt! This prompt is adapted from Nancy Aronie’s Writing from The Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (a writing book that has a similar feel to Bird by Bird; also very funny and very poignant; Nancy Aronie came to writing late in life and I really identify with her journey.)

Our workshop participants doing our last exercise where we invite them to dream big about their writing life. They name their accomplishments, writing skills they want to strengthen during the coming year, and identify allies and mysterious sources of support. It involves colorful post-it notes!

 

Love this picture of Marjorie practicing Lion’s Pose, a great refresher for the face and tension reliever. (photo credit Donna Campbell)

We provided participants with easy, sustainable exercises to support their back, shoulders and hands during the labor of writing. Check out these poses for hands and wrists:

https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/ss/slideshow-hand-finger-exercises

The Last Day

A quick pic with faculty member John Claude Bemis before we get down to selling our books!

 

Books, books and more books! Faculty and participants get to sell books on the last day. Humbled that my Reenu-You novella was on the table next to so many authors that I admire.

Overall, a very soul-refreshing adventure. I love teaching with Marjorie. And, because we had a week to teach the material (unlike our previous weekend teaching gigs), there was more spaciousness built into the experience. I was also able to stay on my own writing schedule!

And, of course I couldn’t leave with out some books! Can’t wait to dive into these books by the faculty!

I don’t know if we will get the chance again to teach at Table Rock due to schedules, etc. I hope so! I can also see myself taking a class at TR, too. Table Rock definitely made an impression on me.

Doesn’t this look like a really happy face? Taken on the last day of the workshop by the fantastic Donna Campbell.

Check out more about them and their schedule here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I finally got to visit the Great Dismal Swamp. My new WIP is set in the GDS and I feel lucky that I could take a few days and drive up to the Dismal Swamp State Park in South Mills, N.C. and look around.

The GDS (that stretches across southeastern VA and northeastern NC) has a long and fascinating history as it was a place that provided protection to outlaws, moonshiners, runaway slaves and anyone that didn’t want to be found. The GDS Canal in the late 1790s played a key role in the harvesting of timber. It once spanned close to a million acres and now is about 112,000 acres that are under Federal Protection.

This trip allowed me to get the feel of the swamp and also dig deeper into its history. Although my WIP is set in the present, it has connections to the past. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in the swamp for days, months and years, either as a laborer or in a maroon society.

These are pawpaws, a type of fruit I found while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. Pawpaw trees were everywhere and there was fruit on the ground for the taking.I had tasted them many years ago in a dessert and thought I didn’t like them. Boy was I wrong! They look funny, but eating them fresh while ripe was a major treat. They are custardy and a cross between a mango and a banana. This is a fruit that many people living in the swamp would have eaten. The leaves also have medicinal qualities.

I found a flush of mushrooms called ‘chicken of the woods’ while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. These are choice mushrooms and have a delicious meaty and slightly nutty taste. They are easy to identify and my partner and I have only found them once before in TN, though they tend to be common. I wonder if people who lived in the swamp knew about eating mushrooms. Will have to dig a bit more to find that out.

 

Kayaking down the Dismal Swamp Canal. All that green you see on the surface is duckweed.

 

There was much to explore and I will be reporting back on other things I learned while in the GDS!

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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