The Practice of Creativity

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I’m super excited about my guest for this author Q&A and the new format. I thought I’d start moving my author Q&As to Youtube. Dr. Molly Howes was so gracious in agreeing to being the first one!

Molly is a Harvard trained psychologist and an award-winning writer. I met Molly in summer 2015 when we were both soaking up the wonders of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico during the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) residency.

Anne Lee Photography

As I say in the interview, I always felt an openhearted vibe from Molly and I’m glad we have stayed in touch over the years. When I heard about the release of her new book A Good Apology: Four Steps to Make Things Right, I knew I wanted to share her work here.

It’s a timely and powerful book that I enjoyed reading. During the interview we talk about her comprehensive approach to apologies, why it’s important to do them well, how her case studies from years as a psychologist inform the book, and how A Good Apology made its way into publication. We also talk about racial legacies and reparations and Molly’s experience as a new author. I hope you enjoy our discussion and let me know if you want more Youtube interviews!

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Your invitation still stands, click here to get your ‘Ten Ways to Keep Connected to Your Writing Self during COVID-19’.

I’ve missed bringing you awesome author interviews this year, so I’m glad to share this new one with you!

Last June, I met Paige L. Christie on a panel at my first ConCarolinas. We were on a panel that I had pitched about ‘Mothers and Daughters’ and how their relationships are portrayed in speculative media. I had heard of Paige’s Legends of Arnan series and my curiosity was piqued as it was described as an epic fantasy with Western elements and feminist sensibilities. Or, as one reviewer on Amazon described it as, “a feminist Western with dragons”. The panel was fabulous and Paige and I quickly realized we had many overlapping interests. My plan was to invite her for an Author Q&A in 2019. The best laid plans…

Fast forward a year. Paige and I got reconnected through the lovely fact that we both have stories in the recently released Witches, Warriors and Wise Women anthology (by Prospective Press, same publisher as her epic fantasy series) and were on a virtual panel together promoting the book.

Paige L. Christie is author of The Legacies of Arnan fantasy series: Draigon Weather (2017), Wing Wind (2018), Long Light (2019), and the forthcoming Storm Forge (2020). As a believer in the power of words, Paige tells stories that are both entertaining and thoughtful. Especially of interest are tales that speak to women and open a space where adventure and fantasy are not all about happy endings. When she isn’t writing, she teaches belly dancing, is director of a non-profit, and runs a wine shop. She is a proud, founding member of the Blazing Lioness Writers, a small group of badass women, writing badass books.

It’s wonderful that Paige could join us to talk about her most recent novel, Long Light.  I’m so delighted to welcome Paige L. Christie to The Practice of Creativity.

 

 

Tell us about your new book, Long Light? This is the third book in your series that began with Draigon Weather. What’s in store for readers?

When I finished Draigon Weather, I realized that one of the minor characters, Kilras Dorn, was much more vital to the overall story than I initially anticipated. Much to my publisher’s dismay, I announced that the series would not be 3 books but rather 4 books. Long Light is Kilras’s story, from his childhood right up to the moment that ends the second book. Basically, I wrote Book 1, Book 2, Book 3, and am now writing Book 4. Oh the tribulations of being a ‘pantser’.

-When we were on panel together, you mentioned that you came to writing late in life (although you always had a desire to write). What are the gifts of pursuing a writing career later in life? What are the challenges, if any?

I actually started writing when I was 7 years old, and majored in writing and editing for my undergraduate degree. I’ve spent my whole life writing, but somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I was incapable of writing a novel, and that even if I did manage it, no one would be interested in reading it. So I did not complete my first novel until 2015, when I was 44 years old. The gift of this was that I had almost 4 decades of secret writing practice and had developed a strong, unique voice in that time period. The challenge is carrying a lot of guilt about ‘time wasted’, which, while pointless, weighs on me. I wish I’d had faith in myself and my writing sooner. But on the other hand, Draigon Weather could not have been written any sooner in my life. It’s a mixed bag. I’m just grateful that I got my act together at last!

-You take some delight, I think in mashing up and subverting genres. Your series is an epic fantasy that has a Western feel. What does genre mean to you?

Genre tells me where to find a book in a bookstore. It also lays out some expectations for long-time readers. People who read mysteries expect certain and different things than people who read horror or modern literature or fantasy or romance. Genre is basically a set of expectations mutually agreed upon by publishers, authors, and readers. Those expectations are based in resonance and shared history – and it’s really fun to ride those things to a place the reader does not expect.

 -How long on average does it take you to write a book?

I wrote the first draft of Draigon Weather in 4 months, then spent the next 18 months re-drafting and editing until it was in good enough shape to put out into the world. Wing Wind and Long Light both took about 2 years each to get into shape. The final book in the series is taking longest of all, mostly because the 2020 Pandemic has shorted-out my creative side. Overall, I can usually create a draft in 4-7 months, and then I nitpick for a year to get it where I want it.

-What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel? Why?

What comes to mind for me is not a novel, but a series The Wars of Light and Shadow series by Janny Wurts. It is by far the most epic and intense thing I have ever read, and I think it gets over-looked because it is 1) a massive series written by a woman and people make ridiculous assumptions about what that means 2) uses such rich language and depth of detail that it demands a lot of the reader, and we live in a time when people want instant gratification. As a fan of intense character and world building, and a lover of complex, gorgeous use of language, the very things that freak people out are what attract me to these books. That and the fact that every time I think I know exactly what is going to happen next, I’m wrong! I simply adore these books.

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

This is a tough question because there’s no one-size writing advice for every human. I’d say never get to a point where you think you know it all. Always remain a student of craft. Read widely, seek advice, study books you like and figure out why you like those books, then try new techniques and styles until you find what works for you. Start writing and know that as long as you keep writing, you’ll get better!

Some craft books I recommend:

  • The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass
  • Techniques of the Selling Writerby Dwight V. Swain
  • Steering the Craft– Ursula K. LeGuin

Paige L. Christie is a short story writer and novelist. She possesses an uncanny knowledge of myths, archetypes and mystical worlds, and is a true student of fantasy, science fiction, history. It is her deep interest in folklore, as well as intersection of Middle Eastern and North African cultures that originally piqued her interest in the exploration of the influence of different societies, which became the foundation of her novels. Find out more about her here.

Her third novel in the Legends of Arnan series, Long Light, is available everywhere online.

Your invitation still stands, click here to get your ‘Ten Ways to Keep Connected to Your Writing Self during COVID-19’.

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.

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 did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

Hi folks,

Wish me luck today as I am participating in the ‘Movable Feast’ event, in Winston-Salem, held by Bookmarks! Bookmarks is a literary arts nonprofit whose mission is to connect readers with authors. The Movable Feast event is one of their newer programs.

The event is basically like “speed dating with authors”! As an invited author, I will visit a table for 10 minutes, talk about my book/myself/my writing, then rotate to a new table for another 10 minutes and repeat. I’ll meet 10 tables in total and also will have a chance to socialize with folks before and after the event.

I’m 1 of 26 authors invited to this event! The audience has paid to be there (per table) and will be composed of book club members, their friends and the reading public.

I think this is going to be a very fun and very active event!

I’m very excited to talk about Reenu-You and to represent my wonderful press, Book Smugglers. I’ve got my pitch down and will make sure to leave time for questions. And, I’m looking forward to meeting the other authors in the lineup (some have been on the New York Times Bestsellers List!). Many of us will be attending dinner together after the event.

Bookmarks hosts the largest annual book festival in the Carolinas drawing 20,000 from 20 states in 2017; they host a Bookmarks in Schools program that reached 9000+ students in 2017; and they opened a nonprofit independent bookstore and gathering space in July 2017.

Fingers crossed, I will entice many tables to buy Reenu-You for their book club!

 

Affirmations-366Days#356: My growth as a writer is shaped by daily practice. I celebrate incremental changes in my work.

For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

Hi all,

We are celebrating Labor Day, in the U.S., this weekend. Although this is not the official end of summer, because school starts back around now and many people cram in last minute vacations, it feels like the end of summer is here. I plan on writing a short post about how I leveled up in my writing and some of the things I learned from classes taken. But, here I share 5 affirmations that were quite popular this summer.  As most of you know, I have a passion project–I’ve been writing a daily affirmation and posting it here. I plan to keep it up all the way until the end of the year. It’s been a blast writing them and they act like rocket fuel for my writing confidence and joy.

In sharing these affirmations, I thought they might encourage you to reflect on your summer writing and what you might want to carry forward into the fall. Also, one of the techie things I did this summer was to start playing on Canva, a site that makes design easy for everyone. You can create designs for social media, blogs, cards, invitations, etc.  I warn you, it’s highly addictive!

first drafts-inspired

What did you start this summer? Are you taking something from a “baby” draft to a “toddler” draft? Are you working on the last draft of your project?

 

The imposter syndrome is a universal one among writers. Established writers can have bouts with it as often as emerging writers. We combat it through affirmations, having a writing community and persisting.

The imposter syndrome is a universal one among writers. Established writers can have bouts with it as often as emerging writers. We combat it through affirmations, having a writing community and persisting.

How has your writing community grown this summer? Have you met new writers that you're excited about getting to know personally? Have you connected through social media with writers who will become online buddies?

How has your writing community grown this summer? Have you met new writers that you’re excited about getting to know personally? Have you connected through social media with writers who will become online buddies?

Are you staying kind to yourself through the ups and downs of the writing life?

Are you staying kind to yourself through the ups and downs of the writing life?

There are so many opportunities to get our work into the world. If you're feeling stuck check out Duotrope or Submission Grinder for new place to submit your work. Subscribe to a new writing magazine that  features publishing opportunities. Ask others and read widely. Publication is a long and winding journey.

There are so many opportunities to get our work into the world. If you’re feeling stuck check out Duotrope or Submission Grinder for new places to submit your work. Subscribe to a new writing magazine that features publishing opportunities. Ask others and read widely. Publication is a long and winding journey.

Judith Stanton is a historical romance author, a former college professor and scholar. She’s obsessed with horses and generally, the natural world. I know Judith as a teacher through the wonderful creative writing program offered through my local community college in Pittsboro, NC. Judith is also a former women’s studies professor and when we get together, we can talk for hours. I’m so delighted that as we come to the end of National Poetry Month, Judith is sharing one of her ‘deer poems’ that I’ve come to adore.

judith

 

The Three-legged Doe

After long drought
the white oak drops
three times as many acorns
as in a year of good rain.
Under its spreading limbs
the three-legged doe stops to feed,
her right front leg sheared off
halfway between her knee
and hoof—victim of a car?
a stump hole in the woods?
or the black rocks in the stream
she crosses to get to my yard?

In the pasture I can spot her
two hundred yards away
shoulder sinking every stride
her stump touches ground
or the lurch when she bolts
with the herd full speed.

At dusk I see her
flanked by last year’s twins
and this year’s lone fawn
its spots faded by November,
its coat like hers turned gray.
He rams her udder hard.
She watches for hunters
lurking in the woods.

About this poem: I write fiction, 7 novels and counting, so when the leader of our writers group pressed us to write a poem for our blog for National Poetry Month, I walked out grumbling, “I’m a novelist, Al. I don’t write poetry.” The next day I saw the injured doe for the umpteenth time grazing under the oak tree outside my office. I embarked on Deer Diaries, an odyssey into writing about the wildlife I see every day on our farm. Amazingly, in the four years I worked on this collection, the deer, birds, bees, snails, turtles, wild turkey hens who grace my life lined up every few days or weeks to show their lives to me in a new light.

Deer Diaries is now a chapbook forthcoming this year from Finishing Line Press. Meet Judith here at her new website and check out her Amazon page here.

 

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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