The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘women writers’ Category

Long before Mur Lafferty became a well-regarded speculative fiction author, she was known for her compassionate, funny and engaging podcast called, ‘I Should Be Writing: A Podcast for Wanna be Fiction Writers’. She has been hosting this podcast for ten years. Mur’s honesty about the ups and downs of the writing process really speaks to me. She’s very encouraging and a master at sharing tips on how to keep one’s self writing (and why it is important to do so). She periodically conducts interviews with leading authors and also an occasional feedback show where people can send in questions that she answers. She has inspired many people and has served as a model for some to start their own podcast about writing, including, ‘The Dead Robots Society’ (of which I am also a fan). ‘I Should Be Writing’ has won the Podcast Peer Award and three Parsec Awards.

Mur Lafferty has an MFA in popular fiction from the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine. She has published two novels with Orbit Books. The Shambling Guide to New York City won the 2014 Manly Wade Wellman Award. Its sequel, The Ghost Train to New Orleans, came out March 2014.  In 2012, she won the distinguished John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

She has hosted and/or created shows for Tor.com, Lulu, and Angry Robot Books, as well as created several of her own shows like ‘Geek Fu Action Grip’ and ‘I Should Be Writing’. Her nonfiction essays have appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table, The Escapist, and on the podcast ‘The Dragon Page’.

The Shambling Guide was a breakout hit. It told the tale of Zoe, a young human woman who finds herself working with monsters, or “coterie” (the preferred term for nonhumans). Yes, they do exist, everyone from zombies to water sprites. They travel and they need to know places to stay (and where to eat) when they do. Enter Zoe, the most unlikely editor of a travel guide for the coterie. Hilarity, a bevy of misunderstandings and juicy subplots ensue. This is urban fantasy at its best. Although I am not doing a review of the book here, let’s just say when I finished TSG, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Lafferty’s latest novel, Ghost Train. In Ghost Train, we find out more about Zoe’s mysterious background, the different factions of coterie, all while enjoying the sights, sounds and cultural history of New Orleans.

I recently caught up with Mur and invited her to talk about her work and the writing life. I’m so delighted to welcome Mur Lafferty to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

Tell us about your new book The Ghost Train to New Orleans. What inspired this book?

Ghost Train was born from a story I wrote in 2005 to benefit the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. I had an idea about a tour guide who loved her job so much that after she died, she kept doing it. The idea stuck with me, and when I turned it into a book, I took my travel writer, now a human writing guides for monsters, to New York for my first book, but always intended to go back to New Orleans.

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You’re much admired for conveying humor in your novels. How did that aspect of your writing voice develop and how do you nurture it?

I read a lot of Douglas Adams growing up, and was the shy class-clown type. If such a thing exists. My humor tended to veer toward the amusing, and it’s what I enjoy writing the most. As an adult I’ve been inspired by Connie Willis, a writer with sometimes subtle humor, sometimes obvious humor.

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You helped pioneer podcasting as an engaging and entertaining medium. After ten years of podcasting I Should Be Writing, what do you still love about hosting a podcast?

I love that I’m still influencing new writers. At the beginning I felt like I was just whining into a mic about how I couldn’t get published (but was continuing to keep trying) and I’ve heard from so many people that they relate to this. Now my listeners are starting to email me with news about publishing deals, which is amazing.

 

What authors do you consistently mine for inspiration?

Connie Willis, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, and Seanan McGuire.

 

What’s next to your bed (or in your Kindle)? What are you reading now?

Currently going through the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie, with Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire waiting for me.

 

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

Never give up. That’s the fastest way to failure.

 

Mur Laffetry is author, blogger and podcast creator. She’s been the editor of Pseudopod, Escape Pod, and is currently the editor of the upcoming ezine from Escape Artists: Mothership (launching August 2015). To find out more about Mur, check out her website The Murverse Annex.

 

 

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I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Randi Davenport while she was a colleague at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as the Executive Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and taught Honors students for Carolina’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. After a couple of meetings, we soon recognized each other as kindred spirits with similar backgrounds in the liberal arts, a deep passion for teaching, and an interest in women’s studies. It was also thrilling to find another academic who was pursuing a creative writing life. Randi has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature, both from Syracuse University. Over the years, I have been inspired by Randi’s dedication to writing.

Randi’s first book, a memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes: A Mother’s Story is about her developmentally disabled son Chase’s psychotic breakdown at age 15. She chronicled being a single parent and the challenges of dealing with the medical industry. This blurb by Alice Hoffman is indicative of the high praise the book received: “A heartbreaking, disturbing, and truly courageous story of one mother’s fight to save her son.”

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Randi Davenport is the author of the novel The End of Always (Hachette/Twelve, 2014) and of The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). In 2011, she received the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award for Creative Non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award and nominated for a Ragan Old North State Cup Award for Non-fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Ontario Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Women’s History Review, Literature/Film Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, among others.

I have been looking forward to speaking with Randi about her new novel The End of Always that is partly based on her family’s history. And, I am thrilled to announce that the novel has just been nominated for a National Book Award! I am delighted to welcome Randi Davenport to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in The End of Always, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?

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I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired The End of Always. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.

It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.

Talk a little about the title The End of Always. What does this phrase mean to you?

In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.

More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.

The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Hachette/Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.

Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate The End of Always, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?

The End of Always is a novel. It’s not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s  Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.

But to the extent that The End of Always shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is disruptive in that way as well.

What does your writing practice look like?

I’m a writer so I write. If you come across me during work hours, it might not look like I’m writing. It might look like I’m staring into space. Or like I’m pulling my hair out. When I was more able, I’d go for long walks. I do lots of thinking before I begin but I don’t do outlines of any sort. I often talk to myself. Depending where I am in the process, I might be sobbing. No. Just kidding. It rarely comes to that. I also write every day. In the morning, before I do anything else. I’ve always done it this way. When my kids were little I’d get up two hours before they did to write. Now that they’re grown, the habit of writing first thing in the day stays with me.

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

Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.

 

To find out more about Randi Davenport, visit her website.

 

I’m continuing on with tips to boost your writing mid-year.
Tip 4: Practice Being a ‘Public Writer’.

Although summer is the time of beaches and barbeques, I would challenge you to add in a few ways to practice being a ‘public writer’. There are lots of ways to do this, but I am going to focus on two topics here—attending open mics and readings.

 
Attend More Open Mics and Read at Them
Reading your work in front of an audience is an invaluable experience for a writer. We can see when people lean toward us, laugh (one hopes at the appropriate places), and get a sense of how our words affect others. Reading aloud also helps us to become comfortable with our work no matter what the reaction. We meet new friends and learn about the work of other writers. In most places there are many opportunities to read your work in public—open mics organized by writing groups, in bookstores and cafes, writing conferences, and informal gatherings with friends. Practice, practice and practice some more.

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If you get to read your work in public, be gracious if someone compliments you on your writing. Don’t say that you’re not really a writer because you’re not published yet (or published widely), or let any negative comments about your work leak out. Shine in the moment.

 
Attend More Readings
I hear from so many writers, “I don’t have time to read or attend readings.” Reading other writers and hearing them read is part of our writerly duties. We have to make the time. Attending a reading helps us learn about writers new to us.  But, it is also about building community and being visible as a public writer.

You learn so much from how an author gives a reading. You learn about their writing practice, you learn about how to answer questions skillfully, you learn about what kinds of things to reveal, and you learn about how much work an audience can digest in a given sitting. It’s a great way to observe differences in style and tone between newly minted authors and long-standing ones. We also get to practice going up to a published writer and introducing our self and talking intelligently about our own work (if asked).

I recently got to see speculative fiction writer Mary Robinette Kowal talk about her new book, Valor and Vanity. She is a former puppeteer and she incorporated puppetry into her talk (which was very cool). She dressed in an outfit that reflected the early 1800s time period that she was writes about (partly handsewn, to boot! Mary is super creative!).  Her discussion of 1800s fashion became another interesting layer of the reading. Mary oriented the audience by giving some background on the ‘Glamourist Histories’ for those of us who were new to her work (we were in a minority), which I appreciated. But, instead of reading from her current novel, she did something very interesting. She gave us a teaser from the novel that she is currently writing which will complete the series and is due out in 2015. I thought that was a very cool thing to do as most people were probably going to buy the current book anyway, so it was nice to feel like we were hearing fresh material.

She also encouraged the audience to buy something from the independent book store, even if it wasn’t her book. As incentive, for people who bought any book, she gave out beautiful fans with a clever tag on them that contained information about Valor and Vanity. Not only did I learn about Mary’s work (Valor and Vanity is the 4th in the Glamourist Histories series), and buy her book, but I learned something new about how to promote one’s work in a fun, clever and ethical way. Her exemplar reading satisfied and surprised on so many levels.

We cannot write well by staying on the surface of our lives or by attempting to hide our true selves behind our words. We free the pen to dig deep whenever we pick it up. Peggy Tabor Millin

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What can women who wish to write discover about themselves if they enter into conversation with a nonlinear, archetypal feminine process? What is the wisdom and inner authority that awaits them in their own bodies, moving through perhaps limiting feelings of shame, blame and judgment? In the richly inspiring book Women, Writing and Soul-Making: Creativity and the Sacred Feminine, Peggy Tabor Millin argues that what awaits women, if they so choose to explore, is their deepest self from which springs their writing life. And, she asserts that excavating this self is more important than the outward goal of publishing. Drawing on her extensive experience as a writing teacher, practicing Buddhist and cartographer of women’s cycles of creativity, she argues that the real struggle that many women have with writing is not just about a lack of time, writing space or support. It is the struggle for authenticity. Women’s multiplicity of social roles and living in a world that often undervalues them add to the challenges of finding the courage not just to write, but to create a worthy self. In Women, Writing and Soul Making, Millin offers a fresh and inner directed path to the writing life through what she calls an ‘archetypal feminine approach’ to writing and self-making.

Millin shares insights of how to access the subterranean territory of the writing experience that has seldom been mined. Many writing books crowding the shelves today assert principles, programs, and protocols for becoming a bestselling author with a platform that will entice agents and publishers. We can characterize much of this work as outer directed, active, assertive and perhaps linearly driven. Readers, in this book, will not find tidy exercises and chatty language about how to pitch ideas to editors. Millin, however, offers women writers (and male writing instructors) another way to think about the writing life by first acknowledging that women writers struggle with claiming a voice. She names and explores internal and external barriers that stop women from writing and from taking themselves seriously as writers. She argues that women must make new meaning for themselves by paying attention to what innate wisdom residing in their bodies and buried in their psyches, they (and the world) may have devalued.

She successfully yokes together concepts about women’s spirituality, Jungian and archetypal analysis and embodied learning. Her book is part of a growing trend that employ a contemplative and body wisdom approach, gleaned from eastern traditions, as a foundation for a writing practice, including Gail Sher’s Writing the Fire (yoga and writing) and Larraine Herring’s Writing Begins with the Breath (mindfulness and writing). Through vignettes, koans and stories Millin’s method is subtle and almost easy to overlook. The task is to move from our heads into our bodies, easier said than done. She reveals her technique of ‘Centered Writing Practice’ which includes two elements: “writing to neutral prompts and writing in community.” Neutral prompt are phrases, concrete nouns and active verbs that carry no obvious emotional connection for the writer. The writer follows where the language takes her. The second and important aspect of this practice is writing in community. Centered Writing Practice happens in a circle of women, regularly, and with focused attention. Each chapter begins with a piece that emerged from some of the free writes and ‘word circle’ exercises that Millin uses in groups. The reader is thus invited in to see how the book was constructed through many nonlinear techniques. The spiral graphic sprinkled throughout Women, Writing and Soul-Making remind us writing and coming into self has no final destination. Miller notes: “Practice does not make perfect; practice makes possible. Practice—of sport, writing, art-making, meditation, music—has no goal but revelation.”

Along the way, we meet Lord Mother, Millin’s contribution to an archetypal support system rooted in women’s experiences with the Divine, mystical, cyclical and seasonal. Millin helps us to recognize that our judgment, shame and victimization can be acknowledged without being indulged in, constituting a resting place versus a stopping place. Readers will also enjoy getting to know the intriguing archetypal figures of ‘Lady Underground’ and ‘The Blood-Raw Savage’ who can also support in getting to know our bodies’ wisdom and unconscious desires.

Although shunning simple and formulaic steps toward writing, Millin does offer organizing principles for writing and exploring consciousness that include the Four Wisdoms: ‘The Wisdom of Not Knowing’, ‘The Wisdom of the Ecology of Body and Earth’, ‘The Wisdom of Fierce Compassion’ and ‘The Wisdom of Diversity’. These Wisdoms explore what she identifies as feminine processes of ‘relationship and responsiveness’, an awareness of interconnectedness and fierce compassion that links soul work to creative work. Through these wisdoms she tackles many ‘hotspots’ of women’s lives including how we grapple with power, vulnerability, and expectations in relationships. This is a chapter most readers will want to linger in.

I was predisposed to like this book as I am intensely curious about how women navigate a creative life given the obstacles borne out of the social tensions around caretaking, relational work and constructing a core self. Finding new metaphors of creativity that don’t pit women against codified ways of knowing the world, their work and families is of vital importance. In my teaching and coaching work, I’ve found similar patterns of challenges that women face, in pursuing a creative life that is aptly described by Millin. And, Millin does a good job of arguing for exploring and being open to a repository of suppressed ‘women’s wisdom’: “Tribal cultures that honored women’s rhythms understood women to hold the creative future of the culture-not only because they produced children, but they fathomed the sacred nature of the cycles of creation.” However, in several places, I was uneasy with some of Millin’s uncritical language and assumptions about women’s experiences (including “when women feel stress, they are biologically wired to seek solace with other women” or “the power women innately hold confounds thought”). As I read, I felt the tension between embracing and feeling good about ‘feminine’ patterns and my understanding that gender is also mutable, historically varied and socially constructed. There isn’t one universal women’s experience or even ‘female ways of knowing’. Each reader will have to navigate and make sense of this tension.

Toward the end of the book and again drawing on Buddhist thought Millin makes use of the four paradoxes writers face: ‘Pleasure and Pain’, ‘Praise and Criticism’, ‘Fame and Disgrace’ and ‘Gain and Loss’. The dynamic of dualisms confound and often frustrate us yet form a way into understanding the writing life. I found myself lingering here, too.

Her book also addresses those writers who are transitioning from one type of writing that may be more analytical (i.e. technical writing, academic writing) to one that is symbolic and abstract (i.e. poetry). She wants a general respect for all writing. Despite the lack of specific exercises, Millin’s material will ignite an intuitive spark in each reader about how to proceed: some might journal more, some will try using ‘neutral prompts’ to begin a project, some might list the ways they experience societal femininity and how that is or isn’t congruent with their personal ways of knowing the creative cycles of the earth. Some will want to explore deeply the archetypal figures Millin presents. Some readers will be better able to recognize where some of their negative voices about writing came from (which are personal and which are cultural), some will feel relief to find that many women struggle with inner barriers that often go unrecognized; they might seek or start a writers’ group based on Millin’s thoughtful guidelines. According to Millin, if we get focused on our own excellence and joy in creating and living, this will support our inner most desires. I can see why this book was a Next Generation Indie Book Winner. It is so useful, innovative, playful and fresh that it is worth a place on every aspiring woman writer’s (and writing teacher’s) book shelf.

 

This book review first appeared in the December  2013 issue of Western North Carolina Woman

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Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934- November 17,1992)

Today is Audre Lorde’s birthday! Audre Lorde was an essayist, poet and activist who referred to herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,”.  Audre Lorde’s work has shaped and inspired two generations of writers, scholars, and activists. Lorde produced several volumes of poetry and created new directions in nonfiction with her untraditional memoir (Zami, A New Spelling of My Name), but she was not only a famous poet, she was also one of the most compelling black feminists of the past century. The topics she chose to write about broke open taboos on race, class, the role of ‘difference’ in the second wave women’s movement, breast cancer, sexuality, eroticism, marginality, and the necessity of theorizing about the interlocking nature of oppression. The body of her work has left a legacy for all those concerned with social justice.

I discovered her in college as a budding feminist thinker. I was deeply influenced by feminist literary theory and contemporary women authors. I found her work useful as she helped to redirect second wave feminist organizing to focus on the strength that is found in differences among women as opposed to believing in a mythical norm of the ‘universal woman’. At that time, I was finding my own voice at Bard College and involved in activism on campus (e.g. reproductive rights and fighting for ‘multicultural education’) and interested in feminist theorizing.

At the beginning of my senior year, I organized a group of friends to attend one of Audre Lorde’s final public appearances. Audre Lorde helped to a create conference called ‘Yo Soy Hermana/I Am Your Sister’. It was held in Boston. It called upon second wave (and budding third wave) feminists to come together to strategize, celebrate and develop new skills in feminist coalition building and action given the challenges young women and men faced globally (i.e. poverty, HIV/AIDS, repression of LGBT communities, sexual violence, etc.). My young female friends, all of us of diverse and multiracial backgrounds, found ourselves in a larger feminist and womanist community than we hadn’t dared imagine (or could imagine at Bard–a predominately white, private, liberal arts college). There were over 1000 activists in attendance from over 20 countries. The two days were packed with workshops, keynotes, plenaries, readings, and impromptu gatherings. During the conference, I felt that symbolically a baton was being passed from Lorde and other feminist elders to us in the audience. We were inheritors of the many benefits that Lorde and others had struggled for, yet, we still faced a world that was still fraught with inequality. What would we do with our knowledge and burgeoning power?

Her work inspired me to go on to graduate school. I felt a deep urgency to bring new voices and new ways of knowing into the academy, especially those from historically marginalized communities. I was eager to continue studying how feminist theory challenged typical assumptions about everyday social patterns that seemed ‘natural’. Everyone at Bard did the equivalent of an honors thesis, called the ‘Senior Project’. The tools and theory-building skills I acquired in my classes prepared me to write a senior project on the evolution of rape law reform of the 1970s and 1980s.  In my graduate school applications, I quoted Lorde, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

Those words resonated deeply with me because I felt that coalition building and self-definition were the building blocks of feminist theory and could be applied to both research and activism. It’s a quote that still remains a guiding star in my life.

It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to appreciate the other gift that Lorde offered which is that she claimed everything about her—emotions, intellect, all forms of creative writing, activism and theory. She fought to live her life holistically and self-defined. As I have, over the past several years, been intentional about making more space for a scholarly *and* creative life, I find her example life affirming.

I hope you put Audre Lorde on your reading list this year either as a new reader or as someone rediscovering her work.

Recommended Reading:

Poetry: The Black Unicorn (1978)

Memoir: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982)

Essays: Sister Outsider  (1984)

Scholarship: I am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009)

Photo Credit:http://www.nedrajohnson.com/audre.htm

This post originally appeared on She Writes

I am fortunate to live in a community known for its writers. But, Chatham County, NC isn’t just home to any type of writer. You’re more likely to find writers who are also small farmers and/or have a strong connection to the land they live on. Judy Hogan is one such writer. She’s a small farmer, editor, teacher and founder of the well-regarded Carolina Wren Press.

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Judy attended a workshop I facilitated, in September, about identifying one’s relationship style to the creative self. I enjoyed meeting her and I so enjoyed hearing about her life- long love affair with creativity and creative writing. She’s one of those people that have always had a strong connection to their creative self and she has actively nurtured that relationship. I felt lucky to have a seasoned and esteemed writer participate so heartily in the workshop. Judy went on to write a blog about one of the exercises from that day.

She’s also very vocal about creating more space for what she calls ‘postmenopausal zest women’ in both literature and life. She is doing this with the debut of her main character, Penny Weaver, in her first novel, Killer Frost. We have so few complex archetypal models that explore women in their 50s-90s. I love how Judy is creating this new paradigm for our culture. May we all be as zesty, at any age, as Judy Hogan is now.

Where did the idea for your novel, Killer Frost, come from?KillerFrost-cover-2-15-12

I taught at a historically black college a few years ago. I enjoyed the students very much, and I saw many grow and change, improve their reading and composition skills (my classes were to prepare them for the regular freshman composition), but I had too many with such poor skills, reading and writing at third grade level or too convinced that they couldn’t learn and wouldn’t try, that I wanted to call attention to this problem.  I had already been taking up community issues in the previous novels I’d written, like unsafe storage of nuclear waste, air pollution, and unethical behavior in local political races.  This problem of young African Americans who were admitted to college when they had no real hope of success troubled me. They believed they could graduate from college because they had been admitted. They couldn’t even succeed in high school level work, although they had graduated from high school. They were like an endangered species with the high likelihood that they would continue, or turn to, a life of crime in order to survive.

What’s your process like when you’re working on a novel?

Once I get an idea, I work out the characters, using Elizabeth George’s prompt sheet from her book on writing fiction: Write Away.  I want to know the background, what they look like, any speech peculiarities, what they do under stress, what their goals are in life and in the novel, incidents that may have shaped them, even if I don’t use all this information.  I deliberately set up characters that will tend to have conflicts with each other. I do know my killer and my victim. Then I draft as many scenes as I can, usually to the end of the novel. This is the hardest work.  When I begin writing, I like to have a couple of months relatively free of teaching and other commitments, and then I try to do two hours in the afternoon and two hours in the evening, or about a chapter a day.  Sometimes the plot changes slightly, but generally I follow that outline, adjusting as needed.  Normally, it flows well, but I use “bum glue,” as George recommends.  I stick in my chair for my hours and do the best I can.  I can go back later and add or subtract.  I do then type it up, revising some, and I send it to the two readers I now have for their reactions, not as editors, but as readers.

You manage to pack a lot into your day! You run a farm, blog, and teach classes.  How do these different activities feed into each other and you?

My farm is very small, all, with the house, on half an acre: gardens (flower and vegetable), orchard, and chicken coop and run. I spend an average of two hours outside working in it, more in the growing season, less in winter.  It’s a good healthy balance to my writing and reading life. I also preserve a lot of food for the winter, and I normally provide half my food for the year, which saves grocery bills and gives me variety and the best possible organic food, freshly picked.

The blogging (postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com), which I began in January 2011, has been fun.  I can write about whatever I want to: health, recipes, poetry, aging, my own book Killer Frost, and other people’s books.  My whole life is connected to my zest in these years, so it’s all apt. Since I do a lot of writing every day (journal, emails, and once a week, a poem normally), it’s not hard to find something I’ve already written to post on Sunday morning.  I also like to read other mysteries and novels, so I do post reviews of them.  It doesn’t take me long to write a review, because I write so easily now, having been writing since age seven, nearly seventy years now.

The classes I teach these years, usually only one creative writing class, in which we read good literature, and several backyard chicken workshops, do take some time.  I need more income than my social security and some farm sales (eggs, figs, leeks) provide. Teaching is my second vocation, and I enjoy it. Literary classes take more preparation time than chicken workshops, but I teach books I love and enjoy rereading, most recently Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and the novels of Virginia Woolf.  They also nourish my writing, feed my mind.  For me this all balances.

Who are some of the writers that you continually mine for technique, style, or phrasing?

I don’t exactly mine them.  What happens to me, and it also happens to my students, is that, as we read and study fine writers, we absorb and learn their vocabulary, sentence structures, content, and this enriches the creative mind, which I liken to a field to which has been added the nutrients it needs, the compost, etc. I’ve been reading classics, in Latin, Greek, Russian, French, and both English and American literature since high school. I have favorite writers I go back to over and over, Homer, Proust, Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. I’ve decided to reread all of the James novels this winter.  I rest more these years and give two or three hours a day to reading.

Will we see more of your main characters?  What’s your next writing project?

Yes.  Killer Frost is the sixth mystery in a series involving Penny Weaver, a postmenopausal zest woman, and her lover/husband Kenneth Morgan, a Welsh police detective. Two novels are set in Wales, where they met; the other eight, soon to be nine, take place in Riverdell, a central North Carolina village in the fictional county of Shagbark. They are part of an interracial community of activists who take up community issues. I love all my characters, and I hope to get all the books in print over the next five years.

Right now I’m working on the eleventh in the series, Fatality at Angelika’s Eatery.  I hope to finish the draft by Christmas and to start the typing. The typing works better when I’m also teaching than the composition stage, when I need more time alone to focus in on my imaginary world.

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

Write what you wish to write.  A writer is one who writes. I like and often remind myself of Virginia Woolf’s words in A Room of One’s Own (p. 110): “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.  But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bit in comparison.”

Judy Hogan founded Carolina Wren Press (1976-91), and was co-editor of Hyperion Poetry Journal, 1970-81).  She has published five volumes of poetry and two prose works with small presses. She has taught all forms of creative writing since 1974. She joined Sisters in Crime in 2007 and has focused on writing and publishing traditional mystery novels. In 2011 she was a finalist in the St. Martin’s Malice Domestic Mystery contest. The twists and turns of her life’s path over the years have given her plenty to write about. She is also a small farmer and lives in Moncure, N.C.

web:  judyhogan.home.mindspring.com

blog: postmenopausalzest.blogspot.com

email: judyhogan@ mindspring.com

I had heard about Ashley Memory several months before I met her. People in my monthly writing group raved about her new novel, Naked and Hungry and asked me, “Did you know she works at UNC-Chapel Hill?” I didn’t and set out to correct that oversight as I’m always interested in meeting faculty and staff members at the university who are also creative writers.

In September, I had the pleasure of meeting Ashley at a ‘Sisters in Crime’ writers’ group when I gave a workshop about creativity. I learned quickly that Ashley is a woman of many talents and passions. She’s been a professional communicator for over twenty years and has experience in writing, editing, media relations, and strategic communications. For the last six years, she has served as Communications Director for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Her biography is long and distinguished, though you wouldn’t know that by talking with her because she’s so good at listening to her companion’s interests. Ashley has published essays and stories in Cairn, Portland Literary Review, Georgia State University Review, and North Carolina Wildlife. She has won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize sponsored by the N.C. Writer’s Network twice (!) and Eureka Literary Magazine nominated her short story Tamarisk for a Pushcart Prize. She is also an essayist; samples include  Missing the Dixie Superette and For Barking Out Loud.

Her first novel, Naked and Hungry, was named a finalist in the  2009 James Jones First Novel Fellowship competition sponsored by Wilkes University and was published in 2011 by Ingalls Publishing Group.

And, to top it all off she is a crepes aficionado and also writes about crepes!

She’ll be a featured panelist at the upcoming N.C. Writer’s Network Fall Conference.

We’re both in a course on short fiction taught by Ruth Moose. I appreciate the depth of literary knowledge and writing craft that Ashley brings to the class. I find myself paying close attention when Ashley comments on a story (esp. the elements that aren’t working in it). I’m so glad she made time to chat with me about writing and the writing life.

Tell us about your first novel, Naked and Hungry. What’s in store for readers?

 Naked and Hungry is a darkly humorous suspense novel featuring a former loan officer named H.T. McMullen who rejects materialism and moves to a one-room cabin in the Uwharries. There he finds his pristine wilderness tainted by dangerous pollutants. And when he dares to complain, he becomes the target of a deadly game of intimidation by the high-powered villains.

Justin Catanoso, author of My Cousin the Saint, executive editor of The Triad Business Journal, and an early reviewer of my book kindly offered the words: “In Naked and Hungry, Ashley Memory has written an entertaining and twisting first novel with a storyline pulled from today’s headlines. Bank loans gone bad, pollution for profit, unchecked law enforcement, reluctant heroes. With shades of Richard Russo, Memory’s characters are quirky and funny and often a little dangerous. And her sense of place — small town North Carolina — is vividly rendered.”

Besides writing novels and short fiction, you also have written a book about crepes, a food you love. Is there a story about your passion for crepes and interest in teaching people how to make them?

I’ve loved eating crepes since I was a girl. When I was eight years old, my parents took me to a restaurant in Greensboro named, appropriately enough, Frenchy’s. There I had my first crepe, which was wrapped around beef burgundy and baked again in the oven until it was crispy. It was simply divine.

Many years later, when my father and I were thinking of starting an online business together, we quickly landed upon the concept of crepes. At that time, there seemed to be a dearth of good crepe recipes on the internet. This inspired us to create our own collection and launch World of Crepes at www.world-of-crepes.com. This effort sparked a true culinary adventure that led from experimenting in the kitchen to winning first place in the 2009 Citrus Dessert Challenge for our recipe for tangerine crepes.

The timing was right for the creation of the website because crepes are enjoying a renaissance of sorts due to an appetite for healthier eating. Crepes are low in gluten and calories and relatively inexpensive to prepare. In fact, Michele, I bet I could raid your pantry right now and make you a delicious dessert based on crepes.  I would insist on bringing my own crepe pan, however, because I’m a bit finicky about the tools of my trade.

Do you conceive of a story in the voice of a narrator, or in key images or characters, or in events?

Great question. Occasionally an image, event or an overheard snippet of conversation will inspire me, but the most satisfying stories arise out of characters. A character is the shortest distance to a true story because they tend to drive the car, so to speak. When you plunk a believable character into a story, things such as motivation, action, and even physical description seem to write themselves. In these cases, it truly doesn’t feel like work! It’s more like a joy ride for the writer.

Can you give me an example?

Yes! The interactions and the mini-story arc in Naked and Hungry between my main character, H.T. McMullen and his office manager, Margaret Freeman, arose almost magically from my keyboard. With her MBA-wired brain, she was such a delightful antithesis to H.T.’s laissez-faire way of operating a business, it was as if I were operating a Ouija board rather than a keyboard.

What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your writing career?

Never feel bad about losing yourself in a book, no matter what your parents say! Today, my parents would probably admit that there are much worse places a twelve-year-old girl could be than behind the couch secretly reading a copy of Endless Love. She could be doing the things in that book! The act of reading is so essential to writing that it should never be suppressed in any young person.

What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see? And, how do you manage this side?

The book signings are fun, and these are the things that perhaps aspiring writers most envy, but for me, it’s the non-glamorous things that I most enjoy. It’s slipping away from a dinner party to write (headache, sorry!) or scribbling a random story idea on the back of a conference brochure. Fortunately for me, these things tend to manage themselves. The day job, the family life, and the obsession with cooking are also enjoyable, so I never feel as if I’m really sacrificing anything.

There is a little pressure nowadays to be promoting oneself on all available social media platforms, and I will admit to feeling overwhelmed from time to time. But while I have often regretted the time I’ve spent to set up and maintain a “presence” on the latest platform, I’ve never regretted a Sunday afternoon penning a new story.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished a follow-up novel to Naked and Hungry titled Born Again, Dead Again. After having taken a sabbatical from short stories for a while, I’m delighted to once again be exploring this short form. My career began with short stories and I’d be more than happy to go out this way.

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

It comes from an interview with Pat Conroy that I once read. I apologize, but I don’t remember his exact words. But the idea has never left me, and it’s worth a feeble attempt at paraphrasing.

When I have trouble with a story, Conroy said, it’s not because I haven’t done enough research on the details. It’s because I haven’t reached deeply enough inside myself. He implied that the answers to our struggles, be it writer’s block or whether a story is believable or not, lie within us.

So, when I find myself quibbling too much over a surface detail, I realize that the main problem with a story isn’t whether my character would have had depression glass in her cupboard but what would have motivated her to hurl this thing across the dining room at her husband. And it’s this – the emotional reality of a story – that’s the currency of a true writer.

See Ashley discuss Naked and Hungrhere!

You can read more about Ashley here.

Photo Credits: http://ashley-memory.com/


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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