The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘women and creativity’ Category

If you’re a writer, you’ve heard the term ‘writer’s block’. Writer’s block is an umbrella term symbolizing a variety of challenges that many writers face. Some writers will say they have writer’s block when they are stuck on a particular project. They are perhaps writing, but they can’t seem to make progress on their project. They don’t know what line comes next, or how to get a scene working.

Other times people use writer’s block to mean that all writing in their life has ceased. They avoid the page for a time and feel unable to write anything creative.

Many books have been written about writer’s block. They tend to fall into two camps: 1) writer’s block doesn’t exist-it’s a figment of one’s imagination and the remedy is to sit down and write. 2) writer’s block is real and requires deep introspection.

Heloise Jones’s new book, Writer’s Block Myth: A Guide to Get Past Stuck & Experience Lasting Creative Freedom offers a different perspective:

A core theme in the book is that writers are all different. It is important to find ways of writing that work for you.

Writer’s block is real, but it’s not what we think it is. And that’s where the myth lies.

Writers block is a symptom, not a pathology. What happens on the page is tied to what’s inside us (how we assign value and give meaning to our work, ourselves, and our process) and links to something in our life in the real world that we can shift so writing flows. Or, in the least, see what flows as something we can value. It’s not about Doing, as much as about perspective.

Heloise Jones is an author, speaker, and mentor. She assists writers and creatives getting to the heart of what they need to move forward & complete their projects. Her background includes years of study in craft, process, & the publishing industry + fields of wisdom and experience from a host of supportive holistic tools.

I’ve known Heloise through our participation in online writing communities. When I heard that Heloise was offering a new take on an age old topic, I couldn’t wait to see if she would be a guest here.

I am delighted to welcome Heloise Jones to The Practice of Creativity.

Tell us about your recent book, The Writer’s Block Myth. What are you hoping this book will provide readers?

The subtitle, “A Guide to Get Past Stuck & Experience Lasting Creative Freedom,” just about says it all. A guide minus shaming or hard rules written for people living in the real world. It grew out of hundreds of hours of conversations and my work with writers and creatives, as well as interview-conversations conducted with writers of all levels, interests, and experience.

The book includes the voices of other writers, plus examples and short, easy, effective exercises to help you move forward in your creative life.  It’s a book to refer back to, because no matter how much we know, we get derailed and need support.

My hope is readers find and embrace the ways that work best for them in creating a satisfying life, as well as written works. That they feel freer in the process, and know they have a supportive guide while they do it.

You discuss the concept of permission slips for writers. What is a permission slip and why is it helpful for writers to use them?

Permission slips are like hall passes. They provide passage through territory that may hold restrictions in our minds. We live in a loud world that describes success, and iterates definitive approaches to writing. That lists ways to judge ourselves and accomplishments good/bad/right/wrong. Permission slips are our greenlights and go-aheads to take time to write in the ways that work best for us when resistance and challenges come up. This includes those inside you (doubt, guilt, feeling selfish or like you’re doing ‘it’ wrong, not writing enough, are a failure, etc.), and outside you (validation, acceptance, understanding, etc.).  All the loaded issues for people living with relationships, obligations, and lifetimes of shoulds and oughts. Not to mention, conflicting desires.

Permission slips, or green lights, are empowerment tools our brains can respond to because they come from outside us. Leave us only to decide how to use them, or not.

What did you learn about yourself as a writer while working on The Writer’s Block Myth?

I learned how much the economy of online writing and reading has affected my writing Voice. When writing fiction and poetry, my process is longhand, pen to paper, for rough drafts. When writing essays and nonfiction, it’s fingers to keyboard from get-go. The past two years I’ve focused on my blogs. And though my ‘Getting to Wise. A Writer’s Life’ blog is a journal about navigating life, I compose on the computer. I had to write the entire manuscript of The Writer’s Block Myth twice to shift into the Voice that works as well on paper as online.

While crafting your book, did you look to other writing books as models for inspiration, support or even for what not to do? If yes, what were they? If no, where do you turn for writing inspiration?

This is such an interesting question because I read like a writer, and go to others’ written works to learn craft. For instance, I read Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto to learn how to effectively transition different POVs within scenes. But I don’t go to others’ books for process.

I swiftly read blogs, articles, interviews, and short essays, glean nuggets. I’m intuitive and curious, so if it sticks, I file it whether I agree with what it says or not. It’s a daily practice, and where I get inspiration and learn to think bigger. Two books were recommended to me as I was writing The Writer’s Block Myth. I approached the material in them the same way.

I want to share something useful for me as I gathered material. Once I knew what the book would be, I trusted the process. I hung one of those nice folded bags of thick paper with fancy cord handles you get from a boutique on a door. It was one I enjoyed gazing upon that also contained a message for my Soul: a lovely Hawaiian print in neutrals with the words ‘hana hou.’ Hana hou means encore or one more time in Hawaiian. I could’ve used anything. A basket, box, or whatever. The important points were 1) it was visible, reminding me of my intention, and 2) accessible. I put everything I came across in the bag without editing or culling – quotes, articles, blogs, paragraphs, Facebook posts. When it came time to write, I sorted what I’d collected over the months to the sections in the book. I applied the same sorting process to the interviews I conducted as research.

What’s your next for you? What are you working on?

Developing workshops and retreats that incorporate the principles in the book. Creating communities where writers write together, and connect with others who understand what they do. I believe the experience while in a group or on retreat is as important as words on the page. That creatives need environments which nurture and nourish our process, as well as improve our craft. Plus, I love talking about writing and working with other creatives.

For my own writing practice, I’m back to writing fiction whenever I can, which is joy for me. . .as vol. 2 of The Writer’s Block Myth perks.

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

Trust the process. Let go in the story you’re telling, and let go of the way you intend to tell it. Open to what might be there you hadn’t thought about before you go into edits. Think of your writing as a dance you’re doing, and you’re expanding the dance floor. You’ll be a stronger writer, and it will help you feel freer inside. This includes the process of editing, too. But that’s another conversation.

Thank you for having me.

Heloise Jones assists writers and creatives getting to the heart of what they need to move forward & complete their projects. Her background includes years of study in craft, process, & the publishing industry + fields of wisdom and experience from a host of supportive holistic tools. Most importantly, she knows what getting past stuck and lasting creative freedom mean, and all the ways writers and creatives get waylaid.

She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Go visit her: http://www.heloisejones.com/

 

I want to thank you for subscribing to my blog. Welcome to new subscribers! And, to those who have been followers (and readers) from way back, thanks for sticking with me!

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In 2011, I decided to devote myself to writing weekly on my blog and to support creative community. From that intention, so many great things followed: community building, more writing, opportunities I couldn’t have imagined, new friendships, etc.

I’m inspired by all that you do, seek and create. I want to continue to walk this creative path with you. Let’s keep inspiring each other.

On that note, I wanted to share several inspiring conversations I’ve had with some of the most talented writers, coaches and transformational experts from my Creativity Bonfire Series. My Creativity Bonfire Series brought together 12 leading writers, authors, visual artists and thought leaders to talk about creativity—how to sustain and maintain it.

Each conversation is about an hour long. Let yourself soak in their wisdom about staying true to the creative process and eliminating distractions.

Conversation with SARK, artist, creative entrepreneur and author of Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper: Gifting the World with Your Words and Stories and Creating the Time and Energy to Actually Do It

Conversation with Eric Maisel, creativity coach and author of Coaching the Artist Within

Conversation with Amanda Owen, consultant, motivational speaker and author of The Power of Receiving: A Revolutionary Approach to Giving Yourself the Life You Want and Deserve

Links will stay live until Oct 15.

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I am so happy to participate in the blog tour of new author, Audrey Mei. I’m grateful to Quanie Miller, a wonderful writer and blogger who helped bring us together. Given Audrey’s amazingly diverse creative practices that run the gamut of music, writing, health and science, I knew she would be a great person to interview. In our correspondence, we’ve discovered that we have many overlapping interests.

Audrey Mei grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before studying cello and biological psychology/pre-med in Boston (New England Conservatory of Music/Tufts University). Following graduation, she received a Fulbright Grant for graduate studies in cello performance at Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, Finland.

Since 2006, Audrey has been dedicated to writing prose and poetry and has been published in Gangway Literary Magazine and Glimmer Train among others, as well as participating for several years in the Berlin English language literary scene. She is a world traveler at heart.

I’m delighted to welcome Audrey Mei to The Practice of Creativity.

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-Tell us about your recent book, Trixi Pudong and the Greater World. Why did you want to write this book?

Trixi Pudong and the Greater World is a family saga that follows a Shanghai family through four generations, beginning in 1937. Alongside the family’s history of war, revolution, addiction, and migration, there is a twist of magical: a fairy, a fortune-telling goatman, and two brothers who never step off a rusty container ship.

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The inspiration for this book came as I was researching my dad’s family history for fun. At the time, I was also living as a dirt-poor writer in Berlin. The ironic juxtaposition of everything my Chinese family had survived and the “privileged”-yet-poor artist life I was living in modern, cushy Germany gave me the impetus to write a book about how unpredictable the waves of history can be.

Also, my father is a natural storytelling genius. I felt that integrating his tales from Shanghai into a work of historical magical fiction would be a way for me to remember his stories as well as a way for them to potentially reach a wider audience.

-You have explored many wonderful professions in addition to writing including, being a classical cellist, a holistic healer, and a scientist. How have these other creative and intellectual pursuits contributed to your writing?

The single most important thing I’ve gained is the discipline of being a classical musician. Someone recently pointed out to me that classical music is the one artistic field which requires the highest investment in time, energy, and money for the least return in today’s economy. Where else do little kids practice hours a day, take expensive music lessons, take the “audition of their lives” to study at pricey conservatories, and spend five figures on an antique instrument… just for the slim chance at earning all that back in the vanishing classical music profession? It turns out that many music school graduates have taken their skills to innovative non-music jobs. A surprising number of tech workers in Silicon Valley, for example, are actually classical musicians.

Discipline is the greatest gift. I can’t say enough about it. Yet it is the one area where the most people fall short. Discipline is required to write, solve problems, continually improve, and mentally deal with the pain of critical feedback. Discipline is required to keep the mind free from destructive thoughts and to keep yourself focused on the highest level of quality you can manage.

The second skill I’ve gained through my experience is emotional awareness from working in holistic therapy for sixteen years. I listen to people’s stories, traumas, insecurities, and griefs. I follow their healing and their growth. I can’t be judgmental and I can’t be afraid of deep emotions otherwise my clients would stop seeing me. Therapeutic experience has also given me the “roadmap” of human motivations. Writing-wise, this helps me to create a stories that interweave motives and relationships that are rooted in true human psychology.

-Your book is being marketed as multicultural fiction. Can you share what this term means to you and why that’s an important distinction for this book?

It didn’t dawn on me that the term “multicultural” would be important in any way until I researched agents and realized, Wait, these agents would never, ever in a million years represent me. They all claimed to be interested in all genres of literary fiction, but early on, I got a strong gut feeling when I browsed agents’ client list and saw only your garden-variety white male (or female). And the only non-white authors being represented were invariably prison-camp survivors, Nobel laureates, or writers on “What it means to be [fill in ethnicity/disadvantaged class] in America.” The next stage of this realization came as I read agent interviews where they unabashedly declared their risk aversion to selling to an audience that they couldn’t relate to. In other words, there was a near-zero chance for a person like myself who is just telling a story.

But, as my writing teacher always emphasizes: The readers are out there. Unfortunately, as the traditional publishing industry has changed, world literature has fallen victim to the budgeting ax. It remains a question of reaching the right audience, but at the indie book level. Hence I saw how critical it is to designate a book properly to attract my target readers.

-What’s been the biggest surprise thus far in being published?

I’m astounded at how supportive other indie authors are. I’m also floored by how impossible it is for anyone with kids to write, publish, and market a book with no child care. I started writing Trixi Pudong in 2009, pre-parenthood. My daughter was born in 2014, and my writing screeched to a complete standstill. Without my mother-in-law donating 20 hours a week of babysitting, I simply wouldn’t have a book out. Period.

– What do you say to yourself on days when the writing feels especially difficult?

Just wait. What goes down must come up again. 

I’m very strict about this, to not put pressure on myself. I don’t work well under pressure. I would just produce garbage. But when inspiration comes on its own, it really flows and the process is nearly effortless. It’s therefore more important for me to find ways to let the inspiration flow. A meditation practice — being able to empty my mind to allow for ideas to emerge, aka “listen to your heart” lol — has been my best resource.

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

This is going somewhere, I promise: My dad is a retired professor of computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. For a while decades ago, UCB topped even Harvard as the country’s best university, and this was because of his department. So he’s a pretty esteemed individual in his field (just don’t ask me anything about it!). At conferences and events, fellow professors and former students flock around him. I’ll never forget what some of his former grad students related to us at his 80th birthday celebration. According to these students, my dad always told them that, in the face of doubt:

Never compare yourself to anyone else.

Remember that no one else can do what you are doing.

 

Thank you to Michele for giving me the honor of guest-posting on your blog! You can find the rest of my blog tour schedule here.

 

There is always a lag time between acceptance of one’s work and publication. So, I was thrilled to receive the recent Oracle: Fine Arts Review, a lovely literary and arts journal, and see my poem, ‘The Shells of Pink Bodies’! This poem was submitted last September and accepted at the beginning of the year. Oracle is published annually by the University of South Alabama. It features fiction, nonfiction, poetry, painting, photography, drawing, sculpture, illustration, glass, printmaking, and ceramics. I enjoyed working with their editorial team.

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This poem is my strongest one to date, both in terms of technique, structure and emotional resonance. I have not studied poetry in the obsessive way that I have studied novels and more recently short stories. Therefore, it’s such a joy when I write a poem that I immediately know works and sparks something for the reader. When I took a draft to my writing group and listened to their responses (unlike any other response to my poems), I knew the work was strong. I typically don’t decide to just sit down and write a poem. When I am compelled to write a poem, it is in response to a very strong emotion, usually something rooted in my childhood or adolescence. This poem contains some autobiographical material that has been reworked. It also takes up mother and daughter issues which is definitely emotional territory that I like to explore. Soon Oracle will have a pdf file of the issue on their website that I can link to. They produced a beautiful issue. Until then, here is my poem. Also, check out their call for issue 10. They would love to see your work. Enjoy!

 

The Shells of Pink Bodies

 a girl sits in a fine restaurant
her mother across from her, martini in hand.
the girl knows that being there is a luxury.

what awaits them in the tiny hotel room
the chair, the stained bedspread, no fridge
but a hotplate.

small cartons of milk pilfered from school
placed outside on the window sill,
to keep them cool, and
tiny boxes of Coco Puffs and Fruit Loops
decorate the TV stand.
their lives away from the stepfather
not with him
but not yet
somewhere else.
years later, the daughter will still loathe
small cartons of milk, and the cheery, sugary cereals
that everyone else loved, and describe their time in that room
as hand to almost mouth living.

And so a restaurant,
every now and then, makes the mother forget.
while the daughter practices
what it will be like

when things are different
in a barely imagined future.
the daughter wrings the napkin in her lap, eager
she takes her mother’s suggestion and orders what she wants
the most exotic thing on the menu.
Shrimp!
she has seen their small, pink muscular bodies
lying on ice-filled platters
in late night commercials,
wedged
between the Johnny Carson show
and B movie reruns.
the waiter smiles at her,
she beams.

“Another martini, please.
Yes the same as before, extra dry,
straight up, with two olives.”

the daughter’s platter arrives
and she eats and eats and eats.

the chewing though takes longer than she imagined.

the waiter looks at the daughter with a hint of surprise and just
as he is about to speak, the daughter glimpses a calculation

in her mother’s eyes,
the waiter sees it, too, hesitating.
a message, the daughter wonders
the waiter shrinks back.
the pink bodies finally surrender to the daughter’s jaws working,
chewing and snapping.
her mother is paying, so she must eat another and another
all that awaits back at the hotel is the dry crunch of cereal.
The waiter returns, rising on the balls of his feet, worried now
hovering, until the mother shoos him away.

pink bodies float in the melting ice, disintegrating.

the daughter’s throat is raw and she asks for another Coke.
her mother is quiet, drinking the next martini.

the waiter takes the completely empty platter away.

“You didn’t ask, did you? You just took,” her mother finally says.

the girl sees a meanness coming, shooting out from her mother’s eyes,
she checks the placement of forks, napkins.

“Don’t do anything,
in a restaurant,
without asking me.”
“You weren’t supposed to eat them with the shells on.”

the mother’s martini laugh, sharp and almost playful
rings in the girl’s ears.
her focus narrows
to the missing platter’s
indentation in the tablecloth.

“You always wait
and watch
and ask if you are unsure.”

“Next time, you’ll know.”

the bill is paid and they begin their journey back.
those perfectly pink bodies, those shells,
stay with her,
scratch inside.

years later they remind her
of the ability to endure.
the caring, but quiet waiter.

she waits to know,
for sure,
what is expected of her.

a different future
than imagined.

 

Affirmations-366Days#205: My writing connects me to history and to people who were never given an opportunity to express themselves.

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

I have written in other places about the influence of my maternal grandmother on my desire to write. My grandmother used to read five to six newspapers a day and loved the written word. She had entertained high aspirations of becoming a journalist (already in full bloom in adolescence as evidenced by her securing an interview with Harlem Renaissance notable Countee Cullen for the high school newspaper). She did do some writing for The Amsterdam News, a black focused newspaper in NYC. However, she found it overall impossible to give her creative gifts to the world because of her skin color and sex.

This was true for many women of color of her generation. Barriers for many women rooted in the intersection of sexuality, race, nationality, class and disability still profoundly shapes the possibilities and trajectories of a creative life. I am aware of how privileged I am in the ability to contemplate let alone pursue a creative life. I write for myself, but also with an attention to telling collective stories that my mother, grandmother and others would have loved to hear. And, I do believe that as more women of color live fulfilling creative lives, at some deep inexplicable metaphysical level, we heal the unfulfilled karmic desires of female ancestors who came before us.

Pavarti Tyler is an adored writer and publisher. Under the moniker P.K. Tyler, she writes speculative fiction and other genre bending fiction. She’s published works as Pavarti K. Tyler and had projects appear on the USA TODAY Bestseller’s List. She also created Fighting Monkey Press.

IndieReader has said this about Pavarti: “Tyler is essentially the indie scene’s Margaret Atwood; she incorporates sci-fi elements into her novels, which deal with topics such as spirituality, gender, sexuality and power dynamics.”

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I know Pavarti because I’m one of the 22 authors in her recent Uncommon Origins: A Collection of Gods, Monsters, Nature and Science anthology published through Fighting Monkey Press. This is the second UnCommon anthology that she has published, beginning with UnCommon Bodies. She is currently reviewing manuscripts for UnCommon Minds.

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Not only was I delighted to have my work accepted for UnCommon Origins, I was thrilled to become part of Pavarti’s community of writers. Leading up to the launch for UnCommon Origins, Pavarti mentored and supported us in learning about marketing, branding, and finding audiences that would love our work. I learned so much! I also got to interact with authors involved in UnCommon Origins and authors from UnCommon Bodies and other projects that Pavarti has brought to fruition. She’s nurtured a group of writers who are incredibly generous and supportive of each other. As I noted in an earlier post, the launch for UnCommon Origins was incredibly successful and continues to trend on Amazon. Pavarti knows both art and the marketplace.

mosaics

I recently discovered one of her other series: Mosaics: A Collection of Independent Women. This collection is ambitious in scope and features a diverse group of self-identified women writing about intersectionality (e.g. how social categories of race, class, sexuality, nationality, etc. come together simultaneously to shape both privilege and power). Pavarti has recently released the second Mosiacs collection with its multi-faceted look at the history and culture surrounding femininity: “If gender is a construct, this anthology is the house it built. Look through its many rooms, some bright and airy, some terrifying– with monsters lurking in the shadows.” This work offers readers poetry, essays and fiction, showcasing voices that don’t often get represented.

Profits from both collections are donated to the Pixel Project to end Violence Against Women.

I’ve written about intersectional theory, practice and methods as a scholar, so I was especially interested in this project. Mosaics is timely given the ongoing VIDA: Women in Literary Arts conversations about gender equity and the We Need Diverse Books movement.

I wanted to know more about Mosaics and Pavarti’s writing career. I’m delighted to welcome Pavarti Tyler to The Practice of Creativity.
 

 -Tell us about the Mosaics collections. What inspired them?

Mosaics was a project conceived by Kim Wells.  We decided to work together because our politics and philosophies are so in line.  Both books were filled with stories the two of us hand selected for inclusion and that we believed brought something special not only to the literary world, but also contributed to the conversation about sex and gender. There has been so much controversy and misunderstanding about feminism and equality lately, we felt it was important to give voice to a wide variety of women and experiences on how gender intersects with issues of race, sex, and ability.  In the end, we had so many amazing submissions we weren’t able to put together just one collection and had to expand the scope to two books.  It was a tremendous amount of work, but work I’m exceptionally proud of as both an author and publisher.

– You’ve edited several anthologies over the past few years. What do you enjoy about being an editor? How was editing Mosaics different than your other anthologies (i.e. UnCommon Bodies)?uncommonbodies

I’m actually not an editor.  I’m lucky I’m able to spell my own name right most days. In all these projects I’ve worked as curator, coordinator, and publisher (and often marketer).  I love the chance to bring together new voices and curate selections that stand up as individual works, but which also add something to the greater whole when seen in context of the collection.

-You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a blogger, writer, editor and publisher. How do these activities feed each other and you?

I’m not sure if this question makes me want to laugh or cry.  I do pack a lot into my days and I’m exhausted most of the time, but everything I do is done out of love and passion.  A passion for language, for story, for the fundamental belief that it’s essential to the human condition to share experiences. Of everything, blogging is the one thing I don’t do consistently, only when something strikes my fancy or inspiration, but I do try to put up something every few weeks.  While it’s not my primary passion, it’s a great way for me to connect with readers in a direct and personal way.

-Is there a story behind the name of your publishing imprint—Fighting Monkey Press?

Yes.  My husband and our friends were ridiculous creatures when we met.  I called the group of them my monkeys because of their penchant for climbing walls and jumping over things on rollerblades.  They were also all on the fencing team.  So when it came time to name my company, Fighting Monkey just made sense.

-Do you consider yourself a discovery writer (also known as a pantser) or outliner? Or do those categories not apply?

I plot, but I’m not a micro plotter.  I use a 5 act structure and outline the basics of where I’m going and then beat plot a few chapters ahead of where I am before writing.  The essential part of this for me though is the willingness to just delete it all if the characters take me in another direction.  They usually know the story better than I do so I follow their lead.  So I’m a plotter who sometimes gets swept away by my pants.

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

Shut up.  I know that sounds harsh, but there are only 2 rules for writing: 1 – Shut Up 2 – Write.  If you can get past the first one, I believe everyone has a story to tell.  So silence your inner critic, stop talking about the things you want to do, stop posting on Facebook about writing, just shut up and write.

 

Pavarti Tyler attended Smith College and graduated with a degree in Theatre. She lived in New York, where she worked as a Dramaturge, Assistant Director and Production Manager on productions both on and off-Broadway. Later, Pavarti went to work in the finance industry for several international law firms. Now located in Baltimore Maryland, she lives with her husband, two daughters and two terrible dogs. When not penning science fiction books and other speculative fiction novels, she twists her mind by writing horror and erotica. Find out more about her here.

 

Affirmations-366Days#175: I make a  literary pilgrimage as a purposeful act of devotion.

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

In a few days I will travel to London for both work and pleasure. I’m super excited. The last time I visited London was 25 years ago, right before I started graduate school. How time flies! Unfortunately, the last time I was there I didn’t get a chance to explore much of London’s great literary history. That won’t happen this time. I can’t wait to walk the same streets of Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf and be immersed in their specific histories.  My upcoming trip reminded me of the importance of making literary pilgrimages, hence my affirmation. Pilgrimages are purposeful trips meant to show devotion and help foster insight and gratitude. Making a pilgrimage in service of our creativity is fortifying. My trip also reminded me of a post that I wrote on this topic in 2014. Below, I share the powerful experience I had of taking my first literary pilgrimage to learn about the remarkable Harriet Jacobs, escaped slave and author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

 

Tips for Writing at Mid-Year: Make a Literary Pilgrimage

I decided to use a recent visit by my godsons as motivation to make a literary pilgrimage to visit the town of Edenton, NC where Harriet Ann Jacobs lived and made her escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. I read about her remarkable life in college and have been fascinated with her story ever since.

A literary pilgrimage can take many forms. It can mean a visit to a deceased writer’s home or estate, or a walk about their favorite town or city, exploring places that were important to them. It can be refreshing to take a break from your writing routine and connect with a writer that you admire by visiting places that shaped them.

Not all literary pilgrimages are arduous, but this one had elements of difficulty. My partner Tim and I were going to begin our trip with our godsons (visiting from Minnesota), by first going to Edenton and then ending up on Ocracoke Island. When I initially called the Historic Edenton Visitor Center to arrange a tour, I discovered that they would be closed on the first leg of our trip. And, I also discovered that only certain docents conducted the Harriet Jacobs tour and work on certain days. So we rearranged our trip so that we could get there later in the week, thus ending our sightseeing in Edenton before heading home.  A few days into the trip, I called a second time to arrange a tour.

During this call, the person explained that the main ‘Harriet Jacobs docent’ was out on vacation, but perhaps another person who occasionally did the tour could fill in. But, the person on the phone sounded skeptical that this other docent was going to be available.  She said that there were materials available for a self-guided tour.  I thought OK, we’ll just show up and do the self-guided tour. Not ideal, but doable.

The afternoon we arrived in Edenton, we were tired and it was already close to 90 degrees. This the last leg of our trip after watching wild ponies in Ocracoke, seeing the Lost Colony play in Roanoke, and feeling the exuberance of invention at the Wright Brothers’ exhibit in Kitty Hawk. It also looked as if it was going to rain which made me doubt everyone’s willingness to do a self-guided tour.

We were in luck, however, for when we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were met by an older woman named ‘Miss Carolyn’ (a native of Edenton), and she graciously walked with us and gave us a thorough 90 minute tour. Although not the primary docent on Harriet Jacobs, she was a great resource and an enthusiastic guide.

The brief story about Harriet Jacobs goes as follows: Although they were enslaved, the Jacobs family had a great deal of relative freedom in the small town of Edenton. Her father was an accomplished carpenter, her grandmother, a well-known cook. After her mother’s death, Harriet went to live in the home of her owner Margaret Horniblow; Margaret taught her how to sew and read. It was assumed by Harriet and her family that Horniblow would emancipate her. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Harriet and her younger brother found themselves in the home of Mr. Norcom (there seems to be some historical evidence that Mr. Norcom somehow interfered with  Horniblow’s wishes and/or will). Mr. Norcum became obsessed with young Harriet and made many sexual advances on her. At the time it was common that enslaved women were often sexually brutalized by any white man that lived on the plantation (or off).

After dealing with this terrible situation for several years and trying other remedies (including beginning a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried, powerful white lawyer and future US Congressman), Harriet ran away and went into hiding. She first hid in the homes of friends, in nearby ‘Snaky Swamp’ and later in the home of her grandmother Molly. Harriet hid in her grandmother’s small attic above a storeroom for six years and eleven months. Norcom continued to search for her and briefly jailed her children (children from the liaison with Sawyer), her brother and an aunt hoping to flush her out. She successfully escaped in 1842 and made a life in New York. Norcom and other members of his family continued to search for her.

She was able to buy her children’s freedom and became prominent in the abolition movement. She completed Incidents in 1858. She had bad luck initially as two book publishers who acquired the book both went out of business before it came to print.

Harriet purchased the plates of her book and had it printed in 1861. This endeavor I imagine cost a small fortune. I had forgotten that self-publishing options were often a route for disenfranchised people to make their voices heard. She published it originally under a pseudonym as to protect the living members of her family still in slavery.

We were able to visit the church that Harriet and her family attended, the jail where her family members were imprisoned and the harbor where she escaped as part of the Underground Railroad.

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We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in. The property of the Visitor Center has created a replica of Molly’s attic where Harriet hid.

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She was able to sit up, but could not stand up. She had a small peep hole to look out of and the entire area was about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high. Her grandmother would bring her food and occasionally she could come down, but the majority of the time was spent there. I can’t imagine the ways in which Harriet had to keep her mind occupied. Amazing.

My eldest godson Andrew, who is 14, had read the book last year for class, so he knew many of the details. It was so nice to share a piece of history with them.

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The power of the word is remarkable and has often been used to fight injustice. I felt truly moved walking around Edenton and thinking about Harriet. If any of her family members’ graves had been marked, I would have left something on them as an offering, but unfortunately that was not the case. I have only scratched the surface in recounting the highlights of the life of Harriet Jacobs. For more, read Incidents in Life of a Slave Girl, and visit this site.

I’d love to hear if you’ve gone on a literary pilgrimage or are planning one.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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