The Practice of Creativity

Archive for the ‘women and creativity’ Category

I’m so honored to have been asked by Jason Graves, founder of Prospective Press, to write a fantasy story for the debut volume of his new anthology series, Concrete Dreams, featuring ‘witches, warriors and wise women’. This is my first invite to participate in a themed anthology! The contributors are well-published speculative fiction authors including Gail Z. Martin, Jody Lynn Nye, Nicole Givens Kurtz, Darin Kennedy, Paige L. Christie and several more. My story is due at the end of the year and the volume is due out in June 2020.

Established in 2015, Prospective Press is a vigorous small press specializing in fantasy, horror, and other speculative fiction. It is an inclusive, pro-diversity, feminist-friendly, queer-welcoming, and #ownvoices-embracing publishing house.

This is a Kickstarter funded anthology, so I have a favor to ask:

Will you, dear blog reader, consider making a pledge to see this anthology funded?

There are fantastic rewards for all levels of pledges. Even if you don’t read much fantasy, your pledge will help usher this book into the world for other eager readers to enjoy. Your literary karma increases by ten-fold when you help get new worthwhile projects off the ground. Or, if you are unable to contribute, please consider sharing the Kickstarter page through social media as I bet someone you know would be interested. It takes a village to get an anthology published in the 21st century! Thanks in advance!

 

Here’s more details about the project, levels of pledge and the rewards.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Check it out here when you have a moment!

 

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

This author has created very loyal and responsive fans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit-Louise Penny

Photo Credit-Emily Nunn

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

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

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

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

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

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

—Jacqueline Woodson

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

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

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nicole Givens Kurtz is a Renaissance person. She is an author, educator and publisher. I met her, several years ago, at my first local speculative fiction convention. She was warm, encouraging and knowledgeable about the changing face of publishing. She’s been a hybrid author since 1998.  At the time I didn’t know the profound impact she has had through her mentoring of other writers and being an advocate for diversifying the field of speculative fiction.

Kurtz is the published author of the futuristic thriller series, Cybil Lewis. Her short stories have appeared in over 40 anthologies and magazines of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She is a member of The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). Her novels have been finalists for the EPPIEs, Dream Realm, and Fresh Voices in Science Fiction awards. Her work has appeared in Sycorax’s Daughters, and in such anthologies as Baen’s Straight Outta Tombstone and Onyx Path’s V20: Vampire the Masquerade Anthology.

She founded Mocha Memoirs Press to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She is an advocate for better and more diverse representation in speculative fiction and is a national speaker on these issues.

Nicole loves ‘weird westerns’ and has been publishing them for some time. She’s recently gathered them together in her dazzling new collection: Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection.  I have not read widely in westerns or weird westerns, so I had no background in the genre when I read the collection. I immediately forgot this fact as I was pulled into the vividly described realities of Kurtz’s characters. These stories are mostly set in New Mexico around the 1900s, though some take place in the present or near future. Kurtz is a powerful storyteller, weaving in fascinating tidbits of history alongside powerful characters. These creative stories run the gamut of magical realism, horror and science fiction. I loved this collection and reviewed the work on Goodreads and Amazon.

Given that her new collection has just been published, I thought this would be a great time to catch up with Nicole. I’m so delighted to welcome Nicole Givens Kurtz to The Practice of Creativity.

Q: Tell us about your new book, Sisters of the Wild Sage? What’s in store for readers?

A: Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wild, untamed adventure into the American West that never was. It’s weird. It’s horrific. It will stick with the reader, long after they have completed the collection.

Q: This collection feels like it is reinventing the conventions and genre expectations of ‘weird westerns’ given its focus on the multifaceted lives of women of color characters, in particular. Is this accurate? What drew you to explore weird westerns?

A: The collection’s purpose is to share stories of those people who thrived and survived in the American West but didn’t get the same attention in traditional (and often inaccurate) westerns. Yes, it was intentional. I grew up watching westerns with my mother, so the genre is a part of my childhood, a part of me. My love of horror is why they’re weird. Additionally, so much of the Southwest for me, when I lived in New Mexico, felt otherworldly and foreign.  That comes through in the stories in collection.

Q: How did you come to writing? Did you always want to write or did you come to writing later in life?

A: I’ve been writing since I was a young child. Even when I couldn’t write out long stories, I would alternate endings to television shows in my mind. I remember being very young, no more than 6 or 7, playing with my dolls and crafting narratives based on what mom read to me that night or what I’d seen on cartoons.

Q: You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, educator and also run a publishing press. How do these different activities fuel your creativity?

A: All three feed into my ability to communicate ideas, both fictional and non-fiction. They require me to continue to look for different solutions to issues, both in story, and in real life, that fuels my creativity. They’re really three sides of a pyramid.

Q: If you could invite three authors (living or dead) to your next dinner party, who would they be and why?

A: If I could invite three authors to my next dinner party, I would invite Zora Neale Hurston, Sue Grafton, and Octavia Butler. Each of these women were stellar icons in their respective genres, and the opportunity to sit and listen, to soak up their wisdom and advice about the writing life would be life-altering for me.

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

A: My best writing tip is to read as much as you can. It serves as a foundation for building your writing career.

Educator. Author. Mom. Nicole Givens Kurtz loves reading, writing, and anime. She enjoys reading works that promote women of color and futuristic settings. She also loves a good mystery. She started Mocha Memoirs to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She’s also a scribbler of tales. She lives in Winston-Salem with her family. Learn more about her at Other World Pulp

 

 

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.

I’m taking a break from my weekly post to share this interview that rocked my world and is worth a listen. It is led by Brooke Warner, author and co-creator of SheWrites Press and Tayari Jones, NYT bestselling author. Brooke interviewed Tayari during the recent Bay Area Book Festival.

Jones gives an incredible interview that details what happens when the publishing world gives up on you and how she not only continued to believe in herself, as a writer, but also thrive. She talks about writing her recent novel, An American Marriage and how she created characters and a story line that challenge notions of what makes a marriage and relationship work. She also discusses why she used fiction to explore the inequities of the criminal justice system and class dynamics in the African American community. It’s a compelling interview because Brooke is a fantastic interviewer who poses substantive questions and Tayari brings warmth, honesty and humor in sharing her writing journey. I found out about this interview because it was posted through the Write-Minded podcast. If you don’t know about Write-Minded with Brooke (and co-host Grant Faulkner), check it out–they offer a great format (e.g. writing actions and “green light” moments), they interview a wide spectrum of authors and they also provide inspirational writing advice. Listen to the interview here.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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