The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Accidental Birds of the Carolinas

Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.

We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.

For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.

That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.

I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.

As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).

Case closed, right?

After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.

After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?

Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”

Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.

However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.

I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.

Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.

Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.

This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013

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When someone says they are hosting a ‘literary salon’, I’m never sure what to expect. There’s always prep work to do on my end: dress well, remind myself of five recent outstanding books I’ve read, remind myself to use good posture, and, of course practice a pithy answer to the “What are you working on?’ question. I’ve only been to a few literary salons and I think of them as opportunities to practice being a writer in public. Some literary salons are more like informal gatherings, hosted in someone’s home, with a newly published author; others involve having a lively conversation about favorite works and the state of publishing.

A few weeks ago, when writing teacher and friend, Marjorie Hudson said she was hosting a literary salon with Clifford Garstang, most recently author of What the Zhang Boys Know: A Novel in Stories and inviting me–I immediately said yes.  Marjorie and Clifford know each because they are both published by Press 53, and she has been an admirer and supporter of his work for some time. Garstang is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine and is also author of the well-known blog Perpetual Folly. I knew at this gathering there would be good food, a copy of the author’s book and a chance to mix and mingle with other writers.

Marjorie Garstang3

What I didn’t know is that I was that at this salon, we were going to be treated to a wonderful craft discussion about the concept of ‘story cycles’ and ‘a novel told in stories’. Marjorie Garstang2

Clifford talked for a few minutes about his own journey as someone who wanted to be a writer right out of college, then traveled to Southeast Asia and instead became a lawyer. Even while he was a lawyer though, he never stopped thinking about writing.  Twenty years later he returned to writing. Fascinating! I’m hoping you’ll get to hear more of his story here, later this summer, in an interview.

This is a brief summary of his very substantive talk:

With an interlinked set of stories a writer can create a ‘wide angle lens’ way of telling a big story that has the feel of a novel. He provided a broad typology of
‘story cycles’:

-Stories that are loosely connected in a collection

-Linked short story collections

-A novel told in stories—linkages are tighter (you’re really telling one big story)

-a polyphonic novel (multiple voices and points of view)

He said that the linkages among and across stories can be made in multiples ways:

-using a setting that ties all stories together

-using one character that appears in each story (but not necessarily as the main character)

-using one character throughout all stories that is a main character

-using a big theme that explores a group experience or worldview.

He gave examples of each type. I’ll name just a few:

God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr. (linked short stories that begins with the premise that God came to earth and died)

Dubliners by James Joyce (stories that are linked by theme and setting)

Accidental Birds of the Carolinas by Marjorie Hudson (loosely linked stories that examine displacement and community for people who move to the South).

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (linked stories that follow one character)

One I would add to this list is Ursula Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness (interlinked novellas set in the future on two different worlds).

The other thing that Clifford impressed on us is that each type of ‘story cycle’ can create a different effect for the reader. Sometimes all the stories in a collection build toward the last story and a deep resolution, and in other instances with less tightly linked stories, there’s no final resolution, but the reader still senses that the “whole is greater than its parts.”

Marjorie Garstang1

Marjorie and Clifford had an engaging conversation about the process of writing interlinked short stories. Is it always intentional? Well, no… Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re writing a set of interlinked stories until you’re far along—you can discover it along the way as you ask more questions about your characters.

I loved his craft talk and now have a long list of new authors to read. The handful of writers in attendance at this literary salon ate great food and talked about the loves and labors of the writing life. A perfect day!

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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