The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Carolina Woman Magazine

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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You never know what’s in you until you start writing. I never thought I could write flash fiction. All my previous attempts at writing short stories resulted in novellas. But, over the past year and half, I have intensely studied the form. Last fall and early this year, I signed up for classes on writing short fiction.

Ironically, my two recent fiction publications are flash fiction. One of these two stories, ‘Family Line’ , was published last year by Ink Monkey Press.

And, now Carolina Woman magazine has just published ‘Urban Wendy’. This story took the third prize in their spring contest. And, as if I needed any more encouragement from the universe to keep writing, I got it-the prize I won was a year long membership to The North Carolina Writers’ Network. The NCWN is a fantastic organization that supports writers in all stages of development. They sponsor residencies, an annual fall and spring conference, and events around the state. I am always promoting NCWN to newbie writers (so much so, they sometimes think I have a financial stake in the organization–I don’t. I just love the services they provide). I’ve been a member for years and I am thrilled that another year’s membership is my prize .

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You can read ‘Urban Wendy’ here as well as see the other winners (I’m in honored to be in such great company). In the magazine, they put together a perfect selection of pictures to go with the story. Full disclosure–I worked at a Wendy’s in Spanish Harlem when I was sixteen, and at a Dunkin’ Donuts kiosk in the Times Square Terminal when I was seventeen, and I have always loved the notion of urban legends. Enjoy!

 

 

I remember anxiety creeping over me in Marjorie Hudson’s ‘Strategies for the Writing Life’ workshop when she cheerfully asked the group to name and claim our writing ‘accomplishments’ so far. People immediately raised their hands and asked questions like: Do you mean publication credits? How far back can we start our list? Does a personalized rejection letter count? What if I can’t think of anything?

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She calmly explained that we could count anything and everything that has happened in our writing lives that we believe strengthened or encouraged us. This could include the time our teacher in the third grade chose to read our essay in front of the class to submitting an op-ed to getting a poem published in a literary journal. Our list could include helpful feedback we received from an editor or agent (even if they passed on the book), or reassuring words from a published writer. Most of us undertook the task with a kind of grim determination. And, I felt that I was bound to have a short and uninteresting list.

After about ten minutes, she asked us to read from our lists. The mood in the room softened as people shared. As it turns out until we were asked to reflect on the shape of our writing lives, most of us had either forgotten or discounted many of the positive things that had shown up. Several people did mention publication as an aspect of their accomplishments, but much of it included specific moments of encouragement expressed by peers, teachers and other published writers. Often words of encouragement allowed us to keep going in the face of high self-doubt and flat out fear. We also celebrated the fact that many of us had completed various types of writing projects and with some additional strategic effort, some might eventually find their way into publication. My list included the over 50 journals I have amassed, over my life, that are stuffed with ideas, dream fragments, stories, and chapters of novels. Hearing the lists of the other writers uplifted and inspired me.

Since that workshop in the spring of 2011, I have often gone back to the list in my notebook as well as the longer ‘accomplishments’ list that I keep on my computer. Some of the writers in that workshop posted their list in their writing space for daily inspiration.

It is easy to forget or minimize the ways in which the writing life is sustained. A list is evidence of one’s deep intentions that we can turn toward during moments of skepticism about our progress.

It is atypical that a writer gets anything published during a normal week and highly unlikely that more than one thing gets published. The first two weeks of April have been exceptionally good to me, so I’ve got new things to add to my list.

I received news that I am the 3rd place prize winner in the Carolina Woman Magazine Writing Contest, for my speculative fiction short story ‘Urban Wendy’. They will publish the piece in an upcoming issue.

For fun, I’ve included a few lines from the beginning of the story:

Marisol pulls another strand of red hair from a perfectly glazed Dunkin Donut, holds it up and looks at the stray bits of delicate pink icing clinging to the hair. Marisol reminds herself that her other team members working this shift don’t have red hair, nor does anyone else working here. Just like the icing clinging to the hair, Marisol knows that Wendy is trying to cling to her.

When Marisol announced she was leaving Wendy’s to work at Dunkin Donuts, two weeks ago, her co-workers warned her.

“Expect a visit from Wendy,” they said. Marisol looked at the goofy-looking freckled girl on the napkins she had passed out so many times to snot-nosed kids, harried mothers and dope addicts.

“She doesn’t like it when we leave without warning,” one of them whispered.

“You gotta to be kidding me. I’ll tell her a thing or two,” Marisol said. She filed their concerns of Wendy the phantom stalker, under ‘another urban legend’ and said good bye to the drab brown uniform, the never ending work of keeping the salad bar clean and organized, and sought her fortune among coffee and donuts.

* * *

A prose piece, ‘The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank’ that I wrote in 2010 found a perfect home at  Trivia: Voices of Feminism, an online magazine. This piece was created for the wonderful ‘Vision and Voice’ event at the Joyful Jewel gallery (in Pittsboro, North Carolina), where writers are invited to write about art. Then the writer gets to read the piece and the artist attends, too, and remarks about the inspiration behind the art.

Sharon Blessum’s photograph (below) triggered a memory about a powerful dream regarding my grandmother and other female elders that I wrestled with for many years. In the piece, I tackle the metaphorical ‘poison’, given societal constraints, that many of our female ancestors swallowed, and how I integrate this knowledge into my work as a professor and coach.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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