The Practice of Creativity

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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.

Judy Hogan--Debbie photo--3--Nov 2011

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

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I’m new to the ‘blog hop’ world and excited to join in. This particular blog hop is making its way around the blogosphere. It’s called ‘My Next Big Thing’. I was tagged by North Carolina mystery writer Karen Pullen to answer 10 questions.  Then I get to tag some other writers. Here we go!

1.  What is the working title of your book?

I’m co-producing a literary zine with Beth Turner. It is tentatively called, ‘Chatmosphere’: The Arts and Cultural Buzz of Chatham County

2.  Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve lived in Chatham County, North Carolina for almost a decade and have been inspired by its unique character. Chatham County is full of farmers, artists, and green industrialists. At first, I wanted to do an edited volume that chronicled the history and stories of the county. I thought doing a zine, however, would prove much more accessible and fun, and would constitute a good first step to an eventual edited volume.

One day I was talking about this idea with my friend Beth Turner. We got really excited about doing this project together. We’re like the county in that we are a combination of “old” and “new” in terms of years living here. We’ve been involved in politics, the creative arts and community building. Beth is a regional non-profit organizer who was one of the co-founders of Girls Rock NC (www.girlsrocknc.org) and is also a commissioner on Pittsboro’s Town Board. (We both live in Pittsboro) Beth has also designed lots of zines through her experience with Girls Rock, a summer camp that empowers girls through music, feminist activism and history.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

A zine is an independent publication (pronounced zeen!) that can contain just about anything from manifestos to collages. A zine can also include recipes, poetry, art work, drawings, or comics. A zine is a hands-on production and can be as informal or as fancy as one wants.

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since this question doesn’t quite apply to my project, let me say a bit more about our process. Last year, we sent invitations to people to submit their work for consideration. I tried not to get too intimidated when I reached out to well-known writers and thought leaders. Everyone has been so nice and supportive of this project!

Here’s a snippet from our invitation:

We are inviting submissions up to 1500 words* that play with the following questions/themes:

How would you define the ‘chatmosphere’?
What keeps you committed and passionate about living in Chatham County?
What brought you to Chatham County and why have you decided to stay?

We invite you to reflect and riff on:
What is ‘rural cool’ and how does it apply to Chatham County?  Think about the areas that involve YOU, including but not limited to farming and the local food movement, creating community across difference; emerging green industries and technologies, the creative economy, the role of the arts in Chatham County (i.e. music, acting, writing, singing, etc), natural resources, the history and value of our rivers: the Deep, the Rocky, the Haw and, the Cape Fear, cultural heritage traditions, healing traditions, activism and the political cultures of our county.

5.  What is the one-sentence synopsis of your manuscript?

The ‘Chatmosphere’ is a space and attitude that blends together arts, the environment and passion unlike another other place in North Carolina.

6.  Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

We are self-publishing this zine.

7.  How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

We received our submissions in a timely manner. We are now in the process working with authors on their revisions and planning the design of the zine. It’s been a bit slower process than we imagined, because of all the things we have learned along the way. Our target goal is to have the zine out by the end of the year!

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within the genre?

N/A

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

We want to showcase the talent in our community and break out of the literary and cultural shadows of Durham, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.

10.  What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

We have some incredible writers who have submitted poetry and prose including Belle Boggs, Marjorie Hudson, Ruth Moose, Karen Pullen and Nancy Peacock. Contributors in the zine are writing on everything from the local food movement, the dissolution of a local African American church to the vision behind some of the most successful nonprofits in the county.

Now I’m passing the baton to some truly exceptional writers . . .

Barbara Ehrentreu,http://barbaraehrentreu.blogspot.com/,whose next big thing is a novel:’ When My Life Changed’:

A fifteen year old girl who would rather watch baseball than do her nails finds her life turns upside down when her father has a heart attack and needs surgery, and in the process she finds her friendship with her best friend Joey becomes more, her relationship with her family changes and she learns she needs more than a boy as a friend to be happy.

Posting NOV 25

AND Nancy Hinchliff, whose next big thing is a memoir. A story about family and significant relationships and events that have a indelible mark on one young girl’s entire life.

http://www.amemorabletimeofmylife.blogspot.com/

Posting NOV 26

AND Olga Godim, doing a guest post-on my blog about her soon to be published novel (yay!)  ‘Lost & Found in Russia’: One mother travels around the globe in search of her daughter, while another must delve deep into her heart to find understanding and acceptance.

Posting NOV 27

AND Kiersi Burkhart, http://prolificnovelista.com/, on her next BIG thing

Posting NOV 29

AND  Edith O Nuallainhttp://inaroomofmyown.wordpress.com/ on  ‘The Artist’s Daughter’ (or an update about how the novel she is writing for the National Novel Writing Month contest is going)

Posting NOV 30

Follow the bunny!

We have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.—Kurt Vonnegut

As a creative person, you have to be willing to try new things. To do this, we often risk feeling out of one’s league, unprepared, foolish, silly and weird. Even hints of these feelings can sometimes get the best of us, immobilizing us. Over time and with gentle practice however, creative people can become emotional ninjas navigating around these feelings and, of course, the press agent for inadequacy—the inner critic. I’ve been practicing my inner ninja skills for the last several weeks.

Recently, I bought a Flip Ultra HD video camera with the intention of making short videos. I have a new co-authored book that’s just been published and have a desire to make short video clips with myself and the co-author chatting about the book. Everyone said making short videos was going to be easy. Indeed a look on YouTube confirms that even ten year-olds nowadays can make videos and post them.

Even though I am professionally paid to tone my clients’ creative muscles and encourage thoughtful risk-taking, I usually shy away from anything that is remotely ‘techie’. So while I was nervous about taking the videos, the thought of editing them using the included software sent me into hyperventilating spasms. But, I proceeded….

I had the pleasure of attending the Chatham Creative Economy Summit a few weeks ago (see previous post), and imposed on friends and acquaintances by sticking the video camera in their faces asking to film them. Although I’m not an introvert, by walking up to people and asking them to say a few words, I definitely felt my underarms moisten heavily (and then worried about how much ‘fear sweat’ I was releasing into the atmosphere). As I’ve found with most things though, people are generous, kind and supportive when you say, “I’m doing this for the first time. Will you help me?” I discovered I absolutely loved capturing people’s insights as the summit unfolded.

So, while taking the videos was fun and relatively easy, it was working with the software that almost did me in (my fears were confirmed)! I started by uploading the software at 11:45 at night. Well, after looking at some of my videos, I was quickly reminded why filmmaking is a high art. Still, I tried not to let my inner critic (who won’t get an Oscar nomination in the category ‘Helpful Support for Trying Something New’), get the best of me. I breathed and told myself that the real goal here is not mastery and perfection out of the gate, but fun and learning. I began arranging the clips and decided that I definitely wanted to do some editing.

It actually would take another two weeks for me to figure out how to upload the edited video to YouTube, requiring multiple browser upgrades, online chats with customer service and at least one sleepless night.

It’s now on YouTube and posted to Facebook. As I write this, however, I discover that I have not posted the video correctly to Facebook—I stop and take care of that. My inner critic shouts about how absolutely ridiculous I am for not being able to post the video to Facebook perfectly and how this will make me look bad in everyone’s eyes. It shrieks that I have wasted too much time with this ‘video thing’ and condemns my lack of tech savvy.

I know it’s really just trying to protect the ego part of me—that’s one of the functions of an inner critic. It’s OK, I say back to it. Feeling foolish for a few minutes (or days), doesn’t outweigh the absolute joy of taking baby steps toward creative accomplishment. And, I say to it, if people really want to make judgments about me because of a Facebook posting error, then doesn’t that say more about their inner lives, than mine? I doubt that they do, because the inner critic tends to lie and exaggerate—A LOT. Mastery and perfection are the inner critic’s values, but not mine. I know that learning and being “bad” (or just inexperienced), at something the first time psychically feeds us as creatively just as much as when we present something to the world that’s polished.

The inner critic, temporarily outmaneuvered, has skulked off somewhere deep into my psychic underworld. As I watch my video again, I revel in my non-mastery and prepare to take even more videos.

Question: What would make over 130 business leaders, artists, politicians and representatives from various nonprofit organizations stay inside on an 80 degree Saturday? Answer: A spirited discussion about how Chatham County can use its natural strengths to develop its creative economic sector. I’m a professional creativity coach and I had the pleasure of being in that room talking with participants about arts, culture and place based economic development at The Chatham Creative Economy Summit.

The role of creativity and its relationship to thriving communities has been front and center on North Carolina’s agenda from Governor Perdue to The Institute for Emerging Issues who hosted a conference on creativity last year. The Chatham County Economic Development Corporation organized Saturday’s program. It was sponsored by Progress Energy and local groups including Shakori Grassroots Festival, the Chatham Arts Council, the Chatham Artists Guild and The NC Arts Incubator.

The unstated goals of the summit were to educate thought leaders about how a creative economy is not just about bringing artists to a community but supports an infrastructure of employment opportunities. I attended because I wanted to hear new ideas about how residents of Chatham County can assist in strengthening Chatham County’s identity as a creative place that supports businesses and economic development. And, I wasn’t disappointed.

Linda Carlisle, Secretary of the NC Department of Cultural Resources and former entrepreneur gave a rousing keynote address. Her office includes the State Library, the State Archives, 27 Historic Sites, 7 History Museums, Historical Publications, Archaeology, Genealogy, Historic Preservation, the North Carolina Symphony, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. Audience members took notice when she said that the creative sector is nearly 6% of NC’s overall economy. About 300,000 jobs and $41 billion (and she stressed the ‘B’ in billion) annually are directly tied to creative activities in the state. Another surprising nugget was learning that the creative sector is resilient; it is one of the employment sectors that doesn’t shed jobs– even in times of economic downtown. And, creative employment is less likely to be shipped overseas.

Carlisle offered excellent examples across the state of other communities that have distinguished themselves by developing a creative identity that supports economic development. The ‘Weaverville Arts Safari’, a self-guided tour of local arts, in Weaverville, that brings people to the area and Greensboro’s Triad Stage that has triggered business development in the downtown area are two examples. Carlisle encouraged us to think about how we communicate the value of arts and culture to others as not only developing the inner lives of residents, but that the creative sector “feeds families in North Carolina”. North Carolina is the 6th most visited state in the country. Carlisle is eager to build on that success, and do even better. The key, she believes, is to continue to support communities that have strong cultural and heritage tourism potential. She gave several tips about how Chatham County can build on its already impressive array of distinctions including a niche focus in sustainable agriculture, the Shakori Grassroots music festival, a strong literary tradition, and a nationally known biofuels industry.

Building on Chatham’s already existing treasures was a theme followed up by the panelists after the keynote. Mary Regan, director of the NC Arts Council was the moderator for the panel. Diane Cherry (policy manager for Institute for Emerging Issues, NC State University) provided more examples of communities that have capitalized on arts driven economic development. She and Georgann Eubanks (communications consultant and filmmaker),challenged us to think about how to create a unified brand about what Chatham offers to visitors and potential businesses. Eubanks said that the creative economy is broad and diverse and includes the culinary arts, makeup artists and hairstylists, radio stations and churches and the people who have shaped a particular place. Once a community approaches a critical mass in bringing together an array of resources, strong economic gains are much more likely. Betty Hurst (Director of Entrepreneurship, Handmade America) talked about the need for leadership and the importance of working together to create a vision that everyone is proud of and promotes. The panel started late and unfortunately, Stuart Rosenfeld (economist, founder of Regional Technology) had to rush through his presentation. He focused on why many people don’t understand the value of a creative economic infrastructure.

Although it was listed as a panel discussion, there was no Q&A between panelists and the audience which was frustrating. We had a 5 minute break and then we were asked to have a table top discussion with a ‘table leader’ to apply what we heard to Chatham. The table I was sitting at didn’t have an assigned a table leader. It was bit chaotic because everyone had a pent up desire to talk, had to squeeze in lunch, and it wasn’t clear what we were to do with our table exercise once we were finished. Despite this bit of chaos, all tables managed to brainstorm ideas about furthering the economic development of Chatham County’s creative economy. My table concluded that Chatham did not necessarily need new events to attract people here, we already have great things to do, see and experience; we need better marketing and branding strategies so that people can easily find out about us.

After lunch, the audience got to hear from the Meet the New Media panel including Tim Moore, Carolina Business Connection, David Fellerath, Culture Editor for The Independent Weekly and Leoneda Inge, reporter for WUNC Radio. This panel, moderated by Rebecca Antonelli, provided nuts and bolts advice about how to get out to the media all the good things that Chatham offers.

An incredible amount of hard work went into putting this event together. As a first-of-its-kind-event, I think it was very successful. Overall, people walked away energized, informed , having met new contacts and ready to work with local organizations to support the vision of a thriving Chatham creative economic sector. I felt moved enough to volunteer to convene a ‘creative cluster’ of folks to meet and keep the conversation going. I hope this summit becomes an annual event.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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