The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘creative writing

It’s the end of the first week of July. We’re in the third quarter of the year.

As I look back over the first two quarters, I can count some successes:

Two pieces of mine are out circulating in the world!

My novelette “Doll Seed” appears in the recent issue of FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. It is about dolls, magic and civil rights! You can read excerpts and even hear a playlist for the issue, as well as buy the issue here.

My essay, “The Poison Our Grandmothers and Mothers Drank” is reprinted in this gorgeous new book whose cover I love:

Available for purchase at all online booksellers.

My goal for the next 90 days include producing a fast draft of my horror novel. I’m aiming for around 60,000 words. I was inspired to do this by Rachael Herron’s YouTube video about why it is a good thing to fast draft a book. Rachael Herron is an author and podcaster. She said doing a fast draft ensures you are the same writer from roughly start to finish. As a writing instructor she said she witnessed many students struggle with projects that were undertaken over many many years. She said these kinds of projects can be beasts to revise because the writing was completed in very different stages of ability. That makes so much sense to me as someone who has had to mine a 400,000 word unfinished novel over the years!

She gives great suggestions on how to fast draft a novel (but could work for memoir, too), including how to outline and how to stay motivated with the writing. Herron backs up her ideas by describing the success stories of her students that she’s taken through this process. In some ways producing a fast draft over 90 days is like doing an extended NaNoWriMo, but without the exhaustion and frantic energy.

Beginning July 1, I committed to writing between 800-1,000 words a day, 5 days a week.

To give me a little more incentive and accountability, I decided to post my word counts on my Author Facebook page. Knowing I am sharing it with everyone there keeps me honest–public accountability = heightened private results.

It’s funny how quickly one can establish a new normal when you commit. I made my goal this week and have almost 5,000 words. Fast drafting is by far the hardest part of my day and so I try to get to it before the afternoon. This pace hopefully will be my new normal for the next 90 days to produce a draft.

I’m also doing Camp NaNoWriMo, a virtual writing retreat that takes place in July. If there’s a project you’d like to set a goal to move toward completing in July, this might be a fantastic way to get support.

Thinking about and writing a fast draft of the novel is going to take up most of this quarter. I’ll still actively submit work, but I won’t be producing a lot of new work. I’m also judging a literary award for the North Carolina Humanities Council and a writing fellowship for the North Carolina Writers’ Network, so I’ll be busy with those service commitments. It’ll be busy but really fun!

What are your third quarter goals?

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 “Meditation is push-ups for the mind.”- Rachael Herron

As some of you know, I’ve been a long-time advocate of meditation. I use meditation as a tool in my life and I have often taught secular meditative techniques to writers.

Clinical research supports the claim that meditation helps to strengthen the mind, increase concentration and slow our thousands of thoughts down. This is so helpful for writers!

Why do meditation techniques work? Because all human minds, despite their great diversity and capabilities feel and experience the same basic emotions that include joy, fear, rage, happiness, sadness, etc. We also tend to experience similar thoughts both positive (‘I’m great!’) and negative (‘I’m horrible!’). We all also get distracted, frustrated and irritated on a routine basis in relatively the same ways (though about different kinds of things).

There lots and lots of meditation styles and techniques out there from a variety of secular and spiritual traditions. You’ve probably heard a lot about a type of meditation called ‘mindfulness’, so let’s start there.

Mindfulness is a practice of maintaining an awareness of your thoughts, feelings and environment in the present moment. Slowing down and paying attention to the present moment allows us to be more available to what’s happening right now, instead of living in the past or racing ahead in the future. Mindfulness also involves getting some distance from your thoughts and mind chatter without judging them.

Cultivating mindfulness can mean focusing on one’s breathing and being quiet.

Mindfulness can support your writing in a few ways:

-Mindfulness can get us back in the body

“Whatever stories we have, they are organically connected to our physical bodies. Cultivating that connection—that pathway between our heads and our bodies—creates deep writing.”
                                                                    Larraine Herring

Ever have that experience where you don’t know where time went and not in a good way? Ever realize that you’ve been on autopilot and not in the moment? To write well, we have to be connected to the body, our experience, the pain and joy of being alive. Taking a few minutes to recognize we are in a particular place in time and space and we are actually breathing is quite helpful when writing. Sometimes I’m working so intensely, I have hunched my shoulders, clenched my jaw and have tightened up all my muscles. It’s good in that moment to stop, breathe and readjust my body. Mindfulness can open us up to sensations in the body that we tend to ignore. And, indeed in slowing down, we can connect as Herring notes we can open ourselves up to greater bodily knowledge in service of storytelling.

– Contributes to Writerly Equanimity

Mindfulness helps us stay the course. Bad writing day? OK, we all have them…tomorrow will be better. If we have cultivated equanimity, when we hit an impasse in our writing, we’re more likely to be open to tapping our resources (including connecting with writing buddies, groups, etc.,), trying out other techniques (like taking a walk, freewriting) as opposed to thinking we have to solve it all ourselves or because we can’t figure it out, or that we’re bad writers.

Don’t Worry about What You Can’t Control

Practicing mindfulness allows us to see when negative thoughts arise, but also let them go (especially helpful when trying to write!).  It helps us recognize what we can’t control. If we overemphasize what we can’t control, over time that leads to stress. The only thing we can control is what we create, how much we create and over time, the quality of what we create. We also have a say in how we show up and interact with industry professionals. We can’t control an audience’s response to our work, nor the shifting and fickle interests of the publishing industry.

-Quieting the Inner Critic

A practice of mindfulness helps keep us connected to our inner creative self. I don’t know about you but I have gone through cycles of having a very active inner critic. For me, I’m less susceptible to believing the words of my most upsetting and vicious inner critic if I’ve been practicing mindfulness. Also, if I start to have an attack of the inner critic, if I soften my breath and tell myself, OK, I’m going to take a five minutes and watch my thoughts. Do this can give me the perspective I need to return to the work after the five minutes is up.

Less Easily Distracted

Mindfulness cultivates a resistance to being easily distracted. Practicing mindfulness teaches us about distraction and keeping with something, even when difficult.  If we are to succeed as writers, we have to develop both our attention and our intention. Then over time, we become better able to resist the false siren calls of distraction that are always around.

Something to Try:

One easy way to start to practice mindfulness is to start with the breath. You can practice the following before you write. Breathe in and out a few times (breathe in through the nose and exhale through the mouth a few times to get relaxed). Then breathe in through the nose for a count of four, pause for a moment at the top of inhale and gently breathe out through the nose to a count of four (over time you can do a longer exhale to six or eight counts, which tends to relax the nervous system). Continue this breath cycle for a minute or more and then build up to 3 minutes or more.

Don’t try to stop your thoughts, notice them and then keep returning to the breath. Visualize thoughts as passing clouds over your mental landscape.

Another way to practice: You can place one hand over your heart and one hand on your belly and observe your breath. Ask yourself the following questions:

-Where am I breathing? (meaning where do you feel the breath the most—the belly, at the nostrils, in the expanse of the lungs)

-What’s the quality of my breath? (Slow? Shallow? Tight? Rapid)

Observe without judgement and then take a few more deep belly breaths.

You can also begin by pausing to notice your breath for a minute and then the next week, up it to two minutes and so on.

Interested in learning more? I particularly like Dr. Sara Lazar’s Ted Talk about meditation—she is a neuroscientist at Harvard who started studying the brain changes in people who meditated regularly.

There are lots of apps (many are free or at least free for 30 days) and places on line to investigate mindfulness and meditation.

I’d love to hear your experiences with mindfulness or meditative techniques in support of your creativity!

I’ve been named as one of the judges for two upcoming opportunities for North Carolina writers. If that describes you, please consider applying as the deadlines for both are soon.

The Sally Buckner Emerging Writers’ Fellowship is sponsored by the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Writers must be in the early stages of their careers and must be between the ages of 21 and 35, as of December 31 of the year in which they apply.

Fellowship recipients will use the $500 award to allay the costs associated with the business of writing: paper, printing, writing supplies, submission fees, research expenses, travel, conference registration fees, etc. In addition to the cash award, recipients will receive a complimentary one-year membership in the NCWN, as well as scholarship aid to attend the Network’s annual Fall Conference.

Deadline June 30

More details here.

The Linda Flowers Literary Award is new and is sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council. The North Carolina Humanities Council invites original, unpublished entries of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry for this award.

The award is given to exceptional North Carolina authors whose work celebrates the North Carolina experience and conveys excellence in writing. Entries must not exceed 10 pages. Entries must be from authors who are at least 18 years of age and currently live in North Carolina. Entries should detail examinations of intimate, provocative, and inspiring portraiture of North Carolina, its people and cultures. Entries should be deeply engaged with North Carolina by drawing on particular North Carolina connections and/or memories. Entries should demonstrate excellence in the humanities. Entries, regardless of genre, should be original, unpublished works. There is a cash award of $1500 and a writing residency.

Deadline: June 28

More details here.

 

This week, I’ve been deep in editing land for my novelette “Doll Seed” due to appear next month in FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction.

It’s always a revelation to receive editorial comments on a story. Especially a story that you’ve lived with for years, have honed substantially and have vetted through numerous writing groups.  Such was the case for “Doll Seed”.

In the past few years, I’ve felt lucky to have worked with fantastic editors. Great editors reveal new perspectives in your work, encourage clarity and support your authorial voice. In the case of Reenu-You and Nussia with Book Smugglers Press, I spent time revising a few scenes where my characters were under reacting.  With “Doll Seed”, I worked some on this issue, but more on clarifying how the magic works in the story and fine tuning the ending. I enjoyed editing “Doll Seed”. In revising these stories, all of which were written years ago, I see how much I’ve grown as a writer and storyteller.

One of the tools that has helped me become more proficient at self-editing has been my ‘weasel words’ list. A few years ago, I took a class on revision and the instructor introduced us to a list of words and/or phrases that weaken one’s writing. We can usually either delete the word or find a more active and vivid word to substitute. I believe she adapted this list from the one in James Scott Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Writers. I keep this list close when I revise. Doing a search for these words once yielded dramatic results. Last year, I was frantically trying to pare a story down to submit to an anthology and using this list I reduced the word count by over 500 words! That’s a lot of weasel words to round up!

Weasel Words to Watch Out For

Very
Almost
Just
Really
Finally
Actually
Maybe
Definitely
Certainly
A little
A lot
A bit
Tried to
Started to
Began to
Wanted to
Meant to
Intended to
Had to
Had been

I also overuse the words lively, inviting and flat in describing the expression of a character’s eyes.

Do you have a weasel words list? What are your pet phrases that you strike when revising?

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.

I am so thrilled and honored to share this news—I recently sold my novelette “Doll Seed” to FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. FIYAH is a quarterly, digital publication of fantasy, science fiction, and horror by Black writers. FIYAH emerged to nurture, support and amplify Black speculative fiction writers. They have done amazing work highlighting voices that have been ignored, for many years, by speculative fiction editors, agents, publishers. They won a World Fantasy Award last year and are up for a Hugo award this year. Their acceptance statement for the World Fantasy award is moving and articulates why their work is so important.

The fact that “Doll Seed” found a home with FIYAH is very meaningful to me. I’ve worked on this story for a long time.  It is a character driven story that intersects the world of dolls with civil rights Last year, I submitted another story to them which they didn’t accept, but they encouraged me to send them something else. I sent ‘Doll Seed’ in for their unthemed issue. The issue will be available on July 1. I’ll make sure to post a link here.

 

I had a wonderful time as a panelist at Greensboro Bound. The moderators for each panel were excellent. We received their questions a week before the conference. Our moderators were well-prepared, able to flow with the conversation and drew out the best from each of us. I am always appreciative of others’ moderating skills as I am often a moderator in my academic life (at conferences) and increasingly at sci-fi conventions and other writing venues. I love moderating and take it very seriously. I see my job as making sure that others shine and that everyone participates as equally as possible.

I’ve been reflecting on my participation as panelist. Overall, I did very well and wasn’t too nervous. I was, however, a bit over prepared. I had pages of notes and an outline. In one case, we were seated on a stage which made balancing my folder unwieldy. The other panelists were clearly prepared too, but they seemed to talk easily without notes. I was so wedded to mine that I felt like I missed connecting with the audience a few times. I also think when one can speak confidently without notes, one’s body language is more open. Sometimes I get too focused on trying to get it all right they way that I have it in my head (or notes) as opposed to just being open to what I want to share.  Before events like this, I’m always a bit worried that my memory is going to fail me right when I need it the most. There’s so much to talk about in relation to one’s work and the nuances thereof. When I let go of the notes, however, and ‘saying it just right’, my humor and passion came through naturally. Again, from the outside I don’t think my participation looked that different than the other panelists, but I was struck with the performance of the other panelists.

One is always learning how to be a writer in public and I look forward to the next opportunity I have to talk without notes!


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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