The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Marjorie Hudson

Writers’ conferences provide fantastic opportunities to meet authors through other writer friends and also serendipity. Both played a recent role in how I met today’s guest, Miriam Herin. I was introduced to Miriam by Marjorie Hudson, my writing teacher and friend. Last July, we all were attending the North Carolina Writers Conference (NCWC). The NCWC is an invite and membership only, volunteer based organization that’s been around for over six decades co-founded by esteemed writer Paul Green. I was a newly admitted member.

During one of the breaks, I found myself chatting with Miriam and her husband, Tom. There was time before the next session and we were all headed to the bar for refreshments. I was about to sit on a stool by myself but Miriam and Tom waved at me and asked me to join them, which I happily did. The three of us talked as if we had known each other for a long time. I love it when I make that kind of connection. I enjoyed hearing about Miriam’s journey as a writer and her persistence and perseverance on the path. I’m grateful for the introduction; our conversation was a highlight of the conference.

Miriam Herin is an accomplished author. Miriam’s first novel Absolution won the 2007 Novello Press Literary Award and was cited by Publishers Weekly as an “impressive” debut that “skillfully combines a contemporary courtroom thriller with a subtle look back at the competing passions and pressures of the Vietnam War era.” The novel also received Independent Publisher‘s Gold Award for Best Fiction, Southeast Region, and was a Finalist for Foreword Magazine’s 2007 Novel of the Year.

Miriam is a short story writer, too, and her short story Lucky, won the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, and was recently published in the North Carolina Literary Review. To read the story: https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final/140

Miriam’s second novel A Stone for Bread (Livingston Press, West Alabama University) was a top-ten finalist in the 2014 Faulkner-Wisdom novel competition, received a starred Kirkus Review through the Kirkus indie program, and was named a Kirkus Best Books of 2016.

About A Stone for Bread:

In 1963, North Carolina poet Henry Beam published a collection of poems supposedly saved from a Nazi slave labor camp. The authorship controversy that followed cost Henry his university teaching position and forced the poet into decades of silence. Thirty-four years after the poems’ publication, Henry breaks that silence when he begins telling grad student Rachel Singer the story of his study year in Paris, how the naïve young American became entangled with fiery right-wing politician Renard Marcotte, his love affair with the shopgirl Eugenié and his unnerving encounter with the enigmatic René, the Frenchman Henry claims gave him the poems. A Stone for Bread moves back and forth in time from 1997 North Carolina to post-World War I France, to Paris in the mid-1950’s and into the horror of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Miriam writes across historical eras and tackles big themes in her work. I couldn’t wait for her to share her wisdom with us. I’m so delighted to welcome Miriam Herin to The Practice of Creativity.

-Why did you write A Stone for Bread? What’s in store for readers?

I think a general answer to the first question would be I haven’t a clue, at least not in terms of what the novel is about. When I first started discussing the published novel at bookstores and with groups, I would say that the opening chapter seemed to have come out of nowhere. But not too long ago, I realized that wasn’t true, having recalled my own very early childhood at Fort Benning, Georgia, when our family would picnic in the woods and I would pick up bullet casings from the soldiers’ war games. The rest of the book was more rationally contrived from the notion of a lost collection of poems and a disgraced poet. I had also just finished a very long and still unpublished historical novel set in France, so I decided to use what I’d learned in my research of the country for the novel’s setting.

I think the real answer to the first question, however, is found in the answer to the second one. I hope that readers will find in the novel compelling characters with their separately revealed stories that may also shed light on our day from the vantage of epochal and horrifying 20th century events. Taped beside my desk is a very old 3 x 5 card on which is typed (probably on a long ago typewriter) my personal mantra as a writer: “If the world were clear, art would not exist.” Camus

-How did you get bitten by the writing bug?

I had wanted to write novels from the age of six, after my mother read Bambi to me. This wasn’t the Walt Disney version, but the original novel by Felix Salton which dealt with death and loss and the trials of coming of age. However, I didn’t seriously begin writing fiction until I was forty (I’d had a short story published in my college literary magazine but was too shy even to put my real name on it). My sense of myself through school and later teaching college students was that I didn’t have the ability to write fiction. So I had studied it instead, spending four years in grad school. What pushed me to try writing fiction were life-changing sessions with a therapist through which I also discovered the power of “story” to shape our lives and choices from our earliest childhood.

 -What advice would you give a writer attempting a historical novel?

Characters don’t have to be actual historical figures, but they need to seem authentic to the time period and place in which the story is set.  This isn’t always easy to know or visualize and may take a good bit of research to come close to that authenticity. Dialogue in fiction, for example, seldom resembles or even should resemble “real” speech (if it did, it would be deadly boring on the printed page). What’s important is for dialogue to seem realistic to the characters and setting as well as authentic to the time of the story. When setting fiction in an early time period or a place that is non-English speaking, I find simulating dialect usually works better than trying to recreate in English the actual language or its “foreignness.” This is when the old adage “less us more” can be very important.

There are two literary terms that I find helpful in this: verisimilitude: creating fictional places, people and stories similar to the actual places and people of a particular time period and anachronisms, which are to be avoided, such as vocabulary, objects, styles, etc. that would not have existed at the time a story is set. What writers need to know about a particular place and time are such things as types of houses and styles of clothing, vegetation, landscape, types of work and vocation, and something about what people’s everyday lives might have been like. We don’t have to be meticulous to the point of boring, but we do need to give a sense of authenticity to a fictional place and period.

 -What’s your process like when you work on a book?

I usually write on as many weekdays as possible with my best time in the morning, although not too early. I no longer give myself a daily page quota because these days, I don’t have to force myself to stay in the chair. I then use afternoons for research when needed. For very busy people, writing two pages a day, five days a week can result in a hundred pages in ten weeks.  I’m very fortunate to have a retired husband and enough income under us to do what I do. However, I haven’t forgotten the early days and the free-lance jobs that often took me away from my desk to help keep the family solvent, as well as the activities of our two children who needed chauffeuring to ball teams and music and art lessons, scout troops etc., etc.

-What is your next writing project? What are you working on now?

I started a new novel last year, one that’s quite different from anything I’ve written before, mainly because I’ve chosen to write it from experiences in my own life, which require little or no research! This is taking me imaginatively to places where I’ve traveled and into situations I’ve experienced. I don’t consider it a particularly “literary” novel, but it has certainly been a lot of fun.

-What’s your best writing tip you’d like to share?

If you let others critique your work in progress, consider the 11th thing.*

* From a filmmaker: After he previews a rough cut of a film, he listens to all the critiques, especially the negative ones. Then supposing ten different criticisms, his job is to figure out the real problem, the eleventh thing they may all be actually talking about.

Miriam Herin is an author. Her most recent work is A Stone for Bread (Livingston Press, West Alabama University) In January, 2016, the novel was featured in The North Carolina Literary Review in a joint review with award-winning novelists Robert Morgan and Terry Roberts.  See the review.  The novel also received a splendid review from North Carolina’s ChangeSeven Magazine. See the Review.

Her short story Lucky, winner of the 2018 Doris Betts Fiction Prize, was recently published in the North Carolina Literary Review. To read the story: https://issuu.com/eastcarolina/docs/2019-nclr_online-final/140

She lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with her husband Tom and their rescue-dog Chance. She is the mother of two adult children and the grandmother of a delightful eleven-year-old.

Visit her at http://miriamherin.com/

Around this time last year, I was published in the beautiful book A Letter to My Mom! It is a tribute to the women who shape us into the people we become.

My love letter to my courageous mother is next to letters from Suze Orman, Dr. Phil McGraw, Melissa Rivers, Lisa Ling, Dr. Jennifer Arnold and many other amazing sons and daughters. In this third installment of the A Letter to My series…(following A Letter to My Dog and A Letter to My Cat), over sixty contributors share letters that chronicle the love, gratitude, silliness, fun and even conflict that define mother and child relationships. I am so honored to be part of this collection.

alettertomymom

My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (author of Accidental Birds of the Carolinas) encourages students to ‘find their territory’, to explore the kinds of unique themes and challenges that only they can write about.

The relationship with my mother is definitely my territory. In 2013, I started exploring a snippet of my mother’s life which involved a great act of courage that changed the course of our lives. Since that time, I have continued thinking about the intersection of my life and hers. I am constantly surveying that rich and fertile ground. My mother is no longer living, so writing about her is one way that I can keep her memory alive.

CCwaTVtUsAIU6r4

When I saw the call for ‘A Letter to My Mom’, I decided to submit my very personal story. The editor and creator of the A Letter to My series, Lisa Erspamer and her team were amazing. They treated my narrative (and I assume all the others), with great care, respect and unabashed enthusiasm.

A Letter to My Mom is so inspiring and the layout of the book is beautiful. Each entry is accompanied by photos. If you’re looking for a great gift for Mother’s Day, this is it. You and your mom will laugh and cry while reading it.

Find out more about the book here.

During my Feb writing group meeting last Sunday, we discussed what went well in 2015 and what goals we had for 2016. We would have gotten to this in Jan, but due to bad weather and personal life disruptions, we pushed back this discussion.

March is a perfect time to both reflect and plan as it marks our approach to the end of the first quarter of the year. Unbelievable, I know!

In preparation for the meeting, I spent some time reviewing my goals and submission record of 2015 and thinking about 2016. Since I didn’t post at the end of last year about this topic, I thought I’d share with you some highlights and lessons learned.

Submissions:

In 2014, I submitted to 19 places. I vowed that in 2015, I would push myself to do better.

And, I did—I submitted to 34 individual journals, contests, anthologies or magazines. For many of these submissions, I submitted both poetry and prose.

What did that yield?

-1 publication (a poem, coming out this spring)

-4 very nice personalized rejection emails, encouraging me to submit something else soon. I’m keeping track of those outlets.

-3 places I’m waiting to hear back from

Although I almost doubled my submission record from 2014, it still only breaks down to about 1.5 submissions per month. This isn’t quite accurate, either, as I tend to send batches and batches of submissions at a time, so some months I sent more out and other months less.

As you know, researching places to submit, making sure you’ve read those publications before submitting, making time to submit, and tracking your submissions is a lot of work. In 2016, I’ve been devoting at least two days a month for submitting work. I also am trying to keep an organized list of upcoming deadlines. I love using Evernote for this task. I also have a full time career that requires its own care and attention.

One resource that helped me phenomenally last year was finding out about the group, Women Who Submit. Their website and Twitter feed is chock-full of great information about where to submit. Plus, they hold in person and online submission blitzes. I love the group energy that happens when a lot of people are submitting their work, talking about it on social media and encouraging each other.

Given that I have a full time career besides writing that requires its own care and attention, I need to be realistic in how much more I can up my submissions. I’m shooting for about 50-60 submissions this year. And, I want to be more selective in the places that I submit.

What Got Written in 2015:

-Finished several poems, my best work so far

-Finished some flash fiction pieces

-Started several stories

-Continued to revise my NaNoWriMo project

-Wrote weekly blog posts

-Asked several beta readers to provide feedback on my speculative fiction short story collection

I had one publication appear last year (it was accepted in 2014), my essay in A Letter to My Mom.  Although I didn’t have a lot of publications, my year felt like an extremely fulfilling and productive one across other areas:

Building Writing Community:

-In 2015, on the advice of a published writer, I went to several local sci-fi conventions. That led to meeting local authors, getting connected to the local and state wide scene, finding people to interview for my blog and getting invited to present at sci-fi cons this year. I’ve been really enjoying deepening my writing community.

-My writing teacher also invited me to participate with her at a wonderful event called ‘Love and the Lonely Writer’. I wrote about it here. It was an honor to share the stage with my mentor and teacher and read to a packed room.

There's nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

There’s nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

-I participated in several open mic nights.

-I attended the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s week long women’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. It was truly a transformative experience. I left with a whole new community of women writers and friends. I hope to continue featuring some of their wisdom here. If you missed Li Yun Alvarado’s amazing post about the importance of a low stakes daily writing practice and how it can transform your year, check it out here.

Education:

A writer never stops learning about craft and storytelling. Last year, I redoubled my efforts to know more about the craft and the business of writing. I constantly listened to writing podcasts and combed through Poets & Writers.

I also took my first poetry workshop, a flash fiction workshop; and a week-long young adult literature and diversity class during AROHO.

First Quarter of 2016:

Submissions: I’ve submitted to 6 places, including a contest. I’ve heard back from 2 so far (rejections).

Writing: If you’ve been reading this blog since January, you know I committed to writing an original affirmation, about the creative process, once a day, every day for the entire year. For why I am doing it, see my inspiration here. I am loving this practice. But, a daily practice is demanding! And, some days, I feel more prepared to create than others. But, the feedback, about the affirmation project, has been great. It’s stocking my creative well.

2016 Writing goals:

-Continue to revise my NaNoWriMo project

-Place my speculative fiction short story collection with a press

-Continue to write a daily original affirmation

-Work on my secret ‘genius’ project

-Strive for 50-60 submissions

 

How are your writing goals going in the first quarter? Where areas (using the ones above) are you feeling ease in and what areas do you want to tweak?

Affirmations-366Days#57: I pay close attention to what readers tell me they love about my work. I follow these clues.
For new readers, here’s why I’m committing to writing affirmations, about the creative process, during the next 366 days.

People who love our work give us clues about what to write more of. Today I was in the gym and saw a writing acquaintance who I hadn’t seen in several months. Many years ago, we had been in the same prompt writing group started by one of my writing teachers, Marjorie Hudson. I loved her writing. In her writing, she mostly drew on her multifaceted experiences being a neonatal nurse for over thirty years. She didn’t consider herself a writer and despite our urging, in the end, decided to write mostly for her family.

She asked me what I was working on and I told her I was polishing a collection of short fiction and sending out more of my poetry. She said, “And you are writing a memoir, too, right?” I really haven’t written any creative non-fiction in some time. Then she said, “Have you done anything with that piece, ‘She Saved Me Once and I Tried to Save Her Twice’?” I was shocked that she remembered the name of this short piece, written now over five years ago, that I brought to class and read. It was the beginning of the story of how my mother saved my life and how I tried to save her life twice. A look of surprise crossed my face and I said something like, “I can’t believe you remember that.” And she looked me straight in the eye and said, “Of course I do; it was earth-shattering, honest, and unforgettable.” She held my gaze for a few moments. Wow! I told her that I had explored snippets of my mother and daughter journey in a brief essay I wrote for the book A Letter to My Mom that was published last year. I periodically think about writing that memoir, but it often goes on the back burner.

Different projects need different rhythms and complex levels of investment from us. So, I probably am not going to drop all my other projects to take up this one right now. But, on the other hand, I found her feedback to be so valuable and affirming. I also miss writing creative nonfiction now that I am not writing a monthly column anymore. And, people loved my columns. Sometimes I think we as writers are not always the best judges of what we should work on. It’s good to get direct feedback from people who enjoy our work. That can lead us in new directions, or back to cherished but languishing projects.

 

Have you received feedback from an enthusiastic reader that made you reconsider a past project or even writing into another genre?

Last week, I wrote about the lovely time I had at the ‘Love and Lonely Writer’ Valentine’s Day reading being featured with Marjorie Hudson.

One of the questions I asked Marjorie was ‘what would you do differently now if you were just starting a writing career?’ She said among other things, she’d be less shy about announcing herself as a writer. And, she’d also let go of the inner fear of ‘not being good enough’ a lot quicker.

She then asked me the same question. I didn’t expect this for some reason and so I answered it quickly. I said that I would have joined a writing group and sought community a lot sooner.

Although what I offered was true, I felt I left something else important unsaid. And, this unsaid thing has nagged at me for the past week.

Here is what I wished I would have said:

I wish I would have realized earlier that there is no one path to being a writer or embodying a writing life. Some people take years rowing across acidic lakes of self-doubt before getting the courage to write a single word. Some people come to writing because they have a great idea and want to express it and know little about craft or technique. Others have always dreamed of being writers and feel it deep in their bones. Some writers come to writing after retirement. Some want to make lots of money with their writing and others just want to be published in The New Yorker. Some writers are introverted and others will drink with you all night. Some writers have felt marginalized for most of their lives and others have felt entitled. Some writers write every day and others in uneven cycles and spurts. Some people study literature in college and others study Jackie Collins at the laundromat. Some writers are anxious no matter what their output and others settle into a Zen like calmness. Some writers quit again and again and others commit from day one. Some writers get their inspiration from role playing games and others from nature. Some writers define their creativity in spiritual terms and others don’t. I had all kinds of notions in my head about what it meant to be a writer and to actualize a writing life. Some were helpful, but most were junk and prevented me from enjoying the journey. Writers (and creative folk generally) come to this life from a dizzying number of perspectives and life experiences.

manypaths

Let’s honor our individual paths and the wisdom they reveal and reflect back to us.

Have you had to discard any unhelpful ideas about what a writer’s life should be like? I’d love to hear.

 

Last night I had the distinct honor of being featured as an ‘emerging writer’, at Quail Ridge Books, alongside my writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson. The event was called ‘Love and the Lonely Writer’ and it was organized by the Raleigh Review Literary and Arts Magazine. They periodically host the ‘Southern Recitations’ series where they invite an established writer to give a weekend workshop and then host a reading with that writer and an invited ‘emerging’ writer.

There's nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

There’s nothing like seeing a poster, in a bookstore, with your name on it!

As this was an nontraditional way to spend Valentine’s Day, I wasn’t sure if we would have much of an audience. I just thought of the event as a way to spend time with Marjorie and talk about writing in public (two of my favorite things), and honor anyone that showed up. And, I used it as an opportunity to hone my performance skills (see here for tips about public readings). Although I tried to play down the event in my mind, it was a BIG DEAL. Quail Ridge Books is one of most well-established and respected bookstores in the region. I told friends about it, posted on Facebook and reached out to local writers. And, I said, hey I know this event falls on V-Day, but it would be great if you could stop by. There’s nothing like asking for support when you really need it!

I’m happy to say the turnout was great. We had a packed house. People were so kind and lovely.

Current and former students of mine!

Current and former students of mine!

Marjorie spent some time talking about the importance of developing a writing community. For most of her life, she didn’t have a writing community and she often felt isolated.

I talked about how Marjorie is an exemplar teacher not just because she can teach craft or introduces her students to other writers. She’s an amazing teacher because she helps empower writers to create a vibrant and nurturing community.

I always say that before I met Marjorie, I wrote mostly by myself. I’d take a workshop here and there, read tons of writing books and sporadically joined writing groups. I would occasionally send things out for review. I taught myself many things during that long spell, but my output was slow and more importantly, I was often miserable.

In the five years since meeting Marjorie not only have I become a stronger writer and more widely published, but I actually have so much more joy and enthusiasm for writing. Cultivating a writing community (everything from writing buddies, online writing community, being in a writing group, etc.), has a been a great source of pleasure and support.

Yeah, it was a Marjorie and Michele lovefest!

mm2

 

We both read works. I read ‘Ode to Shari Belafonte in her Calvin Klein Jeans’ recently published in Glint.

Marjorie often uses the method of timed writing to specific prompts. This technique gets to fresh writing that’s kind of ‘shaggy’, but often powerful and can take you to unexpected places. She asked me to read an unrevised poem that came from one of those prompts. I read that and she read a short piece from her novel-in-progress.

I read a love letter to my mother based on one of the columns I wrote for The Chapel Hill News last year. She read some steamy scenes from ‘The Clearing’, a story in her collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas.

We did Q&A and ended the evening by handing out chocolates and a writing prompt. It’s a fun prompt that you might want to try. Marjorie will post some of the entries on her blog!

 

A writer’s prompt for Valentine’s Day:

Write a letter to someone whose writing you love, or who has encouraged you or helped you with your writing.

If possible, find the person’s address and mail it, snail style.  I will post some of these on my blog—so send me a copy if you’d like to

ktwriters15501@gmail.com

Subject: Valentine

 

 

All in all, one of my best V-Days ever!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As a writer, you can never predict what will touch people. You can only do your best to tell your story with skill, precision and heart. My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson (author of Accidental Birds in the Carolinas) encourages students to ‘find their territory’, to explore the kinds of unique themes and challenges that only they can write about.

The relationship with my mother is definitely my territory. In last December’s ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News, I wrote about a snippet of my mother’s life which involved a great act of courage that changed the course of our lives (‘My Mother’s Gift’). When I was eight, my mother left my abusive stepfather and started her life over. Due to her actions, some serendipity and innovative social service programming we (my mother, sister and I) came to live in a special program for battered women and their children at The President Hotel, in Manhattan.  The program was a partnership with the city of New York and the President Hotel.

I received the highest number of responses from this column, more than any other I have written. I also had lengthy conversations with friends who read the column. I’ve been reflecting on what people shared with me and the questions that linger.

I was touched by many comments from women who had mothers that stayed with abusive partners, who were unable or unwilling to leave. A representative remark was “I’ve always wished that my mother had the courage to do what yours did.” These daughters have spent a lifetime trying to understand and cope with the consequences of growing up in a violent household. Some later became active in women’s issues:  “I grew up in a battering household, found feminism in my 40s and served on several boards advocating and helping women.”

I also heard from several readers whose mothers did leave. One said, “My mother did the same for me and my brother. Hooray for women who break the cycle of violence and give their children hope.” Therapists and health providers wrote to say that they work with many abused women and it is still very challenging for many women to leave. They hoped some would see my story and make a change. Others also thought my story might help other women. A friend said on my Facebook page “Stories such as these need to be told so [that] others’ can ‘keep on keeping on,’ when they feel all hope is lost…”

Our individual stories are always connected specific and historical eras. Having conversations with peers reminded me that I am part of the first generation of women (and men) whose mothers could  make a choice to leave an abusive relationship and potentially find societal support (and possibly resources), instead of condemnation.  Second wave feminist activism of the early 1970s placed the issue of ‘battering’ front and center in the national spotlight. Advocates were able to recast battering from a private, personal problem to a public one that needed addressing.  Previously, women, as a social group, did not have the public support to leave abusive men. Many women like my mother were making history in small, individual ways and empowering their daughters to question the status quo.

And, finally there were practical things that people wanted to know, too. I talked about taking my cherished Bionic Woman doll with me when leaving my stepfather—some wanted to know if I still have the doll. I do! She sits in a special place in my home office.  She lost a foot at some point while I lived at the hotel.  She’s a survivor, just like my sister and I.

I received lots of questions about The President Hotel. How did I get along at the hotel? What were the other mothers and children like? These questions have stimulated more for me including:  How many private-public programs like the President Hotel existed in Manhattan and other cities? How did they get dreamed up and funded? What happened to the other mothers and children that I met? What did they make of their lives? Clearly, I’ve got lots more research to do!

Writing about my time at The President Hotel and what happened to my mother later is part of my territory.  My mother saved my and my sister’s physical and emotional lives by removing us from that home. Many many years later, I would save my mother’s life and give her a fresh beginning, but that is for another story.

(this piece is adapted from a February ‘My View’ column that was published in the Chapel Hill News)

Last spring, I had the pleasure of co-facilitating a weekend writing and yoga workshop with my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson. In that workshop we invited participants to explore the ways that the practice of writing and the practice of yoga need similar things from us: patience, devotion, activity, silence and reflection.  We did lots of prompt writing and interspersed that with gentle movement, demonstrating how yoga can help release the body’s wisdom to nurture the creative process.

The workshop was a great success and since then we both have become interested in exploring the chakra system (a yogic energy system) and its connection to writing. Next weekend we’re teaming up for a one day workshop where we explore ‘Writing from the Heart Chakra’ hosted by the Raleigh Review, a literary journal.

Chakras

Every writer needs to find a pathway to the heart’s best work. We often talk about ‘writing our heart out’ or ‘putting our heart’ into the work. This week leading up to the workshop, I’ll blog about why we want to pay attention to the heart chakra, physically and energetically, as we create.

I credit Marjorie Hudson, my writing teacher and friend, for jump-starting my writing life several years ago. She is a kind, wise and generous teacher and I have often blogged about lessons learned from her about the writing life.

She published a book about  her search for Virginia Dare in 2002, and this year Searching for Virginia Dare is out in a new edition from Press 53, with some new travels and research. Her ongoing obsession has taken her to Rome, London, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

SFVD Cover - 2013

One reviewer said the book was a guide to how to write a book. Another said she  had invented a new genre, one that “parted the authorial curtain” to reveal the writer’s process. In a review I wrote about Searching for Virginia Dare, I said, “This book lives in multiple genres including mystery, history, memoir, and adventure…This is a book to be read aloud to a friend on a dark winter’s night.” I love this book.

Marjorie recently decided to take another look at her book to see if there were lessons there for her and others about writing. I’m so happy to welcome her guest post here on ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

Here Be Dragons: Going off the Map to Find the Story
By Marjorie Hudson, author of Searching for Virginia Dare

Fourteen years ago I went searching for Virginia Dare.

What I found was a new confidence and freedom in my choices as a writer. I learned how to go off the map edges to the wild uncharted places beyond.

Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the New World, part of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke Island.

Her fate is an obscure footnote in American colonial and women’s history, yet the story is so fascinating, it should be more well known. Truthfully? For me, it’s become a kind of obsession.

- by Brent Clark

 

In 1587 England sent a colony to the New World, 116 men, women, and children. Virginia was born on August 18 amid tangled scuppernong vines and live oaks on Roanoke Island. She was baptized August 24.

That’s about all the documentation there is of Virginia Dare’s life on earth. The entire colony disappeared, leaving a message carved in a tree, and nobody has ever quite figured out what happened to them.

Now, the problem for a writer about history is that you have to have documentation. You have to have expert commentary. You have to have facts.

What I had, instead, was a tapestry of extraordinary people and events that take a role in the story of the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island. There was John White, the governor of the colony, an English painter who turned the New World into a kind of life-drawing class, documenting the Native women, children, and villages there, and drawing exquisitely accurate maps of the coastline.

There was Elinor Dare, White’s daughter, five months pregnant when she shipped out of Portsmouth, three months’ trans-Atlantic travel ahead of her before she set foot in the American wilderness.

There was Manteo, England’s first Lord in the New World, and her first Native American ally.

If you put a compass point in a map of this story and drew a circle around it, the circle would also contain the Queen Elizabeth, the English Renaissance, the Spanish Armada, pirates and hurricanes and many more fascinating Native American people. On the corner of the map would be the mark of old: Here be dragons.

The story is rife with mystery: Why did the colonists leave Roanoke Island? Where did they go? Did they survive at all? There were also more subtle mysteries: Why did the Queen pick an artist to be the governor of the colony?  Why did John White return to England,  abandoning his granddaughter and his daughter, just days after the child was born?

English documents revealed extraordinary images – deer grazing in abandoned huts, scuppernong vines overflowing the land into the sea, abundant pearls and strange fishes, a word carved in a tree: Croatoan.

They also revealed terrible moments: a colonist found with 16 arrows in his gut; a ship’s captain with a pike through his head; a lost anchor, a great storm, and a ship blown southward, past all hope of finding the surviving colonists.

Later discoveries included stones marked with messages from Elinor to her father, left in a trail from the Chowan River in northeastern Carolina to the Chattahoochee River in Georgia—a hoax? — and sightings of blonde children living among the Indians on the Chowan River. But did anyone really know what happened?

There were dangers in this story for any writer who dared venture there. There were so many strands to this story, so many questions. I was determined to find a way to make sense of all the pieces and put them, like Humpty Dumpty, together again.

I fell back on the structures I learned in journalism school: read the background; consult the experts. I traveled around North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, talking to everyone from university archeologists to Lumbee Indian artists to guys in bars. Nobody had answers. Everyone had stories. I got lost a lot on back roads. I got lost in imagination. I got lost in memories about my own lost times.

The story of Virginia and her mother in the wilderness began to haunt me. Perhaps this girl and her mother may have felt, just a little bit, like me when I was growing up, adventuring alone in the world. My explorations took me hitchhiking across the US, squatting in derelict houses, and finally settling in rural North Carolina.

Well, it was preposterous to draw parallels, I knew. But I also knew that stories tell you their forms. I decided to trust the messiness, let all the disparate map-lines to the heart of the story be known and valued, including the dragons.

I decided to reveal my patterns of thought and feeling in response to the story, my struggle to understand, my mind’s turn toward imagination, and forays into deep memories of the young girl I once was, terrified and alone in the world, and the repeated pattern of mystery and loss that is my life. The story of Virginia Dare became a map of a writer’s mind in process.

I let the material find its own shape, like water running downhill, eroding to the bone-honest story underneath, the story that only I could tell.

One reviewer said Searching for Virginia Dare was like “a road trip with your best friend.” The story and the mystery both have been great company for me. I carry them with me, like secret treasure, wherever I go, along with a new compass in my bag of writer tools: let the story find its own map.

Marjorie Hudson writes about newcomers encountering the South and about contemporary people encountering history. She is author of the story collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention, and her honors include an NC Arts Council Fellowship and two Pushcart Special Mentions for fiction. She is founder and director of the Kitchen Table Writers Workshops.

Marjorie Hudson: www.marjoriehudson.com

Buy the book: http://www.press53.com/BioMarjorieHudson.html

John White Drawings: http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/jamestown.html

John White map showing dragon: http://www.virtualjamestown.org/images/white_debry_html/debry123.html

Photo Credit: Brent Clark

Last year I met Dale Neal at The North Carolina Writers Conference. This conference is one of the best kept secrets in the state. It should not be confused with the well-known North Carolina Writer’s Network Conference that is held every spring and fall. The NCWC is an invite and membership only, volunteer based organization that’s been around for over six decades started by writer Paul Green. Every year it honors a significant NC writer; last year it was Janet Lembke. And, the theme was ‘Skinny Dipping’ based on Lembke’s book of the same name—a meditation on nature.

 

daleneal

My writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson invited myself and Karen Pullen to go as her guests—she was that year’s organizer. I had no expectations and felt no pressure as I understood that the purpose of the gathering is to honor a well-known NC author, listen to some academically oriented panels and to connect with writers. This not a conference about pitching your work to agents. The conference was absolutely lovely and relaxing. One of the writers Marjorie told me to look for was Dale Neal; she said she was a big fan of his work and that they both had graduated from the same MFA program. I was lucky enough to get seated next to him and his wife at the lunch banquet. He was kind, encouraging and I enjoyed talking with him so much that I made it a point to pick up his first novel, Cow Across America.  I’m glad I did. It’s a rollicking tale that chronicles a young man’s coming of age journey and the wisdom that he learns from his grandfather’s tall tales. Cow Across America possesses a strong sense of place and biting humor that reminds one of Mark Twain. I enjoyed it very much. I’m happy to welcome Dale Neal here to talk about his second novel, The Half-Life of Home that is winning rave reviews.

 

1) What inspired your new novel, The Half-Life of Home?

half-lifeofhome

My grandfather’s farm. How strange and alien those 20-odd acres on the side of the Frozenhead Mountain near the N.C.-Tennessee border seemed to me. Taking U.S. 441, the old Thunder Road, from the Piedmont to the mountains was like traveling in a time machine, out of the suburban 1960s into almost forgotten America. I wandered the woods and dangled my feet off the Raven’s Rock, overlooking the whole cove, a place preserved to my young eye in amber. But only children believe that nothing changes, that paradise is what stays put. The world as we know it is always ending. Without change, without choice, there is no drama, no novel. But writing out of those memories, creating people who live and breathe on the page is a way to hold clearly to that past.

2) Your novels take up questions of place and region in multiple ways. How did this interest find its way into your work?

Losing the land is an ongoing concern. In my part of Appalachia, Mountaineers have been forced off their land since the Cherokees were herded along the Trail of Tears. Homesteaders were forced out by the federal government in the 1930s to make way for hydroelectric dams. After the war, they left their farms to find jobs in Piedmont cotton mills or car factories up north. As a cub reporter in the ’80s, I covered hearings where federal bureaucrats earnestly debated turning remote mountain coves into a national nuclear repository. That image haunted me: what if radioactivity leaking out of these ancient mountains forced people off their land?

3) Can you name the moment that you felt you were really a fiction writer and did it come before or after publication?

Sorry. In some ways, I’m still waiting for that feeling, that moment of “I’ve arrived, I’ve made it into the published author’s club, someone’s going to give me the secret handshake now.”

Ain’t going to happen. If you keep writing, you keep failing. As Beckett said, fail better.

You have to remember the advice Rilke gave his young poet friend who kept pestering him about publications, which are the right magazines, what’s the right agent, etc. Quit asking those questions. Those aren’t the most important ones. Learn to interrogate your dreams rather than your ambitions.

4) What’s the less glamorous side of a published writer’s life that aspiring writers often don’t see?

Glamor is a word better associated with films. Writers, I don’t think, are performers in that sense. The life of a writer is not glamorous. Don’t get me wrong. It’s extraordinary to meet and talk with readers who love good fiction, but the real payoff is on the page: repeatedly sitting down and putting one word after another into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books until you simulate the real world. You get to meet both your best and worst selves on that page if you persist.

5) How has your career as a journalist supported your work as a creative writer?

Well, it’s certainly paid for the groceries and light bill along the way, and for that I’m most grateful to be among that dwindling tribe of American journalists. It’s also taught me to be continually curious, which of course helps when you’re researching facts that often seem surreal or imagining fictions that seem real. Journalists work hard to grasp and say things very quickly. Novelists have to work equally hard to say what can only be said slowly, now the passage of time shapes character.

6) What’s your best writing tip?

Play hard in the dark. Remember the primal exhilaration of running free through woods and fields on a moonlit night, feeling a howl coming up your throat? Good. Write like that. We are the boy who cried Wolf.

Remember that writing fiction is not a rational activity at this stage of Late Capitalism and celebrity culture. Very few people will listen, but I can’t think of a more serious game.

 

Dale Neal is the author of the novels, The Half-Life of Home, and Cow Across America, winner of the 2009 Novello Literary Prize. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Arts & Letters, Carolina Quarterly, Marlboro Review, Crescent Review and many other literary journals. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, he has been awarded fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hambidge Center and the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at the University of Maryland.  One of the last surviving American journalists, he is a prize-winning writer for the Asheville Citizen-Times, having covered entrepreneurs, police, local government, religion, arts, books and technology. He is a lifelong native of North Carolina and lives in Thomas Wolfe’s old hometown of Asheville with his wife and dogs. When his nose is not buried in some book, he’s bound to be out on the trails of the surrounding Blue Ridge mountains.

Find out more about Dale at his website!

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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