The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘novels

My writing community and life became infinitely richer when in 2015, on the suggestion of a writer friend, I attended illogicon, a local sci-fi convention. Michael G. Williams was one of the featured panelists that year (and many years since). Michael was just being himself on those panels and he probably didn’t know he was inspiring a lot of us in the audience with his candor, humor and deep knowledge of the genre. I was also inspired by the fact that he writes across several genres. He’s kind and encouraging of new writers. He’s also a vocal and visible advocate of diversity in gaming, geekdom, and speculative fiction and media. Fast forward many years later, I feel lucky to have appeared on several panels with him.

His recent book A Fall in Autumn is one of my favorite books that I have read this year. It’s sci-fi noir and unlike anything I have read before. The world-building is amazingly complex and I really loved the voice of Valerius Bakhoum, the main character. You can read a sample chapter here.

Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & NailDeal with the DevilAttempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.

I wanted to hear more about the influences that helped shape his writing. I’m so delighted to welcome Michael G. Williams to The Practice of Creativity.

-Tell us about your new book, A Fall in Autumn? What’s in store for readers?

A Fall in Autumn is a far-future science fiction detective story about Valerius Bakhoum, a washed-up private eye taking what he expects will be his last case. It’s got the voice of a hard-boiled detective story but the setting and characters of the more fanciful end of science fiction: human-animal hybrids, genetically modified people, and golems (which we would call androids).

It’s set far enough in the future – 12,000 years from now – that from Valerius’ perspective you and I are living in Atlantis. They know that people were alive in our time, and they know there are stories of a highly advanced society, and they know there are stories of that phase of human civilization completely wrecking the planet and destroying itself in its hubris, but Valerius and his contemporaries aren’t totally sure any of that is actually true.

At the time of the story, humanity’s technological forte is genetic manipulation and genetic engineering. In theory, the Vrashabh Empire – the dominant political entity, and the nation of which Valerius is a citizen – is a completely egalitarian society, in which all citizens are equal. In practice, the 25% of the population who are what Valerius calls “floor models,” designed from scratch or upgraded or otherwise genetically enhanced, are the ruling elite. The rest of humanity is overwhelmingly human-animal hybrids purpose-built for various roles in the economy, from manual labor to specific “white collar” jobs. There’s a very thin slice, maybe one percent of one percent, socially situated in the middle. These are Artisanal Humans, people who were made the old-fashioned way by people who are likewise unmodified. They’re considered a sort of “backup copy” of the human genome, and are supposed to live in genetic preserves where they have fewer exposures to environmental mutagens. Valerius is one of the Artisanal Humans, and so finds himself simultaneously fetishized as admirably pure and reviled as a grotesque throwback.

-What did you like to read growing up and/or as a young adult and are there any of those influences in your work?

I read boatloads of mysteries, horror, and science fiction, and those are definitely influences on what I write now!

My household had a ton of the yellow-bound Nancy Drew novels, and I really envied her lifestyle. She had her own car, an absentee parent, and a couple of friends to get into trouble with her. Who needs more than that? Dracula was one of my favorite books of childhood for the same reason: this deeply personal tale of a group of friends and lovers overcoming evil by trusting in one another and fighting bravely for one another despite the world’s refusal to believe what they’re experiencing? That seemed like exactly what I needed as a gay kid in the middle of nowhere.

I read classic sci-fi, tie-in novels for Star Trek by the wheelbarrow-load, Stephen King, and anything else I could find. But I also read a lot of classic literature, and Wuthering Heights remains one of my favorite books of all time. Given where and when I grew up, and how I grew up – specifically, being raised by evangelicals in isolation from a lot of pop culture – I wanted every book I could beg, borrow, or steal, and I read constantly.

-Much of your published work employs vivid first person narration. What draws you to use that point of view?

I love to get inside a character’s head and really unpack what makes them tick. For me, as a writer, nothing is more interesting and more motivating than the chance to sit with a character’s take on the world and learn their strengths, their weaknesses, the scars they bear from past wounds, and the secret wells of principle within them. Good characters constantly surprise us, and I want to give the perspective character the maximum opportunity to effect that surprise. With Valerius, the more of him I wrote the more complexity I find in his perspectives and attitudes. The story would not have been the same from a third-person perspective. It would have been significantly weaker.

Compelling stories are driven by characters making choices we can fully understand. That’s what drives both the horrifying inevitability of tragedy and the cathartic triumph of a hero overcoming her foes to claim victory. Learning a character inside and out is a great way to build our skills for empathy, too, and I think increasing empathy may be the only way we have to prevent the social, economic, and political downfall that destroyed our world in the fictitious history of Valerius’ future.

-While reading A Fall in Autumn one can’t help but ruminate on questions of memory, identity and personhood. Have you tackled these or similar concepts in your other work, or is this fresh territory for you?

Every single one of us struggles with the tension between how others see us and how we see ourselves. Ultimately, that’s at the root of every conflict between two people: a parent and their rebellious teen, two co-workers who both think they should be in charge, two spouses who disagree with how one or the other spent their money or their time, and so on. I think the only truly universal experience is of finding out someone else does not see us the way we see ourselves. And that’s certainly been at the heart of the greatest struggles of my personal life. I grew up gay in a remote mountain town, surrounded by people whose sets of acceptable outcomes for my life turned out to have almost no overlap with who I actually was. Who I am today is partly who I actually am and partly a reaction to others’ prejudiced demands and incorrect assumptions about me – and that’s true for everyone. I call A Fall in Autumn “queer sci fi” in part because Valerius is an explicitly queer character and in part because it’s a story about the power of identity to drive who we are, and how others see us, and the way a conscious examination of our own identity may close off certain paths for our life but it opens up other ones, new futures in which we get to be much more honest, much more authentic. That, more than anything, is the modern queer experience: that of people discovering who we are and choosing to lead lives that honor our self-revelation rather than obscure it.

My now-completed vampire series The Withrow Chronicles (which starts with Perishables) absolutely centered around those, as Withrow found himself over and over again confronting the difference between who he thought himself to be, who others thought him to be, and who he needed to become to survive that story. Throughout those books Withrow repeatedly assures us – in the course of trying to assure himself – that he’s a monster now, not a person, and that “person rules” don’t apply. Even in my urban fantasy series SERVANT/SOVEREIGN (which starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion), the heroes’ biggest personal questions are around how they are perceived by others versus how they perceive themselves, and what that says about how much they value the people and places they’re trying to save.

The same is very true of Valerius, who is constantly running into other people’s conflicting ideas of who he should be, how he should behave, and what’s “acceptable” for him. He occupies a place in society that some consider privileged and others consider reprehensible, and I really wanted to play with what it does to a person to get it from both sides like that. I think in many ways that’s very typical of the current queer experience, in which straight people watch RuPaul’s Drag Race in sports bars and right-wing politicians write dehumanizing laws intended to keep us marginalized and afraid.

-What is one area of craft that you knew you were weak in (or just OK), when you started writing that you rock now? How did you get there?

Different characters having different voices, probably. No, wait: real emotional depth in the characters’ perspectives and experiences.

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

No, wait, can I just list myself as being weak in everything? I’m not yet convinced I rock any of them. 🙂

(But seriously, I think I used to really stink at giving different characters their own voices and now I’m at least OK at it.)

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

Don’t worry about genre. Don’t think about where the book would be shelved in a bookstore or what categories it would have on Amazon. Those are important, sure, sort of, but they’re not as important as writing a story that makes you excited to tell it. It doesn’t matter what your book is about as long as you’re enthusiastic when you try to pitch it to others. If you have an idea that you love, and you think it might blend things together too much or be too “all over the place,” guess what: readers love that. Readers want to see an explosion of big ideas. Readers want you to lean in close and give them the elevator pitch of their lives: gay werewolves in space! Gothic romance but no one realizes everyone else is a secret vampire, too! Friday Night Lights but also they’re hedge wizards! I have had people walk away from my books because they were cross-genre, yes, but I’ve had many more drawn to my books because mixing things up and blending things together leads to the exceptionally pleasant experience of novelty.

Michael G. Williams is a prolific and award-winner writer. He writes novels across multiple genres and likes to subvert and mashup genres from time to time.

Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.

Find out more about him here.

 

October has been designated Black Speculative Fiction month when we especially pay attention to Black creators of fantasy, horror, and sci-fi! Luckily, there is still time to share some of my favorite writers with you and provide links to some great lists being circulated. If you don’t get to check out these writers now, the holiday season will be upon us shortly, so consider putting them on your list for yourself or as a gifts for others.

 

 Nisi Shawl

When I was in graduate school and thought that I was the only Black person that loved and wanted to write science fiction, I luckily met Nisi Shawl who worked in a used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. She was the first person of color that I had serious conversations with about Black speculative fiction and ideas that would eventually would become known as ‘Afrofuturism’ many years later. This was probably more than 25 years ago. She was a mentor and friend and I have followed her career with great joy. If you don’t know her, you should. Her recent steampunk book Everfair received critical reviews. It re-imagines the Belgium Congo and asks what would have happened if African peoples had developed steam technology first. She is active in sci-fi circles and is a cultural critic. She also co-facilitates a workshop for writers called ‘Writing the Other’ which has become a standard for writers both in sci-fi and out for helping writers develop deeply diverse, human and grounded characters. Even though she moved away before I had come into my own as a writer, I owe Nisi Shawl a great debt for her vision and encouragement. Check her work out!

http://www.nisishawl.com/Everfair%20reviews.html

Nicole Givens Kurtz

Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wonderful collection of stories of the ‘weird west’ by Nicole Givens Kurtz. As I said in my review: “…it is dazzling, groundbreaking and compelling. We are privy to complex and memorable characters, mostly Black women and women of color and viscerally experience how they have to make a way out of no way and keep their dignity whole doing so. In several stories, Kurtz explores the challenges these women faced in a post-Reconstruction world that was sometimes indifferent, often hostile, and sometimes brimming with new possibilities. You’ll cheer and cry for them at every turn.”

Kurtz has turned me on to a whole new subgenre of speculative fiction! You can see the Author  Q&A I did with her in the summer here.

https://www.amazon.com/Sisters-Wild-Sage-Weste…/…/0999852248

Tananarive Due

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the work of Tananarive Due (tah-nah-nah-REEVE-doo). She’s an author who has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image award and a British Fantasy Award. She primarily writes horror and you can see her in a new fantastic documentary that she produced: Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (available on Shudder and it is excellent). One of her most popular series is the African Immortals which begins with My Soul to Keep.

https://www.tananarivedue.com

Here’s a fantastic list put together by the Oakland Public Library! Enjoy!

My 90 day fast draft novel challenge is done! I finished up last week. I ended up with a little under 55,000 words. Not bad for a first draft. I had a few setbacks though, including losing 6,000 words (!) due to a computer glitch in a recent Microsoft Word update for the Mac. Losing that much material really sucked, but overall, I feel inspired about the progress I’ve made on my nascent horror novel.

Why This Challenge Worked for Me:

-I love a good writing challenge! Doing a fast draft appeals to me for the same reason that doing NaNoWriMo appeals to me. Both challenges provide structure and encourages and rewards daily effort. I love stretching past what I think I can do. With NaNoWriMo, you also get community through numerous online support via their website. Since I was posting my word counts on my author Facebook page, many folks cheered me on there.

-I also love the first drafting process. The first draft, as Jane Smiley has said, “only needs to exist.” In first drafts, I can put all my crazy ideas, flights of fancy, strange characters, and meandering subplots in. Although I was thinking some about the reader experience while writing, I was mostly writing to discover what I thought about the setting, the characters, my themes, etc.

-It gives me something to revise later. In Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass he said that when revising, you should look at a first draft and figure out the themes and ideas you were interested in exploring and then in the next draft to consciously write toward them.

-Writing 800-1,000 words five days a week was demanding, but also doable. I took Mondays and Tuesdays off which gave me some time to mull over what I was writing. NaNoWriMo’s daily word count of 1,667 words is not for the faint-hearted. This lower word count was just enough of a challenge to keep me focused, but it wasn’t so demanding that I had to keep the breakneck pace that NaNoWriMo requires.

-This challenge requires writing all the way to the end of the story. It forces you to construct some type of ending, no matter how provisional.

The only thing that I didn’t like about this challenge was that the research, writing and reading in the field was so all-consuming I couldn’t work on much of anything else during the 90 days. My submission rate plummeted. So, if I do this again, I will be more intentional about using one of my off days to stay on top of my submissions.

What’s next?

This big messy draft exists somewhere between an extended outline and fully fleshed out scenes and chapters. I’ll sit down in the middle of October, read it, make a new outline and write the next draft.

Want to know more about 90 day fast drafting? Check out Racheal Herron’s inspiring video.

I am excited to share my first experience co-hosting a podcast! I love the Writer’s Well: Conversations about writing from craft to wellness podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn. Rachael Herron and J. Thorn are friends and full-time writers and they share observations about the challenges and joys of the writing life. Each person poses a question to the other; it’s an unscripted and fun process. I’ve been listening to them for about two years. I really enjoy how supportive they are of each other and their larger community. The advice they give is invaluable and their warmth and affection for each other is joyous.

I’m in their private, once a month Mastermind group along with author Amy Taksuda. I’ve been in the group three months and like I say on the show, it is the best thing I’ve done for my writing life this year. They coach us on our writing challenges and Amy and I also brainstorm with each other. Our group has got great synergy. We were honored that they asked each of us to co-host an episode, with Rachael, during September while J was traveling. I jumped at the opportunity as I love the show and enjoy speaking on podcasts when I have the opportunity.

Rachael posed the question to me: ‘How does physicality affect your writing?’ True to the show’s format, the question was fresh for me. We talked about yoga, writing routines, swimming, Zumba, staying healthy as a writer, outsmarting your inner critic and more.

Not having the question ahead of time and being spontaneous was a good practice for me. I often over prepare for most engagements and consequently can miss being present with what is actually happening. Don’t we all have control issues, lol? Of course, after the show I thought of all the additional things I wanted to say! But, you can tell from listening to our conversation that is was fresh, lively and surprising to each of us.

She made me feel so welcome. It was so fun and such an honor.

Check it out here when you have a moment!

 

Two conversations, in the past few months, has me thinking a lot about readers and the lengths they will go to for the authors they love. And, as writers, how do we put our attention even more squarely on creating an amazing reader experience.

This author has created very loyal and responsive fans

One of my colleagues recently shared a story with me about how completely determined she was to obtain the latest release of a Louise Penny novel. At the time, she was traveling in Michigan and the bookstore that she usually visits while there had already run out of LP’s novel. She was scheduled to take a plane home later that day. She was so determined to get this novel that she called several bookstores in the area and then wound up driving over 45 minutes to a bookstore that still had the novel in stock. * She almost missed her plane in search of this book. That’s devotion.

One of my dearest friends and I were recently discussing what we were reading. Since I knew that my friend was also a fan of LP, I mentioned that my colleague was looking forward to diving into the latest LP novel. My friend paused and said with intensity, “Louise Penny is the only author that I make sure I do a pre-order for, so that the day of her release, the book arrives at my door. And, then I drop everything for a few hours to read it.”

I was struck by both conversations. Also, on a recent episode of the fantastic ‘The Writer’s Well’ podcast with Rachael Herron and J. Thorn, Rachael mentioned that a writer she knew had fans who would call in sick on the day of a new release. That’s commitment!

Having fans that make it a priority to read your work is every writer’s dream. It made me think about the question posed in the blog post title: What Lengths Are Readers Willing to Go to Read Your Work?

The deeper question is: How do we craft stories that readers can’t put down? Stories that keep them coming back for more.

This, as you already know, is a million-dollar question and there is no magic answer. I do think a piece of the answer is consistently thinking about one’s ideal reader. Over the years, I made an important realization—I am ultimately writing for reader experience and engagement, not just my own personal pleasure. Twenty years ago, I really didn’t think much about reader satisfaction or engagement—it was all about MY MESSAGE. Or, it was all about HOW CLEVERLY I USED LANGUAGE. This sounds so dumb and pretentious as I write it here, but it is the truth. Now, for me, managing and heightening reader experience is where the gold is and is always in the forefront of my mind. The first draft of anything is still just for me, my flights of fancy and risk-taking. Each subsequent draft though, I try to hone the kinds of emotions I want the reader to feel in each scene and across the whole manuscript. I also pay much more attention to where I might lose the reader in a story.

While teaching at the Table Rock Writers Workshop a few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing a fantastic book talk by Emily Nunn, author of The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart and former writer and inventor of the “Table for Two” column in The New Yorker.

She shared the grueling writing process she went through her after book proposal for a memoir (based on her experiences being in a psychiatric facility) was sold with relative ease. Her book is about the circumstances that got her into the facility and after leaving, how she healed by traveling to see friends and cooking together. She shared with us that she really wanted to include a chapter about her time in the psychiatric facility and someone on her team (I can’t remember if it was her agent or editor), said no and told her to take the chapter out. She was very upset with this advice. She had labored over that chapter and to her it represented the heart of the book. They, however, felt that the tone of the chapter was completely out of sync with the rest of the overall upbeat feel and transformational tone of the book. This same person said something along the lines of, “You don’t want to eject the reader from the book.” And, that chapter, in their opinion, though well-written would have created such incongruities for the reader, there was a potential of ejecting them out of the book. Thinking about what ejects the reader out of our work struck me as a useful bit of advice. We never want to eject the reader from our work! Ejecting the reader can look many different ways, right?

For example: Sloppy dialogue, a wandering plot, undeveloped characters, shoehorning one of our darlings into a book that just doesn’t fit (Nunn made it clear that the chapter she was being asked to cut was one of her favorites and she considered it important). Nunn added though that in retrospect, the advice was solid—the chapter didn’t fit in the current version of the book and could work instead as an excellent essay. Her team was thinking about the reader’s experience.

Many writers don’t read their reviews for a variety of reasons. I have found it helpful to look at the reviews of my work and pay attention to emails I receive or in person responses. What they like (or don’t like) are hints to their reader experience.

Sometimes when soliciting feedback on a draft, I will ask someone to mark in the text, exactly where they were able to out the book down. I go to that spot(s) and ask hard questions about what is either not working, or what is working but in a very uninteresting way.

No one starts out writing something that they know readers will devour; if you’re lucky you grow into a gifted storyteller over time. The writers who consistently create work that makes people stay up late, almost miss planes, and tell others about it have cracked something valuable about reader experience. The answers are out there in others’ work and our own, if we are brave enough to dig for them.

How do you understand the role of the reader’s experience? Are there questions you ask yourself when rewriting that focus on reader experience? I’d love to know!

*You may be wondering why she didn’t order it on Amazon—she doesn’t use Amazon and prefers to support independent bookstores.

Photo Credit-Louise Penny

Photo Credit-Emily Nunn

Over the last few years, several people have asked me about tips and strategies to promote their new book. I have often replied to each person individually via email. Since the publication of my novella in 2017, I feel like I have learned a lot about the mysterious world of book promotion.

I decided to compile some thoughts here, written similarly to the personal emails I have sent. I’ve also rounded up some links for you, too. Some of the ideas below apply to indie authors and traditionally published authors alike. Adapt and modify as you see fit. I can say that when I have asked traditionally published authors what they would do differently post-launch, they all say without hesitation—start preparing earlier than you think you should for your launch and spend money on a good publicist.

 Enjoy!

 ***

I’m sure you are excited about this next phase of getting your book into the world and you should be! Writing and promoting a book is something that most people dream about and that you are accomplishing!

Here are some suggestions for ways to get started:

 General:

-Your publisher should help you build a press kit. A press kit is a blueprint tool that creates a foundation for you as you promote the book over the next several months and years.

-I am also assuming that you have a website or some place on social media where people can find you. That is important, even if you have just one place (i.e. website or Author Facebook page).

Don’t be afraid to try new ways of promoting your book: https://insights.bookbub.com/creative-ways-authors-announced-book-launch/

Digital:

-I would conduct a Google search and target people that write blogs about YOUR SUBJECT and pitch yourself for either an author Q&A or a guest blog post. You’ll want to create a couple of formats and word counts; guests posts can run anywhere from 250-1000 words. People always need content. You can also pitch Huffington Post (which doesn’t pay its writers but has GREAT exposure) about an article based on your book. Blogs are still an important way for people to find out about new authors. I have provided a link to here to one of the interviews I’ve conducted with writers so you can get a sense of the kinds of questions most bloggers will want to ask you–so you can prepare some copy. Of course, bloggers will tailor the interview to your content.

-You might also start a channel on YouTube and post 1-2 minute videos of yourself reading from the book.

-Research podcasts that might be interested in having you as a guest. I talk about preparing for a podcast interview here.

 In person events:

 -Think about the various angles of your book–how does it inform or educate as well as entertain? What can you teach people or share with them at a book talk besides what is expected? Think about the kinds of “hooks” you can use to entice people to say yes to having you come and speak. You may not always sell a lot of books right away at local talks, but exposure is important as is word of mouth.

-Start planning your book talks early–do one locally where you can get your friends and family to come. You might also want to team up with another author as it helps with promotion.

-Is your book the kind of book that might interest civic organizations, including: Elks Clubs, Kiwanis, The Shriners, etc.  What about historical societies?

 -Don’t forget to pitch a talk or reading your local library and libraries near you.

TV/Radio

 -Getting onto local TV stations (or major networks) and/ radio tends to be a bit easier for those who are traditionally published. However, creativity and innovation in coming up with pitches that catch a producer’s eye will be rewarded.

-Consider pitching your book to the local National Public Radio station (NPR). They usually have a local show that will have authors on as guests. In NC, we have ‘The State of Things’. Think of how your work might tie in to current events, holidays, etc. There may also be community radio shows that would enjoy having you as a guest.

Remember:

You don’t need to do everything all at once (whew!), so choose one or two areas to focus on and then build out. Think about what success, as a new author, promoting yourself (besides sales of books) will mean to you in the next couple of months. A great book party? Lots of podcast appearances? An online presence?

Pace yourself and enjoy knowing that your baby is now going to have adventures in the world!

Here are some trends to watch: https://insights.bookbub.com/book-promotion-trends-bookexpo-2019/

I’m winding down from a terrific and transformative week co-leading a workshop called ‘Opening the Writer’s Heart’ with the amazing Marjorie Hudson. We integrated yoga, mindfulness, breath work and prompt writing.

We were at the Table Rock Writers Workshop in the mountains. It’s held at the Wildacres Retreat Center. It’s a special place that encourages generosity of spirit, conviviality, and community. Loved connecting with our workshop participants, the many writers and creatives in attendance and the faculty. Gratitude to organizers Georgann Eubanks and Donna Campbell for saying yes to our proposal.

I’ve been to a number of writing retreats and residencies and this one is incredibly special and I totally understand why it is both beloved and kind of a secret!

The Prep

Showing off our blue toes as we get in the car to drive up to TR. We didn’t even plan on having the same color!

Marjorie teased me about how much stuff I was taking, but I reminded her that I was taking workshop materials, my own work, books to sell, clothes (didn’t know how cold it was going to be–turns out it wasn’t cold at all), and snacks!

Great stop in Little Switzerland for a bite to eat on the way up to Table Rock. I told Marjorie, I’d have to restrain myself if I went into the used book store. I have a ‘situation’ at home with books piling up behind the door in my office. It’s a fantastic bookstore though!

What Makes Table Rock Special?

I had heard about Table Rock for years, but knew little about before Marjorie and I pitched our workshop. It is a week-long retreat that many writers attend year after year. When we arrived everyone made us feel welcome and told us how much we would love the experience. People were pretty emphatic that we would love TR. I nodded, smiled and thought, OK, people are really into Table Rock. Not that I didn’t believe them, but I needed to just allow the experience to unfold. After just a few hours there, I felt a shift and by the end of the first full day, I knew what everyone was talking about!

Here are some things that struck me about Table Rock:

-The workshops are kept small, both in class size (no more than 12 people; we had 6 participants) and overall number of people. The size leads to an intimacy over meals and gatherings. It also contributes to community-building.

The wonderful dining hall where connections deepened over meals. And, what a gift to not have to cook for a week!

-there’s a daily social hour and people hang out and really get to know each other

-the faculty have been teaching there for many many years. These are people working at the top of their craft and teaching at an extraordinarily high level. Participants raved about their instructors, and many participants come back and take the same workshop with their favorite instructor. That’s high praise! They also enjoyed experiencing new teachers (such as myself and Marjorie). We were the new kids on the block. The faculty made us feel so welcomed (as did everyone)! They also shared tips about the writing life and their own journeys. We were so honored to be part of this group and add our own special sauce, so to speak. One of participants, Cyndy gave us the nickname M-squared!

This year’s Table Rock faculty (left to right): Philip Shabazz, Joseph Bathanti, Abigail DeWitt, me, Judy Goldman. Back row: John Claude Bemis, Dawn Shamp (editor in residence), Marjorie Hudson (photo credit: Judy Goldman)

-The Table Rock ethic is to support each other’s writing and to recognize we have a lot to learn from everyone in the room, not just faculty. It’s not about competition. Established writers and newbies get to mix it up at TR. People are interested in who you are, not just what (or where) you have published. People are encouraged to listen deeply to each other.

-Participants get to read their work and so do faculty. Folks in the audience are attentive and supportive.

-It’s a beautiful space that both inspires and restores.

A wonderful space to read, write and enjoy the natural beauty.

-It’s a creative hub. Not only are fiction, poetry and memoir writers at Table Rock, there are also a dozen or so songwriters attending their own workshop. Both groups get to hang out, cross-pollinate and the songwriters also perform for the community on Thursday eve.

A rocking concert by performers who had written and scored songs just that week!

Our Workshop!

Our participants were fabulous! They were a mix of emerging and experienced writers. All had prior yoga experience (though that was not a requirement). All opened their hearts to each other. We were blown away by the quality of their writing and how deep they went with the prompts we offered.

The table was set! The space we taught in was spacious and we had plenty of room for yoga. Flowers from Marjorie’s garden adorn our table.

Our sessions were from 9am-12pm and we opened with yoga and gentle movement, a brief meditation and then launched into writing exercises (people would write anywhere from 5-15 minutes). Folks would read aloud from what they wrote and the group would note what struck us and where they could go next if they wanted to develop the piece. Sometimes, Marjorie and I would read selections aloud from poetry or a novel in preparation for a prompt. We’d provide another prompt, take a stretch break midway through, do another exercise, read aloud some more and offer homework to continue with the prompt. They were always free to scrap the prompt and write something else.

Our themes for opening the writer’s heart and qualities you need on the writer’s path included:

-practicing courage

-practicing connection

-practicing gratitude

-practicing silence

We also allocated some time for ‘instant coaching’ about the writing and publishing life.

A prompt for you!

We spent time talking about what kinds of things open the heart (e.g. courage and dealing with fear) and what closes it (e.g. lies, secrets). This is one of the prompts I offered:

“I didn’t tell the truth for the first forty years of my life. I thought that reason I lied was that I thought I was protecting other people, but the truth is, it was to cover my own behind. I lied to my kids to get them to do what I needed them to do. I lied to my friends to get whatever it was that I needed. I lied to myself but I would never have known they were lies…This is what I realize: Being able to tell the truth makes being able to write the truth easier. And writing the truth is the beginning of healing the heart.” (emphasis in original) —
–Nancy Aronie

-Write about a lie you have told (5 minutes)

Then for homework, I suggested the following:

“Take a situation or topic or an event that you haven’t talked about honestly yet; something that is still stuck in your throat, like a tiny fishbone, small enough not to choke you to death but big enough to let you know it’s still there.

Work on it in small amounts. Truth is all you need to write. No gorgeous phrases, no sparkling syntax, just truth. Write until you’ve written the whole story.” Nancy Aronie

Write for 30 minutes.

Or: write about a major lie told to you

Our group went deep with this prompt! This prompt is adapted from Nancy Aronie’s Writing from The Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice (a writing book that has a similar feel to Bird by Bird; also very funny and very poignant; Nancy Aronie came to writing late in life and I really identify with her journey.)

Our workshop participants doing our last exercise where we invite them to dream big about their writing life. They name their accomplishments, writing skills they want to strengthen during the coming year, and identify allies and mysterious sources of support. It involves colorful post-it notes!

 

Love this picture of Marjorie practicing Lion’s Pose, a great refresher for the face and tension reliever. (photo credit Donna Campbell)

We provided participants with easy, sustainable exercises to support their back, shoulders and hands during the labor of writing. Check out these poses for hands and wrists:

https://www.webmd.com/osteoarthritis/ss/slideshow-hand-finger-exercises

The Last Day

A quick pic with faculty member John Claude Bemis before we get down to selling our books!

 

Books, books and more books! Faculty and participants get to sell books on the last day. Humbled that my Reenu-You novella was on the table next to so many authors that I admire.

Overall, a very soul-refreshing adventure. I love teaching with Marjorie. And, because we had a week to teach the material (unlike our previous weekend teaching gigs), there was more spaciousness built into the experience. I was also able to stay on my own writing schedule!

And, of course I couldn’t leave with out some books! Can’t wait to dive into these books by the faculty!

I don’t know if we will get the chance again to teach at Table Rock due to schedules, etc. I hope so! I can also see myself taking a class at TR, too. Table Rock definitely made an impression on me.

Doesn’t this look like a really happy face? Taken on the last day of the workshop by the fantastic Donna Campbell.

Check out more about them and their schedule here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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