The Practice of Creativity

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I’m grateful for the opportunity to explore my feelings and relationship to the term ‘Afrofuturism’ in this recent essay for the online quarterly magazine South Write Large: Stories, Arts and Ideas for the Global South. Is this a term that you have heard a lot about? How do you engage with Afrofuturism?

My Unlikely Path to Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism is everywhere these days. From the staggering success of Black Panther to the revival of Octavia Butler’s works, especially the prescient Parable of the Sower written in 1993, to the award-winning novels by N. K. Jemisin, these books have ushered in a new moment. We’re not just talking about literature or film, but music, fashion design, visual arts, and social activism as well. What often gets lost or flattened, however, when a phenomenon enters the mainstream, is the nuance, history, and multiple viewpoints on said phenomenon. Read the rest of the essay here.

I’ve returned to monthly column writing and I’m thrilled about it. My first adventure with column writing was with the Chapel Hill News from 2012-2014. I was discovered by an editor at the CHN through a very personal and vulnerable post that I shared on social media. He encouraged me to become a ‘My View’ columnist. See more about that story here.

For that column, I wrote about a variety of topics including the perils of petite fashion, my early life, my mother, creativity and feminism. I absolutely loved it and learned tons including the ability to write to deadline, what kinds of columns move readers and how to cultivate a nonfiction writing ‘voice’.

Now, I’ve decided to write for the Chatham County Line, a refreshed monthly community paper distributed in the county where I live. I took up monthly writing again for several reasons:

-The publisher is a longtime friend and is interested in making sure a diversity of voices are represented in the paper.

-I like that he has updated the paper and I want to be part of the positive and forward thinking changes it fosters in the community.

-Writing a column increases my profile locally.

-I told the publisher I want to focus on topics of creativity and inspiration, areas that I’m passionate about and ones where I want to deepen my publishing record.

-I also want to take risks in what I write about creativity. That feels pretty vulnerable. Writing a blog can be an intimate experience, but readers are spread across the globe. And, subscribers to blogs generally have an affinity for what a blogger is sharing. Writing for one’s community, knowing that you might run into someone, that read your column, in the grocery store is a different feeling.

I’m excited though about this adventure and I hope you’ll check it out, too. This month’s theme was ‘Get Out of the Basement:  Cultivating a Writing Community.’

I’m a creative writer. It’s taken me a long time to publicly claim and affirm that designation.
There is no one path to being a writer or embodying a writing life. 

You can find the rest here.

Remember, small local papers always need interesting writers with something to say. Consider pitching yourself as a columnist!

The beginning of the year has been a whirlwind, in a good way. I was invited to lead a craft workshop for the students attending Carlow University’s low-residency Creative Writing MFA program, taking place in early Jan, in Pittsburgh, PA.

I was very excited, honored and nervous. I am an educator by training and routinely teach undergraduate and graduate students in my areas of my research expertise (e.g. women’s and gender studies, sociology, and political science). Although I have given craft talks, I have never designed and solely led a workshop for MFA students. Even though I have taught writing workshops alone and with others, I have never taught in an actual MFA program.

I received the invitation in September. Once I accepted, an annoying inner critic voice popped up and said, “Who does she think she is to teach MFA students, especially when she doesn’t have an MFA?”

I had to repeatedly say to myself, “This is not about your ego or degrees. You are here to serve the students and offer up what you think will be useful to them.” One of the reasons why I was invited was because they have had students express an interest in writing speculative fiction. The administrators gave me complete freedom to design the workshop in any way that I wished.

Once I reminded myself that I had something unique to offer and that it was OK not to be perfect on the first round, I totally got into designing the workshop.

The MFA students sign up for the classes they want to take about a month before, so I sent some preliminary questions about their goals, challenges, interests, etc. I used their answers to guide me as I developed the workshop.

I taught about speculative fiction and my path as a winding path as a writer (i.e. why I went to get a PhD in political science instead of an MFA). I integrated mindfulness and contemplative practices as resources for sustaining their writing. I also had them generate lots of material through prompts and free writing. We looked at some ways that writers can play with premise, setting and character as part of speculative work. I drew on a wide variety of authors and my own work as demonstrations of particular approaches.

Boy, does two and half hours fly by!

The students were amazing and generous to me and each other.

I so enjoyed watching students dive deep in the exercises and claim some of their buried interests, including horror and dark fiction.

The fantastic MFA students I worked with at Carlow.

I absolutely loved teaching the workshop.

I’m glad I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. I’m also glad that without acting like a know-it-all, I could share with them some lessons I’ve learned as well as hear what their writing lives are like. As in all adult learning communities, you know some things and they know some things. Learning happens in the middle.

The only thing I would do differently would be to send some of the short readings ahead of time, so we would have more time for in class writing and reading our work.

I was honored to read alongside Patrice Gobo (center) and Lynn Emmanuel. We read poetry, memoir and fiction and our selections all complimented each other.

The faculty and staff were welcoming and it was a joy to be with them. I loved reading with the other faculty, too.

Creatives, don’t we just light up when we are with other creatives?

Below are two of the exercises that I used as warm-up material. I absolutely adore Dena Metzer’s Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life’s Journey (a more spiritual approach to creativity, but some of the deepest writing advice I’ve ever seen and great prompts throughout the book)

The Dream Police

We are what matters to us. Our identity materializes through images, memories, events and through things.

Suddenly there is a knock on your door. A trusted friend enters to warm you that the Dream Police will arrive in twenty minutes. Everything, everything in your life that you have not written down will evaporate upon their arrival. You have a short time—twenty minutes-to preserve what is most previous in your life, what has formed you, what sustains you. Whatever you forget, whatever you have no time to record, will disappear. Everything you want must be acknowledged in its particularity. Everything to be saved, must be named. Not trees, but oak. Not people, but Alicia. As in reality, what has no name, no specificity, vanishes.

*set the timer for 20 minutes and GO. This is great prompt to help us dig deep and go from the abstract to the concrete. Every time I do this exercise, my list looks different.

The Dream Police #2 (also from Writing for Your Life)

Imagine you are an anthropologist who has unearthed this list of “possessions” that once belonged to some unknown person. Write a brief portrait of fleshing that person out, speculating on his or her character and life.

-The anthropologist writes about this subject in the 3rd person, (i.e. he, she, they)

My addition: circle 3-5 items, images, memories from this list that interest you. How might you approach what you have created as the basis for a new character? What kind of trouble or setting might be interesting to explore with this character sketch?

Photo credit

 

I’m doing something I have never done before. I’m sharing a few paragraphs from my WIP for WITCHES, WARRIORS AND WISE WOMEN the Kickstarter funded anthology. The tentative title for my story is ‘Ditch Girl’ and is set in a post-apocalyptic world with a smidgen of urban fantasy. There are definitely witches in this story. This is a draft for your reading pleasure only.

BTW, we are 66% funded with only 3 days to go. I’d LOVE it if you would consider supporting this project and/or sharing the link. And, thanks to all of you who have already supported the project in various ways!

There are still VERY cool rewards and pledge levels available—help us fund this project and get some extra goodies for yourself. But hurry—the clock is ticking!

It will feature new fiction by me and Gail Martin, Paige Christie, Darin Kennedy, Alexandria Christian, Nicole Smith, JD Blackrose and many others.

Details here.

“Ditch Girl”

The cemetery never scared Welcome, even as a child.  Cutting through it to get home provided the quickest route and allowed unrivaled use of her imagination. She would make up stories about people, looking for the oldest headstones. Most days after school, before it got dark, she’d pick an interesting gravestone, settle in and strike up a conversation. She’d share things that didn’t sit right in her mind.

She might say, “Ana Sterling of 1950, if you were here, I’d show you around Thistleview. Not that there’s very much to see. In your day, I bet you use to go into that old city called Tulsa, not too far from here. It’s not there anymore now, Ana.”

Or, “One day the preacher’s wife slapped me for not wearing a slip. After service, she asked me to come in the back to talk to her and before I knew it she had her beefy hand on me.

The preacher’s wife said, “Welcome, can’t you see your breasts are falling out that dress? Do you want to end up like your mother?”

Mama never said I had to wear a slip, Ana. I don’t even have a slip. I stopped going to church after that. The preacher’s wife don’t bother me no more. She don’t even speak to me at all. She just looks right through me as if I’m some piece of old cobweb. Were slips big in your day, Ana? I bet they were. People had money back then from what I’ve read. They went places that needed slips.”

On this day Welcome made her way through the forested part of the cemetery, where the red cedars were thickest and some of the oldest headstones lay. She paused and sniffed, noticing the coolness in this part of the cemetery. She then heard words sung by a female voice:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart

Goosebumps pebbled her pale skin and she hunched into her ragged coat. The phrases repeated and Welcome looked toward the nearest stand of trees. She darted behind one and then another thinking that she had been followed by some of her stupid classmates.

After a few minutes of frantic searching and finding no singers (she knew no one in town that sounded as good as that voice), with every vein straining in her face, she listened.

Another female voice rang out, this one heavier:

We’re trying to come throu…

Come to us!

The moment seared her like when she waited for the once a month afternoon train. Pricks of excitement and danger bit into her, making her hop from foot to foot. She couldn’t make herself stand still. Nothing she had heard so far in her life sounded as good as these voices. They made her feel as if her favorite butterscotch candies were melting on her tongue. No, it was as if she floated in warm butterscotch candy. She ran up and down the stretch of the cemetery. Welcome overturned rocks, peeked behind headstones, climbed a small tree and searched for the origin of those voices until she could barely see in front of her.

Exhausted, she remembered her responsibilities. Mama will wonder where dinner is.

“Please, whatever you are come to me,” she said at last, the frustration catching in her throat. On rest of the walk home as the sun sank, a feeling of utter sadness swept over Welcome. Maybe everyone in town is right. I’m going crazy, like Mama.

***

I hoped you enjoyed this snippet. I’m sure that my opening and entire story will go through several drafts before I’m happy with it and send it on. I look forward to working with Jason Graves, publisher of Prospective Press and editor of this anthology.

 

Besides loving to write fiction, I also love writing nonfiction. Over several decades, I have read and benefited from what’s known as ‘self-help, inspirational and personal transformation’ kinds of books. And, truth be told, I’ve always wanted to write a book that falls in the area of inspiration/personal transformation, especially as it relates to creativity. And, I’ve had my eye on Hay House Publishing for a long time.

Hay House Publishing is known for publishing leading self-help, health and wellness, and personal transformation books and has a very successful thirty-year track record. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer and Kris Carr are well-known Hay House authors and many Hay House authors end up on the New York Times bestseller list. Hay House is one of the top twenty major publishers in the U.S. The founder of Hay House was Louise Hay and she wrote You Can Heal Your Life, book that sold millions and was translated into many languages. She helped to create the modern ‘self-help’ genre. I read her book in my twenties, loved it and shared it with everyone I knew. She was at the forefront of making the argument that what we think (and think about) can affect our bodies, now known as the ‘mind-body’ connection.

The U.S. ‘self-improvement market’ is estimated at 9 billion dollars and close to 800 million dollars of that involves books!

Hay House provides an experience for aspiring authors that no other publishing company does. For the past twelve years they have hosted the ‘Hay House Writer’s Workshop’, an intimate in-person event. They share with you the insider information about the publishing process from start to finish (i.e. developing an idea to submitting proposal to building a platform) and you get to hear from some of their most popular authors. The idea is to give aspiring authors a jump-start and leg up. And, here is the truly remarkable thing—if you attend a live event, you are eligible to participate in their exclusive contest (for that event) and submit a book proposal six months later. From every event they pick three winning book proposals with a commitment to publish those books. The Grand Prize is $10,000. You can only enter the contest by attending. And each event is attended by about 250 people. Reid Tracy, the CEO of Hay House said that despite those good odds, they often only end up with 60-80 entries. I like those odds!

And, so for years I have wanted to attend the Hay House Writer’s Workshop. I decided this was the year to commit, so a few weeks ago, I headed to the Houston event. I went with few expectations and can truly say that the experience was phenomenal.

Some highlights:

The People:

For me, there’s few better ways to spend my time than with other writers. I met people from all over the globe who had made their way to Houston. A few nights before I left, I put a note out on the site’s Facebook page to see if people wanted to get together for dinner when we got in as I knew no one in Houston. People responded right away and this became the beginning of a great group of about eight of us. One of the folks I met is a writer in Greensboro, just 45 minutes from where I live—we even know a ton of the same writers. Small world!

I was fascinated by people’s backgrounds and what was motivating them to attend. There were medical doctors, integrative health practitioners, therapists, grandmothers, seasoned writers, entrepreneurs,healers, energy workers, and newbie writers all wanting to know more about Hay House and how to get their book into the world and change people’s lives. Close to 90% percent were interested in writing prescriptive non-fiction and/or a ‘teaching memoir’. I don’t usually get to meet so many people that were interested in personal transformation topics so that was a treat. They were kind, funny and generous. It was also a diverse group of writers which I was very thankful for. I left with a new community of wonderful writers.

The Workshop/Speakers: 

Hay House delivered on providing an excellent, inspiring and informative curriculum. Reid and Kelly Notaras were our informative co-hosts.They spent a lot of time explaining the publishing market and led with the fact that authors need a platform (or the ability to create one) and that out of 80,000 books published a year only about 300 of them sell 50,000 copies (which in publishing is seen as a type of benchmark). They also talked about the range of options for publishing besides the traditional route and in both cases explained how important it is to work with an editor, before you send your proposal or book out the door.

Reid Tracy welcoming us and talking about the power of Hay House books to change people’s lives.

Each presenter provided insight either about the writing process, how to stay inspired, or how they broke in. They were engaging, funny and inspiring.

Mike Dooley shared his story of how he started his ‘notes from the universe’ when he was in a down period and how serving people over time helped him create a major platform. He started with 36 email addresses and now has thousands and thousands of people around the world who are engaged with his message.

Nancy Levin spoke from the heart about how she came to write her own book after being the Hay House events manager for over a decade. I was impressed that she spoke without notes or a fancy Powerpoint. She also talked openly about the value of working with an editor and a ghostwriter. On Sun morning she also led a fantastic meditation workshop that included poetry, very unique.

Robert Holden (toward the right of center), author of Shift Happens started his talk off with us dancing on stage with him to Stevie Wonder! As we had been sitting almost all day, this was such a joy. His talk was about how to write through fear and anxiety. And, he stressed writing as a spiritual practice which resonated with me.

Super inspiring to hear Rebekah Borucki’s journey. She attended a HH Writer’s workshop a few years ago but didn’t submit a proposal. She then worked on the book proposal for ‘You Have 4 Minutes to Change Your Life’ and platform. She submitted her proposal to Hay House via the traditional route and it got acquired and it is now out. She talked about writing the book of your heart. I also appreciated that they showcased an up and coming author and one who identifies as bi-racial.

The Materials:

I’m not a newbie to writing or publishing. For about a ¼ of the participants the idea of writing a book was new and they didn’t know a lot about publishing platforms, finding a writer’s group, how to put together a proposal, etc. I came knowledgeable about the publishing process, but learned lots! There were two things that got everyone up to speed. One was the long Q&A sessions on Sat afternoon and Sunday where anyone could ask a question and they all got answered as best they could by Reid and Kelly. And, the second was this incredible manual that they gave us that contained a successful proposal of a book that was acquired by Hay House, plus information about publishers in the field besides Hay House that publish in the self-help field, resources for platform building and other tips about both traditional and indie publishing. It was a gold mine of resources and alone was worth the cost of the trip.

I’m glad I got myself to Houston (didn’t do as much sight-seeing as I would have liked) and I know have until April to write my book proposal for the contest and send it in. I’ll keep you posted!

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!

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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