The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Moose

I haven’t been able to take a writing workshop in some time, so I was looking forward to taking a ‘flash fiction’ class from acclaimed poet and short story enthusiast, Ruth Moose. I am still doing daily writing and am moving various projects forward, but there is a deliciousness and spontaneity that comes with creating fresh writing in a workshop. Until the last few years, I didn’t even believe that I could write flash fiction or short fiction. Every time I tried to write a short story, it would come out as a novella. After a semester long class with Ruth and exploring the form of short stories, I started to understand the demands of the short form. I also started voraciously reading short fiction. One time Ruth described the short story as having the length and character of a lovely dinner party. I understood then that one of my problems was that in many of my stories the characters were staying much longer and making it a sleep over party!

The workshop last week was so invigorating. We explored a variety of short fiction that ranged in style and content. We read T. Coraghessan Boyle’s ‘The Hit Man’ that chronicles the life of a hit man in episodic moments. It is both abstract (the hit man is always described with a black bag over his head), yet chilling. The piece below is an excerpt:

Excerpt:

Father’s Death

At breakfast the Hit Man slaps the cornflakes from his father’s bowl. Then wastes him.

Mother’s Death

The Hit man is in his early twenties. He shoots pool, lifts weights and drinks milk from the carton. His mother is in the hospital, dying of cancer or heart disease. The priest wears black. So does the Hit Man.

Sylvia Mullen Tohill’s ‘The Unfaithful Wife’* is about a woman who slyly undresses from her pajamas each night while her husband sleeps. This is her first paragraph:

Under the covers, she sometimes slipped out of her pajamas and slept nude beside her husband. She waited until he was snoring, then eased out of the bottoms—one leg, then the other—slipped an arm out of one sleeve, the other sleeve, then a time of listening before she lifted the top over her head and slid both garments under her pillows.

In the stories, we looked for where things turned and in short fiction, that moment is usually well delineated. We also noted that many times the main characters aren’t named.

We also read Jamaica Kincaid’s well anthologized ‘Girl’ and Carolyn Foushee’s ‘The Colonel’.

Ruth said that she loves the short form because of its complexity and yet accessible nature. She also loves it because there is currently a strong market for micro fiction, flash fiction and very short stories (100-1,000 words). Although short fiction requires a beginning, middle and end, I find that it is possible to leave some questions lingering and resonating then having everything perfectly wrapped up. I now enjoy writing short fiction and writing more of it has also allowed me to enter contests and get my work published.

Here are some writing exercises to try; try to keep these in the 200-750 word range:

-Write a short piece that is based on giving advice. In Kincaid’s ‘Girl’, the narrator is a young girl who hears her mother’s voice in her her head interspersing sexual advice with everyday ‘ladylike’ ways of being in the world:

Excerpt: this is how you sweep a whole house; this is how you sweep a yard; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile at someone you like completely

-Write a short piece about someone who comes close to telling an important truth, but stops

-Write a short piece about a couple standing in front of a door about to go into a party who begin to argue

-Write a short piece about a character standing in someone’s home and being troubled by what they notice displayed on their friend’s refrigerator

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Limiting beliefs are often so hidden from our everyday awareness they feel more like inner immutable truths.

We all have a list of things we “know” we can’t do. It’s good to periodically examine a limiting belief and see if we can’t prove ourselves wrong and have fun while doing it.

For a long time, I believed that I couldn’t write short fiction, especially flash fiction. Flash fiction is a complete story that runs about 500 to 2,000 words. In a short number of words, flash fiction has to serve up all the traditional elements of fiction: interesting characters, a sensible plot, an engaging conflict, a setting and a resolution.

That’s a tall order. E-readers and shrinking attention spans have created a renaissance and hunger for high-quality short fiction.

I had good reason to believe that I couldn’t do it. I had never done it before.

As an academic writer, I’ve spent most of my time producing research and long scholarly books. As a creative writer, I’ve spent more than a decade of my time reading and analyzing novels, learning the craft of novel writing and working on a sprawling 800-page novel. The few times that I tried to write short fiction, I instead cranked out a novella (about 50,000 words).

Case closed, right?

After getting feedback from an editor at a small press that he liked my longer pieces, but wanted to see if I had short fiction, I was forced to confront my limiting belief. If I wanted to develop a relationship with this editor (always a good thing), it meant I’d actually have to create some short fiction. Also strategically, a publisher is more likely to take a chance on a new novelist if the writer has a lot of short fiction published, or a collection of short stories.

After a few moments of white-knuckled panic and some reflection, I realized that I had selectively chosen bits of evidence to support my belief and excluded others. In college, I was a dual major in political studies and creative writing. In my writing classes, I wrote tons of short fiction. I had totally discounted all that early writing. Our psyches are pretty clever, huh?

Scratching a bit deeper, I also knew that a fear of writing badly, in this genre, and hence rejection also had propped up my belief. Fear of the unknown keeps most people from attempting new things. It is very hard to “fail” in public. Matthew Fox, Episcopal priest and author of “Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet” says when we stop trying new things for fear of looking bad, we can suffer from a type of rigid “adultism.”

Although my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson (author of “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas”) encourages her students to think of claiming over 100 rejections as a path to mastery in the writing life, the thought of piling up more rejection letters didn’t make me feel wildly creative and rush to the computer.

However, once that memory from college surfaced and challenged my long-held belief, I took the next step.

I gave myself permission to try a new activity. I enrolled in writing classes devoted to flash fiction, read the New Yorker and subscribed to several literary journals. And, I wrote a lot of bad short fiction. I played and learned. I kept in mind the metaphor about short fiction that I learned from Ruth Moose, recently retired and beloved teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, it’s like a well-paced dinner party. I stopped trying to get my characters to sleep over.

Although I’m light-years away from mastering the short form, I’ve gained an appreciation for flash fiction and hope to write more. This month, I saw my piece “Urban Wendy” published in Carolina Woman magazine. It won a prize in their annual spring writing contest.

Changing self-limiting beliefs requires a willingness to puncture the skin of deeply-held beliefs. It requires giving one’s self permission to take the next logical action. And, it also requires a recognition and tolerance for doing something badly or even face rejection.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard’s experience with rejection is instructive: 84 editors rejected his first novel before it was finally published as a paperback original – 84! In 1982, after selling 23 novels, the thriller “Stick” became a bestseller.

This piece originally appeared as a ‘My View’ column for The Chapel Hill News on 7/22/2013

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

1.  What is the working title of your book?

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

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

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

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

3.  What genre does your book fall under?

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

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

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

Here’s a snippet from our invitation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are self-publishing this zine.

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

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

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

N/A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posting NOV 25

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

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

Posting NOV 26

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

Posting NOV 27

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

Posting NOV 29

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

Posting NOV 30

Follow the bunny!

I met Ruth Moose, several years ago, when I taught ‘Yoga for Creative People’ through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Adult Continuing Education Program. The class was geared to explore how mini yoga practices could support and amplify creative effort. Ruth was probably the most well known writer in the room, but you would never know that from her. She explored all of the postures and accompanying writing exercises with enthusiasm and often peals of laughter. I was taken with her generosity of encouraging comments toward other participants’ work. Her commitment to supporting other writers and creative folk is almost legendary as I came to learn. A majority of North Carolina writers and artists know Ruth and have either been mentored or taught by her. I am so happy I caught up with her recently to talk about her latest collection of short stories, Neighbors and Other Strangers.

Tell us about your new short story collection, Neighbors and Other Strangers. What inspired it? Are there recurring themes that you explore?

Neighbors and Other Strangers is the first of three collections of short stories I have in the accumulations bin. These stories were written over a period of years and pulled from the files in an attempt to center around a theme. I saw a sort of older, maybe 1960s sort of neighborhood where each of these narrators might live. They represent blue-collar folks, those on a lower rung on the middle class. People I know who don’t get into the literature very much. Real people with real lives who do their jobs, love their families (mostly) and get by every day with some patience and a lot of fortitude.

What advice do you wish someone had given you as you were developing your craft as a writer? Also, what was the best writing advice you got?

I have accumulated so much advice over the years, and given so much, it’s hard to pick out shining moments or gold nuggets. If writing is your passion, nothing is ever going to stop you. Not all the rejections in the world. You may be momentarily slammed down (and trust me I have been, still am), but you’ll somehow pick yourself up and find yourself back on the page. I’ve told students writers don’t need alcohol or drugs. The writing life can give you the highest highs…..finishing a good piece, getting something published, wining an award. Those are the true highs.

The best writing advice I ever got and give, is the oldest…..read, read, read. Fill your mind with words, live on them, and feed on them.

Poetry is one of your loves. What keeps you coming back to the form of poetry for self-expression?

Poetry is not my first love. It’s always the short story. But poetry feeds your writing, your life, and your mind. I really treasure these online poem-a-day sites. And I often print out the poems, tape them to my office bookshelves, and enjoy them longer than the few seconds on the screen. Some I’ve kept taped to my kitchen cabinets until they yellow and crinkle and I’ve almost memorized them.

 

You’re known for the poetry collection, The Librarian, that you wrote through the ‘persona’ of a librarian. How did you come to write those poems?                                                                                

It’s funny The Librarian poems have gotten such an audience. I’ve never written so many poems through the persona viewpoint. She’s me, but not me, if that makes sense. I do have a graduate degree in library science and worked as a reference librarian, so I borrowed the setting, etc. But I am a teetotaler, haven’t had a gentleman caller (the Scholar in The Librarian) and a lot of the other stuff that’s pure imagination in the poems. I do have a cat, but he’s nicer than Percy. The second half of that collection was written first. The grief poems were how I dealt with my husband’s death. It is a long and protracted grief that even almost ten years later can ambush. Somehow the Librarian stepped into my life, jerked me up short and said “Enough”, move on. So I have….slowly. The last librarian poem says that. When I wrote it I knew it was the last one of the 55 persona poems for the collection. It’s very, very difficult to write through grief and grieving without getting bogged in clichés. That was one of the hurdles. Maybe the Librarian truly helped me jump the hurdles.

While a faculty member at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill you received an award for distinguished teaching at the undergraduate level. What did you enjoy about teaching student writers?

I loved teaching! And each semester always felt I got the best class ever. Those shiny faces, eager eyes, and bright smiles. I loved planning writing assignments, prompts, reading their work. And I got a lot of really good work. I even got a kick out of reading their papers, seeing real leaps in their writing, thinking, and imagination.

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

There are so many good writing tips and I’ve just enjoyed and used a million of them over the years. So I’d say just use the one that works best for the moment, the place you’re in, both in your writing and your life.

But the golden rule is always read, and, of course, look and listen with all your heart. And try to get some of it on paper.

Ruth Moose is the author of three collections of short stories, Neighbors and Other Strangers (Main Street Rag Press), The Wreath Ribbon Quilt (St. Andrews Press) and Dreaming in Color (August House) as well as five poetry collections. Her poems and stories have appeared Atlantic Monthly, Redbook, Prairie Schooner, Yankee, The Nation, Christian Science Monitor and other places. Her stories have been published in England, Holland, South Africa, and Denmark. She received a McDowell Colony Fellowship and was recognized for outstanding teaching before recently retiring from The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Ruth is teaching a short story workshop through The Writers’ Workshop  in Charlotte, Sat. July 14th, in Asheville, NC. For more details, email her at  moose.ruth@gmail.com


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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