The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘science fiction and fantasy

As you know by now, the country has lost one of the greatest writers ever to use the English language–Toni Morrison.

There have been several wonderful and poignant remembrances about her:

In the Paris Review: Creative folks (writers and a photographer) remembering Toni Morrison. Made me laugh and choke up. Fran Lebowitz’s memories about Toni are funny (who knew how much Toni loved dessert–can’t we all identify with that?) and poignant as she talks about Toni’s ability to forgive.This is how we all wish to be remembered by those who knew us well–as living big, full and messy lives and giving all we have to our art and each other. And, of course the peculiarities that our friends love about us.
(credit to Austin Kleon’s newsletter where I first saw the link)
https://www.theparisreview.org/…/20…/08/06/remembering-toni/

My wonderful AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation) friend, Cassandra Lane wrote a powerful homage:

And this from The New Yorker feature with several writers reflecting on Morrison’s legacy:

If it hadn’t been for Toni’s Morrison’s “Sula,” I would never have been able to write the book that is “Another Brooklyn.” If not for the many readings of “The Bluest Eye,” half of the books I’ve written for young people would not be in the world. So many writers, so many writers that are women, so many writers that are black know this to be true—because of Toni Morrison, we are. Because of her, I am.

—Jacqueline Woodson

(thanks to Heloise Jones for posting on her Facebook page)

I thought I would write a very short memory about Toni Morrison, one that I have been carrying around for some time. Well, it turned out a lot longer than anticipated. It’s really a beginning meditation on creativity, my alma mater, Bard College and being a student of color in the 1980s. It turned out deeply personal:

A different kind of Toni Morrison memory…

I discovered Toni Morrison in the Language and Thinking program that was required of all first-year students admitted to Bard College. The year was 1987. ‘L&T’ took place a few days before the start of the semester and provided an opportunity for students to socialize and experience humanities classes in the traditional, intimate seminar style that defined Bard. I see myself then, a fiercely proud young woman, excited to be at Bard, but already feeling a bit off kilter by the extreme affluence and whiteness of the student body. [To give you a sense of this, Bard’s student body during the years I attended, 1987-91 was around 900 students. I would say that at any given time there were about 50 or fewer self-identifying students of color. I remember 3 Black faculty on campus, one tenured, one a visiting professor and the other person was Chinua Achebe, who came during my junior year]. I remember being the only African American student in my L &T group of about 12 students. We had a wonderful instructor, a white guy, whose name is now lost to me who had us read different selections from novels during the week. Typically, the L&T professors were not Bard professors and I believe they brought much needed fresh perspectives and new texts into this endeavor.

On one of the days, the instructor had us read the opening pages of Sula. For those of you who have read Sula, you may remember that it begins with exposition of how Black residents in a small fictional town in Ohio came to occupy ‘The Bottom’. It’s beautifully written and deftly reveals the horror of disenfranchisement and segregation that marked much of 19th and 20th century America. I felt exposed and vulnerable, both as a reader and a student. Who was this writer to expose truths and ideas so deep that it cut to the core? I’m sure the teacher wanted to demonstrate how a writer could so thoroughly and expertly engage questions of history, community and identity in a few short pages. The educator in me is almost positive that he said that the author was African American. I don’t actually remember, but I know that at some point in the class I thought the author was white. I somewhere along the line, in realizing Morrison was Black, then turned my anger on her—how dare she write about these difficult things! How dare her that I have to read them? How dare the power of her words to completely refashion my psyche in the midst of a classroom, in front of strangers?

I’m not proud of this memory, but there it is.

[I was still coming out of my young adulthood pre-racial consciousness in wondering why there had to be a magazine like Essence, instead of one for ‘all of us’. I was slowly realizing that color-blind approaches didn’t work in confronting systemic oppression]

It was probably the first time that I so powerfully experienced being in a classroom being both hypervisible and also invisible because of the intersection between the text taught and my own subjectivity. I don’t remember saying one word during that class. Of the white students who did talk, I wonder of their experience. Did they have to treat the text as distant and almost ethnographic or did it shatter their ideas of America, too? Most of them did look at me at some point in the class to say something and what did they make of my refusal? Defiance? Ignorance? Embarrassment?

I am, of course, grateful to this instructor who had us read and think about Toni Morrison’s words. He went on to become an early champion of my creative writing. As an instructor now, I am very attentive to thinking about who is in the room when I am assigning various texts, especially fiction. I think about not just the analytical points I want the work of the text to do, but how will it land with students across their multiple and intersecting identities.

By sophomore year, I did embrace Toni Morrison and devoured her work. I have fond memories of summer vacations reading one of her books.

Toni Morrison-ness was also invoked in my creative writing classes. Although I graduated a political studies major, my true love was English and creative writing and I came very close to being a double major. In most of my creative writing classes, every writing assignment I turned in leaned toward ‘non-realism’ or speculative fiction. This was not always appreciated. And, trust me, at the time, few of my English professors (except one teaching ‘Women and Writing’) had heard of or read Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood or Octavia Butler. Some of my writing professors, however, also struck me as fundamentally lazy in their reading habits. They did not appear to have read widely in 20th century African American literature. So, they would say things like…”you write so well, it reminds me of Toni Morrison.” This happened several times. I guarantee you that I did not write as well as Toni Morrison—it was just the only Black female author they had bothered to read. They weren’t reading Ntozake Shange, Gwendolyn Brooks, Paule Marshall, Alice Walker, Jean Toomer (male) and others whose work I was also consuming and trying very hard to emulate.

As much as I loved attending Bard, Bard for many students of color was a difficult place to exist socially, politically, and aesthetically.

In writing about Morrison, I see that I am also writing about how my generation of creatives of color (now in our late 40s or early 50s) were often not nurtured by our PWI college environments. Many of us were tokenized, our creative work often dismissed, ignored or trivialized. This is not necessarily news, but important for me to say at this point in my life.
We ultimately had to find our own role models and build our own canons. Toni Morrison, despite our rocky start became part of the bedrock of my canon. I love her work and when I can, I teach her novel, Love, to our Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class. Many fall in love with her right away and many have already read some of her work in high school or other college classes. Times do change, thankfully.

I will, like so many Black creatives, always be in her debt.

 

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

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

 

I’m super excited and honored that Reenu-You was reviewed in this recent issue of the North Carolina Literary Review!

The NCLR bills itself as a “cross between a scholarly journal and a literary magazine” and is published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. The print edition appears in the summer. The NCLR “publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by and interviews with North Carolina writers and articles and essays about North Carolina writers and the rich literary history and culture of the Old North State.” My review is right next to a review of Jason Mott’s recent novel, The Crossing, under the heading, ‘The Structure of Hope in Speculative (and War) Fiction’! This issue also has a special focus on North Carolina African American Literature.

Check out this gorgeous issue here.

The last weeks of December were so hectic that I didn’t get a chance to post any reflection about my writing life in 2018. I wanted to take a moment and do that now I had an excellent year in terms of deepening writing relationships and sharing my work locally and regionally. I definitely was a public writer.

I had the good fortune to participate in several literary events where I talked about and/or read from Reenu-You, gave a craft talk about my writing influences and/or  discussed Afrofuturism. I loved connecting with potential readers and new audiences.

My reading at High Point University through the Creative Writing Program. I also gave a talk for the Creative Writing club.

Loved being on this panel with other Black women speculative fiction writers. Park Road Books was packed and everyone wanted to also talk about Black Panther’s release. Lots of energy was in the room.

The Movable Feast event, in Winston-Salem, is held by Bookmarks. Bookmarks is a literary a literary arts nonprofit whose mission is to connect readers with authors.
The event is basically like “speed dating with authors”! As an invited author, you visit a table for 10 minutes, talk about your book, etc., then rotate to a new table for another 10 minutes and repeat. I met with 10 tables and met many wonderful people in book clubs.

I organized this local event for spec fic writers which was a lot of fun.

I also gave my Charting Your Path to Publication workshop to several new audiences and developed a new workshop, “How to Level Up in Your Writing Life” that was very well-attended.

My efforts last year were focused on submitting my short story collection to various contests (that offer publication with the top prize) and submitting fiction to SFWA qualifying markets. I’m still waiting to hear about some of the contests. Fingers crossed, there will be good news. I submitted to a ton of places and I have gotten some really encouraging rejections and a request to send more work. Rejection still stings, but over time, if an editor likes your work and encourages you to submit, that’s the beginning of a working relationship.

One of my goals was to begin an author newsletter and I finally did so in August! I have a commitment to those in my writing community to share resources and inspire. I don’t know why I waited so long to start!

I also kept up my blog and interviewed some terrific writers.

Reenu You was eligible for the Hugo Award, the Nebulas and the Manly Wade Wellman Award for North Carolina Science Fiction and Fantasy which was pretty awesome.

Nussia, my novelette was released by Book Smugglers in July!

 

In terms of craft, one of the things that I learned was how to tighten the dramatic arc in every scene.

The things that didn’t get completed include:

a complete revision of my mystery

a first draft of the co-written novel that my sister and I are undertaking

There’s a lot on my plate for 2019.  I hope to share some really great news soon.

That’s a quick overview for me–what did you learn about yourself as a writer in 2018? What were some of your accomplishments?

 

 

Got a speculative fiction lover on your holiday list? Consider this new anthology by Book Smugglers with my story in it!

Look at this awesome cover!!!

I was so exited to receive my complimentary copy of the NEW Awakenings Anthology from Book Smugglers. The six stories span the gamut of fantasy and science fiction and many have a young adult theme.

Last year, Book Smugglers solicited short stories about ‘awakenings’ of all types in the speculative fiction genre. I submitted my manuscript “Nussia…I Said Her Name Like Mine” to them on Dec 31, 2017 and found out in January that my story was chosen for publication.

Nussia debuted in July.

Here’s a description of the collected stories: An unlikely volunteer in a magical war. A young African American girl who “wins” a competition to host an extraterrestrial. A girl with ice in her heart, and another with an ancestor on her back. A cybernetic detective, and an Empress facing the first Choice of her life. Awakenings collects six short stories of different revelations, including:

  • “When the Letter Comes” by Sara Fox
  • “Nussia” by Michele Tracy Berger
  • “The Girl With The Frozen Heart” by Y.M. Pang
  • “Running” by Itoro Udofia
  • “Phantom Limb” by Reiko Scott
  • “Timshala” by Leah Cypess

I’m so honored to be with this group of writers and I’m loving everything I’m reading. Additional perks of the anthology include a brief ‘Inspirations and Influences’ essay and an author Q&A that follow each story.

(*click on small cover image above to purchase paperback)

*E-book: Awakenings

*links are to Amazon. I am an Amazon Associate. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A few weeks ago, I was a guest on the wonderful podcast Black and Read, hosted by Terry Brown. Each week Terry and his guest discuss a work of literature from the unique perspective of a person of color. I talked about my journey to publication, finding your writing mojo, finding a creative process (and sticking with it), and the state of speculative fiction. Plus, I did some old school reminiscing about how Star Wars, and the T.V. shows The Bionic Woman and Lost in Space (the original) shaped my early love of sci-fi. Terry was a great interviewer and the conversation flowed easily. I loved being on the show.

The episode was released this week and you can hear it here.

I’ve appeared on radio and television before, but I am relatively new to appearing as a guest on a podcast. Being featured on a podcast is a fantastic way that authors and creators can share insight into their work. I’m also a huge fan of podcasts, especially those devoted to writing. If a guest is compelling, I’ll look up their work and consider purchasing it.

In thinking about what makes a guest compelling and reviewing own recent performance, I have complied these tips:

-Come Prepared

This sounds obvious, I know. But I can’t tell you the countless times that I’ve listened to a podcast and it’s clear that the guest has never listened to the show and doesn’t know the format. Being prepared means a few things: listening to several episodes prior to appearing on the show and understanding the format of the show (i.e. does the host ask different questions each time or is there a familiar script? Are there special segments to the show?). Also, your preparation should include having your elevator pitch about your creative work ready to go along with some compelling vignettes that reveal your process as a writer, approach to storytelling, etc.

-Give Us the Energy!

You don’t always have control over when you will be interviewed. It may be scheduled during a time of day that’s not your ideal in terms of peak energy. So, if you know you are not a morning person and you are to appear at 8am, then by all means make sure you are well-rested, caffeinated and ready to sound your best. We need you to sound engaged, excited to be there and eager to connect with the host and listeners.

-Know Your Verbal Tics and Work On Them

In listening back to the podcast I used several verbal tics including, “I would say” and “I think”. Everyone has verbal tics, but we should try to minimize them during an interview. Role play with yourself and imagine the kinds of questions you might be asked. Record yourself and notice how you ad lib and may use verbal fillers, like “um”.

-Create an Ideal Environment

You want a quiet environment during the time that you are being recorded. This might mean putting the dogs or cats in another room with treats so that they don’t bother you, working out a schedule with roommates, a significant other, children, etc.

-Tell Us Where To Find You

If listeners get curious about your work, they are going to take a peek at your website and social media. Speak clearly and slowly when telling us where to find you online. I did just that but, I didn’t tell people how to spell my name, so they may find Michelle Burger instead of me. Luckily, in the show notes, the title and cover of my book (which has a funky spelling, so can be hard to find) is listed.

Do you have other tips about being a guest on a podcast? I’d love to hear!

 

In my recent newsletter, I wrote about how fun it has been to break some WRITING RULES during the month of November. You might want to consider breaking some writing rules, too.

I’ve been taking inspiration from Durham author and podcaster Mur Lafftery. She is creator of the delightful podcast called I Should Be Writing.

Like many folks, I am working on a NaNoWriMo project and juggling other writing projects, work and life. Also, like many folks, I recognize that we’re moving into a time of the year where it can be harder to get creative work done due to holiday travel, holiday plans, increased expectations about spending time with family and/or friends, etc.

I won NaNoWriMo in 2014, but I used an outline and prepared for months. This year, I don’t have an outline, so I’m “pantsing it” and to boot my NaNoWriMo project is an urban fantasy novel co-written with my sister. Complicated!

Mur typically does a special NaNoWriMo series on her podcast. This year, she’s been posting daily using the metaphor of The Purge (which was a series of horror movies). The NaNoWriMo Purge suspends and breaks “all writing laws/rules” in service of getting more writing done.

These movies look scary!

Hearing her encouragement on breaking writing rules has been a lot of FUN and given me PERMISSION to try new things. A writing rules purge every once and awhile is probably good for us. It builds a sense of excitement and rebelliousness when we come to the page.

So, here are some writing rules to consider breaking—just for the month of November, because well, you know how this month goes. You might be doing NaNoWriMo and trying to get more words written or you just might want to get writing again. Anyway, without a bit of fortitude it’s cold turkey sandwiches, sticky leftover cranberry sauce, the last slice of pumpkin pie, a retail headache and a lot of regret by November 30th.

Writing Rules to Break in November according to Mur (with my interpretation)

Write every day. Nope! Now usually this is a good rule to have because it helps with our consistency. Well, as Mur notes, a major American holiday intervenes in the midst of November which usually includes lots of cooking, eating and retail adventures. You can break this law! Instead think about what writing might realistically fit in your schedule. Plan to be interrupted. Find time to steal. Maybe you will write in the car (assuming you aren’t driving) on the way to Thanksgiving dinner. If you are used to doing a specific word count, consider what it would take to write just a little bit more when you can—so plan to make your word count up over six days, knowing that you will probably not be able to write during the holiday weekend.

Don’t write dream sequences. Nope! Many writers are absolutely terrified of putting a dream sequence into a novel. OK, sometimes they are overused, but that’s not always the case. A dream sequence can be just what you need to get your writing juices flowing—it can always be cut later. Put on your Freudian or Jungian hat and write a dream sequence. Use it to foreshadow an event, get into your characters’ subconscious, and show us their desires or their fears.

Don’t head-hop. Nope! So the rule goes don’t go head-hopping between characters in the same scene. You can confuse the reader and it is not as common in literature as it once was. Though as Mur points out Agatha Christy did this within in a scene and even within a paragraph! So, head-hop all you want. Tell us what Janelle thinks about Damon and then tell us what Damon thinks about her. Tell us what the server in the restaurant that is watching them thinks. Give us all the points of view possible in the very same scene!

-Don’t start a scene with dialogue. Nope! This is one of my additions. Common writing wisdom frowns on starting with dialogue as it disorients the reader. Readers need context. I think it depends on what the characters are saying. Read the fantastic mystery writer Walter Mosely, and you’ll find that he often starts his scenes off with dialogue and trust me, you are immediately hooked. I would have never finished my first NaNoWriMo if I stuck to this rule. Starting with dialogue can be a way to get the reader quickly involved into the emotion of the scene.

Can you think of more writing rules that you’d like to break? I bet you can.

You can listen for free to the first of Mur’s NaNoWriMo Purge series here. The rest of her series is available through her Patreon page. Patreon is a platform that lets you directly support artists and creators.

Break some rules, people! It’s really fun. We will return to our writing law-abiding selves after November. Promise.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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