The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction

I finally got to visit the Great Dismal Swamp. My new WIP is set in the GDS and I feel lucky that I could take a few days and drive up to the Dismal Swamp State Park in South Mills, N.C. and look around.

The GDS (that stretches across southeastern VA and northeastern NC) has a long and fascinating history as it was a place that provided protection to outlaws, moonshiners, runaway slaves and anyone that didn’t want to be found. The GDS Canal in the late 1790s played a key role in the harvesting of timber. It once spanned close to a million acres and now is about 112,000 acres that are under Federal Protection.

This trip allowed me to get the feel of the swamp and also dig deeper into its history. Although my WIP is set in the present, it has connections to the past. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in the swamp for days, months and years, either as a laborer or in a maroon society.

These are pawpaws, a type of fruit I found while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. Pawpaw trees were everywhere and there was fruit on the ground for the taking.I had tasted them many years ago in a dessert and thought I didn’t like them. Boy was I wrong! They look funny, but eating them fresh while ripe was a major treat. They are custardy and a cross between a mango and a banana. This is a fruit that many people living in the swamp would have eaten. The leaves also have medicinal qualities.

I found a flush of mushrooms called ‘chicken of the woods’ while hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp. These are choice mushrooms and have a delicious meaty and slightly nutty taste. They are easy to identify and my partner and I have only found them once before in TN, though they tend to be common. I wonder if people who lived in the swamp knew about eating mushrooms. Will have to dig a bit more to find that out.

 

Kayaking down the Dismal Swamp Canal. All that green you see on the surface is duckweed.

 

There was much to explore and I will be reporting back on other things I learned while in the GDS!

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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.

 

Hi folks,

I’ve heard from several of you that you’re curious about MasterClass and been interested in trying it out. I’ve written about how much I have loved taking Margaret Atwood’s MC. I’ve now started Neil Gaiman’s Master Class and am enjoying that, too. I’ve also dipped into the scriptwriting class taught by the brilliant Shonda Rhimes. I love fashion (and am finishing my mystery that centers on a eco-fashion designer), and took Marc Jacobs’s class which was amazing. I’m super impressed with the quality of instruction across the different courses.

I have an ‘all access pass’ that gives me access to all the classes (on everything) for one year. MasterClass sent me a link to share–this provides you with a $30 discount on the all access pass. If you sign up for it, they’ll send me a $30 Amazon gift card. We both win!

https://share.masterclass.com/x/eMFdnr

Nicole Givens Kurtz is a Renaissance person. She is an author, educator and publisher. I met her, several years ago, at my first local speculative fiction convention. She was warm, encouraging and knowledgeable about the changing face of publishing. She’s been a hybrid author since 1998.  At the time I didn’t know the profound impact she has had through her mentoring of other writers and being an advocate for diversifying the field of speculative fiction.

Kurtz is the published author of the futuristic thriller series, Cybil Lewis. Her short stories have appeared in over 40 anthologies and magazines of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She is a member of The Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). Her novels have been finalists for the EPPIEs, Dream Realm, and Fresh Voices in Science Fiction awards. Her work has appeared in Sycorax’s Daughters, and in such anthologies as Baen’s Straight Outta Tombstone and Onyx Path’s V20: Vampire the Masquerade Anthology.

She founded Mocha Memoirs Press to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She is an advocate for better and more diverse representation in speculative fiction and is a national speaker on these issues.

Nicole loves ‘weird westerns’ and has been publishing them for some time. She’s recently gathered them together in her dazzling new collection: Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection.  I have not read widely in westerns or weird westerns, so I had no background in the genre when I read the collection. I immediately forgot this fact as I was pulled into the vividly described realities of Kurtz’s characters. These stories are mostly set in New Mexico around the 1900s, though some take place in the present or near future. Kurtz is a powerful storyteller, weaving in fascinating tidbits of history alongside powerful characters. These creative stories run the gamut of magical realism, horror and science fiction. I loved this collection and reviewed the work on Goodreads and Amazon.

Given that her new collection has just been published, I thought this would be a great time to catch up with Nicole. I’m so delighted to welcome Nicole Givens Kurtz to The Practice of Creativity.

Q: Tell us about your new book, Sisters of the Wild Sage? What’s in store for readers?

A: Sisters of the Wild Sage is a wild, untamed adventure into the American West that never was. It’s weird. It’s horrific. It will stick with the reader, long after they have completed the collection.

Q: This collection feels like it is reinventing the conventions and genre expectations of ‘weird westerns’ given its focus on the multifaceted lives of women of color characters, in particular. Is this accurate? What drew you to explore weird westerns?

A: The collection’s purpose is to share stories of those people who thrived and survived in the American West but didn’t get the same attention in traditional (and often inaccurate) westerns. Yes, it was intentional. I grew up watching westerns with my mother, so the genre is a part of my childhood, a part of me. My love of horror is why they’re weird. Additionally, so much of the Southwest for me, when I lived in New Mexico, felt otherworldly and foreign.  That comes through in the stories in collection.

Q: How did you come to writing? Did you always want to write or did you come to writing later in life?

A: I’ve been writing since I was a young child. Even when I couldn’t write out long stories, I would alternate endings to television shows in my mind. I remember being very young, no more than 6 or 7, playing with my dolls and crafting narratives based on what mom read to me that night or what I’d seen on cartoons.

Q: You manage to pack a lot into your day! You are a writer, educator and also run a publishing press. How do these different activities fuel your creativity?

A: All three feed into my ability to communicate ideas, both fictional and non-fiction. They require me to continue to look for different solutions to issues, both in story, and in real life, that fuels my creativity. They’re really three sides of a pyramid.

Q: If you could invite three authors (living or dead) to your next dinner party, who would they be and why?

A: If I could invite three authors to my next dinner party, I would invite Zora Neale Hurston, Sue Grafton, and Octavia Butler. Each of these women were stellar icons in their respective genres, and the opportunity to sit and listen, to soak up their wisdom and advice about the writing life would be life-altering for me.

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

A: My best writing tip is to read as much as you can. It serves as a foundation for building your writing career.

Educator. Author. Mom. Nicole Givens Kurtz loves reading, writing, and anime. She enjoys reading works that promote women of color and futuristic settings. She also loves a good mystery. She started Mocha Memoirs to provide more diversity in speculative fiction. She’s also a scribbler of tales. She lives in Winston-Salem with her family. Learn more about her at Other World Pulp

 

 

I did it. I couldn’t resist. I gave myself the gift of a MasterClass with the amazing Margaret Atwood! MasterClass brings online learning to you from experts in everything from cooking (e.g. Alice Waters) to tennis (e.g. Serena Williams). They have a number of writers to choose from including R.L. Stine, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell and Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood’s a writer I absolutely adore! Truth be told, she’s the kind of writer that if I met a trickster spirit and they offered me a deal like, “You can write like Margaret Atwood, but you’d have to give up a limb.” I’d seriously consider it. Well, yes, I know…never trust a trickster spirit! I imagine though you, too, have writers whose work you adore and strive to emulate.

I thought how can I pass up an opportunity to study with her? I decided I couldn’t. I plunked down about $200 for an “all access pass” (which allows you to have year-long access to the videos and lifetime access to all the materials + access to other classes). She has 20+ pre-recorded videos that explore a variety of topics including writing through roadblocks, structuring a novel, revealing the world using sensory imagery, revision, etc.  Also included is a workbook crammed with exercises, additional thoughts, reading lists, etc. The first few videos I watched I could barely concentrate because I was TREMBLING while viewing Margaret Atwood right there in front of me talking about our shared passion—writing! I broke out in glee blisters (OK, so there’s probably no such a thing as a glee blister, but you do understand my level of enthusiasm).

The videos are infused with her wit, humor and wisdom. I think the MasterClass presents a unique opportunity to study with world class teachers. [BTW, I’m not getting paid to say this!]

I learned tons—so much so I am still digesting it all. These three tips below have stayed with me and they might be useful to you, too.

1) “Story is what happens. Structure is how you tell it.” Master simple chronological storytelling before tackling complex narrative variations. In one of the lessons, Margaret Atwood riffs on the different ways one could structure the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

The story would be the same but you could tell it a variety of ways using a different structure:

–beginning to end; starting in the middle (e.g. “It was dark inside the wolf. The grandmother who had been gobbled whole couldn’t say a word, because it was quite stifling and full of old chicken parts and plastic bags that the wolf had eaten by mistake”); using time jumps (“Little was Little Red Riding Hood to know that in two weeks’ time she would be looking back at one of the most definitive events of her life.”); start with a flashback; tell it from a different perspective, etc.

I can see that while writing my first novel, my ambition exceeded my skill level. I didn’t know how to tell a multiple viewpoint story, some of which took place in the past and also involved a number of time jumps. I just wasn’t a skilled enough writer back then to pull that off. I finally did find a path forward by excerpting material in what became my novella, Reenu-You. It is still complex for a novella in that it has two first person narrators and uses journalistic devices (i.e. emails, commercials, etc.) to tell a layered story.

Can you apply Atwood’s insight to a piece that you are working on that feels too complex and isn’t working? Can you find a way to simplify the narrative structure so you can tell the story that you want?

2) Writers have to think about narrative order. Margaret Atwood says that writers have to figure out who knows what and when in a story. And, you have to consider what effect your decisions, about the order of what is revealed, will have on the reader.

“One question you can ask yourself, if you’re writing: Does the reader know more than the character, or does the character know more than the reader? Or do they both know the same amount? Because it’s going to be one of those three.”

-When the reader knows more than the character that can create suspense.
-When the character knows more than the reader that can create narrative irony.

Atwood said it took her three attempts to figure out who would tell the story in The Blind Assassin!

I’m the process of revising a mystery, so this insight has been highly relevant to figuring out when to reveal what detail to the reader.

What about you? Is there a story where you can play with the narrative order to create more tension and suspense in the story?

3)“Print out your work, read it aloud and while reading, use a ruler. Read slowly.”

This is how Margaret Atwood revises her work.

Now, I absolutely am a proponent of reading one’s work aloud, but I had never tried doing it slowly and with a ruler. Sounds simple, right? I had a story that I was prepping to send to a magazine and I decided to try her method —I used a bookmark as I didn’t have a ruler. Wow, was this a revelatory experience! I noticed everything, the rhythm of words, word choice, when sentences were too long or short. I loved this process and will use it for final revisions moving forward; it gave me such a bigger and richer perspective on editing.

Do you have a piece that you’re about to submit and think it’s ready to go? Try Margaret’s technique and see what you discover.

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.

 

Hi folks,

A few weeks ago I announced that I am participating in Greensboro Bound, a new and amazing literary festival. The festival is May 16-19. All events are FREE, though for some workshops and talks you’ll need to get tix ahead of time including for Zadie Smith’s talk and the conversation between musicians Ani DiFranco and Rhiannon Giddens. The organizers have poured their hearts and souls into this schedule and have planned an incredible array of workshops, talks and panels across all genres that tackle subjects from climate change to yoga. There’s something here for every kind of writer. Take a look at the schedule here.

This is my lineup for Saturday, May 18. I’m psyched!

  • 10 am  The Real and the Unreal: Speculative Fiction  with Valerie Nieman, Michele Tracy Berger, and Jamey Bradbury.

Excited to meet Jamey. Thrilled to be on this panel with Val. She also has a new book coming out this summer which I can’t wait to read. To the Bones is an Appalachian horror/mystery/eco-thriller mashup. Doesn’t that sound cool?

  • 12:30 pm Writing as Intersectional Feminism. Feminist Conversation with Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Michele Tracy Berger, and Cassie Kircher. Moderated by Jennifer Feather.

Wow! I live and breathe intersectional feminism as a women’s and gender studies professor and as a creative writer. I am really looking forward to this conversation.

  • 3:15 pm Afrofuturism with Michele Tracy Berger, Sheree Renee Thomas. Moderated by Gale Greenlee.

Sheree Renee Thomas is a writer, editor, publisher and pioneer in documenting Afrofuturism. I’ve admired her work for a long time, so I will try not to fangirl the entire time. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Gale (now Dr. Greenlee), a few years ago when she took my graduate class ‘Exploring Intersectionality: Theories, Methods and Practices of Social Change’. What a gift that she is moderating this discussion.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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