The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘the writing life

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.

February has been a rich and wonderful month. It felt as if I was in deep communion with the writer, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960). For many years, I’ve been fascinated by her life. ZNH was ahead of her time as a writer and scholar (she was the first Black woman to receive a doctorate in anthropology). She was also a cultural icon and transgressive artist.

Zora Neale Hurston

In 2016, I started a story, “Etta, Zora and the First Serpent” that takes place in the 1930s. Etta, a dancer at the Cotton Club, meets the charismatic ZNH and gets entangled in one of Zora’s schemes to conjure secrets from an old spirit. As you might imagine, trouble ensues.

I am generally fascinated by the time period of the 1920s-1940s and have always been interested in the Cotton Club as my maternal grandmother danced there for a brief period. In the story, I get to explore the race, class and gender dynamics of the day as the Cotton Club practiced segregation (only white patrons were seated) and colorism (i.e. African American female dancers that were hired were typically “light-skinned” or with a “cafe au lait” complexion).

Several Cotton Club dancers

The Apollo Dancers at the Cotton Club Revue in 1938. still from BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE, a film by Heather MacDonald

I was inspired to finish this historically themed horror story (with a twinge of fantasy), and then submit it in 2018 for a specific anthology. It got rejected from that anthology and I went to work on it some more. Last year I submitted it to AfroMyth: Volume 2-A Fantasy Collection and it was accepted!

I went through intensive edits on the story. What was refreshing, however, was that I didn’t have to work much on the structure of the story (I often struggle with plotting), but instead needed to beef up description in the last quarter of the story. It was one of the shorter stories I have written, submitted at 5,000 words (which was the maximum word length). In the revisions, however, I wound up adding another 500 words.

AfroMyth: Volume 2 was released today! It features fourteen fantasy stories featuring characters of the African Diaspora.

I love the cover of this collection!

Zora had her spirit fingerprints all over my life this month. I was invited to attend the 31st annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. It took place in early February in Eatonville, FL.  Eatonville, a historically all Black town is where Zora grew up. The Festival spans multiple days. This year the theme was the multiverse and Afrofuturism! There was an academic conference, an outdoor festival and tons of activities and festivities.  I was with an amazing group of speculative friction writers, all paying tribute to ZNH, her genius and legacy.

Standing, left to right P. Djeli Clark, Nwatchukwu Iheoma, Bill Campbell, Tenea Johnson. Seated: Maurice Broaddus and Chesya Burke. We are all looking very writerly!

It’s rare that I have the opportunity to read with and connect to other Black writers, especially in the field of speculative fiction, so my time at the ZNH Festival felt pretty magical.

If you are a speculative fiction reader, I hope you check out the collection. You can find it at all online sellers. Amazon link is here. Here’s the book trailer to check out, too.

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!

January has started off well for my writing.

File this under the category: Believe in your work. As creators, I believe we have to pursue a variety of storytelling modes that are available to us. I’ve started to enter my published work into contests that help pitch the work and get it adapted for film and TV. Nussia, my novelette published in 2017 by Book Smugglers just made it to the quarter finals in the ScreenCraft Contest (Cinematic Short Story Competition)!

I love the cover that Book Smugglers had commissioned for Nussia.

They chose about 200 people from over 1,200 submissions. Here’s my logline: “In this sci-fi psychological dark/horror story, Lindsay, an African American girl “wins” an extraterrestrial in a national contest only to find her family’s life upended. It’s E.T. meets Fatal Attraction.” It’s set in NYC in the 1970s. Wouldn’t you want to see that story told? Please send me good vibes so that I advance to the next round. And, bookmark this contest for your future entries (they have contests for published and unpublished work, plays, etc.).

Screencraft Contests.

If interested, you can read Nussia for free here

I’ve had to sit on VERY GOOD NEWS for a few months, so I am happy to share my contract news and publishing story with you.

Many of you know that my sci-fi novella Reenu-You was published in 2017 by Book Smugglers Publishing, a very small press. What many of you don’t know is that in Nov 2018, BSP decided to get out of the publishing business. The two women who ran the press were wonderful and committed publishers, but they realized that after running it for almost six years, they would need to quit their full-time jobs to take the business to the next level.

This left me and all of their other authors without a publisher. Reenu-You became unavailable in any format by Dec 2018. You can imagine how I felt. I was definitely not expecting this turn of events. It had taken me so long to get that story into the world!

Here was my little novella doing well, garnering great reviews, finding its audience, making its way in the in the world and then BAM—it was GONE.

I have since discovered such is the life of tiny presses and the state of publishing. BSP told me that I should approach other local publishers that might be interested in acquiring it. They believed that it would find a good home. I was daunted by their advice, but I believed in the work.

Luckily, I reached out to the wonderful John Hartness, author and publisher of Falstaff Books to see if he was interested in acquiring the rights to Reenu-You. I had met him the year before at a local sci-fi con and when the local bookseller didn’t show, he did me a favor by selling copies of Reenu-You through his booth. In that intervening year, I also met many of his authors and knew that as a local publisher with a wide distribution network, he was actively recruiting speculative fiction authors who were with presses that had folded.

Last year we had a great meeting. He read the novella, liked it and asked me what I was working on. I had looked at his catalog before our meeting and saw that he didn’t have very much horror and so pitched him my idea—a horror novel that takes place in the Great Dismal Swamp. He loved it and said he would buy that and reissue Reenu-You!

I now have signed contracts and can make the official announcement. Reenu-You will re-emerge later this month and I will be delivering a horror manuscript to him in the summer.

Sometimes, life works out better than one can imagine. There’s so much we can’t control about publishing, but we can control or greatly influence things like building professional relationships, being persistent and believing in one’s work

I am incredibly thankful and honored to officially join the author family of Falstaff Books. Before joining, I knew some of the authors by their fantastic works including Samantha Bryant, Nicole Smith, Michael Williams, Alledria Hurt and Jason Gilbert. Now, I know how kind, supportive and generous they are as a community of writers who uplift and support each other.

If you like speculative fiction, please check out Falstaff’s catalog.

I, of course, will keep you updated as this new publishing journey unfolds.

Hi and holiday greetings! I hope you are having a restorative and joyous holiday season. I’m hoping that you can help me spread the word about the North Carolina Writers Network’s contest season. If you are a writer that lives in North Carolina, please check out the various competitions that open in the first quarter of the year, including Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize (Jan 2), Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Competition (Jan 15), Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize (Jan 30), and Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition (March 1). If you don’t live in NC, please still consider sharing to your writing networks–you never know who might see the announcement.

Please also help me signal boost the second year of our newest literary prize, the Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize. It honors the best short prose by African-American writers in North Carolina. UNC-Chapel Hill alum Cedric Brown helped get this award off the ground. This award honors Harriet Jacobs and Thomas Jones, two pioneering African-American writers from North Carolina and seeks to convey the rich and varied existence of Black North Carolinians. The contest is administered by the Creative Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The winner receives $1,000 and possible publication of the winning entry in The Carolina Quarterly.

I am a Trustee on the Board of the North Carolina Writers Network and am very proud of the fact that the Network awards more than $4,000 annually in prizes through our various competitions.

Details for the above competitions can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, scratch that, planning and editing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find out more about him here.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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