The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Women’s History Month

Guest Post by Fi Phillips

Most writers will have heard of how the seed of the creation that became Frankenstein came into being.  In 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their son and Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont spent the summer near Geneva in Switzerland. Holidaying with them were the poet Lord Byron and his doctor John William Polidori.  At this point, Mary was calling herself Mary Shelley although she would not marry Percy until later that year after the suicide of his wife.

Renting villas close to Lake Geneva, this should have been a summer of boating and sunshine but Mary Shelley wrote that,

‘It proved a wet, ungenial summer… and incessant rain often confined us for days in the house’.

Conversation turned to the experiments of Erasmus Darin in his attempts to re-animate dead matter, and ghost stories, the group often talking late into the night. It was Byron who suggested that they write their own supernatural stories.

In what Mary called, ‘a waking dream’, she came upon the idea for ‘Frankenstein’.  At first, she thought it would be a short story but with Percy’s encouragement she expanded her idea into the novel we now know, published in 1818.

Mary was never going to be a follower of the norm. Both of her unorthodox parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin were philosophers and writers. Her mother died when Mary was only days old but she cherished her mother’s memory, her writings and her lifestyle. This individuality and following of her heart (and her creativity) has always drawn me to the character of Mary Shelley.

At a time when the majority of formally published authors were men, Mary published her novel anonymously. It was assumed that as this was not a story of romance and the interior sphere of the home the author must be male. The fact that Percy wrote the novel’s preface and dedicated the book to his hero (Mary’s father) William Godwin caused many to believe that Mary’s husband was the author. The novel was received well and viewed as an intellectual piece of writing rather than a horror novel.

Mary was a strong, individual woman who would carve out a career in writing, eventually being recognised as the author of Frankenstein although it was not the only novel she wrote, or indeed her only piece of writing. After her husband’s death, she would hold fast to her writing as a means to support herself and her son, editing her husband’s poetry, writing her novels, assisting friends in writing their memoirs and other literary endeavours.

Mary Shelley has always been an inspiration to me in her individuality, her strength as a mother, her refusal to succumb to society’s judgements, and her commitment to her writing. Intelligent and forward thinking, she created many works but her novel Frankenstein would produce a figure of stage, screen, comedy and tragedy, bridging the divide between  the canon and popular fiction. Mary Shelley would be remembered.

Fi Phillips

Fi Phillips is a mum and wife, and currently writes murder mystery plays
for her small business Murdering The Text. She is a literature graduate,
originally from York but currently living in North Wales.

For many years, she worked in an office environment until the arrival of
her two children robbed her of her short term memory and sent her hurtling
down a new, often bumpy, creative path. Writing is her passion and she
finds that getting the words down on paper is the best way to keep the
creative muse out of her shower.

Check out Fi’s blog  ‘Magical Writing Haven’-
Her  business website is

(Photo Credit Wikipedia)

Guest Post by Barbara Ehrentreu

The two women writers who have influenced me wrote in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Jane Austen and Edith Wharton both wrote about every day life during their respective time periods. Both of them had feminine main characters and showed how a woman’s life was dependent upon her getting married. Yet both had very independent heroines who went against the established norms for society at their respective times.

What I like about Jane Austin’s writing is the way she was able to tell a story, yet she described her scenes in such a way you felt you were there. She brought you into everything and you felt like you were part of each scene. When I first read Emma I was unable to stop reading and though my teacher had only a few chapters assigned for us to read I found myself reading beyond them to the end of the book. The story was so compelling and although I had difficulty with some of the situations, I wanted her to end up with the dashing hero. 

I had to read Edith Wharton for a graduate college course and again I became fascinated by her attention to detail. Like Jane Austen she described each scene as if it were photographed and her characters were so real you wanted to go and put an arm around the poor woman in The House of Mirth. In The Age of Innocence the missed chances and the sadness of unrequited love are played out in such a lush setting you find yourself wanting to live their lives. The writing is so outstanding. Of course, today, some or a lot of both Jane Austen’s and Edith Wharton’s work would be considered too much telling. However both are classic authors and we can learn a great deal from their writing.

Barbara Ehrentreu

Barbara, a retired teacher lives with her family in Stamford, Connecticut. When she received her Masters degree she began writing seriously. If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor, Barbara’s first YA novel, published by MuseItUp Publishing was inspired by Paula Danziger. Her novel is also available on Amazon for Kindle and paperback, Barnes & Noble for both paperback and Nook, Smashwords, Omnilit and of course, The Muse Bookstore. In addition, Barbara has a story in Lavender Dreams, a memorial anthology for which all the proceeds go to cancer research. She hosts Red River Writers Live Tales from the Pages on Blog Talk Radio every 4th Thursday. She is a member of SCBWI. Writing is her life!

Check out her blog: ‘Barbara’s Meanderings’,

(Photo Credits:

Guest Post by Heidi Moore

I’ve just fallen into literary love with a writer I assumed was brand new, Edith Pearlman.When I finished reading her short story, “Tess,” I put down my iPad and sat still for a moment with the intense feeling it left me. It’s a difficult sensation to describe to those who haven’t yet learned to love the short story. The sensation feels as though an important truth about one corner of the whole world has been encapsulated in an exquisite, but simple, jewel that I have just held in my hands, and I want to know how it is possible the author could have constructed something so precious there.

Anyone who wants to know how to write, or even read, a short story would wisely begin with Pearlman. One reason her stories are so remarkable is Pearlman writes amazing sentences; these are sentences that tell a story as much as the plot itself conveys meaning. For instance, in “Rules,” Donna, a woman who works at the day-shelter, hands Ollie, a mother, diapers. Donna knows she urgently needs them; as soon as she hands them to Ollie, she knows that a couple of diapers cannot possibly fill the gulf of need, so then she just hands Ollie the whole box. The narrator explains: “Donna gave Ollie both money and Pampers, and was rewarded by a mammoth embrace that made her grin—it was so easy, so emphatic, so momentarily sincere, so ultimately meaningless” (190). Within a single sentence, we understand the subtleties of an emotionally complex transaction that another writer might take a paragraph to describe.

For those of us who want to emulate Pearlman, it is important to know that this kind of writing does not happen in an afternoon: Great sentences are hard won. Pearlman told interviewer Daniel Jaffee of BiblioBuffet, “Each short story takes several weeks (five days a week, about four hours a day) to write, in many, many drafts, all on the typewriter. The nth draft then marinates in a drawer while I work on the next story or piece. […] So each story takes about a month and a half in total time.” I will post this timeline near my computer, so I remember not to rush my creative process so much. Pearlman is a great example.

Pearlman’s plots are also worthy to emulate. “Tess,” a first-person account from the point of view of the mother of a severely disabled two year-old child in the hospital on life support is complex. The mother describes circumstances around Tess’s birth and her own life difficulties: “When I had to leave the Sea View a month before the baby because of some law about lifting and stuff, Billie said not to worry. I could come back whenever I was ready” (95).  In alternate passages she describes the services Tess requires from her many different health care providers: “[H]er friends know she cannot hear, but they talk to her anyway, for to see faces in action, lips moving, is instructive for Tess, according to the neuro-audiologist” (97). The action leads up to our being convinced that Tess’s mom is a deeply caring parent, who, though she may not be well educated, is doing the best she can to advocate for a daughter who may not have much hope of recovering. Pearlman is masterful at developing the roomful of characters who manage Tess’s care, and at building tension; plainly, Tess is going to die. What is not clear is what will be resolution of the story when the mother goes to the windowsill to retrieve the toy she thinks is Tess’s favorite: “The red floppy dog. They always forgot it. I put it in a corner of the crib.Then I unscrewed the end of the heart tube from the aqua clothespin and slipped it under the blanket so the blood would pool quiet and invisible like a monthly until there would be no more left” (105). It is an emotional ending, but one that causes the reader a genuine heart-stopping moment, a mixture of grief, disturbance, and relief.

This precise feeling brought me immediately back to the title page of Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, and I wondered how I could have missed being a fan of this writer who has been publishing award-winning literary fiction for three decades. Then I knew I wanted to share her with everyone I could. What better occasion than Women’s History Month?

Just this month, on March 8, 2012, Pearlman’s short story collection won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction.  Binocular Vision also won the 2011 PEN/Malamud prize for outstanding short fiction and was nominated last fall for the National Book Awards. Individual stories have won numerous awards in the past as well.

Edith Pearlman is a true gem, a woman writer worth modeling oneself on.


Jaffee, Daniel.  “Talking Across the Table.  Edith Pearlman:  An Interview.”  (11-13-2011). BiblioBuffet.com (3-15-2012).

Pearlman, Edith; Ann Patchett (2011-01-11). Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories (p. 190). Lookout Books. Kindle Edition. (3-16-12).

Pearlman, Edith reading at the 2011 National Book Foundation Awards.

Heidi R. Moore

Heidi R. Moore is a writer and artist, a former college writing and literature professor who is now working on a memoir and painting watercolor and acrylic paintings. She also writes a blog,

Heidi went to the Goddard College MFA writing program, where she studied with Mark Doty, She earned a Ph.D. in American Studies, with an emphasis in Film and American Popular Culture.

(Photo Credit:

I’m so excited to introduce readers to novelist Juliet Greenwood. Her novel Eden’s Garden has just been released from Honno Press. Juliet is a writer and active participant on She Writes. Eden’s Garden follows the intertwined stories of the Meredith family of Plas Eden, a dilapidated mansion with a collection of mysterious statues in its overgrown garden, and the servants who once served there.

Juliet’s wonderful blog post, last month, for my ‘Loving Your Creative Self’ series made me want to know more about her latest novel and writing practice.

1) Where did the idea for your current novel come from?

The idea originally came from a Celtic myth of a woman made out of flowers to be a perfect wife. In the story, the woman is punished when she stops being what simply what other people want her to be.

As I’ve grown older, that story has gained so much resonance. While men are venerated as they grow older and wiser, women are still valued for being young and pretty and pleasing. I feel passionately that women’s life experiences are rich, complex and testing and we should be celebrating our wrinkles as a badge of honour, not hiding them in shame.

So Eden’s Garden is about two women, living a hundred years apart, who each have choices to make and a journey to follow. It is, I hope, a positive, life-affirming story as they each become a little older and wiser – and infinitely more human – along the way.

I also love gardening and visiting gardens, so the garden in the book was inspired by many gardens, primarily the one at Plas Brondanw, which was home to Clough Williams-Ellis who built the famous Italianate village of Portmeirion.

2) What does your writing practice look like?

When I’m preparing my ideas for a book, I have an A4 lined notebook which is usually to hand wherever I am. That way I can make notes and jot down ideas as they come to me – whether in the middle of the night or idly watching TV.

When I’m writing, I write straight onto the computer. I aim to write around 1000 words a day. At this point I don’t edit, I just concentrate on getting the story down so I can see it as a whole. A first draft will always change, so I think I’ve learned to trust that. Unless a book takes a completely unexpected direction, I’ll work steadily through a first draft and then go back and edit. I usually have a rough idea of the beginning and the end of the book and the main characters. But of course all that can change – and usually does!

3) What (or who) inspires you to write and why?

Telling women’s stories and exploring women’s lives are what inspires me to write. In my ‘day’ job, I work on oral history projects. So often the women come in saying they have nothing to say and they’ve led an ‘ordinary’ life. But if you can persuade them to speak, their lives are usually an extraordinary and touching mix of many experiences, with tragedies overcome and compromises made with resilience and courage. Women’s experiences are so often dismissed as merely ‘domestic’: as small and insignificant, while important things like wars and politics take place elsewhere. Even if you are Jane Austen.

4) Will we see more of your main characters? What’s your next writing project?

Eden’s Garden is a completely self-contained story so there won’t be a sequel. I’ve started a completely new project, which this time has a Dickensian theme. Like Eden’s Garden, I feel this one will also be about women growing older and wiser through some pretty hard-won life experience – but in a very different way…. So watch this space!

5) Who is one writer that you’d love to know was reading your work?

That would have to be Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre is my favourite book. I love Jane’s passion and independence and her struggle to be a free spirit in a world that valued wealth and superficial beauty and doesn’t understand her at all.

But I’m a coward. So I’d probably never get the book into Miss Bronte’s hand. I’d probably run away first.

6) You’re an avid gardener and that passion figures in your writing. When did you take up gardening and why is it important to you?

I took up gardening nearly twenty years ago, when I bought my cottage. It was the first home I had ever owned and I’d always yearned for a place where I could sit and read in the sun and grow things. The cottage was shabby and needed plenty of work, but I fell in love with the large and totally overgrown garden on sight. I’d been living in London for the past ten years and I’d really missed seeing nature and greenery and watching the changing of the seasons.

I’ve always loved creating order out of chaos, so the challenge of turning a neglected wilderness back into a peaceful haven was wonderful. I suppose that’s where I really fell in love with gardening itself. Unfortunately, soon after I started I became ill with glandular fever, which led to years of M.E./Chronic Fatigue syndrome. That was when my garden became the most amazing place of healing. Being ill taught me to sit and appreciate the life going on around me. I’m well now, but I’ve learnt a passion for coaxing nature into doing the work for me and to sit quietly watching the beauty of the seasons as they change.

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

To write about the things you feel most passionately about. When you are starting out as a writer you have to make some compromises to fit in with the market and give yourself the best chance of being published. But the thing that will make you stand you – that will give you that elusive thing known as a ‘unique voice’ – comes from feeling passionately about your characters.

For years, I was afraid to expose my deepest feelings in my writing. I was lucky; I was given the amazing chance of working with an editor, who was like personal trainer stretching me to do more and reach deeper inside to tell the story I had wanted to tell all along. So my tip would be to go for it: feel passionately and stretch yourself even further than you think you can go. After all, you’ve nothing to lose. And if nothing else, it’s one exhilarating – if at times painful – ride.

Juliet Greenwood is the author of Eden’s Garden, published by Honno Press in March 2012.

Eden’s Garden follows the intertwined stories of the Meredith family of Plas Eden, a dilapidated mansion with a collection of mysterious statues in its overgrown garden, and the servants who once served there.  If you love ‘Downton Abbey’ and the novels of Kate Morton, this is the book for you!

After working in London for years, Juliet now lives in a traditional Welsh cottage halfway between the romantic Isle of Anglesey – where Prince William and Princess Catherine have their home- and the beautiful mountains and ruined castles of Snowdonia. As well as novels under her own name, Juliet writes stories and serials for magazines as ‘Heather Pardoe’. She is a passionate gardener and proud owner of a cutting from the grape vine in Hampton Court Palace, London. She lives in hope of grapes.

Links: Website:


Twitter @julietgreenwood

My dear friend and writing buddy Al Capeheart is guest posting today about a woman writer who continues to inspire.

Maya Angelou wrote, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use the more you have.”  Hearing her presidential inauguration poem she calls us all forward by the belief in a just and peaceful future. She lives her commitment, her words are everyday, and in her wisdom she calls to all human kind to be inspired by faith.

My main inspiration came from Ann McRae Kennady, my Mom. She had the most profound influence on me. She insisted that we speak proper English. We might not be rich, but we could talk like we were educated. She finished high school in 1937, but unlike her siblings she did not go to college. She ran away to marry my father. She would say, “I can learn to do anything as long as there is a book written to tell me how to do it.”

She was PR director and editor of in-house publications of a regional life insurance company. She was the second woman in Virginia to earn the title of  “Charter Life Underwriter”; she called it her Ph.D. She edited and published the national award-winning “Southern Exposure” magazine of the Richmond Camera Club. She was the first person I knew to use word processing. She studied photography in the city she loved. Her curiosity was about all facets of history from free-standing renovated town houses, to ancestral monuments from the Civil War.

To earn money after retirement, she became a City of Richmond tour guide for the historic society. The green tour type bus/trolleys had regular schedules leaving from the Virginia Museum of Science, the old Broad Street Railroad Station where in the 1940s and 1950s she’d board the train for New York where she was the ‘ready to wear’ purchasing agent for Thalheimers and its mid-south department stores.  But it seemed she was always late.

I remember Pop racing the north bound train to Ashland, VA its first stop 18 miles out.  She never missed a train that I know of but it always seemed like a panic to catch it.  My sister said, “She’d never get anything done, if it weren’t for the last-minute.”

Her reputation as a Historic Richmond tour guide brought her many specific requests. Her description of historic characters was so engaging it was as if she’d had lunch with them the week before.  Busloads of tourist and history buffs were her guests.  Of particularly note were her ghost tours and knowledge of southern Jewish communities. She always used, encouraged and appreciated proper grammar. She continues to inspire.

AL Capehart aka Santa AL

AL Capehart  is a retired social worker and a professional Santa. AL is working on a memoir about his 20 years of Santa Claus work as ‘Santa AL’.  Visit him at


I am so honored to welcome writer Ann Wicker to The Practice of Creativity. I met Ann through my writing teacher Marjorie Hudson. Marjorie gave a workshop at the Weathers Creek Writing Series located on a beautiful farm in Iredell county, NC and I attended her session. Ann co-founded this series that brings writers together in an intimate setting. I’ve gotten to know Ann through her witty blog, ‘That’s All, She Wrote’. Today she gives us a glimpse into the life of Mildred Wirt Benson, ghostwriter of the Nancy Drew series and prolific creator.

Even voracious readers of mysteries probably don’t know the name Mildred Wirt Benson. She was a journalist and author whose work included more than 130 books and countless contributions to magazines and newspapers.

Her first story was published when she was 14, and she went on to help defray college costs at what was then the State University of Iowa by selling short stories. She became the first woman to be awarded a master’s degree in journalism from the same institution in 1927.

But her most famous work was, for many years, anonymous. Although Edward Stratemeyer created the idea of Nancy Drew, a bright young woman who solved mysteries, it was writer Benson who brought the character to life in the first 23 books. Stratemeyer, as part of the process of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, created characters and outlines for the various series and then hired freelance writers to actually write the books. Versions of these characters remain popular, including the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Dana Girls, Tom Swift and others. Her role was revealed when she testified in a 1980 court proceeding about the books produced by the syndicate.

But Benson was also more than just a ghostwriter for Stratemeyer. She wrote different types of books, both fiction and nonfiction – and she remained curious about the world all her life. After that first story, she never stopped writing until she died in 2002 at 96.

When I was young, I loved the stories of Nancy and her pals. She drove a roadster, she was curious, and her dad was great. As Melanie Rehak says in her book Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, “The trick to this is that she does it all in the name of rising to a challenge, a quality that most people wish they had but can only hope to approximate.”

Nancy’s self-reliance was something to aspire to – and Mildred Wirt Benson, through her writing and her life, showed many of us the way.

Ann Wicker

Writer and editor Ann Wicker was in the newspaper and magazine business for many years. A graduate of Davidson College, she also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte.

Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas was an idea she took to Novello Festival Press. This nonfiction anthology features stories and essays about the rich legacy of music in North and South Carolina.

Wicker is co-founder of the Weathers Creek Writers’ Series, which offers one-day writing workshops in a log cabin in Cleveland, NC.

In addition, she works with individual writers as an editor and coach. She has been a presenter at the South Carolina Book Festival and the Southern Festival of Books. Her work has appeared in Creative Loafing, SouthPark, Charlotte, Lake Norman Magazine and elsewhere.


(Photocredits from the following sources University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections, Mildred Wirt Benson website)

Last month’s ‘Love Your Creative Self’ series was a wonderful success. I had so much fun bringing together writers and artists to discuss how to nurture our creative lives. Later this spring, I’ll return to many of the themes raised in the series.

March is Women’s History Month and my intention is to honor it by discussing women writers whose work and lives have inspired me and others. I’m beginning with one of my favorite authors—Octavia Butler. Butler was one of the most talented and celebrated speculative fiction writers of the 20th century. She overcame the odds against her gender, race and class background to become a successful author.

Annually I reread Butler’s insightful short essay ‘Positive Obsession’ that chronicles how she became a writer. The word obsession can have a negative connotation. It can mean that we have an unhealthy fascination with an object or situation. In this essay, however, she uses the term ‘positive obsession’ to indicate an approach that helped her realize her dreams:

“Obsession can be a useful tool if it’s positive obsession. Using it is like aiming carefully in archery.

I took archery in high school because it wasn’t a team sport. I liked other team sports, but in archery you did well or badly according to your own efforts. No one else to blame. I wanted to see what I could do. I learned to aim high. Aim above the target. Aim just there! Relax. Let it go. If you aimed right, you hit the bull’s-eye. I saw positive obsession as a way of aiming yourself, your life, at your chosen target. Decide what you want. Aim high. Go for it.

I wanted to sell a story. Before I knew how to type, I wanted to sell a story.” (from ‘Positive Obsession’ in Blood child and other stories)

She kept her focus on a publication goal through getting ripped off by an agent (who charged a “reading fee”), through getting up at 2am and writing before she went to work, through numerous rejections and even a creative writing teacher who asked her ‘Can’t you write anything normal?’ She sold her first story at age 23 and then nothing for another five years. Then she sold Kindred, her first novel.

Understanding what compels us to do creative work is useful self-awareness. Try answering the following:

What is your positive obsession? Is it finishing a longer piece? Selling it? Winning a writing award? Studying with a famous teacher? Writing in several different genres?

What creative work do you most want to share with the world?

How do you support your positive obsession (Butler talks about the importance of taking writing classes and joining writing groups)?

Record your answers and keep them close to where you create. Use them as fuel to keep you going when you encounter obstacles in pursuing your goals.

(Photo credit: image obtained from

Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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