The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘writing prompts

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 participated in Camp NaNoWriMo and loved it. I set a goal in July of writing 20,000 words on new WIP. I’ve been posting my daily progress on my Author FB page. My final count was 22,813! I love the challenge of doing a fast draft and breaking things down into a doable word count.

I am grinding hard working on my WIP and trying to find time to submit my work and read (and see) as much in the horror genre as I can. Whew! I decided to take a break today, have some fun and do some freewriting related to summer themes. I came up with some cool ten minute prompts. I thought you might enjoy taking a break from your normal writing schedule and give these a go.

These prompts can work while writing about yourself or a character:

–big hair/what do you do with your hair? (humidity during the summer can wreck just about any hairstyle)

I’m always looking for more ease with my hair during the summer. I got my hair done in ‘false locs’ (i.e. dreadlocks) a few days ago. The last time I got my hair braided or did anything besides what I usually do with it was more than a decade ago…and it would take 4-6 hours. Now there are lots of new techniques and I was in and out in 2 hours! This style will last about 5 weeks. You know one of the things I enjoy writing about is hair and its meaning in society. So, I engaged my stylist about cosmetology school, hair shows, the business of being a stylist and other good stuff that will probably one day end up in a story!

-the first time I ate a snow cone

-my first summer job (I handed out flyers on Christopher Street in the Village)

-when the lights went out

-the sexiest person in shorts

-your first summer crush

-a beach party gone wrong

-watching fireworks

-a fight at a backyard gathering over who makes the best BBQ

-a girl that gets lost at an amusement park

– a kid who wins a strange item from a seaside arcade

-the time you almost drowned

-a crush on your summer camp counselor

-a couple goes to see the summer blockbuster movie and when they emerge, the world has changed in some dramatic way

-who *is* the man that owns the ice cream truck?

Enjoy!

 

 

 

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’m thrilled to announce that I will be co-leading a writing workshop with Marjorie Hudson at the Table Rock Writers’ Workshop in August! We’ll be there for a week! Dates are August 26-30.

Our workshop is “Stretch. Breathe. Write: Opening the Writer’s Heart”

We’re exploring how gentle mindfulness and movement practices can enhance our work and open our hearts-so that our writing goes deeper and explores new territories. We’ll do lots of freewriting, as well as support projects that are already underway.

Writing together is always joyous, often funny, sometimes very moving. To have concentrated writing time is a rare blessing for most of us. To enjoy each other’s company for a couple of days in the mountains is sweet indeed.

Marjorie is an author (Accidental Birds of the Carolinas and Searching for Virginia Dare), my writing teacher/mentor and friend. Over the years, we have co-facilitated a number of writing and movement workshops. When we team up, MAGIC happens.

Table Rock is a supportive environment that is known for nurturing writers. It’s in the mountains and will provide a wonderful escape from the heat and humidity of the summer.

No movement experience necessary for our workshop; writers at all levels and genres are welcome.

The schedule is such that you’re in a specific workshop in the morning and then there are some afternoon sessions and evening sessions with the entire group. There’s also plenty of time for writing on your own. And, there will be time to get to meet and interact with the other faculty teaching there, chat with the editor-in-residence and get to know some of the other participants. Sometimes there’s evening entertainment. It’s a lively time.

See the full description of our workshop and more details at the website. Our workshop is already half-filled, so don’t take too long to decide!

I’d love to see you there and nurture your writing! Feel free to email me with questions!

It’s been a week into this challenge (giving away or tossing/recycling 27 items daily for 9 days) and I am still loving it. More about the origins of the challenge here. What’s surprised me are the items that I am tossing/giving away and the areas that are getting decluttered because of actions that I am taking. Case in point–tonight’s work was organizing my packing/wrapping boxes/bags/ribbons area over my washer/dryer. That area is always a hot mess as I am constantly trying to save wrapping paper to recycle/reuse, gift boxes to recycle/reuse and store future hostess gifts. Since things are stored willy-nilly, I’m always frustrated when I look at that area and can’t find anything very easily. When I took everything down and went through it, I discovered that much of what I was saving was old, unusable, or multiples of items that was overkill. I’m actually not doing that much shipping or wrapping as it turns out, lol.

Every time I do this exercise, I feel lighter and more peaceful…and that has got to be good for my creativity.

Some folks who follow my author Facebook page are also doing this challenge. If you are too, let me know how it is going!

Just thought of a good prompt for those of us writing fiction–What items does your main character need to get rid of? How would they go about decluttering their workplace or home? Are they very tidy or are they drowning in clutter?

I’ve found that different creative projects require new ways of brainstorming and opening channels for getting inspired. For the last few weeks, I’ve been playing around with two different items that have kickstarted my brainstorming sessions for my horror novel.

One was already on my shelf, bought years ago. It’s called The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers by Naomi Epel. Published more than 20 years ago, I remember using it for stories I wrote a long time ago. It has been fun to rediscover its usefulness now. A new edition is available on Amazon.

It includes 50 fun and innovative cards that offer techniques to bust through writer’s block. The cards match to short chapters where Epel draws on her experiences as a writer and advice gleaned from many best-selling authors.

I love the design of the cards. Some of the approaches will feel familiar (like what I drew recently which was to ask ‘What If’ questions; still a good prompt as I made myself come up with 50 plot ideas), others offer fresh approaches that I haven’t seen elsewhere like ‘Follow a Scent’.

I heard about Caroline Myss’s Archetype Cards through the fabulous How Do You Write podcast (a new favorite of mine), by Rachael Herron when she interviewed W.L. Hawkin, a writer of edgy urban fantasy. The idea of an archetype was theoretically developed by psychologist Carl Jung. Archetypes are recognizable human patterns, signs and symbols that are found all over the world and across time (e.g. ‘the witch, ‘the maiden’, ‘the hero’, etc). Many writers and storytellers have drawn on Jung’s work to understand how archetypes figure in storytelling.

Hawkin said that she uses the archetype cards to help her brainstorm aspects of her story, especially in developing characters. Here’s the episode. I thought this was a brilliant idea and immediately bought the deck. I’ve done a lot of reading on my own about archetypes but have never thought to apply them to fiction.

There are 74 archetype cards and each description includes light and shadow attributes. She also includes  6 blank cards for your own creations. Although the deck was designed for personal use (i.e. to discover how you embody certain archetypes), it adapts beautifully to storytelling.

The artwork is compelling.

For the horror novel, it’s currently looking like I will have at least six viewpoint characters. And, I’m far enough along to know some things about them including their fears, secrets, needs and wants. But, I was interested in how might they interact with each other (especially under stress), and what could cause conflict between the characters based on how they were expressing aspects of their archetype.

I was able to easily pick out dominant archetypes for each character! So, for example, I have a stunt woman character and it made sense to connect her to the Athlete archetype and use that to explore what aspects of this archetype might she express both consciously and unconsciously. When people are less conscious of how they are acting out of these patterns, it can lead to inner and outer turmoil. And, of course turmoil adds heat to a story!

It’s fun to think about how to update archetypes, too. You can do so by emphasizing lesser known characteristics of the archetype. One of my characters will have a combo personality of the femme fatale and bully. That should be fun!

I had so much fun looking through these cards and making notes, I lost track of time. I’m keeping these cards close as I write.

It’s March and winter hasn’t quite released its grip yet, at least not in the southeastern United States. I’m late this year in getting to begin a new gratitude jar as I usually start one in January. I’ve been traveling for work and was feeling a bit more cranky and tired than usual and I needed a life-affirming pick me up. I checked out my 2018 gratitude jar, still full of entries.

But first, what’s a gratitude jar?

The idea is simple…get a big jar, write one thing you are grateful for at the end of the day and put it in the jar. The jar offers a visual touchstone of joy as you see it filling up with entries during the year.

For many years, I have kept a gratitude jar focused around my creative life.

Keeping a gratitude jar is a symbolic act. As creative people, we have to take physical action in the world to pursue our dreams, I, however, also believe in utilizing symbolic acts of power. Symbolic acts of power are those that connect us to mystery, the unknown, serendipitous help and support, luck, and universal good. Symbolic acts of power can also free us from a constant focus on the mundane aspects of the creative life. Using symbolic acts of power can help boost our confidence, remain playful in the face of adversity, and develop trust in ourselves and the power of the universe.

I like to use a big jar (see first image) but you can also probably find ones like these in stores or online

At the end of the year, one of the things that fills me with delight is to go through and read my entries. I rarely get close to having 365 entries, but that’s OK. I definitely love reading about all the special moments that happened last year that I had forgotten. The majority of the entries relate to giving thanks for some aspect of my creative life going well. I was grateful that I had gotten a submission accepted, or someone had offered kind words on a reading I gave, or I had a day where good ideas seemed to flow endlessly.

Today, I plucked a few from the jar and read them. They transported me back in time and space and jogged my memory about all sorts of big and small events. They made me smile and I immediately felt less cranky.

In reading a dozen or so I was reminded of these two simple facts:

-most things in life work out just fine, creative work included

-we live in a powerful interlinked circle of friends, associates, colleagues, loved ones and even strangers that give our life meaning through their acts of kindness, grace and love. It’s important to remember!

The powerful benefits that stem from a gratitude practice are ones that science now validates and that spiritual traditions have always claimed.

This week, I’ll be reading all the entries of 2018, honoring them and then starting afresh. One new entry per day.

What about you? Why not grab a jar and dedicate it specifically for your creative practice/life/ dream/goal? Or you can put something in the gratitude jar before you start work on your novel, book of essays, musical score, etc. List what you’re grateful for before you begin or end a project. There are many uses for a gratitude jar. There’s actually so much that goes right on our creative paths, if we just slow down and notice.

This is a practice that you will wind up loving and is like rocket fuel for your creative life! Promise!

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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