Keep Your Creative Fire Burning

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

It’s a new year. I’ll bet you’ve made a resolution, silent or aloud, “this will be my writing year!” You’re filled with the exciting, energizing passion of your creativity. Writing is as necessary as breathing, right? Do you feel breathless or are you still pumping? If you are still breathing the fire of your creativity, write on! If the fire simply smolders and only sparks occasionally, read on. If the fire is out of control, read on. This is about finding and maintaining balance in your fiery creative passion: writing.

Each of us, as creative people, has experienced the high burning fervor of words, images and ideas that burst forth onto the page. And we’ve experienced the cold, stark empty hearth when our minds are as blank as the page before us. That is the nature of creativity. At times too hot, at times too cold, at the best of times temperate. There are no right or wrong ways of seeking the temperate balance of creativity.

Melting the Brain Freeze

It’s a painfully cold time when you face a blank page and nothing comes to mind. Some people call it writer’s block; I call it brain freeze when nothing sparks my creativity. Here are a few ideas to melt the brain freeze.

When a work in progress suddenly stalls, don’t fight it; acknowledge that you are experiencing the nature of creativity. Write to it. Open a new page and write about where you want to go with the story. Relax, let ideas flow, travel where your imagination takes you. Perhaps one of the characters doesn’t conform to what you have in mind. Write a letter to her; explore why she isn’t working well within the story. Explore her motivations within the framework of the story. Examine why she isn’t working, tell her your every thought about her. Then with your hand, let her respond. In the process, not only will you be writing, but a lively character will emerge.

Sometimes the setting may not be right for your story: perhaps some element is missing or not true to the story. Depending on your story, take some time to draw a map or layout of a specific room. Bring in as much detail as you can. Use colored pencils to add detail, find out where your story lives. Then write a description of your drawing. Become as comfortable in your setting as you are in your own home.

If you have no work in progress consider these ideas. Write to the brain freeze, “Dear Frozen Brain, I am so mad at you…” Write about how you feel, what you are experiencing, let your emotions heat up. See where that takes your creative spirit. Or think of a time or place that interests you and create a free-association word list. Write down any thought or image that comes to mind.

Try any one of these to acknowledge and address the cold creative moment, and the heat of your writing will melt that frozen brain and allow your creativity to flow.

Too Hot to Handle

The flip side of brain freeze is when your creative juices are flowing like lava down a mountainside. Three story ideas, a personal essay about the holidays, an idea to interview the local artist you met at a party all vie for your attention. Focusing on any one project can be difficult with such a blaze of creative activity.

Step back. Acknowledge your creative dilemma, then spend some time analyzing. Write down what you think is important, what has meaning for you in each of the projects. Look for the true possibilities of marketable success in each idea. Try to give each equal time in your analysis. If one stands out as having the most potential, go for it. Should more than one emerge as having importance to you, look for possible connections between them (more than likely there will be). Pick the one that ignites your passion the most. Keep a notepad near you should ideas arise that relate to another similar project, and jot them down. Don’t deny your creative fire in the name of single-minded discipline. Allow yourself to be flexible, yet focused.

If, on the other hand, one of your ideas has a deadline–whether an article you’ve pitched that has been accepted or a contest you want to enter–and you find the pressure too hot, step back and confront the avoidance. Write about why you are not comfortable with this piece, address what isn’t working, and why you don’t want to work on it. Look for what ignited your creativity in the first place and what may have lowered the temperature of your creativity on this project to sub-zero. Look for the balance between the two; find the temperate comfort zone of your creative nature. It’s not easy, but who said being a writer was easy?

Light a Candle to Celebrate

Reward yourself, each time you write, for having found the temperate balance of your creative fire. Make your reward a tangible, visible reminder of your progress. Something that, each day as you enter your writing space, reflects your previous accomplishments. It could be as simple as drawing the framing circle of a wreath on your writing pad and adding a flower or leaf to the wreath after each day’s writing. Begin your writing time acknowledging and admiring your success.

Final Poll Results

Quick Picks: Books Recommended by the Crew

Conundrums to Guess

Sheila


Dee Ann

  • The Stand, Stephen King. The Stand is a journey I like to relive about every two years. I bought the hardcover new in 1987. King has a way of showing you things a movie can’t. This is an epic tale of a biological weapon, an ever mutating ‘super flu’ the world soon calls ‘Captain Trips’ that winds up in a showdown between good and evil with the few survivors left in America. My favorite quality about anything King writes is that he faithfully keeps you in the story. This is his genius, IMO.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis. Another journey, this one a delightful classic. I read this book for the first time in fifth grade, and most recently about 6 months ago. Of all Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most fascinating. The closet that leads to another world, the ‘bad’ faun who lulls Lucy to sleep with his strange little straw flute, the magic Turkish Delight of which Edmund can’t stop eating… This book showcases, IMO, the best of Mr. Lewis’s imagination put to work.
  • Writer’s Market (Released annually) from Writer’s Digest Books. I’ve seen many writer’s websites that scoff at anything from Writer’s Digest, but within the pages of this thesaurus-size book are highly organized lists of publishers, agents, magazines, contest and award information, and what each wants from a writer. There are articles on query-writing, e-queries, synopsis-writing, and a writer’s rights. I pick this book up often enough to justify the price tag every year.
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. I bought this book last year because I admired Mr. Maass, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I’m pleased to report this book is insightful in many respects, it is well-written and entertaining (not didactic at all), and leaves messages imbedded in the brain that continue to help my writing in many ways. His best advice, IMO? Build high human worth to raise the stakes in your novel, or the reader won’t care what happens to your characters.
  • Dance Upon the Air, Nora Roberts (1st in the Three Sisters Island trilogy). Nora is a fantastic writer, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her stories. I have an exceptional eye for other writers’ mistakes (though not my own, of course) and Nora doesn’t make too many, if any at all, IMO. She doesn’t confuse, she doesn’t meander, she sticks to the story and makes you care as she leads you into the lives of her realistic characters. She’s been described as a word artist, and I think that’s apropos for her, especially in this book. In some ways, Dance Upon the Air made me think of Sleeping With the Enemy, which was also a good book.
  • Sleeping With the Enemy, Joseph Ruben. This came out when I was in college, and though I didn’t have the time to spare for anything fiction (unless it was assigned by a professor), I made the time for this book. It’s a gripping thriller. The movie was good too, but different. The characters in the book were more realistic than the movie’s la-la-la, beautiful Julia Roberts show philosophy, IMO, of course.

Ana

  • I’m very fond of Robertson Davies, perhaps with special notice given to Cunning Man and the Deptford Trilogy (Hmmm… Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders). I astonished myself once by saying that if Davies could write as fast as I could read, I’d never read anything else. Alas, he’s gone now.
  • Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, with special attention to the afterword, in which he discusses how he put the novel together.

Boots

  • The Rose of the Prophet, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. There are three books in this series. Fantasy. Two warring tribes are forced together through matrimony to save the life of their god.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont. Non-fiction. “Some instructions on writing and life.” A great way to look at the writing life and then to start living it. Full of humor and spice and some simple, yet profound, writing advice.
  • Fall of Atlantis, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Fantasy. (Compliation of two books.) Follows two sisters as they grow to womanhood, struggling to remain together while they strive along very different paths.
  • Circle of Three, Patricia Gaffney. Fiction. A novel about three generations of women, each trying to hang to the other and build relationships after a death.
  • Belinda, Anne Rice. Fiction. About a girl who is older than she looks, and a man who is younger than he seems.
  • Effortless Prosperity, Bijan. Self-help/Inspiration. 30 simple lessons to change your life in a month. Easy to understand and follow guide to create peace in your life and reach for your dreams.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fiction. A good standard that shows the value of research mixed with imagination.

Bonnets


Billiard

  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. A classic, one that’s stuck with me through many years and that I want to share with my own children one day.
  • On Writing, Stephen King. Thoughtful and inspiring, a great read for anyone who’s a writer.
  • Harry Potter series, JK Rowling. Great children’s books are more than just “children’s books”. These are.

Beaver

  • Meet the Austins / The Moon by Night / A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L’Engle. Undoubtedly the biggest influence on me, my writing, my choices during my teen years.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The copy we had when I was growing up will always be The Dictionary to me. I loved this book. How much? I’ve asked that it be bequeathed to me…
  • The Language of the Goldfish, Zibby Oneal. Still my standard for young adult fiction.
  • Jalna (series), Mazo de la Roche. A great big family saga.
  • A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle. Part memoir, part writing advice. One of the best books I’ve read “on writing”. Deals with giving up, the compulsion to write, and success after much rejection.
  • Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir. Part memoir, part philosophy. Read at a schism in my life, I identified with de Beauvoir’s reaction to her childhood and her existentialist philososphy.
  • Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe. Memoir mixed with the artist’s work. Fabulous insight into the creative process.
  • Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg. The book that got me to stop thinking about writing, and start doing it.
  • The Weight of Oranges/Miner’s Pond, Anne Michaels. Absolutely delicious way with words. This poetry has had a strong influence on my style. Great book to read if you’re looking to put music into your writing.
  • Regeneration (series), Pat Barker. These blow me away on so many levels. The writing is fabulous. The research is meticulous. The blending of fact & fiction is seamless. And oh yeah, Billy Prior is the best. character. ever.

Banker

  • Wizard’s First Rule, Terry Goodkind. My current read; I don’t know why I waited so long to start it because I can hardly put it down.
  • The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks. The next greatest fantasy epic after–
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien. What can I say that hasn’t been said already? I first read this in my early teens and it woke me up to the fact that fantasy wasn’t just fairy tales.
  • A Wrinkle In Time (the trilogy), Madeleine L’Engle. Actually the third book in this trilogy was the best, but I loved the characters and the sense of magic in all the books.
  • The Hound and the Falcon (trilogy), Judith Tarr. Historical fantasy: who knew it could be done, and so well?
  • The Colour of Magic (and everything succeeding), Terry Pratchett. The man’s a comic genius. Enough said.
  • The Once and Future King, T.H. White. The definitive version of the definitive heroic tale.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. Smaller in scope than Middle-Earth, yet no less wonderful for that.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson. I picked up the first book on a whim, never having heard of it before, and I was hooked before the end of the first chapter. Six books in all, each more intense than the last, dark but satisfying.
  • Sanctuary (edited), Robert Asprin and Lynne Abbey. It was after reading about Thieves’ World that my own fantasy world began to take shape, so I suppose I owe the most debt to this series of books.

Baker

The Musical Magic of Words

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Have you ever watched a great storyteller? The other day, during lunch with a group of women, one gal held our attention as she told about replacing her wood stove with a propane furnace. It sounds ho-hum, doesn’t it? Then why did we listen so intently? It wasn’t what she was saying; it was how she was telling her tale. She changed the tempo and volume of her voice; fast and strong as we heard of the workmen tearing open walls, soft and slow as she talked of dust settling and dreams of warmth throughout the winter nights. It was a musical tale of a mundane experience. As writers, we can make music with the sound of words.

A well-written story, article, or poem carries the cadence and rhythm of memorable music. Just as in oral storytelling, the tempo, or pace of words and the beat, or inflection help create feelings and images. These are the devices that distinguish your writing from forgotten pop to classical music. Music and words sprouted from the human need to communicate. Here are some seeds to plant in your creative garden. Allow them to grow from your material and strengthen your writing.

  • Alliteration – musically creates moods with sounds and meaning by using neighboring words beginning with the same consonant. Alliteration need not be a string of words to be effective.

Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail.

–Helen Keller, The Seeing See Little

  • Consonance – subtly creates mood and lends musicality through the repetition of a pattern of consonants.

Linger, longer, languor
Rider, reader, raider, ruder

  • Assonance – unconsciously reinforces meaning and creates mood with the repetition of same or similar vowel sounds. This excerpt employs everything.

Night came on, and a full moon rose high over the trees into the sky, lighting the land til it lay bathed in ghostly day.

–Jack London, The Call of the Wild

  • Connotation – Choose wisely, words have a wily way. They evoke emotional and imaginative associations. Consider: fat, corpulent, obese, each creates a different mental image in the reader, yet describe a person not underfed.

In other words he was a carbon-based bipedal life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough though he didn’t know it, he was a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernable Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in (him) of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the turn and a predilection for little fur hats.

–Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  • Onomatopoeia – you know this one, a word that imitates natural sounds or sounds like its meaning. What I want to know is, who came up with the word onomatopoeia? Here’s a lovely poetic example of words and sounds.

The moan of doves, in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.

–Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Princess

  • Pacing – is the musical tempo of your writing. Think in terms of speed and movement. A slow, relaxed atmosphere is conveyed through long descriptive sentences or employing “ing” words: Sallie watched the ball hitting the glass. A fast paced world is conveyed with short sentences and action verbs: The ball shattered the glass.

Watching these small subliminal seeds grow in your creative garden is more an act of discovery than imposition. You can become a virtuoso storyteller when you listen to and orchestrate the musical magic of words.

Final Poll Results

Approaching Nonfiction Creatively

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Creative nonfiction. Peculiar term, isn’t it? The first time I ran across it I thought, “Get out! What is this a joke, an oxymoron? An apologia for lying in print?” I swatted it away like a pesky mosquito. And like a pesky mosquito, it kept coming back; in articles and news programs attacking memoirs such as Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest and the biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. Then, I began noticing ads for university graduate programs in Creative Nonfiction: what a contrast; journalistic outrage and academic codification. It didn’t look like a purple martin was going to swoop out of the sky and gobble up this pesky mosquito. So I figured if it’s going to keep buzzing around, I might as well learn about this thing called creative nonfiction.

So what is it? An easy definition is that creative nonfiction is a hybrid of literature and nonfiction; combining the literary elements of fiction with the facts and information of nonfiction. I like to think of writing creative nonfiction as an adventurous quest. Imagine going on a dream vacation, what would you do as a writer? Absorb every moment. Immerse yourself in the setting. Record every detail, every person, every conversation and, when you are home, regale your friends and family with stories so complete and engaging they think they’ve been there. As long as you don’t make anything up to enhance the story, you have the essence of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (also called literary nonfiction, or literary journalism) uses a global, or holistic approach to explore and relay information. The writer engages the reader by including the details, scenes, action and dialogue of real life. The elements more often associated with fiction, poetry and drama. Resources are available, here at TC and elsewhere, on the elements of effective fiction. What frequently isn’t discussed is combining those with nonfiction. Just as we all had the three “R”s in elementary school, here are three elementary “R”s for creative nonfiction.

Reliability

Put aside your creative hat for a moment and remember you are writing nonfiction. There is a basic trust on the part of the reader that nonfiction contains reliable, valid information. The reader is relying on you to be honest, no matter how artistic or literary your style of presenting the facts. It is a disservice to both the reader and to you as a writer to manufacture or alter the truth. I remember reading an article in The New Republic about teenage computer hackers being hired by software companies to help prevent other hackers from breaking into their databases. (Washington Scene: Hacker Heaven, Stephen Glass,The New Republic, May 18, 1998). I thought it was so wonderful. I told several folks about how industry was putting the intelligence and energy of young miscreants to positive use. In the next issue, the editors of the magazine announced they had fired the author because he had manufactured the entire article. I felt disappointed and embarrassed. I’d been sharing this great information, from a magazine I trusted, and it wasn’t true! If there is one thing that continues to make creative nonfiction an annoying mosquito it’s authors who forget that the basic tenets of accuracy, validity and truth are the foundation of creative nonfiction writing. Your literary style and creativity are adornments based on and supporting those facts.

Research

This is the fun part. Research helps bring life to your creative nonfiction. Be excessive in your research. Include everything in your notes, even what it’s like pouring over musty archives in the basement of the library. Nonfiction is about life, whether you are writing about history, a City Commission Meeting, cellular biology, or a memoir. Intimate details, like the spindly, dusty begonia on the loan officer’s credenza or the Democrat County Commissioner’s collection of porcelain elephants, humanize and bring alive a nonfiction piece. Allow your research to include every aspect that surrounds your subject: color, texture, sound, space, weather, or the nuances of body language.

In the course of your research adventure, an equally important element in your research is ferreting-out appropriate sources. They may not always be reliable: in print or on the Internet. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This year I grew a tremendous amount of garlic. As June rolled around I knew it was about time to harvest the bulbs. I decided to do some research about the optimum moment for pulling them out of the ground. I checked my notes from an organic garlic production workshop I had attended a couple years ago: “Ted harvests in June”—great. I scratched my head wondering why I attended that workshop. Then I looked up garlic in three Rodale Press gardening books. I found the following: “harvest when all leaves are brown and dying” or “harvest when half the leaves are brown” or “harvest when one third of the leaves are brown and dying”—now what? Time for an Internet search. After about fifteen contradictory sites I found some real information, “harvest when the top leaves are brown and 5 or 6 lower leaves are still green, as they will form the papery skin around the bulbs when dry.” Don’t be satisfied with one or two references; dig deep, dig far and dig wide. It often takes extensive research to find real and relevant information. Which brings us to our third R.

Relevance

You may be able to recount your visit to the Bahamas with great literary flair, but if it doesn’t contain some observations or insights to which the reader can relate your writing won’t have a strong voice. Writing about the stunning hotel, the glittering white sand, the romantic starlit nights, would only result in one more travelogue. What would resonate with relevance is discussing the unpainted homes of the hotel workers within walking distance of the glitz and glamour of the hotels, or your conversations with local Bahamians about life “on the other side” of glamour. Let life fly into your non-fiction, not only with creative literary devices but let it take wing with relevant slices of life. Nonfiction writing is an adventuresome outlet (and excellent market) for your creative talents. Explore a slice of life and enjoy writing reliable, well researched, relevant creative nonfiction.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article by Emily Hiestand about a waste water treatment facility near Boston (can you think of a more exciting topic)? 😉

“The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston’s once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands-a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself-a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes.”

Restaurant Review

A Pen In Each Hand

By Collage

Take your writing skills out to dinner—go to a new restaurant. Bring your notepad—you’re on a newspaper assignment writing a restaurant review. Let your review go beyond the meat and potatoes, or tofu and eggplant; engage the reader with all the senses. Expand the five senses and include time and space. Show the totality of your dining experience. Post your review on What I Tell You Three Times Is True.