Practice, Practice, Practice: 5 Quick Tips for Jump Starting your Writing Career

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by Kate Maruyama

The old adage goes: How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice. Writing is a practice. Like exercise. We need to become accustomed to doing it regularly, and though “regularly” is different for everyone, it is likely the most successful approach to writing.

The most common question from my students is, “When do you find time to write?”

I’m lucky that I seem to be ingrained with a need to write. If I’m not writing, I become crabby and difficult to live with and get out of sorts in the other areas of my life.

But finding the time and space to write is a challenge. And finding ways to settle the brain to write in the short time in which I’m allowed to write poses other problems.

Here are some quick and dirty tips to getting yourself into the practice of writing.

Don’t wait for the time to write, make it.

We can let our schedules get in the way, our lives get in the way and say to ourselves, “If only I had time to write.” Or “When I have time to write.” We can plan to find that time to write, but years can pass in this manner. If you wait for everything to be perfect: an empty apartment, a three hour chunk where you’re not worried about something, the sun to be shining, a huge project to be over, this season of The Walking Dead to end, or that neighbor’s dog to stop barking, it’ll never happen.

Instead, it’s easier to own the time you can find. Honestly, even if it’s 20 mins a day with a prompt, or half an hour three times a week or even five times a week.

So many successful writers had all the excuses not to write that you’re using. Full time jobs, children, poverty. But they slowly, steadily found their way. Toni Morrison had a full time job and kids. She talks about her writing practice here.

My friend Natashia Deon is a lawyer, a teacher of law and a mother to two children and her first novel is coming out next year from Counterpoint Press.  There are ways, just keep at it. Keep showing up. Honor your want to be a writer.

 Word Count isn’t everything.

Timing is. Don’t be intimidated by those posting their word counts on Facebook or Twitter. NaNoWriMo is coming up and it’s a wonderful thing and useful to so many people, but it’s not for everyone. Some of us are slower, weave it out-variety writers. I cheer on my NaNoWriMo friends, thrill at their word counts, but I know it has nothing to do with me.  Beating yourself up about someone else’s writing practice is a bit like being upset your eyes aren’t a different color. We each have a different writerly makeup.

As long as you’re sitting down regularly, writing regularly, you are a writer. And as I mentioned, “regularly” is different for everyone. My “regularly” is actually only three or four times a week. With two kids and four freelance jobs, the timing of my days is in no way regular. I do know I can usually find a good chunk of time on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Sometimes things get in the way: I’ll have a meeting come up for work, achild will be sick or need accompaniment on a field trip or have a day off (when do these children go to school these days?) or I’ll get sick. But unless there is something day-altering–and I make sure to put no social engagements on these days–I’m at my computer poking my novel or short story with a stick. I show up and I’m not allowed to do anything else but look at the page. If nothing comes of that time, just moving around a few sentences, thinking on the piece, or hating that piece, that’s fine. It was writing time. I have finished four novels and dozens of short stories with this approach. It is the constancy of sitting down. And I sometimes have to sit through several days of hating something before finding the tools to make it into something I love.

Chuck Wendig says 350 words five days a week will do it. And while his plan is for novels, it would work for an format. He’ll bully you into it in a hilarious expletive-laden fashion here.

Find a way to Jump Start Your Practice:

There are so many things you can do to find the support you need to get into the practice of writing:

Form a writers’ group: Agree to get together once a week or once a month and share a certain number of pages or, simply, talk about how the writing process is going for you. My friends Matt Kressel and Devin Poore belong to a writers’ group Altered Fluid. Matt’s first novel, King of Shards, written during years with that group debuted today! They get together two times a month now to share work and critique and basically kick each other in the ass to keep going. The group has become quite prolific.

Make a pact with a friend: I have a friend of whom I demand five pages a week via email. If she doesn’t get them to me, I give her serious shit for it. I don’t actually read her work (except when tempted by her awesome writing,) but she knows I’m there, demanding it by by Sunday at Midnight (it sounds more threatening that way) or else.

Take a Class:  If there aren’t any writing classes available where you live or your schedule doesn’t allow a physical class, there are plenty available right here at inspiration2publication! Our classes are online and can be taken any time of the day or night. If you don’t see a class you want right now, stick around a month or so and new ones will show up.

Set your alarm clock half an hour early: Some people thrive off morning creative time when they have nothing else on their minds. Get up, don’t even think about your day, just sit at the computer and write for half an hour. Use prompts if you have trouble getting started.

Go to work half an hour or an hour early: If your cubicle allows and your workspace is empty but open in the morning work there. My friend Philip Barragan finished his first novel in this quiet time. He told his workmates that he wasn’t available for work until the office officially opened. He was already at work, the anxiety of the commute behind him with nothing to do but write until 8:30 ticked around.

Whatever your approach, kick start your practice! All of the successfully published writers I know have a practice. They keep at it, they write and write and most importantly, revise and revise and their practice has become part of their weekly lives, no matter how busy it gets.

Kate’s class,  Laying Down the Tracks: Jump Start You Screenplay in Four Short Weeks begins May 6th! Spots are still available, sign up now!

Kate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by 47North. Her short work has appeared in Stoneboat, Arcadia and Controlled Burn as well as on DuendeThe Rumpus and Salon, The Citron Review among other journals and in numerous anthologies. She is an instructor with Antioch University Los Angeles in the BA and MFA programs, the inspiration2publication program and Writing Workshops, Los Angeles. She writes, teaches, cooks and eats in Los Angeles where she works with her family.

Your Short Story is an Audio Movie

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by Robert Morgan Fisher

In addition to writing and teaching, I have a lot of experience as a professional voice actor. And for a few years now, I’ve been recording many of my short stories. It’s made me a better writer—reading one’s work aloud is always useful. These days, there are many opportunities for writers to submit audio versions of their work—and even add production elements.

You don’t have to be a voice actor or engineer to do this. Here’s a case study of a recent short story I conceptualized, wrote, polished and then recorded. It’s called “I, Clown.”

The inspiration this short story came from a book I stumbled across in a rare book store: Clown Act Omnibus: A Guide to Clowning. It was a first-edition of a book that’s never gone out of print. It was first published in 1960 by a Christian organization and it’s quite a relic. I wanted to write a story about a clown for my collection, Cabaret Nation, which is a compendium of stories about the holiness of peripheral showbiz performers. Clown Act Omnibus was chock-full of solid craft info and hopelessly hokey illustrations and hundreds of actual clown “bits” or “skits,” concisely described and listed right down to the props and beats. Clown Act Omnibus unlocked the story and character for me. It was perfect. I soon had a solid story that surprised me in a good way. I revised and (for now) locked it.

Its length (about 10 pages) made it a perfect candidate to submit to this year’s Miller Audio Prize for Audio Fiction. I was a 2015 runner-up in that contest for my story “Vox Rex” (another story that wound up in Cabaret Nation) and was therefore eligible to enter again. Once you win a category, that’s it, you’re in some kind of Hall of Fame and unable to enter again. I really want to win—it’s the most prestigious Audio Fiction Prize on the planet outside of the Grammys. You can read more about that and hear my story, “Vox Rex,” HERE. Fair warning—it is about a voice actor.

I first recorded and edited a straight audio version using the Audacity program (which is easily downloaded). I then edited out all the inhales, mistakes, et cetera. Finally, I downloaded some free usage music and SFX—nothing too ambitious, just enough to add some atmosphere.

The final mixed-down story timed in at just under 15 minutes—which is the maximum allowable for the Miller Audio Contest rules. I paid my entry fee and voila! I’m a current contender. I also recorded and submitted several other stories, including one I had an actress friend of mine voice since it was a first-person lesbian narration (Hey, I’m a good actor—but not that good).

That short story is called “Sign Spinner: The Movie.” And it underscores an important point: Your short story… is a movie. Many famous films started out as short stories: Brokeback Mountain, Stand By Me, In The Bedroom, et cetera, et cetera.

We short story writers all, in the back of our minds, fantasize about some producer, director or actor falling in love with our work and turning it into film. And learning how to adapt your story into the audio realm is a good first step toward realizing that noble dream.

I’ve been teaching an online course in Audio Fiction, utilizing all of the techniques I mentioned above (as well as what I learned working in the field for several years as a professional voice actor) for Antioch University’s online inspiration2publication for a few years now. It’s called Be Heard! Recording and Uploading Your Writing.

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Robert Morgan Fisher’s two-week online in2pub Course, Be Heard! Recording and Uploading Your Writing, begins April 15. Register here. You can read more about Robert and hear some of his produced audio fiction at his website link below:

Robert Morgan Fisher recently won the 2018 Chester Himes Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the 2019 John Steinbeck Award. His story, “Vox Rex” was Runner-up in 2015 for the coveted Miller Audio Prize in Fiction. His fiction and essays have appeared in Pleiades, Teach. Write., The Wild Word, The Arkansas Review, Red Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, Dime Show Review, 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, The Seattle Review, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, The Journal of Microliterature, Spindrift, The Rumpus, Bluerailroad and many other publications. He has a story in the 2016 Skyhorse Books definitive anthology on speculative war fiction, Deserts of Fire and in the 2018 Winterwolf Press Howl of the Wild Anthology. He’s written for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently on the teaching faculty of Antioch University Santa Barbara. Since 2016, Robert has led an acclaimed twice-weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD in conjunction with UCLA. He often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (www.robertmorganfisher.com)

5 Basic Pro Tips on Writing Screenplays

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by Kate Maruyama

20 years in the film industry, my biggest takeaway is that you should be writing the script that you want to see. It sounds simplistic, but with dozens of scriptwriting books out there guaranteeing a mathematical approach to a surefire hit, I can tell you that an original script is the only way through your jaded gatekeepers.

I was raised on movies and books. My dad taught film at Wesleyan University before VHS was around, so rather than count on the one or two movies shown on the Sunday Matinee on television, I was exposed to all movies always. Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelley, the Marx Brothers, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Gary Cooper, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford traipsed through my living room on a pop up silver screen on a stand as the 16mm projector clickwhirred sprockets along and Frankenstein, Dracula and the Invisible Man joined the parade. We also had a Saturday ritual of going to any movie that was out, good or bad, sometimes terrible. Hunkered down with junior mints and popcorn—popped at home and smuggled in enormously embarrassing but tasty and greasy paper bags, I saw the seventies unspool, Star Wars, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Grease, Superman, Dog Day Afternoon, All the President’s Men. As I got older I was allowed to watch the movies unfurling for my dad’s classes, or the Wesleyan’s film series, Ford, Coppola, Hitchcock, Capra, Donen, Cukor, Frankenheimer. As a college student I moved onto Spike Lee, Jonathan Demme, John Waters. I became a student of auteurs and camera angles, scenes told in dialogue, scenes unfolded in imagery.

Sometime in college, scrambling for what to do with my life, I realized that film was a language I already spoke because I was raised in it, versed in it. So in the early nineties I moved out to Los Angeles to give it a whirl and I started writing screenplays immediately. But, as I needed to make an immediate living, I started working at The William Morris Agency as an Assistant. I then moved to Jon Peters Entertainment to work on the Warner Bros lot and later to Universal to work for Sylvester Stallone, which seemed an odd fit, but taught me more than any industry job I’d held yet. I learned more than I knew I could about screenwriting from the work I was doing in development. I started recognizing the scripts that caught the imagination, saw the scripts that went on to get made, the scripts that, despite being interesting, would never sell. By the time I was a junior executive, I had read and covered thousands of scripts, given notes on what would make them stronger, gotten inside scenes to see how they tick and given pointers to shore them up. There was so much to learn even in writing coverages, which is where you summarize a script into a page and a half. There’s something about how a summary cracks along that lets you know if the script has done its job.

The gatekeepers of Hollywood, the ones who decide if your script meets the eyes of a producer or executive or an actor, they are all people who read thousands of scripts for a living. And they are tired. And they have seen it all. They are looking for something new, different and engaging. And they are often an underpaid assistant or an intern looking for that original piece to bring to their boss.

Here are some takeaways from reading two decades’ worth of scripts. Some simple things that can make or break the read of a script.

1. Format is everything. Your script is going to be read by someone who reads scripts for a living–which means dozens of them a week. You need them to see your words and your characters, your scenes and your world. Because I promise you, if your font is weird, or you’re being creative with your page layout, or you add pictures, they have taken points off your script before reading the first line. You can find screenplay formatting and free software to write with here: https://www.celtx.com/

2. Your first ten pages need to sing. Your reader, having ten more scripts to get to, needs to be sucked into scene in those first ten pages. They need to feel firmly anchored in your character, the scenario and what’s happening to them. If it’s an action movie, it’s generally a seat-gripping action scene. If it’s a romantic comedy, it’s usually funny, engaging and showing your character in full. If it’s an independent movie, it may be simpler, but it is always engaging: sometimes a quiet scene where you find your character doing something curious, sometimes it is a pickle they find themselves in later in the story, but it is always, always a good read. If you have spent ten pages simply on ambience, setting, or putting together a situation, you have lost your reader already and trust me, they have other scripts to move onto.

And on that note, skip the epigraphs. A famous author’s quote is not going to help your screenplay if it’s already good and will only emphasize what’s not working in a screenplay that isn’t cracking along.

3. Curb your descriptive language: Beyond creating tension in a scene or physically describing action, keep your descriptive language to yourself. I can’t tell you how many times, as a jaded script reader, my eyes rolled to the ceiling as a writer waxed rhapsodic for paragraphs about a farm, the light against the eaves, the fireflies, the flock of birds. Little visual signposts are lovely if kept to a brief sentence or two. What you are there to describe is the scene itself. Give us the time of day and the light, perhaps, a nod to what sort of evening it is and go with your characters and where they are in the scene, what they are doing with their bodies. Give your reader characters, scene and dialogue that they want to get into. Give the scene purpose from its first breaths.

4. Don’t physically describe your characters. This is a weird one and counterintuitive to any writer. But the truth is, your characters, beyond age and stature, and perhaps the way they hold themselves or their station in life need no further physical details. Think of your characters as indelible personalities imprinted on a blank canvas. Any producer, executive and (if all goes well) actor wants to project someone specific on that character and wants to do it all the way through. If you describe your heroine’s “blonde hair falls in her face” you’ve just lost five brunette actresses or actresses of different races and the potential for your script seeing the light of day has gone down exponentially.

5. Don’t write to the market. This also may seem counterintuitive, but please, for the sake of your precious time and the effort of the writing itself, take heed. I always heard it, what types of scripts are “hot,” from when I started, “People are buying cop dramas now” to later when I was writing “People are buying sex thrillers now.” As a reader, I would suddenly get an onslaught of one kind of script and by the time they got to us, that description of “what’s hot” was passe. It was while I was reading my 50th crappy cop drama that I read THE MATRIX, which flipped my lid. It was when I was reading my 70th sexy thriller that quiet, character driven independent films started breaking through. You don’t know the market and the people who put these buzzwords out there don’t either. Write the script that is the movie you want to see. Write the story that has captured your imagination, that you can see in your head. Write the script that is different. Because the most magical words in any scriptreader’s vocabulary is, “I haven’t seen this before.”

If you want to jump start your script idea, the one that’s been nagging at you to get it written, the one that you can’t get out of your head, you can get a good head start in my class, which starts May 30th: “Laying Down the Tracks: Jump Start Your Screenplay in Four Short Weeks.” The class is online and can be taken at any time of the day or night. All you need is access to a computer!

Kate Maruyama’s twenty years in the film industry started when she was an agency assistant at William Morris, where she learned the ins and outs, from contracts to deals, indie movies to studios films, indie releases to negative pickup. She moved on to Jon Peters Entertainment where she worked as a development assistant, developing pitches, giving notes on screenplays and finally was Director of Development at Sylvester Stallone’s company White Eagle at Universal where she worked with writers and executives developing pitches and screenplays for production. She was a script consultant for Demarest Films and for Village Roadshow Pictures for ten years. She then quit to write and learned the other side of the screenwriting world, with a number of scripts in development and had one screenplay produced. She has consulted on numerous screenplays since and has a knack for developing them into the type of material producers and actors are looking for.

Her first novel Harrowgate was published by 47North and she appears in numerous print and online journals as well as in anthologies.

Kate holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles in fiction where she is adjunct faculty in the BA program and Affiliate faculty in the MFA program. She teaches with Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is part of the team behind Antioch’s inspiration2publication program.

 

 

 

 

The Gift of Writing

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Portrait of the author as the baby of an author.

 

by Kate Maruyama

The summer after I first had my son, when he was three months old, my mom sent me a check, in the memo at the bottom was scrawled, “babysitter.” I called her, a bit miffed, we had just had the kid, were just getting used to him, how could we hand him over to a stranger? Besides, we were doing just fine, thank you, we didn’t need a handout.

Pardon the crankiness, I was a bit sleep deprived. The kid wouldn’t stop crying. Like, at all.

My mom knew this, and she said calmly, “While they’re small, you need to buy writing time. Find a teenager or a nursing student. You don’t even have to leave the house. But buy yourself a few hours a week.”

My mom was a writer too and, despite raising three kids, had written over thirty novels by the time she was through. I don’t even have a final count on her books including collections and anthologies. She relied on her morning stream of local student babysitters until we were school age. I remember a number of them fondly, and I’ve been told I went to a university sit-in demonstration against US interference in Cambodia when I was two, but that’s another story.

It took me a few years to hire a babysitter. That check sat on the mantel and I carved writing time out of nap time, or bed time, and burned the candle at both ends as I was working in the evenings reading scripts for money. That check was still on the mantel when my second kid was born, but then she was eighteen months and my oldest was in preschool and there was no such thing as nap and I was at the end of my rope by the end of each day. I had met other parents by then, so I called around and found a local teenager to babysit in the house while I shut myself in a room. I carved myself out three hours of writing once a week.

What a gift. Three hours in which, because I was paying someone, I was forced to stay in a room and write. Three hours where I couldn’t do the millions of other things calling to me: the house, the kids, the job. That first morning I felt downright wicked, alone with my computer, writing the only task in front of me. I don’t remember now what I was working on. Likely a screenplay, but possibly my first ever (and yet unpublished) novel that earned me my training wheels in fiction; that eventually got me into the MFA Program at Antioch University Los Angeles where I found my people, my voice and my profession.

That specified, paid-for time was everything.

After graduate school I went on to teach writing to grown-ups. People who wanted to write but had not found the time before. My first class was a Saturday morning workshop with a local community college extension program. I asked my students to share with the class why they were taking this workshop. Obviously, they wanted to write, and this class was a gift to themselves. Three hours, one morning a week in which they would sit down and honor their oft-neglected writing selves. I adored the work that came out of these fledgling students. Writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, we used prompts, and, as my hesitant group became more comfortable, the words began to flow.

There was one older gentleman in his early seventies, Cesar (not his name) and he always arrived at the same time as a younger white guy in his thirties, Bob. The two were obviously not related, but Bob (not his name) would always call Cesar, “Pops.” They always sat separately. Bob at the back of the class, Cesar at the front. Cesar wrote non-fiction, hilarious and moving stories about growing up in Los Angeles with a “gang” of friends of all different races. He brought to life a vivid and vibrant Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1960s that was undivided along racial lines. The kids would travel in a pack, get in trouble together, and were parented together by each other’s families. It was beautiful writing.

Cesar and Bob were always cracking jokes and funny with each other and only in the last class did Bob take me aside. He told me that he had gotten the class for Cesar as a gift. “Pops” had always talked about writing down his stories, but wouldn’t sit down and do it. So Bob bought him the classes and drove out to Whittier every Saturday morning to pick him up and bring him all the way back to Glendale for class. They stopped for breakfast on the way.

It turns out that Bob had been abandoned by his drug addicted mother when he was about thirteen after years of abuse. Cesar lived across the street and had befriended the boy when he sensed he needed someone. When Bob’s mother died, Cesar adopted him. The “Pops” part was real and Bob said he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Cesar. And the gift was real. Bob was writing some beautiful pieces of fiction himself, but he was also getting those stories Cesar kept telling written down in scene in gorgeous detail. The gift of the class ended up paying off for both of them.

As we head into the holiday season, if you have people in your life who have always wanted to write, but haven’t had the time, who have great stories and have never learned how to get them down on paper, if you have writers in your life who have been at it for years but need a little extra push to get their work edited and refined to get it out there, or have a novel they need guidance reshaping, inspiration2publication has gifts that you can give.

With our affordable two week and four week class gift certificates, you can give a writer an array of choices of how they would like best to honor their writing. They can choose from a large selection of classes and, if they’re hesitant at first, they can wait to use the gift certificate until the right class comes up, until it’s the right time for them to dive in. Our asynchronous classes mean that, while the class happens during a two or four week period, students can check in from any time of the day or night, from anywhere in the world. All they need is access to a computer.

With our Writing Coach gift certificates, you can give the gift of guidance from a mentors for all writers. With a coach appropriate to their work (which they get to choose from our divers, published, trained staff) your writer friend or relative can begin a project, rewrite a project, and strengthen their voice and writing skills in the process. Our coaches are trained to work from a writer’s strength while giving them the tools they need to tell their story in the best way possible.

 We hope you’ll give the gift of inspiration2publication, if not this holiday season, for upcoming birthdays, summer vacations, when a child is born, or for someone’s retirement.

If you have any questions about these classes or how the gift certificates are used, please write to us at i2p@antioch.edu

Student Testimonial

As a disabled person, it can be difficult to attend workshops in person, particularly as someone who is deaf. Inspiration2publication has given me the opportunity to continue learning and growing as a writer without any of these obstacles. I am incredibly grateful to be able to participate in workshops and courses of the highest quality from the comfort of home. Inspiration2publication isn’t just accessible to people who would not have normally have access either because of a disability or geography but it is also affordable. I have tried online courses from two other writing associations and a single Inspiration2publication has been more beneficial than all of them combined. They have pushed me as a writer and helped me produce more impactful work, as well as offered insight and motivation to get my work out there. I never submitted a piece before taking Inspiration2publication courses and since then I have submitted and been published several times. In a way, I have this program to thank for that.

– Michael Whelan (AULA Alum 2008)

“Let Me See You Once More:” Finding, Restoring, and Amplifying Marginalized Voices that Build Community

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By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad

 

By the time Old Lizzy Gray’s enslaver Dr. E. J. Mims buried her in a granite sarcophagus on his South Carolina plantation in 1860, she had 127 years’ worth of stories built up in her. Stories from lives lived on two different continents. One as a free Muslim in Africa. One as an enslaved person with a syncretic religious existence in America. But almost everything we know about Old Lizzy Gray’s story today, including her last words, didn’t come directly from her. What we know came from the hand of her obituarist Dr. Mims, the last person who held her as property. His amplification of her story, in less than five paragraphs on the front page of the September 12, 1860, issue of the Edgefield Advertiser, is the only reason we know anything of her existence beyond her being just another name with a price next to it in estate records.

 I think often of Old Lizzy Gray.

I wonder what her original name was before being labeled with the surname of one of her earliest enslavers and a given name likely belonging to one of the women in his family.

I wonder how long she cried out for her four children whom she was ripped from in her homeland through the forced migration and forced dislocation trauma of the transatlantic slave trade.

I wonder where in Africa she came from and if it could have been Senegambia, given that a large portion of the Muslim-born captives arriving in America had come from there and had ended up in the Carolinas.

I wonder when she decided that she would begin to practice a mixture of Islam and Christianity—stating on many occasions “that Christ built the first Church in Mecca and his grave was da”—and if it started as a coping mechanism while she was imprisoned upon a British ship during the American Revolution, or after she had been sold on to her first, second, or third enslaver after that, no fixed address in sight, no real control over her own time and space.

I wonder who her American-born children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were who took care of her in her final days and if, with all the new genealogical resources we have today, we can find their descendants.

And, I wonder why Dr. Mims, one of the most influential people in Edgefield County where they lived, the town of Johnston, which he founded, now built up over what was once much of his plantation, and probably up over Old Lizzy Gray too, wrote so passionately about the human he held as property, placing her obituary on the front page of the local paper and giving her a higher grade of burial than even those in his own family and, later, even himself.

In his own way, was Dr. Mims writing the community to effect change?

I know I am, in writing this, writing to effect change. And with hope of bringing the dignity and humanity back to a forgotten ancestor of the African diaspora who is only discussed in a negligible number of history books, and her name I’ve never heard rolling off the tongues of those in the greater community who could be inspired by her story of survival and resilience.

Old Lizzy Gray held on to faith and family to her last breath, calling out to her American-born daughter, “[L]et me see you once more,” and then, “Jesus has come!” The latter an utterance, no doubt, of deliverance from the enormity of her life struggles.

One cannot underestimate the value of finding, restoring, and amplifying marginalized voices that build community. That, in the case of Old Lizzy Gray, this service comes from an enslaver does not make it any less valuable.

There are many ways we experience community. For some, their first experience with community life begins in the home, amongst family. For others, it’s in their place of worship, or at school, in the barbershop, or the salon, in the neighborhood, or at places of work, and on and on.

Community connections can be local, national, or international. Community life is in every direction we turn. It is wherever we find humanity and engage with each other. And, in that every engagement, there are opportunities to write the community, and there are opportunities to effect change.

I invite you to take an online class with me on this very subject: Writing the Community: Write to Effect Change. With no grades to worry about, it is a relaxed and fun opportunity to be part of an intimate online writing environment, reading, reflecting, and writing about the community.

We will explore what it means to write the community as a means of effecting change. We will study successful authors’ stylistic approaches to writing for the community. We’ll examine how figures in our local communities have valuable stories that too often go untold, simply because they do not have national acclaim. And, we will learn creative approaches to documenting and sharing the stories of these people and how this is an effective means to “building community through history” across seemingly intractable divides.

Even with the tiniest nuggets of information, we will figure out a way to draw out the beauty of the story you want to amplify, just like how I just took a creative approach to building a whole narrative about Old Lizzy Gray around nuggets of findings in an 1860 obituary.

I welcome you to join me.

You’ll leave with nothing less than the reward of a new piece of writing that I am confident can start making an impact in your community right away.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad received her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert in 2016. She received her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. She is an author, lecturer, and researcher on religion in America, among other topics, and is known by many as “The History Detective.” She lives in Virginia with her family but travels frequently for research projects and speaking engagements. Her motto: “building community through history.” Her favorite craft-related, self-motivational saying: “write mama write.”

Finding “Flow”

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by Jacquie Cope

I’ve longed to write fiction for as long as I can remember, probably since the moment I was able to read. Paradoxically, for most of my life, I never wrote a word. First, I was always too wrapped up in other pressing issues – education, work, kids—to get much, or actually anything, written. The other problem was that even when I made the time to write, the page or the screen always stayed blank. I held my pen in my hand or poised my fingers over the keyboard and stared into space, daydreaming, and waiting. The waiting was painful. What was I waiting for? I assumed that eventually I would hear a little voice, a phantom or an angel, coming to whisper a story in my ear or guide my hands into typing something brilliant on the screen. I waited for my muse. There were moments of desperation, when I ruthlessly forced myself to write literally anything, painful sentence by painful sentence. I believed that eventually the muse would reward me by showing up and taking over. When I reviewed those sad sentences, or on some lucky occasions a handful of pages, I found that most of what I wrote was a little embarrassing — just isolated images or scenarios about eccentric people, many of them with avoidant personality disorders, most of them having a distinct physical feature, like a thick scar along one side of the face or a handlebar moustache.  I figured that I would wait a little longer, maybe the muse would show up tomorrow, or next week, or definitely within the year.

Well, my muse never showed up, and the frustrating part was that whether I wrote or not, the inclination and the longing to write never went away. Over the years, after an undergraduate degree in the sciences, a medical degree, a house in the suburbs, two kids, a Maltipoo, and a hamster, my urge to write never dissipated. And still, no muse.

Eventually I entered an MFA program and made a larger commitment to the pursuit of writing. Over the course of earning the degree, I learned a tremendous amount – about craft, about character, point of view, and plot. About where to start a story and where to end it. I also learned—or maybe just finally accepted– that there was never going to be a muse. There would be technique, faith, and perseverance, but no matter how often I would sit at the computer, sweating it out, coming up with a protagonist, a setting, and even a verb tense– there was never going to be a guiding voice, an angel on my shoulder, a divine gift of just the right words packaged and placed in my sad, suffering brain. The task of writing began and ended with the hard work of writing one sentence followed by another. I’m pretty sure now that that’s how most (all?) writers write. And yet, is it possible that that’s how War and Peace or East of Eden got written?

There had to be some trick, a strategy or formula to accessing stories and getting them on the page.

One concept that provided insight was that of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The state of “flow,” or what is also commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” is an intense concentration on an activity performed only for its own intrinsic reward. Immersion in the activity is so profound that the performer loses a sense of time, of biological need (like thirst or hunger), and, importantly, of the self-consciousness of the ego. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz,” Csíkszentmihályi says. He further describes this experience of disconnection of self from physical reality as a form of ecstasy.

Wow. So what did I have to do to get into flow?

Based on what he observed, Csíkszentmihályi’s developed a model, predicting that flow could be achieved when there was a fit between the challenge level of the task and the skill level of the individual. People can achieve this state of flow (perhaps to a milder degree) doing even mundane activities, such as driving, washing the dishes, or sewing. In these instances, the challenge is fairly low, and people who perform these tasks easily perceive a sense of mastery, focus on the moment, and feel personal control over the activity. On the other hand, a high challenge task (write a novel) attempted by someone with a low level of skill (never wrote anything) results in a state of anxiety. No wonder all of those hours sitting in front of a blank screen had left me so irritable! While my logical, left-brain had been training for the Ironman all of those years, my imaginative, right-brain was a total couch potato.

Fortunately, a number of well-known authors have provided guidance and recommendations for strengthening the skill of accessing the creative brain. I read a number of books by these authors (Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg among others) and found that most of their recommendations followed a similar theme: stop the inner critic from censoring your creativity. When you sit to write your first draft, write your first thought and don’t erase it. Editing and crafting aren’t meant to take place during the generative, creative stage of the writing process. If you find your avoidant protagonist sporting a handlebar moustache, leave it. You can always trim it later.

In a practicable way, most authors suggested practicing this skill through the use of journals (morning pages, timed exercises, dream journals). I tried all of these techniques, and the good news is that all of them were helpful! Each activity was an opportunity to practice, not only how to access the impulsive, imaginative part of my brain, but also how to quiet the critical, logical part of my brain that had kept me from writing anything in the preceding years. All of the activities also helped for another reason: each ultimately forced me to do the real work of writing. I didn’t need to face the task with the expectation of completing an entire short story or a novel or even a chapter. I just had to write something, anything. The more I “practiced” being creative, the easier the activities became. I just had to commit myself to doing them a lot.

Regardless of how much I exercised my creative brain, writing ultimately required taking the risk to write my first bad draft and look it square in the eye. Now when I sit at the laptop to write, it’s still a mixture of pain and relief to put down that first sentence, not knowing if a second is going to follow. Sometimes, now, I can fall into that zone. I lose track of time. I lose awareness of my own self-conscious self and start to see the characters, hear what they might say or see what they might see before my conscious brain looks around for it. And many times I don’t enter that blissful zone. Those days I realize that I’m going to have to dig deep and accept that writing is risk. I force a sentence on the page. And one more. Maybe another. And so it goes, sentence by sentence.

 Jacquie’s class, Creativity and Craft: Completing the Process from Journal to Short Story begins May 7. 

Jacquie Cope is a doctor from Los Angeles who recently took the plunge and dedicated herself to her writing. She holds degrees in medicine and public health, and more recently, an MFA from Antioch University. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.