Daily Archives: January 26, 2015

The Flow of Creativity

Over the past few weeks I’ve been receiving emails from someone who offered me a free book (which I said yes to and received in 2 days). I have since unsubscribed to this person’s list. I have not had time to read said book. This person’s book shot up to number 1 on Amazon within days! Well, all because he offered free books to gullible folks like me, then others saw the book was #1, though hey this book must be amazing, so they purchased the book. I am not a fan of “pyramid schemes”, but I believe that is exactly what this author did in creating a base of fans by offering free books, then adding more fans by selling more books, then offering a video “free”, then selling it, and so on and so on. After the 4th email I felt as if the author had caught me up in a race that I really did not want to run, so of course I unsubscribed. The concept is all about numbers. Exponentially expanding your fan base and followers. It is too “Rah Rah” for me.
Initially I was interested because I have started a business and of course I want followers and a fan base. But I hope to gain friends as well. And I hope to get them by a gentle flow of waves lapping at the beach instead of a whirlwind hurricane approach.
Creativity is like that. I cannot be in creative mode always thinking about outcomes and followers and such. I want to create something useful, something fun, and something that I like and then hope a few other people like to too. I must tell my own story, and the audience for that may be very limited. I cannot create for the masses riding the waves on a surfboard at a frantic pace. I can only create for those enjoying the flow of the waves, the sunshine on the shore.
When you create, be it by writing, painting or such –
… how much of your brain is occupied by “outcomes” – sales, followers, fans, pleasing the masses?
… how much is occupied by pleasing yourself, the heart, the soul?
… how much is occupied by what works for you, and not so much thinking about pleasing someone else?
… how much is occupied by merely telling your own story?

Culture Induced Panic and Anxiety

Emma, Abbey and Sophie
on the Mississippi

In Memphis, we’ve been having severe thunderstorms the past several days. Our dog, Abbey, an Irish Setter, suffers from severe anxiety attacks whenever she hears a rumble. It can be a train, a truck passing by, or a jet overhead. But when she hears thunder and sees lightning, she goes into full-blown panic mode. Her heart races, her breathing speeds, her eyes dart back and forth and she paces the floor looking for somewhere to hide. She cannot even bark. Her emotions are almost frozen with fear. Last night as loud thunderclaps roared, this beautiful red-haired 60 lb. dog jumped up on the bed and landed on my head. Nothing like waking at 3:00am to a mouthful of dog fur. No amount of soothing will calm her down. The bathroom is her “safe place” – she puts her head behind the toilet and stays there until the storm is over or when she can see sunlight.

I cannot imagine what happened to her in her past that causes this reaction. We got Abbey when she was four years old, a rescue dog. She had been kept in a cage for four years. That would be enough to cause panic in me.

With people, sometimes it’s the same reaction (well, maybe not to the extent of hiding behind the toilet) to a circumstance or environment. We are compelled to protect ourselves. Fear and anxiety are basic instincts, and without fear we would do even more of the foolish things we humans do. Statistics report that one out of every 75 people will experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their life. There was a point in my own life, a period of about three or four years, when I experienced panic attacks. Now it’s the sweaty palms reaction. Happens every time I am scheduled to preach, or speak before a group.

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve submitted several novel manuscripts to countless agents and small presses, and one of the novels even made the first cut of 1000 in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. Several of my essays have been published, and a story has been a finalist in a contest.  I have no problem reading my work in my writing critique group, but the truth is, I would need serious courage to read before an audience if asked.

I remember the first time one of my stories was read aloud to the entire class. It was in the ninth grade in a very warm Hawkins Junior High classroom that smelled of sweat, chalk dust and old books. The English teacher read my story, out loud, putting in little check marks with her red pencil as she went along. To the snickers of my classmates, I sank down lower and lower in my desk with each tic of that red pencil. I vowed never to write anything again. I continued to write in my journals, but that was for myself only – I let no other eyes read my words.

Ten years later, with three children and an abusive husband, writing in my journals was how I survived. I wrote poetry, short stories and brief descriptions of events. My husband at the time thought I was writing about him, and after I filed for divorce he snatched up all 30 journals and dumped them in the Barnett Reservoir. He never read them. I know this because the writings were not about him. They were about survival. We do what we have to do.

In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, it is the role of the Deacon to sing the Exultet. I was expected to learn this and sing it at the Easter Vigil three years ago. Now, those of you who know what this is, and if you’re a musician, you know that this is a difficult piece for anyone, even those who can read music. It is especially so for a novice who cannot read a note of music and has a voice like a frog. With sweaty palms and a quickened heart, I did it. And I’ve done it three times since.  With gratitude to Geoff Ward, the organist and choirmaster at St. John’s, who has extreme patience with this non-musician, my fear was calmed.


What is it about our culture that instills fear in us, and causes so much anxiety? People can be mean-spirited, and one criticism can shut off a voice that could change the world. There is  much criticism of certain writers, celebrities, our president, of congress, of religious leaders, and of folks who are just trying to make a difference in the world. Politicians are the worst about trying to hurt each other with calculated and timed attacks on character. What would happen if we really thought about what we are saying before we say it? Who are we really trying to hurt by saying hurtful things? We are the ones who are hurt most – the ‘sayers’. There is a line that we should not cross.  But we do come close.

If we searched down into our soul, we should all be asking some questions of ourselves. Are we trying to right a wrong? Or pull the other person down? Or is our ego merely trying to elevate ourselves? And how important is it that this supposed criticism get out into the world? Will it change public opinion? Will it make the world better? I know, there are folks who will say they are just telling the truth, and are compelled to do it no matter if someone gets hurt.  I do not disagree with that goal. I believe certain behaviors need to be criticized.  But that is my truth, and my truth is not everyone’s truth. Added to that, each person sees a person or event from their own perspective, interpreted through their own past experiences. One person’s truth can be another person’s skewed and unproven innuendo.  Something seen on a website somewhere. Or in a news report, or magazine, or in horror or horrors – an email message. 

A story about Aunt Neill in 1938 
Family Circle magazine.

I’ve been reading lately about the world of creative non-fiction, when memoir-writers create fictionalized accounts of their life experiences. Two examples are Alice Munro‘s The View From Castle Rock, and Jeannette Walls’s Half-Broke Horses. The authors have the command of language and detail that makes these stories almost mythological. Walls writes that she considers her book less of a novel and more of an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years.” 


I have a project that I’ve been working on for years involving my great aunt, Neill James.  I began to write about her life, but at some point a voice took over and began to write about the effect of her life upon my own – about how her courage gave me courage, and about how her experiences opened a world of travel to me.  When I realized that this project was moving towards a memoir-type work, I let a family member know.  That family member’s reaction was, “I didn’t think this was going to be about you, I thought it was going to be about Neill. I don’t think people want to read about you.”  

Aunt Neill in her
Reindeer Herder costume.



With a little anxiety, I will persevere, but I won’t be hiding behind the toilet – I’ll tell my truths out in the open.  It’s a story worth telling – even if it’s for my own reading.  It is a story of transformation.  And it will be my truth, sweaty palms and all. 

Writing & Race: Black Men, Cubans and Gypsies are Living in My Head!

Two of my novels include a Black man as the protagonist. In a meeting a few weeks ago, I overheard the statement that Anglos cannot write about Black people because they don’t have the experience and knowledge base.
I suppose the statement above would apply to my writing about Asians, Swedes or Native Americans or any other culture of which I am not a part.  I understand the point and agree that there are many compelling arguments for and against writing from the viewpoint of a cultural identity that is not one’s own.  On the other hand, when writing fiction, isn’t that what writers do as they get into the minds and lives of their characters? The statement became more and more absurd to me as I thought about the classics. But it called me to look at my own writing and why I write about the characters that are in my own stories. 
My desire here is not to haggle about whether or not I know enough about the cultures that I write about to include them in my novels and stories, but to look at the larger picture of the basic human condition with our imperfections, inadequacies, hopes, dreams and fears.  A writer must explore the questions of what is common to every family, every woman every man, every child.  What are our common bonds, and how do we strive to rise above adversity? What forms us at human beings, and what is our deepest yearning? I believe every human being comes into this world with unlimited potential, and then the world gets hold of us and leads us on our own hero’s journey. I believe each of us has an innate desire to do good and to try our best. I do not believe these traits are restricted to only one culture.  I believe hope and determination are what we all hold onto, no matter what class or culture society wants to drop us into. And some in our culture are not so nice.
I think that blanket statements like the one I first mentioned only tend to marginalize us and polarize us from one another.  Because to jump right to the conjecture that the inability of one person or another to write about another race is the norm is to not only miss the larger picture of our cultural need to love one another by understanding one another, but also to dismiss the great novelists of the world.
I have lived in the South my entire life and can write from the perspective of a southerner. No, it’s not always about race. But to leave race out of in my fiction is to deny my own history. My experiences with others of differing cultural backgrounds is part of what compels me to write. My interactions with African-Americans has been life-long.  No, I can never in reality get inside the head of a Black man and know his thoughts. Oh, but I can in my writing. I have a couple of Black men living in my head who wanted their stories told. I also have gypsies, mechanics, and a couple of Cubans living in there that have been transferred to the page.  I believe I present their stories with honor and honesty. If they were real live people they may or may not think so, especially if they are characters who behave badly. Ah, then comes the time for redemption. Or not.
If writers only wrote from their own perspective, only a tri-racial person could have written Huckleberry Finn.  And what about gender? Some of the best novels I’ve read are written by men using female protagonists. Wally Lamb immediately comes to mind as a contemporary writer who uses female protagonists. And then there’re religious denominations, professions, and endless other plot twists and turns that writers use for their characters.  Of course, there is a ton of bad writing in the universe to back up the argument that a writer shouldn’t write about something they know nothing about. To fully develop our characters writers simply must do our research. Writers cannot write without doing our homework. In a sense, we must become the characters we write about, immerse ourselves in their worlds.
I don’t think the argument is a matter of writing from another perspective; it’s a matter of bad writing or good writing. Writers are chameleons who can be any thing and any body. That is one of the pleasures and joys of writing, to get into that dream state of becoming our characters, seeing the world through their eyes, and revealing that world to our readers, while the newspapers pile up at our doors, while the outside world lives in chaos, and while characters keep developing themselves in our writing, telling us their troubles, their yearnings, and where they want to go.
What is your experience in writing from other cultural perspectives?