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While up north on the Keweenaw Peninsula, I overheard one elderly local tell a monk that an early October snow was no indication that we’d have a long winter. At the time, I was returning from a brief retreat at a lighthouse keeper’s cottage, and the monks were closing up shop for the winter and selling the rest of their jams while fat fluffy flakes covered the ground. I bought six jars. Who could resist blackberries jammed in rum?
It was like overhearing a riddle, though. My mind pondered how early snow could be anything but a long winter on a peninsula fiercely guarded by Lady Lake Superior who has the power and desire to create her own snow globe? It’s different from out West where a late August blizzard in the Rockies reminds us to prepare, but that long cool, even warm, autumns could follow.
Here, the snow means snow. It didn’t stick, but it didn’t return to blue skies, either. The gray mist and soggy cold rain feel dreary. The snow falls brightly and white-washes the world, removing the dinginess of constant cloud cover. Snow illuminates the globe Lady Lake keeps on the mantle of her ice-water mansion. Snow has returned.
And with flair. Of course — it’s Lady Lake. Why not be a drama queen on the fourth day of the 41 North Film Festival at Michigan Tech University? I walked out of the Rosza Center, following a film on the WWI Hello Girls, and into the lobby with 30-foot glass windows facing east. Snow fleeced the view. The next film up was a work in progress called Copper Dogs about female dog-mushers in our region. Well played, Lady Lake.
Culture and snow fill our winters, so I don’t mind. Travel, for me at least, shuts down. After my terrifying drive in a true Copper Country blizzard at the start of last winter, I vowed to be a winter home-body. Students return to our universities and with them come cultural events. So it’s a good time to hunker down. The film festival filled my well.
Tuesday night, I returned to the Rosza Center to listen to Welby Altidor speak on creativity and collaboration.
Altidor believes that each of us possess creative genius, but it must be cultivated and developed through practice. Creative courage is more than practical tools and strategy, it’s a way life for Altidor and those who dare to embrace it.
Yes, yes, yes! You betcha I was going to drive across snow-paved roads to listen to Welby. He was speaking my love-language — make (literary) art accessible!
Welby was the creative director for Cirque du Soliel, and as a dancer and choreographer, he understands the universal power of telling a story. Art is the great communicator wrapped in many mediums from movement to written words. He began by telling us that every good story includes three elements.
Welby teaches that every good story includes love, power, and transformation. You could compare this to the classical teaching of the Greeks, who perfected the three-act story: pity –> fear — > catharsis. Love seems more universal to me than pity, although I understand the Greeks intended for an audience to love the protagonist enough to pity his or her plight. Power is what we might call tension and leads to the Greek ideal of the audience fearing for the well-being of the protagonist. Catharsis is an emotional release (from the fear) and transforms the audience.
Note that in the hero’s journey, the three acts still apply. Of course, I started thinking, what would Anne Goodwin say… After much discussion on the model of the hero’s journey failing to capture the protagonists who don’t change or return with an elixir, I had an a-ha moment. We change. Not the protagonist, but we — the writer, the reader, the creator changes.
That’s the universality of the hero’s journey. Even if the hero falls flat, the creator of the story needs to provide a transformation for the reader — a greater awareness of self, others, or the world around us. And Welby was speaking directly about creatives and how to build creative teams. We must love our art enough to give it power and transform ourselves and audiences.
Welby’s book (and presentation) center on creative courage. To create transformative work we must start from a place of caring. Like at Carrot Ranch — we gather because we care about literary art. We care about writing. We care about stories and words and what we can do with them. We care about our stories. We care about the stories of others. This is the beginning of creative courage.
What comes next wouldn’t surprise anybody who understands Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but it might surprise you to think it applies to art. We need to secure safety. Yes, creativity needs a safe place to plant the seeds. That is also the purpose of Carrot Ranch — to create safe space to practice, explore and discover our literary art. I felt like Welby was looking at our community!
For collaboration, Welby says we next need to foster trust. Our literary community builds trust through positive feedback and consistency. We also learn to trust the 99-word constraint as a creative process. Our weekly collections are creative collaborations.
So what happens next? This is where we get to play with danger! Welby explains that art pushes limits and takes calculated risks. Writing dangerously is to push deeply into an idea that you might think is on the fringe. It’s breaking the rules to create something different. It’s risking creative failure, submitting to a contest or writing outside your comfort zone. It’s earning the “runs with scissors” badge.
Once we start writing dangerously, we dream! We experience breakthroughs! We grow!
Welby went on to say that many of us are disconnected from our superpowers. Part of our mission in life is to discover them, accept them, and share them with the rest of the world. He asked us to tell the person seated next to us what our superpower is. If you can identify your superpower, you will better understand your voice as a writer.
And don’t think any of this creative business is easy. It isn’t. Welby also points out that there is a war on imagination. He said it hit him hard when he had the opportunity to go to North Korea, and he recognized constrained people the way his father was. It’s rooted in fear of failure. Methods might be taught and learned, but what we really need is creative courage.
A significant shift occurred the night I listened to Welby, and it didn’t have to do with my creative art. I wondered as I took notes, how can my family create fertile soil for the Hub. No matter his condition, our circumstances, or unknown future we need creative courage. I looked again at the seven dimensions of creative collaboration and realized the answers were there.
My daughter went with me to listen to Welby speak. We stepped out into the snow, and I told her that the seven dimensions could apply to her dad. She went home and sketched the concentric circles around each one and posted this statement with her photo on Instagram:
“Great talk tonight with @welbyaltidor@rozsacenter. Here’s the mental model he presented; good insight into how to rebuild relationships and goals with Sgt. Mills. Walking the tightrope of late effect traumatic brain injury (LE-TBI) starts with taking care, raising safety nets, and building trust.
#creativecourage #love #veteranfamily #braininjuryawareness #tbiawareness #onestepatatime”
And Welby Altidor replied:
“Great stuff! I love your reinterpretation! Honoured it provided inspiration. Never give up!”
On that fine note, let’s move on to mashed potatoes. In the US we near the festival of turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy — Thanksgiving. I’m working on my menu and my novel which seems like opposing creative efforts. But Welby told us that fitting two things that don’t go together is how the troupe creates such memorable choreography and art in Cirque du Soliel. His examples: drones and lampshades; clowns and robots; treadmill and hoop-diving.
So we are going to write mash-ups that pair an unusual superpower with mashed potatoes.
November 8, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that pairs mashed potatoes with a superpower. It can be in any circumstance, funny or poignant. Go where the prompt leads.
Respond by November 13, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments. Rules & Guidelines.
Fast Hands (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
Nancy Jane flung the bowl of mashed potatoes at Horace. The bowl bounced off his shoulder and Hickok caught it midair. Horace hadn’t even moved except, Sarah noted, his eyes had widened the way a cow might look when protesting a lead rope to the milking barn. No one spoke as glops of white, buttery mashed potatoes slid down Horace’s shirt. Nancy Jane growled and slammed the heavy oak door when she stomped outside. Sarah understood her friend’s upset with how poorly Horace had handled Cobb’s interference at the station. More than that, she marveled at Hickock’s super speed.
At noon today, January 20, 2017, a new administration takes over leadership in the US. Inauguration, balls, protests and marches will magnify every moment in Washington, DC this weekend. The first 100 days of the new administration will reveal just how much change is going to unfold and judge its benefits or detriments. To say the entire world is watching is not hyperbole. And writers cannot escape this gaze.
The US Press Corps has issued its stand in an open letter to Trump: “We believe there is an objective truth, and we will hold you to that.” Media has derailed in its quest for objective truth the moment advertising dollars oozed past the boundaries of editorial in an act of survival when print faded in the light of the rising digital sun. Media has long toyed with sensationalism to grab attention, often obscuring the truth to get readers. But now we live in an age of reality-TV masquerading as real and fake news making fools of all. We are now struggling with a post-truth era.
Let objective truth become your safe phrase.
We cannot hide from the events unfolding. To be an informed writer — even a novelist or poet or memoirist or creator of educational materials or creator of flash fiction — we must be informed readers. When it does not feel safe to read or listen to the news, often it is because of biases and worry over propaganda or fake news. Focus on objective truth. Read critically. Read deep. It might be tempting to scan the sound bites or let well-intentioned friends inform you in a Facebook post about those “six things you need to know about _______,” but seek the deeper reporting. Here’s my list of news sources:
- The New York Times (I pay for a monthly subscription)
- Associated Press
- PBS NewsHour
- Audible (I pay for a monthly subscription and follow Channels like Scientific America and Masters of Fiction)
- Pocast Republic
Be a critical reader. Even the best of journalists can express bias. At times, I’ve caught a tone of exasperation missed by an editor or perhaps added by one. Recognize tone and intent. Be on guard for bias. Occasionally read a source you know to be bias (liberal or alt-right) to compare the reporting on the same story. Know the difference between opinion and fact. Look for sources. Look up sources. Do some sleuthing on your own, don’t become reliant upon outlets like Snopes because then you are letting someone else think for you. Don’t “like” biased news, call out fake news or lies when correction is needed, and don’t copy and paste incomplete information from your BFF. Seek objective truth.
One of the challenges writers have when filling the mind-well is wanting to write about it, of course. Be aware that this is not a safe environment for writers. Journalists have called for solidarity. Many groups, such as #LinkYourLife offer private safe space on Facebook with member rules to protect the space and moderators to encourage participation. Carrot Ranch is an open literary community. Most writers participate in multiple social media platforms and write blog posts, articles or literary submissions. We express our thoughts and our thoughts are informed by what we experience and read or observe.
Yet, doing so makes writers vulnerable. What was intimate in our hearts and minds becomes words on a page. When we share those words publicly, we can’t control the reaction of others. Something as simple as an encouraging quote or an expressed opinion can receive negative feedback. Recently I posted a quote from Langston Hughes and endured a vitriolic debate from someone on Facebook who inappropriately associated the quote to an offensive art exhibit. And yet, I defended artists having the freedom of expression. It felt ironic because I didn’t feel so free in expressing myself. Another writer posted a political meme and was trolled on her Facebook page. Another writer wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that created a media storm complete with public shaming from Bill O’Reilly and death threats.
So how do writers stay safe yet continue to write?
Know your boundaries. Find safe groups where you feel welcome and comfortable. Have a crisis plan. If you are new to blogging and are journaling personal thoughts and feelings, you can keep your blog private until you feel ready to share. Use your comfort to share as your cue. Sometimes, in order to grow, we have to expand beyond our safety zones, and being scared does not mean you are helpless. Set your boundaries on your social media and craft rules of what you will tolerate (you can block and report). I tolerated the vitriol on my FB because I want my posts to be public (part of my writer’s platform) and I knew the offender (my Hub’s opinionated cousin). The writer who was trolled on Facebook thought she could learn from opposing opinions, but it became clear it was an organized attack (by people she didn’t know) and she blocked them. The Washington Post writer rode out the storm with the help of her publicist.
Before negative remarks send you into a crisis, have a plan: don’t engage with anyone who makes you feel unsafe; know how to block and report offenders; reach out to moderators; adjust your level of sharing.
As someone who leads a literary community, safe space means a place where our writing is not critiqued in the normal academic way of tearing down. Trolls would never be an issue here and that is why I have tight security on my comment feed. It can be annoying when comments or pingbacks delay or even get lost but it’s worth keeping the space here safe from undue criticism. We also have some basic rules at Carrot Ranch which are always linked. In the three years we’ve been flashing as a community, only once did I have to send an email to an inappropriate commentor, and the writers never saw the comment. Of course, we are not the Washington Post or The New Yorker, but it’s important for writers to know that having a safe zone to practice creative writing — raw literature — is a priority at Carrot Ranch.
Each week we focus on writing flash fiction as play, the way musicians get together and jam. Writers often comment and the focus is on what is engaging in the flash, or craft techniques that worked well. A safe place for literary art practices appreciative inquiry to build upon a writer’s strengths. A safe place expresses adult ideas in content, and we keep them to the level of: would you share this with your boss. If not, give a content warning, post it on your own blog and link to it in the comments. It’s never been a problem to date, but worth explaining that there is a process for sharing extreme content.
Ultimately Carrot Ranch is a safe place for writers from diverse backgrounds to share across genres, topics and national origin. Literary art is the common ground for diversity.
Even fiction explores objective truth. In fact, fiction is most powerful when it clearly expresses truth. Just because we live in uncertain times does not mean we have to be uncertain about what we write. Perhaps we are called to be more mindful of what we write, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Safety is a reasonable concern. It’s my greatest hope you come here to write because you feel safe in expressing yourself in raw literature among this literary community. We learn from different perspectives and we grow when we dare to be brave.
It’s a new era, today. Hone your voice and write on.
A Note about the artwork: Hear Our Voice is by artist, Liz Donovan and is a free download from the Women’s March on Washington. The purpose is to amplify the messages women bring to the march. I’ll be marching on Saturday in a Sister March, holding a sign made from this artwork. My body guard and faithful dog march with me.
I’m a member and co-moderator of the Link Your Life group on Facebook which is a safe place to share writing links. The LYL Mod Squad has joined forces today to reflect upn what safe space does and doesn’t mean. Here’s the complete list:
Heavy Lifting: Accountability, ego and a safe team environment, By Shawna Ayoub Ainslie
What Is a Safe Space? by Drew Sheldon
What an Online safe space is and isn’t by Stacia Fleegal
Why this one life hack will change your life forever, by Raymond Baxter
The importance of safe spaces and how to understand them better – Link Your Life, by Charlotte Farhan
Harmony, by Rachel A. Hanson
How bringing others in improves healing and progress, by Thomas Ives