Creativity is Creativity is Creativity

Image of a light bulb breaking and the text "Creativity is creativity is creativity"

What does it mean to be creative? Is creativity earned? Does it have to be worked at? How important is it in your writing? Five working creatives–a musician, a dancer, a poet, a non-fiction writer, and a visual artist–gather to talk about their process, their triumphs, their struggles, and the ways that they use creativity and it uses them. Famed author Margaret Atwood says the biggest misconception about creativity is to think only geniuses have it. At Writespace, we completely agree. Join us to listen and be inspired about your own.

Join me! I’ll be talking about creativity and my creative process in writing Protectress at this fantastic panel sponsored by Writespace on 23 January 2021.

Tickets are $10-50 (pay what you can) and are available at Eventbrite.

Where am I? Jan-Feb 2021

Upcoming talks and workshops:

23 January, 4-6 pm CST: Writespace Panel: Creatives on Creativity, with author Karleen Koen (moderator), Dr. Tony Medina (Creative Writing, Howard University), Kay Sarver (visual artist, blogger, co-owner of Houston’s Archway Gallery), Adam Castañeda (dancer and choreographer, Pilot Dance Project), and author Karen Celestan.

9 February, “Navigating the Antebellum South in Silent Film,” Washburn University.

13, 20, and 27 February: Writing Local Workshop through Writespace: Have you ever wanted to write about the stories from your home town or another specific place you’ve been to or lived in? The history of that Art Deco building and the people who lived in it, or maybe how your city coped during World War I? Maybe you want to dig in to local history to add detail to a story you’ve already begun, or want to make sure your characters are using the right kinds of slang. In this workshop, we’ll investigate tools and techniques for writing about local history, whether from a non-fiction, fiction, or poetic point of view. You’ll learn how to use free online resources to find information from newspapers, census records, and other documents, as well as small museums, local historical societies, and other places. We’ll talk about creating characters that are in keeping with their localities, including how they speak, interact with others, and participate in local customs. This workshop is open to students from anywhere, writing about any place!

18-21 Feb, “Nostalgia and Cultural Memory in Music for The General (1927),” Historical Fiction Research Network conference. I’m giving this paper one more academic outing to get feedback from a non-musicology audience before I begin reworking it into an article.

I’ll also be at the MLA Digital Project Showcase (7 Jan) and at the Opera America conference on New Music (26 Jan).

What’s next?

I’m beginning to plot my new scholarly project and figure out how to balance it with my creative work. I need to keep in mind that I have no deadlines for the scholarly project, and that it can develop as slowly or quickly as I want and can handle. I’m not going to seek out a traditional publisher for it–I’m very happy with the way my last book, Music for the Kingdom of Shadows: Cinema Accompaniment in the Age of Spiritualism, turned out using open peer review and Humanities Commons. I’m trying to learn to work at a new pace in which I do a better job of taking my chronic illness into account. Right now I feel pretty stable, having spent the last year trying various treatments for lupus/mixed connective tissue disease. I’m on a combination of medications that seem to be helping; and I just had radiofrequency ablation of my right occipital nerve for severe occipital neuralgia and am hoping that it will provide pain relief for the next several months.

There are so many projects I want to take on, but I’m increasingly aware of my own limitations and the human life span. I’ve got a spreadsheet full of scholarly ideas if anyone wants them–I know I won’t get to them all. I’m also aware that some of the projects I’d love to do should be done by other scholars. So as much as I’d love to work on composer Julia Perry, I think that as a white woman, I’m not the ideal person. I have PDFs of lots of her scores & would be happy to share/assist with anyone interested in her and her work. The same is true for composers Amanda Aldridge and Dorothy Rudd Moore. I’m eager to read what others write about all of them.


Book reviews: Best of 2020

The past year’s 5-star books from Net Galley.

Bear, Elizabeth. Machine.
Bojalian, Chris. Hour of the Witch.
Brooks, Max. Devolution.
Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338).
Burdick, Serena. Find Me in Havana.
Campisi, Megan. Sin Eater.
Carlton, Susan Kaplan. In the Neighborhood of True.
Figueroa, Jamie. Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer
Forna, Namina. The Gilded Ones.
Foxfire Fund, Inc. Foxfire Story.
Harris, Charlaine. The Russian Cage.
Hobson, Brandon. The Removed.
Johnson, Jeremy Robert. The Loop.
Jones, Cherie. How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House.
Kampmann, Anja. High as the Waters Rise.
Kelly, Martha Hall. Sunflower Sisters.
Kern, Sim. Depart, Depart!
Khadra, Yasmina. Khalil.
Kingfisher, T. The Hollow Places.
Lemberg, R. B. The Four Profound Weaves.
von Lucadou, Julia . The High-Rise Diver.
Meek, James. To Calais, In Ordinary Time.
Moreno-Garcia, Silvia. Mexican Gothic.
Murphy, Sara Flannery. Girl One.
Roanhorse, Rebecca. Black Sun.
Serizawa, Asako. Inheritors.
Strahan, Jonathan. The Year’s Best Science Fiction Vol. 1.
Stewart, Amy. Dear Miss Kopp.
Tudor, C. J. The Burning Girls.
Vaughn, Carrie. Kitty’s Mix-Tape.
Yu, E. Lily. On Fragile Waves.

A History of Magic, Witchcraft, and the Occult. 5/5
Macdonald, Helen. Vesper Flights
Rubio, Salva, Pedro J. Colombo,and Aintzane Landa. The Photographer of Mauthausen.
Thomas, Rhonda Robinson. Call My Name, Clemson.
Wells, Stanley. Shakespeare’s Complete Sonnets.

Reviews: secrets, journeys, history

Dearest Josephine by Caroline George. 1/5
Not my cup of tea. The characters’ immaturity, oblivious consumption of material goods, and overall privilege turned me off immediately. The language of their emails was laughable and entirely unrealistic, and the author’s epistolary format feels forced and awkward. The story lines move slowly, and there are a lot of problems with historical accuracy. I think the target market is teens, but if I were a teen, I’d be embarrassed to read something that makes people my age seem so shallow and silly.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. 5/5
This is a devastating account of a family trying to make it from Indonesia to Australia, by boat, by plane, by truck–all on false passports and carrying the heavy weight of fear. Once the family–parents, a daughter, and a son–are confined to a camp for immigrants, where the full horrors of such places is exposed though the eyes and voices of children, who must watch their parents lose hope and voluntarily sedate themselves. Each victory seems to be dashed afterwards, leaving everyone uncertain and frightened. Poetic and compelling, Yu’s novel is an important read for just about everyone living in our modern world, with its deportations and detainments and the separation of families.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. 5/5
This is a super book, a thoughtful meditation on technology and the media and identity and the power of women’s friendships and support for one another. Josephine and her sisters and an unlikely ally set out on an emotionally difficult and physically dangerous quest to locate Josephine’s mother; this turns into a mystery involving deception and the twisting of the truth and some very long car rides and a lovely romance. Given the issues of reproduction, sexuality, and gender roles and power that are the heart of the book, I think this will be a great choice for book clubs and literature classes.

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce. 3/5
I enjoyed this quick-paced historical novel set in 1920s Chicago among nightclubs and dancers and musicians, as well as organized crime figures and thugs. I’d like the framework to have been more robust and realistic: we don’t get a lot of information on Micheaux or exactly what the grad student protagonist is doing with is dissertation/documentary, and having that background and info would have helped make the story much more solid. There were some other glaring gaps in the making sense department, mostly in terms of character behavior, that suggest to me that the book could use one more careful edit before going to press. Overall, though, it will appeal to a wide range of readers.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones.5/5
This is a brutal indictment of how poverty begets violence, and violence begets poverty, and how the culture of violent, controlling masculinity damages not just those who experience the brunt of it but also the society at large that surrounds and feeds it. Jones’s novel delves deeply into the history of Barbados–its status as a colonized location and culture–and the history and functions of race and class and gender on the island. Nearly all of the characters have experienced trauma that informs their lives, and much of the plot relies on how each has coped–or not coped–with these traumas. Jones’s voice is clear and original and she is an excellent storyteller, and I think this will become essential reading in Caribbean literature.

Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly. 5/5
I really enjoyed this tightly plotted novel set during the Civil War that entwines the lives of abolitionist sisters in the North, a family of enslaved people on a Southern plantation, the spying plantation owner, and a large cast of supporting characters. Drawing on historical documents including the letters of the sisters, Kelly creates a rich and fascinating tapestry of how different women were involved in the War and how the War affected them. Kelly writes with sensitivity and realism about nursing, and the medical treatment of Civil War combatants; plantation work and its processes; how escaped enslaved people made their escapes and and were assisted along the way to freedom and how that freedom could be reified or snatched away; how social mores and attitudes changed over the course of the War; and how spycraft worked during the period. My only quibble is with the title, which cites a relatively small detail in the novel and makes it seem much lighter than it is.

The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor. 5/5
This is a great little thriller with excellent twists. The characters are solid and feel very real, and the tensions supernatural belief and modern religion, parent-child love and romantic love, and secret-keeping and the duty to reveal truths are all compelling and create a welcome complexity to the story. If you like folklore, history, mystery, and/or coming of age stories, this is the book for you.

Reviews: Charlaine Harris, women’s history, and new horror

Queens of the Crusades by Alison Weir. 4/5
Written in Weir’s now well-known informative voice, this tome covers the lives of powerful women of the Plantagenet dynasty: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria of Navarre; Isabella of Angoulême; Alienor of Provence; and Eleanor of Castile. While Eleanor of Aquitaine has had countless books written about her, it was refreshing to read one focused on the effects of the Crusades in her life, and I enjoyed learning more about the other women Weir includes in the book. For Weir’s fans, this will be a treat; for other readers seeking recent popular writing on the Plantagenets, it will also be a go-to book. Historians will argue with some sources and presentations.

Hijab And Red Lipstick by Yousra Imran. 1/5
This memoir is chatty but plodding, and there’s so much of the author not learning from her own past and not thinking about her actions that she became more irritating than sympathetic. I sympathize with women stuck in abusive cultures dominated by men, but there’s nothing in this particular book that offered any new insights or information about the culture in Saudi Arabia.

The Green and the Black by William Meikle. 2/5
With a good bit of editing and the removal of a LOT of adjectives and adverbs, this could be a good horror story. It has a lot of overlaps with Swamp Thing, though, to the extent that I’d be worried about copyright infringement. I did like many of the details, although the way the group behaved and spoke to one another was not terribly realistic, nor was the way archaeology was depicted.

Lurkers by Sandi Tan. 1/5
I can’t tell if this is a satire or not. In the beginning, we’re introduced to the terrible writing of a Korean pastor in the US. What follows could be his terrible stories. Are they supposed to be? Are they not? Everyone in the book is disaffected; they engage in risky behaviors for no apparent reason–in fact, most of what everyone does is for no reason. It’s a poorly-told tale of slightly overlapping lives of people who are all just total assholes.

The Empty Cell by Paulette Alden. 2/5
Oh, this started off so well! The beginning–depicting the lynching of a Black man in the American South–is strong and attention-grabbing and nuanced, and tightly written. But the drama of the beginning doesn’t continue. The author uses the lynching and trial as points of departure for multiple characters: a young woman, her gay father, a poor and abused Black woman. But these characters fall into stereotypes, and their lives become cliched rather than revelatory. Alma, a Black woman who helped raise the man who was lynched, leaves her abusive husband and goes to New York in search of a better life, but there too she’s abused and becomes an alcoholic, finally returning to the South in shame. Betsy leaves the South for New York where she has a Black lover; her attraction is complicated with white fragility and their relationship falls apart. This comes across like the author expects us to find their relationship daring and bold, but it’s just dysfunctional. Betsy’s father slowly emerges from the closet but it’s made very clear that he’s neither one of those “limp-wristed gays” nor interested in rough trade, no, he’s still a “man,” meaning: he passes for straight and that’s a good thing. Despite its opening, which promised a thoughtful novel about race, instead this book is a retread of Peyton Place.

The Weak Spot by Lucie Elven. 1/5
This is a book that wants to be a Wes Anderson movie, but lacks the awkward fleeting charm of even the bad ones. It tries very hard to be quirky and sinister and odd and beguiling, but it’s just rather dull. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their woes and observations are mundane; everyone kind of slumps around flaccidly.

The Children’s Blizzard by Melanie Benjamin. 2/2
Did I just read this author call a Black person “dusky”? Come on. And did she title this book the exact same thing as a non-fiction account she used for reference? Yes, she did. The setting is enormously compelling and while the characters are rather two-dimensional, the plot, focusing on the events before, during, and after a horrific blizzard in Nebraska, isn’t terrible. I do think the whole thing should get a disability sensitivity read regarding limb difference and a race sensitivity read before it gets published, this will probably appeal to a wide swath of readers.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer by Jamie Figueroa. 5/5
Reading this is like watching an ornate and color-drenched panorama of personal drama and tragedy and love and resignation circle around you. It’s horrifying and joyous and moving and about survival and how dysfunctional families and lives can lead to self-sufficiency and resilience and at the same time cause depression and something that goes even beyond depression into death-like living. Highly recommended.

Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin. 3/5
This elegant and odd book is a bit of an enigma: there’s little plot but plenty of lovely description; interesting characters whose stories stop abruptly; and the author introduces a wonderful idea about how time layers itself onto place, but ultimately limits her use of it. Ultimately, this is a bit like a dream, and perhaps that’s what the author intended: specific details nestled inside a flimsier form. Anyone who has ever been captivated by the stories of the women visiting Versailles who claimed to have seen Marie Antoinette’s retinue in the 19th century or Jack Finney’s novels about time will probably enjoy this.

Burying the Dead by Lorraine Evans. 2/5
This book is on a fascinating topic, but it’s not well-written to the point where I nearly gave up. The author’s writing is disorganized on both the macro (paragraph) and micro (sentence) level. If you’re looking for an overview or burial practices around the world, I suppose it might offer some useful information, but for the vast majority of the cultures, practices, and sites included in the book, you’ll find better-written information on Wikipedia.

The Canterbury Murders by E.M. Powell. 3/5
A nice mystery set amidst the rebuilding of Canterbury Cathedral in 1177. I enjoyed the period detail and information, which was good for setting the scene but never overwhelming or too heavy-handed. The characters were well-developed and despite no having read the other books in this series, it was easy to pick up their relationship and history. The denouement felt a bit forced, but overall it was an enjoyable read.

The High-Rise Diver by Julia von Lucadou. 5/5
This is aa elegant and harrowing story of a dystopian world in which career success is all–quite literally–and in which quitting a job, dealing with burnout, or wanting a different life than what has been prescribed for you is unthinkable. Your job performance determines where you live, who you can date, what you eat, and more. This sounds like it’s heavy-handed, but it never is: Lucadou deftly creates a world with delicate strands of information and description, weaving a complex, shimmering picture of a terrifying world.

The Inland Sea by Madeleine Watts. 4/5
This is a scorching account of what it is like to be young, uncertain of one’s self, and moored in the climate crisis. The narrator seeks meaning and the ability to communicate through writing, but depression and a sense of nihilism send her into unfulfilling relationships, casual sex, and a steadily declining sense that life is worth living. And she’s not entirely wrong: when the country is on fire and no one seems to care, what do you do?

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338) by Octavia Butler. 5/5
This is an essential volume in anyone’s collection of speculative fiction. These are some of Butler’s very best works, and also serve as an accessible entry into her writing. Kindred in particular should be on every high school reading list. I’m delighted to see this collection and hope that the rest of her books will receive the same treatment.

The Lost Village by Camilla Sten. 4/5
I really enjoyed this novel, a mix of psychological horror, the gothic, and physical danger. However, it contains a serious problem in the description of Brigitta: intellectually disabled, developmentally disabled, and non-vocal people are not “children in an adult body.” This is a pretty awful misconception, and I strongly urge the author and publisher to remove this ableist description of the character. Change this, and it would be a 5-star review.

Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick. 5/5
A beautifully-written and compelling novel based on a true story, this book will appeal to all kinds of readers. Estelita Rodriguez’s life is fascinating and tragic, and here author Burdick uses information from her interviews with Rodriguez’s daughter Nina to create a dialogue between mother and daughter that is honest and painful and revealing. Writing a novel about real people is difficult, and can often end up trite or superficial, but Burdick does an outstanding job of making this very real story meaningful and moving.

Dryad Vol. 1 by Kurtis Wiebe. 3/5
I liked this first installment of a new series. Dryad is action-packed, and the characters are interesting and complex. It’s got a heavy Saga vibe to it, but I think that as the story develops, it’ll become more independent–the seeds for originality are already there. The visual elements are great–I really enjoy the contrast between locations and factions. I’ll be looking for more of this.

Hex by Fran Hodgkins. 3/5
I loved the idea of this book–a girl learns how to make enchanted hex signs from her grandmother, and finds that magic has a cost, that even with magic she can’t control everything, and that communities need collaborative strength. But the writing isn’t polished, the plotting is obvious and jerky, and it needs a round of developmental editing to make it really shine.

Shapers of Worlds by Edward Willett. 2/5
I really wanted to like this collection, but although it’s got top-notch authors, most of the stories were duds. It’s as if someone had swept up the dullest pieces by each author and gathered them here. Many of the stories seem to have been dashed off by authors as filler for other books or magazines–I didn’t feel that any of them built or shaped much of a new world. A few had bits and pieces of interesting ideas or language or characters, but overall, this isn’t a collection I’d recommend.

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian. 5/5
This is a delicious book, full of fantastic detail and beautiful writing. Set in Boston in 1662, we follow the life of Mary Deerfield, a formidable young woman who seeks a better life for herself, first through legal means and then through careful and meticulous plotting and planning. The author deftly creates the world of the Puritans in North America, their beliefs and everyday lives and language, and offers up complex characters with realistic internal conflicts and desires. The novel explores power and social hierarchies, gender and sexuality, and the relationship between religion and abuse. Highly recommended.

The Comfort of Distance by Ryburn Dobbs. 1/5
Ah yes, another thriller featuring an awkward/autistic/neurodiverse genius. The over-fetishization of the main character’s “different/difficult” brain/behavior made me want to throw my Kindle across the room. The author’s technique, too, of using plain language for most characters and then switching to flowerier language for the protagonist was both painful and hilarious. We autistics and folks with anxiety don’t go around thinking of animals making noises stentoriously, and listening to Wagner is hardly a positive characteristic for anyone, not a marker of any kind of higher intelligence or rarefied tastes, And the behavior of other characters is laughable–it’s like the author has never spoken to therapists, police officers, or anyone else about what it is they actually do or how they do their jobs. This novel needed a heavy developmental edit, a sensitivity read or three, and a big rewrite.

Lore by Alexandra Bracken. 1/5
A lot of YA seems to be focused on immortal figures and/or youth who are trained to kill one another to protect their families; Lore is certainly well within this genre. While some of these are ok stories–because the characters are multidimensional, Lore is not. It’s boring. The characters aren’t particularly compelling, and the language is often stilted and at odds with itself–one moment trying to be current and fresh, then ext portentous and speaking of “the ancient tongue” and other cringe-worthy constructions. The action drags, and the gods–or their mortal forms–come across like villains from low-budget 70s movies. And there are other issues. Lore’s BFF is a “magical Negro.” None of the women in the houses or bloodlines ever rose up against the misogyny and abuse? Why is anyone accepting the idea of “bastardy” in the 21st century? Why isn’t Lore at least a little smarter? Why is the plot and info about it so repetitive? Why did I spend the time to finish this? I don’t know, but I can tell you: don’t bother.

Escape Pod: The Science Fiction Anthology by S.B. Divya; Mur Lafferty; N.K. Jemisin; Cory Doctorow; Ken Liu. 3/5
A mixed bag of short pieces, drawn from the archives of the podcast Escape Pod. Some of these were familiar–they’ve been widely reprinted–and others were new. I enjoyed the stories by Cato, which was quite clever, Kowal, Kingfisher, and Jemisin, but a good many of the others were just meh.

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. 2/5
This was a bit of a disappointment. I think the author is trying to make a bigger statement than she actually does–and the topic of women’s words and language is a very important topic! But her unwillingness to create real, lasting tension anywhere in the book diminishes the ideas she’s trying to communicate through the novel; problems are easily resolved with little fuss, unpleasant characters who cause problems disappear without much of an impact, the protagonist lives in a comfortable bubble–when the narrator does begin to address class and inequality, she draws away without much engagement. And the very end came as a rather nasty blow, with its hailing of white colonialism as a savior of indigenous Australian languages without noting the immense problems rooted in that attitude.

The Russian Cage by Charlaine Harris. 5/5
Charlaine Harris never fails to delight me. In this novel, the third to feature gunslinger-for-hire Lizbeth Rose, Lizbeth heads to the Holy Russian Empire–San Diego, to be precise–to spring her lover Eli Savarov from jail. But the job is complicated by politics, families, magic, and the fact that Lizbeth can’t legally carry guns in the Empire. I loved the development of returning characters, particularly Lizbeth’s sister Felicia, and the wonderful new characters who inhabit this book, Eli’s mother and sisters especially. Lizbeth’s voice is honest and plain and Harris’s storytelling is gold. Readers will probably want to read the previous two novels featuring Lizbeth before this one, as it relies pretty heavily on the events of the earlier books, but I do think it can stand alone as long as readers are willing to enjoy the ride and look into Lizbeth and Eli’s past adventures later.