Finding Inspiration

As a person who thrives on creative energy, I’m always intrigued by what inspires people to create art. I’ve been inspired to write poems by just a single word. There have been buildings, names and experiences that inspired my writing (including the novel I’m currently working on). There is just something invigorating and phenomenal about the fact that a tiny seed — a thought, an idea, a vision — can spur someone to create art that amazes, entertains and inspires.

Just like 96.99997% of people out there, I am a fan of Beyoncé‘s music. By no means am I one of her crazed stans, but I do enjoy her music…well most of her music. There are some songs of Beyoncé’s that I just don’t like. (Sorry, people.) Some songs of hers seem to come off as manufactured, formulaic, uninspired fluff. Beyoncé and her creative team of collaborators undoubtedly have their fingers on the pulse of whatever’s hot at the moment. Now that’s not a bad thing. But I have a greater appreciation for art that is organic, and not borne out of a trend or some commercial objective. There’s a distinct difference between “art for art’s sake” and art fueled by profit. I know I’m probably going to incite the wrath of a few stans, but Beyoncé’s proven that she’s a master of manufacturing wildly successful commercial radio-friendly hits. New York Magazine’s Amos Barshad seems somewhat disappointed that this time around she wasn’t trying to go the hit-making route. I am glad she didn’t. When I read about the what inspired her to create her latest album, 4, something clicked with me.

In a recent interview in Essence magazine, Beyoncé said she took a year off from music to live her life and be inspired by the world around her. She said that by working with the musicians from Fela!, the Tony-award winning Broadway musical her hubby Jay-Z produced, that she allowed herself to get lost in the music. “What I learned most from Fela,” she said, “was artistic freedom.”

I loved the fact that she stepped away from the commercial music machine to “have life experiences” to inspire her new project.  “Having time to grow as a human being was really inspiring, and gave me a lot to pull from,” she told Essence.

(If I may digress here, I do believe that Beyoncé severing professional ties with her father, the Machiavellian Mathew Knowles, was the best thing she’s ever done for her career. I’d like to think that with her father no longer ruining managing her has contributed to the artistic freedom that was the guiding force on her new project. And now back to our regularly scheduled program…)

Listening to 4, I can feel Beyoncé’s newfound artistic freedom. The fact alone that she wanted her project to have “vibrata, live instrumentation and classic songwriting” (as told to Complex mag) was enough to make impress me. Yeah, I know she doesn’t singlehandedly write her own music, but she contributes to the making of her music, and she served as executive producer for this project. There’s something beautifully raw and honest about 4. To me, it doesn’t come off as a bunch of gimmicky, pre-fabbed hits. It sounds like it’s just music for music’s sake. And I like that.

And speaking of inspiration, Beyoncé’s “Love OnTop”, an infectious up-tempo song with a distinct old school vibe, inspired Heather Traska (@heathertraska on Twitter) to do a mind-blowing a cappella version of the song. Check it out here:

My Multiple Personalities…

I have a confession to make. I am a madwoman.

I have another confession to make. I’m an architect and a carpenter, too.

And even though I don’t have a law degree. I’m also a judge.

It’s all very true.

You see, as a writer, I like to create with reckless abandon. I like to put characters on the page, move them around, give them words to say, thoughts to think. I give them dreams then I might crush them. I create worlds for my characters, sketching out visions in words. Sometimes I go to extremes, creating lavish settings or paltry spaces depending on what I want.

It’s a beautiful thing to write freely. Writing without being tethered to guidelines and restrictions allows for maximum creativity. For me, writing with such abandon is probably the most enjoyable part of the writing process.

According to the Flowers Paradigm created by Betty Sue Flowers, I am in touch with my madman (madwoman, as I prefer to call her). Flowers, who taught English at University of Texas at Austin, says that the madman is full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily, gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger, and if really let loose, could turn out ten pages an hour.”

But the madman competes with other characters during the writing process, and many times, that conflicting energy brings us to an unpleasant halt. Sometimes my madwoman gets stopped in her tracks, and I get a case of the “red pen-itis” and start striking words. The sketch of my masterpiece isn’t even done and I’m already desecrating it before it’s even done. When that happens, my madwoman gets really pissed. Indignant, even. Before I know it, my architect with her nosy self shows up, trying move things along.

The Flowers Paradigm explains that there are four personalities that show up during the writing process: the madman, the architect, the carpenter and the judge. I’ve already introduced you to the madwoman, the one that writes all the great ideas and crazy stuff. Then there’s the architect that takes the great and crazy ideas and structures it to try to make some sense. The carpenter takes the plans developed by the architect to build the masterpiece. Finally, the judge shows up and gives your writing a careful review, polishing up the grammar and syntax, making sure everything is perfect.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’m very much in touch with my madwoman. We hang out often. If you haven’t connected with your inner madwoman (or madman), now’s the time to embrace her. Take her to lunch. Give her time to go wild on the page. Let her do whatever it is she wants. Don’t question or criticize. When your madwoman is completely out of steam, let her go take a nap, or get a drink. Or ice cream (if she’s not lactose-intolerant). Celebrate her accomplishment. Be sure not to invite the architect, or carpenter or judge yet. They’ll set the madwoman off and kill the mood for sure. Trust me, I speak from experience.

After your madwoman is satiated, invite your architect over for coffee. Show them what your madwoman has done. Then let them get to work. They’ll take everything, create a blueprint for the carpenter to work from. Trust them to get the job done. Now’s not the time to let the madwoman sneak back in and cause a bunch of ruckus. I’ve done that before and all she does is kick the architect out and take over. Before I know it, I’ll have pages and pages of great ideas, but nothing close to a finished product. If you find yourself in that situation, give your madwoman a notebook and a pen and tell her to go sit down somewhere.

Once the architect has finished, thank them for their work, and escort them out the door. Now it’s time for the carpenter to come over and get to work. Your carpenter is fully capable of building a masterpiece with the architect’s blueprint. Trust them. They will build just what you envisioned.

So now, your piece is finished. It’s built. You like it. Time for the judge to review your work thoroughly and carefully. They will give it the polish it needs, and then make a ruling letting you know that you’re done. Case closed.

It’s important to recognize these different personalities and give them space when appropriate, or suppress them when they’re not needed. Understanding these roles, and working with them will improve the writing process. Flowers wrote, “Whatever joy there is in the writing process can come only when the energies are flowing freely — when you’re not stuck.”

Gotta go. My madwoman is calling…

Worse Than A Dark and Stormy Night…

Bad writing makes you do this.

“Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.” – Sue Fondrie

Full of hyperbole and overwrought with dramatic imagery, Sue Fondrie’s opening line has won her top honors from the fine folks who run the Bulwer-Lytton Contest. This contest, established in 1983, was named for Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the man who tormented the world of literature with what is probably the most horrific first sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night…”

The Bulwer-Lytton Contest, which was started by San Jose State University professor Scott Rice, celebrates (in jest) bad writing gone horribly wrong.

Fondrie, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been included in the “Lyttony” of past years’ winners. You can check out their horrifically wretched sentences, many of which will have you laughing, crying or cringing…or maybe churning your mind like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine.

Don’t try this at home, folks.


Source: Poets & Writers Magazine

Plate Sharing

When I decided to get off my duff and start my blog, I turned to my dear friend, fellow writer, my Twitter brother, graphic designer and Broadway star Clay Rivers for advice. Clay has his own blog (which is magnificent and a must-read, by the way), so I figured he’d be the ideal person to help me navigate the blogging waters.

Over a series of tweets, DMs (that’s direct messages for you non-Twitter types) and emails, I shared with him a few ideas for my blog. As is typical of most creative geniuses, Clay told me he’d take what I had given him and get back to me with something. I shared with Clay that my experience as a blogger fizzled when the old school AOL Journal went out of style and out of business. (Side note and shameless self-promotion: my two now-dormant blogs The Cicada Files and The Carb Lover’s Notebook are still out there.)

Clay (Dr. Rivers as I like to call him) created a blog that captured my style and my personality. He did all of the grueling work in WordPress to get it set up for me. Then he told me he had an idea for a custom header. Custom header? Shoot, I was happy to just have a blog.

Then one hectic Saturday afternoon, I got a phone call. It was Clay. He had another idea. Considering that I am unashamedly obsessed with breakfast food (hence the “Writer. Teacher. Breakfast Food Maker” tag line), he thought it would be cool to use the header to “set the table” for my blog. He asked me if I was game. Of course I was! It turns out that Clay had a photographer friend in NYC (the fantastically gifted Russ Rowland) who he said could bring this idea to fruition. I trusted that what he would come back with something that would be brilliant.

The end result wasn’t just brilliant. It was delicious. And cute! It was perfect.

Thank you, Clay & Russ!

Bon Appétit!

Photography by Russ Rowland

The Art of Giving Back

A few years ago, I stumbled upon an article about a writing workshop for ex-offenders in Baltimore’s City Paper that caught my interest. There was something folksy and raw about this grassroots workshop that brought together experienced writers and those looking to find their voice as they re-entered society. Many of the program’s participants had stories to tell about their lives beyond life behind bars and barbed wire. The name of the workshop — Writing Outside the Fence — seemed fitting. After reading the article, a sense of urgency swept over me. I had to be a part of this effort.

My mother instilled the “giving back” mentality in my younger sister and me while we were growing up. As children, we volunteered at church sorting and folding clothes for the needy, or helping out with the church’s soup kitchen. Instead of teaching us to pity the images of the destitute and the homeless on the TV screen, my mom took us out to see what homelessness looked like on the streets of Baltimore. We met orphaned children at a local shelter. We took sandwiches and coffee to men and women living on the city streets, under bridges and in alleyways. I learned a very sobering lesson about life at a very young age.

Reading the article about this writing workshop brought back memories of my experience as a literacy tutor at church. It was humbling for me, then in high school, to sit with men and women old enough to be my grandparents and help them learn to recoqnize letters, numbers and simple words. When they were able to read that first sentence aloud on their own, and write sentences for the first time, their sense of pride brought tears to my eyes. I had taken the letters and the words they were struggling to learn for granted.

And so, on a muggy afternoon in June of 2007, I headed downtown to Enoch Pratt Library‘s Central Branch for a reading by the participants in the Writing Outside the Fence workshop. I had to meet these people. Both the instructors and the participants were rock stars in my mind. I wanted to be a part of this effort to help those struggling to find and hone their voice.

Their writing blew me away. One after the other, they stood up to read powerful, beautifully-written pieces about life, love, loss, hope, darkness, regret, redemption and God. The creative energy in the room gave me a buzz. I wanted to sit in on the next workshop (which is open to the public, by the way). After the reading I introduced myself to the workshop organizer and told her as much. “That’s wonderful, she replied. “But we’re looking for instructors. Would you be interested?” I didn’t feel like I could contribute anything by teaching a workshop. But she asked me to give it a try.

I’m glad I did.

I’ve been involved in the Writing Outside the Fence workshops for four years now. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience. In addition to the weekly writing workshops (held on Tuesday at the Re-Entry Center at Mondawmin Mall), we’ve held several workshops and reading events at the Brock Bridge correctional facility in Jessup. I can look beyond the records and rap sheets and see the stories, the potential and the untapped talent that reside in the hearts of these men and women. Everyone has a story to tell, and no matter who you are, what you’ve done or where you’ve come from, everyone deserves to be heard.

Since becoming a part of the WOTF family, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for writing and for the power of words on the page. I’ve probably learned much more than I’ve taught in the past four years. There is a beauty in helping others breathe life into their thoughts and ideas in order unleash their stories waiting to be told.

Baltimore Book Festival – Sept. 23-25

Mark your calendars for September 23-25, the dates for the 16th Annual Baltimore Book Festival! This is one of the premiere literary festivals in the country, featuring many of the best and brightest authors from across the country.

I absolutely love the Baltimore Book Festival. It’s held in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in all of Baltimore: Mount Vernon. The mid-September weather usually is just right, not too hot and not too cool.

The lineup for this year’s festival includes: Sherman Alexie, Common, Tananarive Due, Kimberla Lawson Roby, Laura Lippman, Roland Martin, Terry McMillan, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Tavis Smiley, Alice Walker and many more.

If you’re interested in being a part of the behind-the-scenes action at this year’s Baltimore Book Festival, you can sign up to volunteer with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts. For aspiring writers, it’s a great way to get immersed in the literary world (and network with other writers, too).

It’s a shame that both the Baltimore Book Festival and the National Book Festival (sponsored by the Library of Congress) are on the same weekend. But if you can manage to make both events, you won’t regret it. However, if you can’t, don’t worry. Several authors, including Terry McMillan and Sherman Alexie, will be appearing at both festivals.


Me and my fellow BOPA volunteers with former Minnesota governor and author Jesse Ventura.