Creative Paradox: Writers Who Think Inside the Box

AWP Tess CallahanHonored to have my thoughts on creativity shared in the September 2017 AWP Writer’s Notebook. Inspiration drawn from writing contortionists Jennifer Egan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Haruki Murakami, Mary Oliver and George Saunders. They leave me breathless. You can find the article here.

 

Indie Bookstore Road Trip Reaches Loganberry Books

indie bookstore road tripOur cross country indie bookstore road trip brought us to the doorstep of the amazing Loganberry Books. What a surprise to step into this independently owned and operated shop to find its inviting spaces unfold like rooms in a dream. Just when you think this library-like bookstore of over 100,000 volumes could not be any larger, another archway appears, welcoming you a reading nook with a beckoning armchair.

Located in the historic Larchmere neighborhood of Cleveland, Loganberry Books has been offering new, used and rare books of all genres to readers and collectors for over 30 years. In addition, they offer a full schedule of events to the community including author signings, old time radio shows, discussion groups, open mics and book collecting forums facilitated by the bookstore’s founder, Harriet Logan.  Can’t remember the name of a book? Submit your mystery to the store’s “Stump the Bookseller” blog.

This year in honor of Women’s History Month, Loganberry made a powerful symbolic gesture by flipping every male-authored book in the fiction room so that its spine faced inward, leaving only the female authored titles visible. According to owner Harriet Logan, the result not only revealed the gender gap in publishing, but also brought more focus to works written by women.

My cohort Flannery James and I were gaga for Loganberry. You will be, too.

Indie Bookstore Road Trip Stops at Mac’s Backs on Coventry

Mac's Backs on CoventryOur indie bookstore road trip brought us to Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, a vibrant literary and community hub in the heart of Cleveland Heights. Co-owner Suzanne DeGaetano warmly acquainted us with the shop, offered suggestions of books she loves, and asked us what we were currently reading. We felt instantly at home.

Mac’s Backs began in 1978 when Jim McSherry bought a used bookstore in Chagrin Falls. The store moved briefly to Kent, Ohio before returning to Chagrin Falls where it became a popular book exchange and soon needed to expand to a second location. The Cleveland Heights store managed by Suzanne DeGaetano was opened in 1982 and has since had 3 locations on Coventry Road.

Mac’s began hosting poetry readings when poets Daniel Thompson and Dennis McDonnell needed a new venue for a reading series they sponsored.  The readings have taken place on the 2nd Wednesday each month since 1984. Recent poetry readings featured Chris Franke and Terry Provost.  The store offers a regular book club, (this month they’re reading MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout, a book I enjoyed), staff picks (such as Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jeanette Winterson and Mary Karr), and many signed books.

Fellow writers, you can count on Mac’s Backs to carry three excellent magazines, POETS & WRITERS, WRITER’S DIGEST and WORLD LITERATURE TODAY.

Mac's Backs on CoventryWhen you’ve had your fill of books, stroll to the adjacent Tommy’s Restaurant, owned by Tommy Fello, for excellent food and coffee.

Bookstore Sojourners Discover Chicago’s Famous Indies

Chicago Indie BookstoresOur bookstore odyssey stopover in the Windy City brought us to Barbara’s Bookstore, a powerhouse indie with five locations in the Chicago area and one in Boston. Created over 50 years ago, Barbara’s offers a wide selection of fiction and nonfiction, including Chicago travel guides and history. Their excellent staff picks include SCIENCE IS CULTURE by Adam Bly, UNDER THE DOME by Stephen King, and GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD by a favorite author of mine, Michael Chabon. We visited the East Huron Street location downtown, and in honor of President Obama’s city, picked up one of his recommendations, THE THREE-BODY PROBLEM by Cixin Liu, consumed within 48 hours by my cohort Flannery James, who wholeheartedly seconds President Obama’s endorsement.

The first Barbara’s Bookstore opened on Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood in the early 1960’s. It was a large, shambling, literary bookstore with creaky wood floors and dust dating back to the early 1950’s. The closest thing they had to a computer was a plug-in cash register, pen and paper and a staff that knew every book in the store by heart.

The retail book industry has changed dramatically in the five decades since Barbara’s beginnings. Along the way, Barbara’s discovered they could coexist with the huge national chains and thrive by finding unique locations and creating personal, full-service stores where you don’t expect to find them.

The chain encompasses two types of stores. There are large, neighborhood stores, called Barbara’s Bookstore and the smaller, ‘niche’ stores in high traffic locations like airports and hospitals called Barbara’s Bestsellers.

Barbara’s has earned a reputation in Chicago for high-quality inventory and informed service. They love books. Twice they have been named by the Chicago Tribune as one of the 100 best things about the city. The alternative newspaper, Newcity, has recognized Barbara’s author event schedule as the best in Chicago.

Chicago is home to many excellent longstanding indie bookstores, including Women & Children First specializing in feminist, lesbian, gay and children’s literature, the Seminary Co-op specializing in academic books of literary and scholarly interest, 57th Street Books which offers general interest fiction and nonfiction and children’s books, and Unabridged Bookstore, which features fiction, poetry, travel, LGBTQ and children’s literature. We wish we could visit them all, but alas the road calls. Cleveland, here we come!

Indie Bookstore Travelers Bask in Prairie Lights

Prairie Lights Flannery JamesWhen our indie bookstore cross-country odyssey brought us to the long awaited Prairie Lights in Iowa City, I thought I might not be able to extract my cohort Flannery James from her reading chair. Having attended the Iowa Young Writers Studio, she has deep affection for Prairie Lights, and who wouldn’t? This iconic bookstore features an ever-growing reading series, hosted both within the store and at a nearby theater. They attract bestselling authors on their book tours as well as the prestigious faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop.

The deeply knowledgeable staff offers suggestions of must-reads as well ask  kids picks .  Book buyer Paul Ingram offers reading and book club suggestions at Paul’s Corner.  We purchased THE PAPER  MENAGERIE by Ken Liu.

Prairie Lights sprang to life in May 1978 as a small, intimate bookstore offering titles by the newer voices of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro and by established authors like Eudora Welty and George Orwell. As the staff and customers tended the books with care much like a garden, the store grew and blossomed. By 1982 Prairie Lights transplanted itself from South Linn St. to South Dubuque and has gradually spread to three and a half floors, the half being an 1100 square foot coffee house located in the same space that the local literary society met throughout the 1930’s, hosting writers Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Sherwood Anderson, Langston Hughes, e e cummings and others. Today the Cafe features art installations, including works by Elizabeth Munger,   Matthew Foster, Kenneth Hall,  Thomas Agran, Sarah Bozaan and Heidi Zenisek. 

The bookstore’s strength of reputation lies in the reading series of local, national and international writers who have read their works which were broadcast live on stations WSUI and WOI and which was the only regular literary series of its kind. Upcoming events include visits from Paul Harding, Joe Brisben, Z.P. Dala, Benjamin Percy, Inara Verzemnieks  and Bernie Sanders.

Booklovers everywhere, consider Prairie Lights your mecca. For us, it was well worth the pilgrimage.

Indie Bookstore Road Trip Finds Bookworm of Omaha

Bookworm of Omaha

Photo by Ryan Soderlin. Reprinted with permission from the Omaha World-Herald.

Our cross-country indie bookstore odyssey brought us to the Bookworm of Omaha, Nebraska, my old stomping grounds. An independent family business owned and managed by Phillip and Beth Black, the Bookworm has served Omaha for more than 30 years, and recently moved to a new brightly lit spacious location on 90th and Center Street.

A full service bookstore, the Bookworm highlights local authors such as Bookworm employee Nancy Rips, who wrote several children’s books on Hanukkah.  Their dedicated staff, some of whom are prior bookstore owners themselves, know books inside and out. A delightful children’s section offers a rocking chair and weekly “Wiggle Worm Story Time” for children 5 and under.

Books in the queue to be discussed by the store’s In-house and external book clubs include The Trial by Franz Kafka, Cinder, volume #1 of the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction by Christopher Janaway, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Into Oblivion by Arnaldur Indridason, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shatterly. We purchased a staff pick, THE FISHERMAN by Chigozie Obioma, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.

We appreciate the Bookworm’s warm hospitality and wish them well in their sparkling new location. As a former Omaha resident, I’m delighted to see the Bookworm’s growth and success.

Indie Bookstore XC Odyssey Discovers Indigo Bridge Books

During our cross-country indie bookstore road trip, we happened upon Indigo Bridge Books located in the Creamery Building on P Street in Lincoln, Nebraska, a little bookstore with a mighty spirit. As the name suggests, the bookstore endeavors to help “bridge”  divisions of neighborhoods, social classes, political ambitions, religious beliefs, ethnicity, national borders, and even languages. In the Lincoln community, Indigo Bridge is a voice for tolerance, inclusion and positive regard for fellow human beings and the planet. Their dynamic book club offerings include themes such as human rights and graphic novels.

The staff at Indigo Bridge loves to put thoughtful books into your hands. Their recent picks include three of my favorites, AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, WHAT IS NOT YOURS IS NOT YOURS by Helen Oyeyemi and THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt. They also offer an eclectic assortment of zines and books by local authors. 

Indigo Bridge books Helen OyeyemiA cozy reading area offers a living room like feeling with rustic wooden tables, a bookshelf and piano. A delightful children’s section is graced by a tree sculpture made of hand-dyed canvas and jute twine designed by artist Toby Thomas. More of Thomas’s work can be found at http://tobythomas.com/.

Having studied creative writing at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln years ago with the wonderful Marly Swick, I wish Indigo Bridge had been around back then. The warm, personable staff sent us on our way with delicious mocha lattes from the café (all coffee proceeds go to good local causes). Indigo Bridge, a haven for all those seeking wise words and open hearts, is a bookstore with a mission.

2 Booklovers, 8 Days, 9 States, 12 Bookstores, 2.500 Miles: The Tattered Cover in Denver

Tattered Cover indie bookstoreOur cross country bookstore odyssey landed us on the shores of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. After losing each other among the multi-tiered landscape of this indie bookstore, each turn revealing yet another hidden alcove adorned with a wingback chair, antique fainting couch or rustic church pew, my daughter and I stumbled upon each other and simultaneously mouthed the same words, “I could live here!”

One of four Tattered Cover sites in Denver, the Colfax store resides in the historic Bonfils/Lowenstein Theater and retains the venue’s original charm, including travertine tiles, polished wood paneling and unique glass windows with cartouche designs. But the inviting ambiance of this place comes not only from its vaulted ceiling and vintage chandeliers. A distinct glow of warmth comes from the book-loving experts who work here, many of whom have been part of the Tattered Cover family for upwards of twenty years. Apparently we aren’t the only ones who, upon entering these doors, felt compelled to stay. These literary Sherpas stand ready and able to guide customers to their next reading adventure. Their book club  and staff picks, sprinkled throughout the store as well as showcased in a special section, are backed up with personalized notes on why you might love a particular read. Along with new titles, staff favorites include books that were published years or decades ago, including two of my favorites, THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O’Brien and INTO THE WILD by Jon Krakauer. We purchased THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton at an excellent discount price.

Tattered Cover indie bookstore chairWhile we did not have time to visit all four locations in Denver, each has a reputation for expert staff and distinct flavor. Together, the venues host more than 500 events each year, including storytimes for kids (the children’s section was teeming) and readings by literary titans such as Amy Tan and Oliver Sacks. As if all this weren’t enough, baristas at the Tattered Cover Café are ready to cap off your visit with a selection of pastries, coffee and tea. We would have liked to set up camp among the old theater seats and reading lamps of this famous bookstore, but alas, the road calls. Tattered Cover, we shall return one day!

2 Booklovers, 8 Days, 9 States, 2,500 Miles: Poor Richard’s Bookstore in Colorado Springs

Poor Richard's indie bookstoreOur cross country bookstore odyssey brought us to the indie bookstore gem Poor Richard’s Books & Gifts in Colorado Springs. The Bookstore specializes in good-condition, used books, including current books in 150 categories and classics in every field. They also stock a large variety of new books. For those looking for a particular title, Poor Richard’s places customer orders on a weekly basis. Book collectors will find a selection of rare, first-edition and collectible titles. They also carry Colorado trail guides, local and state maps, wildlife/flora books and artistic, funny and quirky postcards. Recent staff picks include THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood and THE VEGETARIAN by Han Kang. While the adjacent Poor Richard’s cafe serves excellent food and coffee, the newly renovated rear section of the bookstore has library-like stacks and quiet chairs to curl up and read. We are grateful to the the friendly staff at Poor Richard’s for a lovely visit!

2 Booklovers, 8 Days, 9 States, 12 Bookstores, 2.500 Miles: Next Page in Frisco

indie bookstoreOur cross country bookstore road trip brought us to Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco, Colorado, where we enjoyed vibrant ambiance, terrific book selection and delicious panini from the cafe. Located on “the Main Street of the Rockies,” this indie bookstore has an appealing display of books on Colorado nature, wildlife and hiking as well as a solid collection of fiction and nonfiction. We purchased a Will Shortz New York Times crossword puzzle book, fun socks and a Colorado mountain range deck of cards. The knowledgeable staff offers a thoughtful selection of book club picks.  Current staff favorites include THE FLOOD GIRLS by Richard Fifield and COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett. We thank the friendly Next Page staff for a wonderful visit.

2 Booklovers, 8 Days, 9 States, 2,500 Miles: Next Stop: The Bookworm of Edwards

indie bookstoreToday our cross country bookstore odyssey included the Bookworm of Edwards Colorado, part of the busy Riverwalk shopping center, which offers readers excellent book club and staff pick selections. Of these offerings, we purchased a First Edition signed copy of Roxane Gay’s compelling new memoir, HUNGER.

This little dynamo of an indie bookstore, founded in 1996, came from humble beginnings. It started in a retro-fitted van that traveled between coffee shops selling new books to “down-valley” readers. In 1997, a 700-square-foot store opened in Edwards Village Center.  In 2002, Nicole Magistro was hired as a part-time bookseller, and, in 2005, she bought out one of the original owners.  In 2007, the Bookworm moved to its current Riverwalk location (and opened the cafe), and it expanded again in 2010!  Read the full story (with more details on store founders Kathy Westover and Neda Jansen, and cafe founder Kristi Allio) here.

indie bookstore

2 Booklovers, 8 Days, 9 States, 2,500 Miles: 1st Stop: King’s English in Salt Lake City

The King's EnglishBooklovers Tess Callahan and Flannery James are embarking on an 8-day cross country journey into the land of bookstores. Each day we will offer staff picks from some of the nation’s finest, most curated and eclectic booksellers. Our only frustration in planning this odyssey is that there are so many more wonderful bookstores we cannot reach in 8 short days. We may have to make it an annual event!

Betsy Burton and Anne Holman, booklovers always, have owned The King’s English in Salt Lake City since 1977. Over the years they’ve made it their mission to match books to readers and remember their reading preferences each time they visit the store. The bookstore offers book groups, events, staff picks, movies, music & gifts. In addition, they offer a newsletter called The Inkslinger filled with reviews of the staff’s favorite books and authors. There’s something for everyone—fiction, nonfiction and children’s books—plus a calendar of upcoming events, special features and author interviews. Of their excellent staff picks, we purchased a signed First Edition copy of THE MINISTRY OF UTMOST HAPPINESS by Arundhati Roy. Additional staff picks include books by Margot Singer, Laura McBride, Derek B. Miller, Nina George, Francis Spufford, Jamie Harrison and Alexandra Fuller. We thank The King’s English for making our first bookstore stop a delightful one.

Train Your Eye for Better Writing

Writer's Digest Better Writing Tess CallahanMy article in the September 2017 issue of Writer’s Digest Magazine explores three ways to add color to the canvas of your manuscript by using techniques adapted from traditional visual arts training: emulations, thumbnail sketches and underpaintings. It also offers bits of wisdom gleaned from artistic masters and gurus John Gardner, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, Roy Kinzer, Ann Lamott, Pablo Picasso and Francine Prose.  You can find the article on newsstands or here Feel free to contact me with questions or comments. I’m always looking to expand my ideas. Happy writing!

QWERTY’s Interview with Tess Callahan

from the Managing Editors of Qwerty Magazine

Author Tess CQwerty Interview Tess Callahanallahan challenged herself to write three hundred pages in three months. She successfully completed a draft of a sequel to her novel April and Oliver, and plans to send it to her agent this spring. Qwerty conducted an email interview to ask her about her creative process and what she calls “The love affair between creativity and constraint.” Click here to see her TEDx Talk on the subject.

When you gave yourself the constraint of writing a 300 page draft in three months, did you ever feel discouraged, and if so, what did you do to overcome it?

Discouragement is not something I allow in the door until the second draft, when it can be a useful tool. The first draft is a time to let the thing spill out like an unformed blob of clay. It’s hard to feel discouraged about something that’s only meant to be a blob. The second draft is when the shaping begins. At that point I reread what I’ve written, see the chasm between what I’m hoping for and what’s actually there, and start sculpting. If in the first draft the clay itself is not forthcoming, I let the thing combust and germinate in my head, mostly through walks in the woods, until I see it unfold cinematically on the screen of my mind and race home to write it down. Read More »

APRIL & OLIVER Find their Way into Hallie Shepherd’s Heart

Hallie Shepherd Tess CallahanGrateful to writer, actress, producer, and book-lover Hallie Shepherd for drinking deeply from APRIL & OLIVER and sharing. Find more book, music and movie reviews on Hallie’s blog.

HOW THE CHARACTERS APRIL AND OLIVER FOUND THEIR WAY INTO MY LIFE

April and Oliver is one of those truly special reads. It’s the debut novel of author Tess Callahan (and to date, her only novel). Four years ago, I happened upon this book by chance, and it was a memorable read that landed itself on my keeper shelf. If you are looking for a moving novel about love, grief, growing up, messing up, moving on, and letting go, this subtle yet effective character piece may be one of the best books you’ve probably never heard of.

First, how did I even end up reading this gem of a novel? Well, here’s the story: It was 2011 and as my fellow booklovers out there might recall, Borders Bookstore was going out of business. I wasn’t even aware that was happening until one day when I drove past the Borders store near my house while running other errands and I saw huge signs advertising up to 90% off. Um, hello? NINETY PERCENT off books? All other errands were quickly abandoned as I pulled my car into the Borders parking lot. I entered the store and grabbed a basket and proceeded to wander the store in shock, because the shelves were still quite full, yet almost everything was 90% off. That meant books were ranging mostly from 70 cents to $2.00. Let’s just say I was in heaven.

Tess CallahanBecause of that impossible-to-beat price and because my fellow shoppers were plucking books off the shelves and putting them into their own baskets (meaning now I couldn’t buy them!), I decided that I could not be as discerning as I usually am about my book choices. I was going to pick books based on cover art, the back of the book description, and the first several sentences of page one. If I liked it well enough, it would go into the basket.

About thirty minutes later, the basket was getting heavy, so I called my husband. The conversation went something like this:

Me – “Ohmygod, you won’t believe this. Borders is going out of business -”

Him – “The bookstore?”

Me – “Yes, the bookstore. I’m here now.”

Him – (upset) “They’re closing it?”

Me – “Yes, I know. That part sucks. But just listen. The books are NINETY percent off. Nine zero.  That’s like a dollar a book. So I have a basket of, like, fifty books. I’m going to buy these now and we’ll come back again tonight to get more.”

Him – (excited) “Totally.”

Tess Callahan Hallie Shepherd April & OliverWe did go back to Borders get more that night, and we also drove to other nearby cities to check out their sales. No other bookstore dropped their prices to ninety percent off until the shelves were almost empty, so it turned out that we were very lucky that our Borders happened to slash prices while so many books were still available. We bought well over one hundred books, many of which are still on my bookshelves waiting to be read.

On one of these book-buying excursions, April and Oliver ended up in my shopping basket. I loved the dreamy blue cover art and the opening lines:

“Buddy had been lost for some time, his wipers whisking in the thick Maine snow, when he spots a missed turn in his rearview and brakes. The car fishtails, rocketing into a spin. The faster it pivots, the slower time moves. Buddy is the fixed point, the world careening around him.”

I thought to myself, Uh, oh, things aren’t looking so good for Buddy. But I think I’m hooked.

Here’s what the story is about: The book’s main characters – April and Oliver – have been best friends since childhood, but they’ve always had an undeniable chemistry. At one point they were completely inseparable, but they have now become practically strangers as adults, leading very different lives. Oliver is the responsible law student and April is the reckless one.  Their paths cross once again though when April’s brother Buddy dies in a snowy car crash. As Oliver is drawn back to the mysterious April, it poses a threat to both his own carefully constructed life and his recent engagement to a woman who is much more sensible and responsible than April.

Tess Callahan April & OliverThis might sound like a classic love triangle story, except it’s not. Romantic love and sexual attraction and tension certainly does factor into the story but it’s ultimately a story about how our past and present connections and obligations collide. At times, it’s sweet. At times, it’s dark. And at times, it’s heart-wrenching. Callahan’s beautiful prose creates such imagery and mood, and the characters are well-drawn in their strengths and their flaws.

I was lucky to find this book at the Book Sale of the Decade (or perhaps the Book Sale of My Lifetime), but I’ve since purchased it full price to give as a gift. If you’re looking for a novel that is poignant, bittersweet, and well-written, I highly recommend April and Oliver.

Happy reading!

Drop me a line and let me know what some of your favorite lesser-known novels are. And let me know what you think of April and Oliver.

Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.

Inner Work for the Outer Storm

Tess Callahan Sebastien Gabriel

This article was originally published in SwaayMedia on March 16, 2017.               

Keeping Focused & Calm in a Turbulent World by Tess Callahan

If you wake up these days feeling the tone and outlook of the world around you has taken a surreal shift, you’re not alone. Like many of us, I have enlisted my feet and hands in fuller engagement in our democracy. It feels good. But as much as that outer expression helps, I’ve felt a parallel need to process these changes inwardly.

SIX FRIENDS AND I TOOK TWO HOURS ON A RECENT FRIDAY NIGHT TO GROUND OURSELVES IN THE NEW REALITY THROUGH A SERIES OF SHORT WRITING EXERCISES FOLLOWED BY HONEST CONVERSATION. WE EXPLORED QUESTIONS ABOUT OURSELVES AND SHARED WHAT WE CAME UP WITH IN THE HOPE OF FINDING A PATH FORWARD. Read More »

Using Night Dreams to Navigate Life Dreams

This article originally appeared in Chicago-Woman on March 11, 2017.

What Jung Taught Me about Using Dreams for Personal Growth

In his book, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson offers a blueprint for using dreams to achieve personal goals. I’ve used this method for more than 15 years and it has never failed me. The nightmares we prefer to ignore are often the ones with the most potential to help us. The key is to become attuned to our own unique dream symbols and to learn to interpret them as we would a new language. Once versed in that language, the meaning of dreams becomes apparent with little effort.

Step 1: Making Associations

Begin by writing the dream down and noting the images that stand out. These may be people, objects, situations, colors, etc. Write down every association you have with each dream image. For example, an empty blue vase may remind you of a time when you felt “empty and blue.” Be sensitive to colloquialisms. The subconscious likes word play. Every symbol in your dream has a connotation that belongs to you alone. Read More »

Interview with The Writer’s Bone

In this interview with Daniel Ford of the Writer’s Bone podcast, we explore writing process, craft, and advice for aspiring writers. I also describe how my new novel came to me like a fly ball.

3 Ways to Leverage Your Creativity

creativityIn this article written for PROJECT EVE I offer ideas to ignite your workplace spark.

Our brains automatically put things into categories. When a new project at work resembles an old one, we have the advantage of experience, but the disadvantage of routine—creativity’s kryptonite. If we always approach tasks by way of the usual entrance, they begin to all look alike. When the front door to a project is wide open, it may seem like lunacy to climb a trellis to a third floor window, but your stained knees and scraped hands will have been worth it. It’s counter-intuitive, but true: self-imposed challenges are creativity’s kindling. Imagination loves a dare.

1. Emulate with a Twist: Painters traditionally learn their craft by copying master works. As a novelist and teacher, I sometimes challenge my students to do writing exercises in the style of the writers they most admire. In your workplace, try noticing the style and strategy of colleagues you’d like to emulate. How do they open a meeting? What is their manner of listening and speaking? What makes their emails distinct? What is it about their work that stands out? When you sit down to begin your next project, pretend you are that person. Inhabit her mind for a moment. Would she climb the trellis? Snake in through a basement window? Learn from as many different tactics as you can and select the best from each. Borrow from people with divergent approaches and combine them to create your own. The more styles you draw from, the richer the personal palette you’ll create. Read More »

Looking for Inspiration? Let IT Find YOU.

My guest post on MsCareerGirl.com offers thoughts on how to fling open the doors of your imagination. In addition to Elon Musk, Marie Curie, Steph Curry and Malcolm Gladwell, my advice takes inspiration from the fabulous TED Talk below by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert. Enjoy!

 

 

The Love Affair Between Creativity & Constraint

Can we boost our creative goals by constraining them? Here is a counter-intuitive method of unleashing creativity by putting chains on it. Like Houdini, the imagination likes to use its wits to unshackle itself. This talk explores artists and writers who sought out constraints to leverage inspiration. Innovation needs a boundary to push against. Shakespeare did it. Countless artists and innovators have done it. Discover how to give your own creativity a wild dare.

Enjoy!

Writing Prompt: The Things You Carry

JoaoSilasHere’s a writing prompt for personal journal writing, poetry or fiction:
1. For inspiration, read or listen to the phenomenal work “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. Notice what each character chooses to carry and what that tells you about him.
2. Make a list of the things you carry on your body, in your purse or backpack, in your wallet, etc.
3. Think of each item as a metaphor, a signpost pointing to something else. Maybe your reading glasses point to your feelings about aging. Maybe your keys symbolize the different compartments of your life, the places you inhabit. Maybe your driver’s license represents the face you show to the world. Draw a line from each object to the thing it stands for.
4. Now add to the list the things you carry that are not reflected by physical objects, your preoccupations, worries, hopes, etc. Include any thought patterns that routinely circulate in your mind.
5. Read over your list and circle the things that jump out at you, the ones that hold the most energy. Free write about them for five minutes. As much as possible, include details of time and place. Incorporate smells, sounds, tastes, textures, temperatures, colors and patterns–all of the senses.
Allow your musings to arrange themselves into lines of poetry or a character sketch for fiction.

Unleash Creativity Part 5: Enter Windows Instead of Doors

Buzac Marius window and doorThis post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog on 12/11/15. As he explains in his TEDx talk, “Embrace the Shake,” when artist Phil Hansen could no longer do his pointillist drawings due to nerve damage in his hand, he learned countless other ways to create art. But why wait for a disability to open your mind to new possibilities? Whether you are a poet, artist, teacher, novelist or musician, here are five unconventional ways to climb into your creative projects from a fresh entry point.

Use your non-dominant hand. This is a practice I learned at the Art Students League in New York, where I realized that drawing a model with my left instead of right hand made me see the subject differently. Sure, the drawings were terrible (though they did get better over time) but when I went back to drawing with my dominant hand, it was as if a bit of the left hand perspective had joined in. If you keep a writing journal, try making every other entry with the opposite hand. Yes, it will slow you down; that’s part of the benefit.

Get up and move. In her New York Times essay, “To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet,” Joyce Carol Oates says that running allows her an expanded consciousness in which she can envision what she’s writing as a film or a dream. Back at her typewriter, she recalls that dream and transcribes it. The scenes in my own novels usually unfold during walks in the woods with my dog. In the classroom, I try to get my students up and moving as much as possible. Physical stagnancy can cause the creative juices to stagnate, too.

Lennon McCartneyEmploy the power of two. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Atlantic essay, “The Power of Two,” explores how the tense creative collaboration of Lennon and McCartney produced artistic genius that far exceeded the sum of its parts. Hemingway and Fitzgerald would not have been who they were without Maxwell Perkins. I regularly have my students do brief story-generating exercises in pairs or groups of three. Sometimes it devolves into silliness, friction and occasional brilliance. All are worth it. I meet weekly with writer friends to work in silence together, a practice which strikes some as bizarre, but which helps us stay motivated and on task. Even the lonely work of novel writing can benefit from company.

Sleep In. This is a luxury I don’t often enjoy, but when I have the time and courage to lie in bed for awhile after waking in the morning, looking around at the semi-dark room and frail light slipping between blinds, entire scenes from my novel write themselves without my having to do a thing. It’s amazing. All I have to do is be present and watch the scenes unfold. The trick then is to write them down before the obligations of the day surge into motion. This is sacred time. If your day allows it, take it.

Work on more than one thing at a time. Full disclosure: I am terrible at this, but when I do manage to do so, both projects benefit. My painting teacher, Roy Kinzer, always encouraged us to have multiple canvases in motion concurrently, so that if we got stuck with one, we could move to the other. Often that shift allowed obstacles to get sorted out in the back of the brain. Upon returning to the first canvas, voila, the solution was clear. Since I tend to get completely sucked up the fictional dream of whatever novel I’m working on, it’s hard to tear myself away, even when a poem calls. But working on several projects simultaneously keeps the mind malleable.

I invite you to share your own creative insights with me on Facebook and Twitter@TessCallahan. I’m always on the lookout for new locks to crack.

Unleash Creativity Part 4: Limit your Palette

Unleash Creativity Part 3: Impose Time Constraints

Greta Skagerlind GestureThis post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry Blog on 12/9/15.

My teacher Roy Kinzer routinely warmed us up for our life painting class with a series of timed gesture drawings beginning with lightning fast poses. He required us to use large paper and to fill up the whole page. Grumbles of exasperation reverberated as every 15-seconds he told the model, “Switch.” Sometimes, in his smooth evil voice, he would call the change after only five seconds. Our hands flew. Our charcoal snapped. We tore pages from our sketchpads and cursed. When the beauty of a particular pose made me desperate to capture it, I held my breath until the switch. Details impossible to catch abbreviated themselves into lines expressing movement, rhythm and musicality, as seen in this drawing by artist Greta Skagerlind. Once Roy had us where he wanted us, that is, with our thinking brains shut off and our arms in motion, he would gradually lengthen the poses to 30, 60 and 90 seconds. By the time we reached two minutes, it felt like luxury. He had succeeded in shutting down the part of our brains that wanted to hesitate, deliberate and ponder accuracy. We simply dove in.

Just as I had in Roy’s class, my creative writing students love to hate our timed exercises, which take many forms. Here are a few:

BAG OF TRICKS: I pass around a “bag of tricks” filled with various objects. Each student reaches in and grabs one, a pinecone, a playing card, a broken watch, whatever. Using the object as a prompt, they write for X seconds, and then pass the object to the right until every student has written about every object. Sometimes they write pure physical descriptions using the five senses. Other times they write memories or associations the object evokes. In the spirit of gesture drawing, we start with 15 seconds of writing and work our way up to a minute or more.

NOUN VERB SWAP: In a variation of the above exercise, I ask each student to write on separate slips of paper a verb and a noun. I tell them to go for highly specific words (“wire fox terrier” over “dog” or “paraded” over “walked”). Next, I set the timer and have them pass nouns to the left, verbs to the right. Students combine the two words in their hand into a prompt (…the wire fox terrier paraded…”) and write for a minute.

SPEED DATING: We do similar exercises in pairs, wherein students “speed date” by joining their words to a partner’s words for a blitzkrieg brainstorm before the timer sounds and they move to the next person. Inevitably they argue and beg. “We were just getting started!” Eventually, I increase the time.

IN-HOUSE FIELD TRIPS: The exercises the students love best are in-house “field trips.” For example, if we are brainstorming for a one-act play, I send them out of the classroom to collect eavesdropped dialogue for ten minutes. Another day I might have them pick from a hat a particular location in the school (library, cafeteria, gymnasium, etc.) and send them there to speed write sensory details (sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, etc.) I ask them to write down both the obvious ones (the sound of a basketball bouncing), and those that normally fall below conscious awareness (the clinking of utensils, the hum of an air conditioner). When they return to the classroom ten minutes later, they share their spoils.

Lynda Barry Syllabus2-MINUTE SELF PORTRAITS: This idea comes from cartoonist Lynda Barry’s book SYLLABUS. Instead of drawing themselves as Barry suggests, students write a description of themselves in the 3rd person present tense using as many sensory details as possible. It might be a portrait of themselves when they arose from bed that morning or from when they were 5-years old. Their choice. Many of the wonderful cartooning exercises described in both SYLLABUS and WHAT IT IS are easily amended to writing.

5-MINUTE STEPPING STONES: Adapted from Ira Progoff’s INTENSIVE JOURNAL METHOD, this exercise asks students to map their lives in 8 to 12 stepping stones beginning with, “I was born,” and ending with the present. The stepping-stones could be external markers such as “We moved to Brooklyn” or “I made my bar mitzvah” or more interior ones, “I was afraid of the boys in my gym class” or “I had a crush on Lisa.” Stepping-stones can be done multiple times with different results, depending on how you’re seeing your life that day. They can also be done for a certain time period or project, such as the stepping-stones of a novel you’re working on.

7-MINUTE INVENTORY: Also transmuted from Jungian scholar Ira Progoff, this exercise asks students to take stock of their current life circumstances through a series of quick lists. For example: Who are the people in your life right now, both the inner circle—family and friends—and the outer circle—the gas station attendant, bakery cashier or others you see daily but may not know by name? We go on to list recent life events, projects we are working on, current circumstances relating to our bodies (health, sleep, diet, exercise, sexuality) as well as the current places in our life, both those we visit and those we think about. Next comes a brief list of our societal circumstances (home, office, school, town, nation, etc.) followed by any recent dreams we may remember. After compiling the list, I ask students to write a paragraph beginning with the phrase, “This has been a time when…” or “This time has been like…” Often a simile is waiting to unfold.

These exercises are fertile additions to what Anne Lamott refers to in BIRD BY BIRD as “the compost heap” of our journals. Lump these things together on a page and something is bound to combust. Whether describing an acorn in 15 seconds or writing a life inventory in 7 minutes, the clock we love to rail against is our writing ally.

Unleash Creativity Part 2: Emulate the Masters

Mona Lisa Eric Terrade

This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog  on 12/8/15.

For my students’ first poetry assignment this year, I distributed a dozen past issues of BEST AMERICAN POETRY along with other anthologies snatched from my shelf and asked them to browse through and settle on a poem that caught their eye, one whose style or cadence made them envious, a poem they wish they had written. Next, I gave them several prompts to consider and we did a bit of memory brainstorming around those ideas. In particular, we conjured up the memory’s smells, tastes, sounds, textures and visual details. Finally, I asked them to use their brainstorm to construct a poem in the style of the one they admired.

Initially, some students were not enthralled. Hadn’t they signed up for this course in order to unearth their own personal voice? Why imitate someone else?

I described the copying exercises that are part of traditional visual arts training, in which the student tries to create a replica of a masterpiece by analyzing the brushstrokes, composition and color. In the painting classes I took with artist Roy Kinzer, (seen in photo) we sometimes started with monochromatic under paintings, as the masters did, and built the painting up from the inside out, endeavoring to mix colors and apply brushstrokes to resemble the original. The learning curve was steep. The point was not to do one such copy and subsequently forever paint like that artist, but rather to do dozens of them from a wide range of styles, each time depositing another tool in the toolbox, building up our own style. Art forms, whether painRoy Kinzer Shanghai Cuttingting, poetry, dance or music, move forward collectively, an unfolding conversation. Picasso borrowed from Braque, Braque from Cézanne and so on. Last year, a student of mine named Michael wrote an emulation of Major Jackson’s “Why I Write Poetry” called “Why I Do My Homework.” Another student named Dani wrote an emulation of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Map” entitled, “The City,” which Poetry.org selected for publication on their website. These poems were not appropriations of Jackson or Bishop, but a salute to them. This year, a student wrote an emulation of Robert Haas’s “After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa,” an emulation of an emulation!

I sometimes do a similar exercise with fiction. I give students signature lines from established authors with a wide range of styles—Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Borges, for example. (Having asked my English Department colleagues for their favorite lines of literature, I have an ample supply). I then ask the students to pluck out the nouns and verbs and replace them with their own words while retaining the scaffolding of the sentence. What’s left is a syntax the student may never have considered using before. While there’s no immediate end product to this exercise, it attunes their ear and broadens their idea of what’s possible.

Strictly speaking, these are not true copying exercises in the style of the visual arts, but many writers do find it useful to handwrite passages they love word for word as a way of absorbing their rhythm and structure.

Perhaps the best part of an emulation exercises is that it offers students the luxury of wading through stacks of poetry anthologies to find a poem that speaks them. It all begins there.

Tune in to tomorrow’s post to see how time constraints can be your new BFF.

Unleash Creativity Part 1: Give Students Chains to Break

HarryHoudini1899This post originally appeared on the Best American Poetry blog, 12/7/15.

Give your students a Houdini challenge. Having taught creative writing for more than ten years now, I’ve found the most restrictive assignments, the ones they gnash their teeth over, invite the most inventive work, while the free-for-alls they beg for often produce reams of ‘meh.’ I’m talking high school students here, but writers of any age enjoy outwitting a dare.

When I was a high school student myself, my English teacher asked us to write a story on the theme of violence. Maybe he was trying to engage the bored freshmen boys by giving them the chance to write shoot-em-up stories (not so quaint anymore). I thought the theme was stupid and retaliated by writing about the violence of being silent when your voice is needed. I thought I had tricked the teacher by twisting the prompt to my own design. Of course, he had tricked me by giving me a chains to break open. Read More »

Writing for Free: Like it or Not, the Information Revolution is Making us Generous

Word of Osama bin Laden’s death fired through social media networks before being reported by official news agencies, who rightly awaited the formal announcement. We used to get news from newspapers, poems from literary journals, and novels from bookstores. Now, all can be accessed with a flip of our laptops or phones, much of it for free.

It would be freer still if Google had its way. Although Google’s plan to scan, index, and make every book available online was struck down in court last month, we all know that sort of accessibility will eventually come to pass. Why? Read More »

Mod Podge Interview

Today, as part of Hearts, Flowers, Romance, Tess Callahan is here to share her most romantic memory- one that will have you all swooning and itching to pick up her debut, April and Oliver. Click here to read the interview.

A Friendship that Keeps Distilling Thirty Years Later


wlogoTess Callahan discusses how an unlikely friendship can change your life. (Originally published by
Waterstone’s Book Quarterly).

My novel, April & Oliver, germinated in part from my own experience. The book explores a tumultuous relationship between former childhood friends who alter the course of each other’s lives. Nowadays, we tend to pooh-pooh the idea that a single person can change your life. It’s more popular to think that we single-handedly manage our destinies. But do we? Read More »

Beauty and Danger

216_heron13k400Our 21 year old cockatiel sent alarm shrieks through the house at 6AM. I flew out of bed and downstairs to find a Great Blue Heron beside the pond, gazing in in at the trusting fish schooling in its reflection. Such beauty and magnificence. It took flight, but how long before it decides to risk the trip lines placed there to foil it? Thank you, old man cockatiel!

Are Human Beings Maturing?

The Oil Spill, the Dalai Lama, and Reason for Hope

One of our most exhilarating moments during a whale watching trip off Cape Cod was when a northern gannet skimmed the sea just beyond the bow. My children and I hung over the rail, taken by the bird’s power and agility. Its distinctive plumage and bluish beak made it easily recognizable when I saw one in the news recently, plucked from the Gulf Coast oil spill. The marine life that showed itself to us on Cape Cod – whales, terns, plovers and seals – had a magical effect on our suburban hearts. Now, as we see related species such as brown pelicans and sea turtles affected by the spill, the big space those animals created inside us is filling with disbelief. How could we let this happen? Read More »

Enemies Can be Good for a Child’s Development

Can your Child's Enemy be a Friend?Parents, take heart. Your child’s enemy at school may be contributing to his/her social maturity in the long run. Check out this excellent article from the New York Times science section.

The Creative Process: Painting, Writing, and the Case for Ruthlessness

hindu-gods-kaliEven before I began writing, I loved to draw and paint. Although it came easily to me, I never considered it as a profession. Maybe I was afraid of the impracticality, or like my character, Oliver, (in my novel April & Oliver), I was simply afraid. Accessing one’s own creative power can be terrifying. Disowning it, on the other hand, opens the door to catastrophe, as poor Oliver finds out. Read More »

Independent Booksellers Support Fledgling Authors

wine-women-books-chocolateMost of the events on my book tour so far have or will take place at independent bookstores. The people behind these stores, wave makers in the industry, are feverishly devoted to books.

Originally, I was supposed to have no book tour at all. After all, if you are a first time novelist without name recognition, who will attend your readings? The new trend in book publicity is the virtual book tour via the blogosphere. Indeed, I have been doing a healthy share of Q&A for literary websites I had never heard of before. But this is not the same as meeting people face to face, hearing their reactions to your work, and signing books for them and their loved ones. Read More »

The Perfect Day: An Experiment

cobblestoneSo, I’m trying an experiment. Bear with me.

Stacey Harwood, creative mastermind of the Best American Poetry website, commented on my post there, “Cracks in Everything: Parenthood and the Writing Life,” that she often has a perfect blueprint for her day that somehow eludes her. That applies to me, as well, not only in terms of days, but weeks, summers, my whole life, for that matter. Read More »

Cracks in Everything: Parenthood and the Writing Life

bell“Ring the bells that still can ring,/ Forget your perfect offering./ There’s a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.” – from Anthem by Leonard Cohen. Read More »

Poem as Fissure: Geophysics and the Value of Weakness

The title here comes from poet Debra Wierenga, who offered a comment to this post when it was originally published on the Best American Poetry blog. Debra wrote: “I like the idea of poem as fissure, the artful crack in the mask through which authentic feeling becomes palpable to the reader.”

We’ve created a culture that worships strength – physical, social, psychological and professional – but is it possible that a degree of fragility is vital to our wellbeing? French geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon says yes. Featured recently on NPR, Le Pichon is famous for his comprehensive model of plate tectonics, or the large scale motions of Earth’s lithosphere. Read More »

Read the book review of “April & Oliver” on “A Novel Menagerie” Blog and win a free book!

Please go to the link and follow the directions on how to enter the contest.
A Novel Menagerie
Thank you Sheri for your wonderful review of my book!