It’s uncanny how often just the right guide appears when I’m struggling to write. It happened again about a month ago when a package arrived with a copy of Cynthia Beach’s new book, Creative Juices: A Splash of Story Craft, Process and Creative Soul Care. Although Cynthia and I were classmates at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, our contact has been sporadic since graduating five years ago. Yet, as I thumbed through her new book, it was as if we’d spoken just the day before. Cynthia seemed to know my creative juices had turned to sludge. Her book offers remedies to get them flowing.
Cynthia is an English professor and writer from Michigan. Her articles, short stories, and contributions appear in newspapers, literary journals and books like Hope in the Mourning Bible (Zondervan, 2013) and Horse of My Heart (Revell, 2015). She co-founded the two-day Breathe Christian Writers Conference and is currently marketing her novel, The Surface of Water, available this fall.
In Creative Juices, fiction and nonfiction writers will find effective tools for habits and craft packaged in, what Cynthia calls, snackable content. The format—half theory and half application—will energize writers who want to deepen story craft and improve writing process. Brief explanations, examples, and exercises make the book practical and energizing. I’m finding it especially helpful as I tackle a book-length essay collection that hasn’t yet found its core or its form.
Cynthia and I had an online conversation recently so I could learn more of the thinking behind Creative Juices. Here’s what she had to say.
Iris Graville: What led you to write this book in the form you describe as “snackable content?”
Cynthia Beach: In the spirit of Anne Lamott’s “crappy” first draft, I plunged into drafting Creative Juices, a sabbatical project, without a precise outline. My chapters started emerging as topic clusters. Then, early in the project, an NPR show chatted about the drive for short pieces told in story format. It was then the show delivered the perfect term: “snackable content.”
Creative Juices? Snackable content? Perfect, I thought.
The phrase affirmed my format and permitted a wide range of topics.
IG: You use the words “soul” and “soul care” regularly in your book. You don’t often find those terms in writing craft books, and I think they’re among the elements that make your book unique. Why was it important for you to include these ideas?
CB: Four student names roll through my head. These names belonged to fine young writers who happened to sit in my class. Somehow masters of craft at an early age, they dreaded writing. Their soul glitches smothered any joy or power they had as writers. These four students could have stepped immediately into professional writing but chose instead a toxic cocktail of doubt and shame and perfectionism and self-sabotage.
That little three-lettered word drove me beneath the soul surface. To master writing, I concluded, we need to pay attention to more than craft. We need soul care.
Craft teaches us how to write a thesis statement in composition or dialogue in advanced workshop. What we also need to explore are the knotty soul issues like fear and perfectionism that arise in many writing efforts. Another important focus is our process, how we get ‘er done.
Writing is like crossing a desert or climbing a mountain. We need certain tools to help us on our path: boots for the mountain, a compass for the desert, water for both. Creative soul care tools like The Artists’ Way by Julia Cameron or The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright became my water for my writing journey.
IG: What gets in the way of the flow of your own creative juices?
CB: Me, myself and I.
One of my worst enduring habits is the Creative U-turn. Cameron explains this method of self-sabotage in The Artist’s Way. It occurs, she says, when we get an idea that energizes us, we move toward it, and then suddenly we click off and stop.
What helps me avoid Creative U-turns is to set goals with one of my writing buddies. This (usually) keeps me from turning around or halting progress.
IG: How do you expect people will use your book?
CB: If writers are asking, “How can I keep my creativity green and growing?” they’ll find suggestions. Creative Juices offers answers for various other writing questions: How can permitting yourself some playtime or idle brain time aid your writing? What’s an antidote for a writing blow?
This book also explores what plot lens might help a literary writer versus a more commercial writer and how to roll your reader into a flashback and then back into story present.
Because my book moves through creative soul care, process, and story craft, writers can use it to tune-up these three areas.
Creative Juices can serve individuals and groups. The West Michigan chapter of Word Weavers, an international organization of writing groups, will begin reading it this fall. When I learned this, I did something I haven’t done in awhile—a cartwheel!
IG: What level of writers is this book directed to?
CB: Initially, my primary purpose was to create a supplemental textbook for my undergraduate advanced workshop class. Creative Juices is directed to beginning, returning and intermediate writers. I think it’s especially friendly to people who want to write and find it difficult to do so.
IG: What are you working on now?
CB: I’m finishing the last seams on an upmarket contemporary novel, The Surface of Water, about a spiritual leader who has gone dead spiritually. It touches on white privilege and the need for and the beauty of redemption.
I’ve also started a historical novel set in Ireland. Which demands that I return to Northern Ireland, right?
IG: Who/what inspires you and your writing?
CB: My northern stars are the likes of Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell, two British pioneering women novelists. In her day, Brontë exhibited fierce, “highly independent thinking.” Astoundingly so. And Gaskell moves me with her enormously insightful use of point of view. She does not judge. She empathizes. I’m thinking especially of her North and South, made famous by the BBC production starring Richard Armitage and Brendan Coyle.
Flannery O’Connor, slave memoirist Frederick Douglass, essayist Brian Doyle, and others inspire me, too. They teach me as I try to teach students about them. That’s the gift of my job as a college prof.
IG: Anything else you’d like to say about your book or your writing?
CB: Suffering for my writing has been part of my journey. I suspect it’s part of many writers’ journeys. The soul effort to write, to push past our desire to be hidden—or to hedge the truth. The challenge to do the writing when fear and doubt arise. Also stories or articles that subvert cultural myths can be our burden to carry.
Then, if we move toward publishing, there are the piercing thorns of rejection. In my MFA program, we learned that 78 percent of our writing will get a “no.” As my writing buddy and humorist Alison Hodgson (The Pug List) laments, “This horrible business!” The book business can be tough.
So, in the face of these multifaceted challenges, I hope that Creative Juices is the voice of a fellow writer, a fellow traveler, a voice that says with Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never give in!”
IG: Thank you, Cynthia. Creative Juices definitely offers a voice of companionship and perseverance. I’m grateful to have it whispering in my ear. Congratulations on this publication and your forthcoming novel.