Stress Management for Poets
by Christopher Scribner
Growth in online education is healthy for creative writers. When I say I teach in Lindenwood University's online Master of Fine Arts in Writing program (just named by Wordfocus.com as one of the top ten in the nation), I am often asked:
How do you teach online? We have a dedicated course site open only to enrolled students, and the syllabus, assignments, and workshop discussions are posted there.
Do you ever meet with your students in person? No. But the consolation is that online courses attract students from everywhere: Virginia, Mississippi, California. This wakes up the locals who write "Billikens" or "Lambert" expecting all readers to know what those are.
How does an online workshop work? Students post the current drafts of their projects, and the instructor and all other students post constructive comments and discuss those too. I also personally email each student to discuss issues specific to his or her work.
What do you teach? Advanced Creative Nonfiction, Personal Essay and Memoir, and Poetry Workshop. Other faculty teach fiction writing, prose poetry, narrative journalism, and more.
How good is online instruction? For creative writing, online instruction is excellent, because we communicate only in writing. We have a textbook and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board.
How good is an online M.F.A.?Lindenwood's online M.F.A. program is strictly monitored by an accrediting agency, our faculty is tops, and online courses require serious personal discipline; always good training for writers. Because an online class is open 24/7, students don't have to excuse themselves because their niece's birthday party is on a class night.
Fiction writers at writing workshops often hear, "Get rid of the exposition." "There's too much exposition in here." "Exposition" --it can be good, but in fiction class it was always bad, and I understood the concept from examples, but never had it explained to me in a convenient nutshell.
As often happens, the word provides its own understanding. Think of the word as "Ex-position." "Ex" means "out." So the word means "out of position." Exposition is a capsule of description or dialogue that doesn't really fit in its time and place, or fit the character. Example:
"She thinks she's Jane Austen. You know, the famous English writer born in 1775 who wrote Sense and Sensibility and then Pride and Prejudice, and then Northanger Abbey which spoofs the Gothic novels popular at that time?"
That's fine information in that second sentence, and all true, but it doesn't belong there. It's out of place.
Exposition doesn't have to be factual. It can be fictional. It's an authorial intrusion: background information that has been foregrounded in a place in the narrative where it doesn't fit. The author is unsure about a choice he made, so he patches up the narrative with further information, hoping for the best.
Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud. Wittgenstein philosophized while walking. "Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,â€ wrote Thoreau. Virginia Woolf wrote â€œStreet Haunting: A London Adventure,â€ about her urban walks. Countless writers take regular walks, just to walk. There must be something to it.
A google of â€œwriters exerciseâ€ turned up only writing prompts. Writers sit and write. Thatâ€™s what we do. But consider that science has proved that excessive sitting, as we do in our cubbyholes these days, not only generates health and mood problems but ruins what health you have. I could tell when a friend was doing heavy writing because his posture sagged, his neck sank into his shoulders, his gut softened and expanded and his butt took on female proportions. What you donâ€™t want is to look like that all the time. Spinal X-rays taken in my 50s showed the lower end of a formerly perfectly good spine permanently curved to the left, and some compressed disks. Spines werenâ€™t designed for sitting for 8, 12 or 18 hours. You have only one spine. Take care of it.
In the absence of health insurance for writers, try a daily 20-minute or 30-minute walk or exercise break. Consider it your treat or sanity bubble. I honestly get a buzz from the oxygenation. Writers often meet for coffee or drinks. Try walking after the coffee or before the drinks. You can chat and commiserate just as much. Do you run and wonder why you're not greyhound-slim? Running burns off sugar, not fat. Walk.
I walk 30 minutes daily, or, in crummy weather, ride a recumbent bike (spine cannot tolerate upright bikes anymore). Twice a week I lift weights to get my back and core muscles to compensate for the spinal damage and let me sleep so the next day I can write.
This past week the St. Louis Publishers Association brought in best-selling self-help author Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who started a 21-day "No Complaining" campaign at his church, handing out purple rubber bracelets. When the participants caught themselves complaining the bracelet had to switch arms. â€œComplaining is like bad breath,â€ he said. Word spread about this concept and before Bowen even wrote a book he'd been on Oprah Winfrey's show. Then he decided to write a book. He told us all about it.
After being turned down by one agent and then sucked into the scam "New York Literary Agency," he contacted the agent he wanted and got him. The book, A Complaint-Free World, became a monster bestseller--especially in China. Chinese book piracy is rampant, but Bowen's publisher undercut the six pirated editions by pricing the genuine book for less than the pirates charged, and bundling the bracelet with the book. The Chinese publishers also broadcast a weekly cartoon starring an animated Will Bowen on various positivity adventures, and booked him for a fashion shoot (heâ€™s trim, bald and wears an earring) for Asian Harperâ€™s Bazaar. â€œNow, those people are creative,â€ he said. â€œMost U.S. publishers try pretty hard but they really have no idea how to do it [marketing].â€ He went to Toastmasters to learn to speak, and arranges his own speaking engagements: one church per week. His intention for his new book is to sell 2.6 million copies.
Other things Will Bowen said:
Bowen believes in writing down his goals each day, writing daily, and having a wish board. He wanted Maya Angelou to write a foreword for one of his books, but she is reclusive and doesn't do favors. He pasted a photo of Angelou on his wish board and told everyone he met that he wanted to meet Maya Angelou. One day he told an actual friend of Mayaâ€™s who arranged the meeting. I guess they spoke about positivity. Bowen tape-recorded what Angelou said and asked if that might become the foreword to the book, and she agreed. Thus, "foreword by Maya Angelou." That's a heck of an endorsement.
Iâ€™m skeptical about lists and wish boards, but they canâ€™t hurt, and increasingly Iâ€™m becoming convinced that writing is becoming a spiritual rather than professional pursuit. I know I went home from Bowenâ€™s talk inspired, and boldly did something Iâ€™d never imagined Iâ€™d do, which Iâ€™ll blog about next.
Next, contact a professional editor. The market for children's books is extremely competitive, because the majority of the book business is adults buying books for adults, and adults tend to buy for children the books they used to love: Make Way for Ducklings, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Little House on the Prairie. Having your work professionalized and perfected gives your manuscript an edge.
A good short story, personal essay, poem, or memoir captures the texture of life. The most celebrated memoirs are those which tell more than one story. For example, in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life we read about the boy's education and conscience, but also about the bad second marriage his mother is trapped in, and how she is changing, doing things formerly out of character, like campaigning for JFK. These experiences happened during the same period. They were parallel.
Wolff could easily have written the entire memoir about his youthful self and how he learned to lie and fight. He could have written a fine memoir just about his mother's life. Either one would probably have been swell. But these in reality were intertwined, and Wolff wrote them that way.
What this appears to accomplish:
1) More accurately depicts the boy's exterior reality (events, conversations, his stepfather's behavior, friends and schooling and lessons learned)
2) More accurately depicts his interior reality. We all live more than one life at a time. In fact, at least two: the life that people can see and the one they don't. I've read (dull) stories and essays delving deep into an individual's emotional life that never indicate that this character or person has a job, or siblings, or a loan to pay off, or a best friend who isn't a dog, or a political opinion, or a goal.
Fiction and nonfiction have this in common: To capture the texture of real life, the work needs a subplot or more than one narrative thread.
You can see this on television, say, on The Simpsons, when the main story is about, for example, Homer, but a secondary story is woven in about two other characters. If you look for this, it is absolutely everywhere. That's because having two or more threads captures the texture of life.
When your creative prose seems dull or flat or thin or like "weak tea," it's usually because it has only one facet or thread. A secondary or parallel story, or "subplot," is a lot of work for the writer and requires skill. It is a large part of what makes superior fiction and creative nonfiction. You can spend years in creative-writing courses and never once hear about subplotting, or why subplotting is as basic as the "main story." I have, however, heard a poet say, "A poem should always be about two things." Poets get it.
Prose writing is a little different. After you have learned how to develop and play on one thread, attempt to add another to the piece you are working on. Don't worry about how well or poorly you do it at first. I said it's a skill and that it's not easy.