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.
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.
Brilliance doesn't come in the first draft. Brilliance is accumulated over drafts.
Writers are very lucky because we can take our first drafts and over time develop and craft them. A first draft is like Adam's rib. We add the muscle, nerves, flesh, hair, and breath of life. Editors, publishers, and fellow writers help us polish the work until it shines and communicates perfectly, and keep us from making public our inevitable misjudgements and mistakes. That's why your favorite writers dazzle you. How do they do it? Revision. That's why years pass between their books.
We all want to write brilliant first drafts and be done with it. That's like wanting to climb Everest right this minute without a base camp or a team, or have a baby right now without a pregnancy. That'd be brilliant, but it's unlikely. Don't pressure yourself with the belief that you can or should write brilliantly immediately and all by yourself all the time--that you must be superhuman. That will be unproductive. Revision is very human. The humanity which soaks into the work through revision is what makes it brilliant.
-But, but! Some great writers of the past actually worked that way. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. Right?
-No. Poe was a magazine editor. He spent his days reading other peopleâ€™s writing.
-Well, Ernest Hemingway wrote at his stand-up desk alone in the woods.
-He was alone while he wrote, but he had a great editor advising him and keeping him on track: Maxwell Perkins of Scribnerâ€™s. Hemingway called Perkins his most trusted friend.
-Well, Thoreau, then.
-Thoreauâ€™s mentor, author Ralph Waldo Emerson, opened his home to Thoreau and at times supported him financially. Walden Pond was on Emersonâ€™s property. And even at Walden, Thoreau was not always alone: His book describes the many visitors he had while living there.
-Sylvia Plath wrote the Ariel poems alone at 4:00 a.m. while her children slept.
-Those poems didnâ€™t come out of thin air. For seven years Plath was married to British poet Ted Hughes. All that time they were a team. They read and critiqued each otherâ€™s poems. They had shared interests. Plath typed Hughesâ€™ manuscripts and got him published. Hughes gave Plath writing exercises when she felt blocked, and inspired her to write a voice play and childrenâ€™s books. Each deeply influenced the other.
-Emily Dickinson never left home.
-She asked the biggest poetry editor in the U.S. to critique her poems and come visit her. (He did.) They corresponded for 25 years.
-Twainâ€™s first novel, The Gilded Age, was a collaboration with a writer named Charles Dudley Warner. Look, why are we focusing so much on writers? Why donâ€™t we focus on what they wrote? That's what's important.
-I think we want to figure out how they achieved what they did.
-One thing is sure: They didnâ€™t do it being Lone Writers.Because Lone Writers hold themselves apart from the world, there are all kinds of writing and publishing opportunities they will never hear about. They forego the chance that someone will suggest, for their manuscript, a really great title, or a better ending. They will never meet someone who knows a friend-of-a-friend who can help the writer get a grant, or get on the â€œNew and Notableâ€ list. However, it will be bitterly clear to the aspiring Lone Writer that other writers benefit from such â€œconnections.â€