Writer, with 30+ years' writing and publishing experience, 20+ years' teaching experience. Last book read: Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton.
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" and "Lambert" expecting all readers to know that those are the St. Louis University sports teams and the St. Louis airport's name.
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 textbooks and get into deep group discussions via a discussion board. You will be told honestly what's good about your writing and how you can improve. We keep it strictly polite and constructive but you will be annoyed by others' suggestions anyway, because part of becoming a professional writer is learning to accept that your writing can always be improved and others will and should always have suggestions for you. You will learn to welcome criticism.
Who should enroll? You can apply only if you have a bachelor's degree. The MFA is a graduate program. Absolute beginners will find earning the M.F.A. much harder than they think it is. You have to read a lot. We established "foundation courses" because students wanted to enroll to write great short stories or poems or screenplays before they had actually read any.
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. You have to write a book to graduate. 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. That said, an M.F.A. degree does not guarantee of a job or publication or even that your writing is good. It'll be much better, but you might need several more years of practice before you're a complete professional. You need also persistence and talent, which universities can't give you. Most M.F.A. in writing graduates do not become professional creative writers. But some do!
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:
"Amanda thinks she's Jane Austen, 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. Look, there's Amanda now."
That's fine information in that first 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 -- maybe, he thinks, he'd better explain who Jane Austen was so we will all get it! -- 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.