It's the final day of two days of conferences. Fairly good all around. I like conferences and I find I like them better when I forget the sign-up sheet at home, so I don't know who's standing me up. Better for my stress level. And so I was thinking about stress when I walked into 252 this morning. I knew my students were stressed and I was feeling it myself. Figured I might as well channel that energy into something productive--and teach my students how to do the same. I went through the daily housekeeping as I usually do--to a very hardy few who braved the weather--and then our writing exercise for the day is one I was particularly proud of :
What is your stress tic? What is that thing you do when you're particularly stressed--that you might not even recognize as being caused by your stress? I gave them the example of my freshman roommate in college, who came home one day to a spotless dorm room, looked at me, and said, "Did you have a bad day?" And when I thought about it, I had. "Why?" I asked her. She looked at me. "Because you clean when you're stressed." Huh, I thought. I guess I do. Never realized that before.
When they finished writing, we talked about some of the things they do and we move to talking about how they need to view their characters as real people. Your characters will have stress tics too. They may pick the skin on their fingers, they may drive to Kansas City for no reason, they may play the same music over and over on the piano. Very rarely do our stress outlets turn out to be passive. We usually have to do something to combat our stress. So do your characters.
I also talked about channeling their stress into their writing. When I was starting my MFA, 9/11 happened and I didn't have cable yet. So I channelled all that uncertainty, all that fear, all that stress into the character I was writing. When I was writing of the death of a different character, it was how I dealt with watching my grandmother fall down the steps (she did not die, but she broke her collarbone) and me not being able to catch her. Writing is a very good stress relief, because we can channel that onto the page. Sometimes it turns into something awesome, sometimes we write our way through it, burn the page, and we feel better for it. Of course, things like this sound a lot like the "therapy" that Anis Shivani was raging about a couple weeks ago, but the reality is that fiction (like other genres) is real life. And emotions and actions and motivations and stress tics are also real life. It's how we get to the real heart of whatever it is that we're writing.
It was from there that we switched to talking about John Edgar Wideman's short story "Fever." I love that story, but I wasn't sure how my students would take it. Since this week we're talking about dialogue, I wanted to see what they'd say. There isn't a whole lot of dialogue-dialogue in it, but the switchings of POV/voice/character puts forth a dialogue of its very own. And there was a moment in class when I asked why Wideman did it this way, why he didn't just write one main character in a traditional sort of narrative--and what would have been lost had he done that? And my students all popped in with ideas about how the story was like the fever, all sort of dreamy, that you never quite knew what was going on, how you never quite knew who was speaking, but that's the whole effect of the story. He wanted that dreamy fever-like stage, which he couldn't have gotten any other way. I think they're starting to understand what it means to read like a writer, which makes me so happy I could just dance around the office. I love my job.
And I also have to mention that several of my 252 students signed up for conferences too and I hope I've been able to talk them out of thinking their first draft has to be perfect, like the things we've been reading in class. I think they're just starting to understand that the story in front of them is absolutely not the first draft that author made of that story. It doesn't happen. And so they're starting to turn off that internal censor that tells them ugly things. At least I hope so.
(Feel free to post your stress tics in the comments!)