My own creative approach has been deeply impacted by C. S. Lewis. I didn’t start writing at an early age as he did, and I didn’t build a habit of writing daily until I was in my twenties. But the writing habits that came so naturally to Lewis are learnable skills. I know. I learned them.
It’s a relief to no longer hide behind a veil of secrets. Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, we seemed like a normal, happy family. My father had an important career, first in government, then in banking. Nice houses. Pretty clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, a facade, for the other life. It masked the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud either in private in our house or in public.
When you expose family secrets, it’s easy to feel like a tattle-teller. It would be easier, it seems sometimes, to stay silent, to allow the lies to continue. Sometimes telling secrets can feel like it will kill you, or it will explode your family to bits, because the secrets and lies formed the structure and foundation on which your life—on which all their lives—were built.
If you are a woman, this pressure might be even stronger. It was Tillie Olson in Silences who noted that “women are traditionally trained to place others’ needs first, to feel these needs as their own.” Indeed, when one approaches life this way, she lives with the illusion that others’ needs are her own needs, and so to write about secrets is to betray not only the family, but your entire sense of self. Heavy stuff, right?
Yet, if you don’t share your secrets in writing, it is almost impossible to have true intimacy with the reader. Think of it in relation to an affair. It was the family therapist Frank Pittman in Private Lies who wrote that in an affair the issue is less with the person with whom one lies and more about whom one lies to. He notes that the person with whom you have secrets is the one with whom you’ll feel more connected, more intimate. And you will feel uncomfortable with the one from whom you’re keeping truths. If we apply this to memoir, your reader will not feel close to you if you hide behind a veil, and as I emphasize again and again in this book, it is the readers’ relationship with your story that matters most.
[Secrets] are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.
If indeed we read memoir to see ourselves more clearly, if we write memoir in order to know ourselves, then secret-telling is an essential part of memoir. It always will be. I would argue that you cannot write a memoir without divulging secrets. Patricia Hampl calls memoir writing “a hunger for the world.” That is exactly what it feels like, doesn’t it? A voracious desire for more connection, more you, more me, more truth.
I teach creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and sometimes I’ll have a student who feels paralyzed about writing family secrets. So I remind my students that they’ve already lived through the dark, scary time. That’s in the past. Now, it’s a matter of putting it down on paper, and now they have a support system to help them if they get scared: They have their fellow writers, their faculty mentors, friends, and so on. In short, they are not alone. So I tell them just to focus on one word at a time … then one sentence, then a paragraph, then a page … and soon they’ll have a complete manuscript. But basically, in this moment, all you need to do is write one word.
All you need to do is write one word. All you have to do is write the next word, and then the next. Initially, that really is all you have to do. The anxiety you might have about divulging secrets is irrelevant if you don’t ever write the book or the essay. So, write it. Write it anyway. The writing itself is a kind of courageousness that lifts you from the ways in which those secrets controlled you. The page is safe. The people who give you feedback—mentors, peers, and friends—are safe. No one here will shame you. No one will tell you to not tell the truth. Just get the words down, each one a footstep across the vast desert of the secrets that try to keep you from writing them.
So how do you write about your secrets? You just do it. You write. Because if you don’t, you may always wish you had. Victoria Loustalot wrote about how her father kept his homosexuality a secret for years, and her grandparents were upset that she included the secret in her book.
I wrote the book I needed to write. I knew there was a chance they wouldn’t understand, and they don’t. I don’t think they ever will, frankly. I want to live an open and honest life. A life in which love and acceptance are the foundation for all of my relationships. And that’s what this book is. That’s what it’s about: honesty and acceptance. I feel awful that I hurt my grandparents, but I was tired of the secrets. The secrets stop with my dad’s generation. I just won’t do it.
Secrets often have this flavor. They often lead to the memoir you need to write. Consider The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison or House Rules by Rachel Sontag, both books about the secret worlds that existed behind the closed doors of childhood and young adulthood. Had they not written their secrets, a different truth might have ruled their lives, one that wasn’t true for them and was therefore harmful to their psyches.
Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing
My background is in mathematics and computer science, but I’ve always loved reading and writing. As I was writing more and more, I became very interested in how different writers and people give writing advice. There’s a lot of it that made sense but seemed not backed up by information, and a lot of it that conflicted with each other. I just thought there had to be a way to take these topics in writing that people were already well aware of and talking about and test them on great authors and popular authors to see if this advice is real or if it is prescriptive advice that doesn’t really mean anything in the real books and the real pages.
The first chapter in the book is on the advice of whether or not you should use –ly adverbs. This is also the first chapter I wrote chronologically. It’s mostly on Stephen King’s advice not to use –ly adverbs in his book On Writing, which for a lot of writers is the book on writing. But lots of other writers—Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk—and any creative writing class advises not to use an –ly adverb because it is an unnecessary word and a sign that you are not being concise. Instead of saying, “He quickly ran,” you can say, “He sprinted.”
So I wanted to know, is this actually true? If this is such good advice, you’d expect that the great authors actually do use it less. You’d expect that amateur writers are using it more than published authors. I just really wanted to know, stylistically, first if Stephen King followed his own advice, and then if it applies to all the other great and revered authors.
In fact, there is a trend that authors like Hemingway, Morrison and Steinbeck, their best books, the ones that are held up and have the most attention on them now, are the books with the fewest amount of –ly adverbs. Also, if you compare amateur fiction writing and online writing that’s unedited with bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners of recent times, there is a discrepancy, where less –ly adverbs are used by the published authors. I am not so one-sided that I think you can just take out the –ly adverbs from an okay book and it becomes a great book. That’s obviously not how it works. But there is something to the fact that writers who are writing in a very direct manner do produce books that overall live the longest.
For many of the questions, I was using the same 50 authors I had chosen somewhat arbitrarily. Essentially it was based on authors that were on the top of the bestseller list, authors that were on top of the greatest authors of all time list and authors that just kind of represented a range of different genres and times and readers. That way, throughout the book, you can compare these authors and get to know them.
It was very important to me that if I said something like, “Toni Morrison uses this word at this rate,” I was talking about every single novel she’s ever written and not just the three that I happen to already have. In my book, there are 50 to 100 authors that are referred to throughout. I found their bibliographies and then found all their novels that they had written up to that point as their complete record. In some ways, it is a bit like keeping sports statistics, where each book is kind of like a season and then all of these seasons or books come together as a career. You can see how authors change over time and how they do things overall. Once you have all the books on file, then answering these questions that in some ways are very daunting is very straightforward.
There is a programming language called Python, and within that, there is a set of tools called the Natural Language Toolkit, often abbreviated NLTK. The tools involved in that are freely available to anyone. You can download the package online and use it in Python or other languages. You can’t get many of the writing questions in particular, but you can say, how many times does this word appear in the text? It can go through and identify where sentences end and where sentences begin, and parts of speech—adjective vs. adverb vs. verb. So once you have those tools, you can get the data.
There is one section where I look at opening sentences. Elmore Leonard, who was a very successful novelist, had said, “Never open a book with weather.” This is also advice found in a lot of writing guides. So I went through hundreds of authors to see how often they open their book on weather. For example, Danielle Steel, I believe 45 percent of her first sentences in books are about the weather. Many times it’s just “It was a magnificent day,” or “It was bright and sunny out,” things like that. For that, there was no way to do that automatically without having some error, so I would just go through all the book files and mark whether there was weather involved. You can say it was tedious, because it was a lot of data collected, but it was kind of fun to go through and read hundreds of opening sentences at once. There are other patterns that clearly emerge from authors over time.
But for a quick, easy way to darken the mood of your song, or to create a more powerful sense of melancholy, the relative minor substitution is a great choice. For mood control, look also at your key choice (as that will affect where the voice lies), playing style and instrument choice.
What Melodic Direction Does to a Song’s Emotional Energy
The average listener may think that a song melody moves up and down in a kind of random way, but for the best songs, there does seem to be value in thinking about a melody’s direction as something purposeful and important.
Creating a melody that seems to have a clear design allows for a healthy dose of predictability and structure. I think a great example of what I’m talking about is in Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” For every section of the song, we hear a melody that starts low, moves high, and then descends.
That up and down isn’t an accident; each phrase incorporates that shape. In the opening verse, the starting line moves gradually upward, and along with it we hear emotional tension rising. There’s nothing in the lyric that places more emotion in the rising section, or less emotion in the descending section. But the purposeful up-and-down of the melody builds emotional contrast into the lines in a very important way:
So the importance of a predictable shape in your song melodies isn’t just that it offers structure. It does even more: it allows what might otherwise be a fairly constant level of emotional effect from the lyric to subtle fluctuate up and down along with the melodic shape. It pulls listeners in, and makes them feel something.
So as you write your song melodies, give some thought to what you think a purposeful design might do. The up and down choice, by the way, doesn’t need to be symmetrical as we hear in “Jolene.” It could spend more time in the upward part, and come down fairly quickly, as we hear in the verses of Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me,” and the long, stepped style of melody like we hear in Lennon & McCartney’s “Hey Jude.”
The writing process
Do I have a writing process? I try not to get into too much of a routine – I want to make each day different if I can. But I generally start around 8 a.m. I try to avoid breakfast as I work better if I’m hungry. If I’m in Orford, I’ll go over to the little house where I work and sit down at my desk with extraordinary views of the river and the Ness.
The huge Suffolk skies are amazing. Every time I look out of the window there’s something new and more beautiful to inspire me: a cloud formation, an arrow’s head of wild geese heading south, a passing boat, a rain squall, a lonely avocet. I pick up my pen, think about what I have to do, where I am in the book, what I want to achieve… and start writing. The rest of the day is punctuated by walks with my dog, green tea, and too many biscuits.
What not to do
Writing is hard, and experienced grant writers recommend devoting plenty of time to the task. Smythe recommends setting aside a week for each page of a proposal, noting that some applications require only a few pages while major collaborative proposals for multi-year projects can run to more than 100 pages. “It can take months to get one of these together,” she says.
Scheduling should include time for rewrites, proofreads and secondary reads by friends, colleagues and family members, experts say. Working right up to the deadline can undo weeks to months of hard work. At the last minute, Jacob once accidentally submitted an earlier draft instead of the final version. It included sections that were bolded and highlighted, with comments such as, “NOTE TO SELF: MAKE THIS PART SOUND BETTER.” She didn’t get that one, and has never made the same mistake again.
Add an extra buffer for technology malfunctions, adds Smythe, who once got a call from a scientist at another organization who was in a panic because his computer had stopped working while he was trying to submit a grant proposal half an hour before the deadline. She submitted it for him with 23 seconds to spare. “My hand was shaking,” she says. That proposal was not successful, although the scientist sent her a nice bottle of champagne afterwards.
Grant writing doesn’t necessarily end with a proposal’s submission. Applicants might receive requests for rewrites or more information. Rejections can also come with feedback, and if they don’t, applicants can request it.
Luiz Nunes de Oliveira, a physicist at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, also works as a programme coordinator at the São Paulo Research Foundation. In this role, he sometimes meets with applicants who want to follow up on rejected proposals. “We sit down and go through their résumé, and then you find out that they had lots of interesting stuff to say about themselves and they missed the opportunity,” he says. “All it takes is to write an e-mail message asking [the funder] for an interview.”
Jacob recommends paying attention to such feedback to strengthen future proposals. To fund her master’s programme, she applied for a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), but didn’t get it on her first try. After requesting feedback by e-mail (to an address she found buried on NSERC’s website), she was able to see her scores by category, which revealed that a few bad grades early in her undergraduate programme were her limiting factor.
There was nothing she could do about her past, but the information pushed her to work harder on other parts of her application. After gaining more research and field experience, co-authoring a paper and establishing relationships with senior colleagues who would vouch for her as referees, she finally secured funding from NSERC on her third try, two years after her first rejection.
Negative feedback can be one of the best learning experiences, Rissler adds. She kept the worst review she ever received, a scathing response to a grant proposal she submitted to the NSF in 2003, when she was a postdoc studying comparative phylogeography. The feedback, she says, was painful to read. It included comments that her application was incomprehensible and filled with platitudes.
After she received that letter, which is now crinkled up in her desk for posterity, Rissler called a programme officer to ask why they let her see such a negative review. She was told that the critical commenter was an outlier and that the panel had gone on to recommend her project for the grant, which she ultimately received. “I learnt that you do need to be tough,” says Rissler, who now helps to make final decisions on funding for other scientists. She emphasizes that whereas reviewers’ opinions can vary, all proposals undergo multiple independent expert reviews, followed by panel discussions and additional oversight by programme directors.
Grant writing tends to provoke anxiety among early-career scientists, but opportunities exist for people who are willing to take the time to develop ideas and push past rejections and negative feedback, she says. “We can’t review proposals that we don’t get.
In the past year, I have reframed my concept of writer’s block so it is no longer a binary dialectic of either/or, where either I am writing or I am blocked, exiled from my creative practice. Instead, I understand my process as a field—sometimes I am harvesting and sometimes I must let the field lie fallow or seed it with other experiences so new growth can germinate. Even when I’m not writing in the denotative sense of inscribing words on the page, I’m still writing in a larger sense, as I am doing the necessary work of building up a storehouse of experiences, images, and ideas I will articulate later.
Maybe the Secret to Writing is Not Writing?
There were reasons. I was grieving the death of my dog. For 13 years, she nestled in her bed on the floor next to my desk, curled up like a furry comma, keeping me company. Now my apartment was haunted. I couldn’t sit at my computer without reflexively looking over to where she once slept—each time, seeing the bare wooden floor brought fresh tears.
I was also falling in love. Instead of sequestering myself in my apartment to work, my new boyfriend and I spent long afternoons in East River Park watching seaplanes glide down to safe landings on the bright blue water. We’d stay up all night—talking, laughing, kissing, and telling each other stories from the years before we’d met.
And I was teaching—three freshman English Composition classes, a Modern Poetry seminar and a Poetry Workshop, as well as a regular roster of private students. I spent hours laboring over lesson plans, grading essays, and editing manuscripts. I also ran a small independent press and hosted a reading series. When I finally had time to work on my own projects, I found myself bleary-eyed, too tired to concentrate.
In the past, writing had felt like pushing over the first domino at the beginning of a long intricate row—one word would tip forward, knocking another word down, and so on to the next; the words forming sentences all falling into place, and then I would resurface hours later with multiple first drafts of poems or an essay written.
Now that momentum was gone. I’d type one or two words and stop and stare at the letters. Then I’d space my cursor backwards, deleting to start again, only to hit another wall. The open document on my computer felt like a white room I was locked inside—no matter how hard I pounded at the walls or how loudly I screamed, I was trapped.
When I stood in front of my students at my lecture podium, I felt like a fraud. Who was I to comment on their tender new drafts when I wasn’t writing? How could I pretend to be an authority on a subject I no longer intuitively understood, a process I wasn’t even participating in? I used to be a writer, but now I was blocked: a failure. The best I could do was revise, tinkering with drafts I’d written in the halcyon days when I could take the inchoate feelings, ideas, and experiences that swirled like smoke inside me and alchemize them into words.
Soon I slid into a minor depression—a gray melancholia that manifested in a twenty-pound weight gain and two or three glasses of wine most nights. “I don’t know what to do,” I bewailed to my friends. “I’m trying to write and I can’t come up with anything. There’s nothing there anymore.”
I set myself assignments, following the same exercises I gave to my students, but I hit a wall practically as soon as I began. Thinking that an outside deadline would help, I pitched an idea to a magazine editor who I then had to contact six weeks later, a few days before my article was due, to confess that I would not be turning in my piece. “I just can’t write it,” I emailed, “I’m so sorry.”
I took a TM course and dutifully meditated for twenty minutes twice a day in hopes it would unlock the gate between my creativity and my conscious self. I gave up drinking. Then I tried a stretch of drinking more, following Baudelaire’s famous advice that “You must always be drunk!”
I kicked my boyfriend out of the apartment on specified days so I could have the solitude of a writer’s retreat at home. I traveled on a fellowship to Bulgaria where all the fellows ate our meals together at a cliffside restaurant above the Black Sea and I knew every single other person at the table except for me would return to their room to write about the azure water, the Thracian ruins, the stone coffin in the local museum that held the body of a legendary local vampire, and the old women lining the dusty streets to sell us delicate lace and ripe strawberries.
Then, just as easily as a cloud obscuring the sun eventually drifts past, one morning I woke up with the first lines of a poem singing in my head. I got out of bed, sat down at my desk, and began typing; within twenty minutes, I had a new poem. And then, more days than not, new work followed. I’d done nothing to lift it, but my writer’s block was gone.
It felt like a miracle, but one tinged with frustration and fear: I was cured but I didn’t know how or why the cure had happened. Since I hadn’t consciously discovered the key that unlocked the room inside me where these new poems and essays had been hiding, how could I trust that the room wouldn’t somehow lock itself up again and, the next time, what if the door never reopened?
Oddly, what saved me from spinning into terrible anxiety over the inexplicableness of my good fortune was remembering crop rotation. I grew up in the Midwest and even though my family doesn’t farm, agriculture is still enough a part of local customs that knowledge about it practically seeps in through the pores.
Secret 3: Think first, write second
But planning requires different skills. Often, the planning for a student project – such as a design task, a science experiment or a presentation – is done in advance, in several sessions if needed. In writing, we ask students to switch from brainstorming to writing immediately. Sometimes we don’t even signal how to do this. No wonder they want to take their first idea and wing it! Try separating the thinking tasks (brainstorming and planning) from the writing task, and we think you’ll see a change.
Before we ask students to write us a story, we should explicitly teach them how to plan. We might give them the topic ahead of time, help them to plan it out, give them time to think of an interesting hook, work out a bit of conflict and resolution, and do some research (especially for informative texts) before they come to writing. After all, we don’t say, ‘You have a maths test on Monday, but I’m not telling you whether it’s on algebra or calculus.’ Planning ahead gives students an idea of where they’re going and what’s expected of them before we ask them to write.
The only issue is that testing situations do require students to flip from one type of thinking (brainstorming, planning) to the other (word creation, flow). So, after they’re up to speed with planning and we have taught them how to do it, then we can do some speed trials and help this become familiar.
When students are throwing ideas around, sharing back-stories and playing mini-games with each other, you can turn planning, the ‘boring’ part of writing, into something fun and engaging.
How do we do this? With quick games and collaborative exercises that focus on the thinking skills in planning (brainstorming, then sorting and selecting the best ideas). If you’ve ever been to a Seven Steps Workshop, you’ll remember that sometimes we can’t even stop teachers when it’s time to move on from the planning games.
If we tell students the topic is ‘Lost’, we ought to expect 26 stories about a little lost puppy. But if we tell them the topic is ‘Lost’ and then we brainstorm together, we could get stories about ancient mysterious lost cities; where the second sock goes in the laundry; the day I lost my house keys; being lost in a foreign city; lost at sea; a lost art from the past; my first day of high school, when I got so lost I couldn’t find my classroom … and so on.
|For older students:||Explain that if an assessor has to read 10 versions of the same story, with the same ideas and the same resolution, they’ll be easy to compare and rank and only one will get the best mark. Having a completely different and creative approach will make your story stand out from the crowd.|
|For younger students:||Explore image prompts in groups and see how the first few ideas might seem unique and interesting, but are really quite similar to each other. Want to write an engaging story? Find a unique angle on the topic. Brainstorming will help you find it, and this is why ‘Think first, write second’ is one of our Five Secrets.|
Once students start to see the power of an original idea (not your first idea), they should realise that getting straight into writing isn’t always the best approach. Sure, get that idea on the page, but learn that we can generate more and more and more ideas – so we don’t need to get attached to the first one. After brainstorming in groups, students often realise how much more fun it is to write about a quirky and interesting angle on the topic.
Summary of Secret 3 (think first, write second):
The Magic Binoculars
Facts alone aren’t enough. They’re too black-and-white. Readers yearn for images and anecdotes that make the information pop. For facts to stick in the reader’s mind, they must be enriched by colorful stories.² Aided by subtle visuals and roller coaster narratives, Caro brings his biographies to life.
“Beneath the trees, the whole country was carpeted with wildflowers, in the Spring, bluebonnets, buttercups, the gold-and-burgundy Indian paintbrush in the white-flowered wild plum, in Fall, the goldeneye, in the goldenmane, and in the golden evening primrose. And in the fall the sugar maples and sumac blazed red in the valleys.
Spring gushed out of the hillsides, and streams ran through the hills – springs that form deep, cold holes, streams that raced cool and clear over gravel and sand and white rock, streams lined so thickly with willows and sycamores and tall cypresses that they seemed that they seemed to be running through a shadowy tunnel of dark leaves. The streams had cut the hills into thousand shapes: after crossing 250 miles of flat sameness, these men had suddenly found a landscape that was new at every turn.”