“Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.” In this craft essay, Peter E. Murphy expounds on writing advice he gives in workshops, which applies to fiction, poetry and nonfiction. If you’re feeling stuck in your current work-in-progress, give Murphy’s instruction a shot!
“Tell a secret, tell a lie, and never tell anyone which is which.” I have included this instruction in every assignment I’ve given in the hundreds of writing workshops I’ve led over the last three decades.
The “re-Peters,” those who have written with me before, know the drill and get to work. The newbies are confused. Some look terrified. They don’t want to reveal a secret. Why should they?
I say, “Trust me.” (Advice: Never trust anyone who says, “Trust me,” except…well…of course, me). I encourage them to write a secret anyway and give them permission to cross it out when they’re done. Writing it down frequently permits them to write what wasn’t possible to write. And even erased, the tincture of that secret can create a sense of vulnerability that readers will feel and empathize with.
I do most of my writing in anonymous hotel rooms. (More advice: Get a room facing the parking lot, not one with a view, or you’ll waste your time looking out the window.) I plan these hotel getaways as carefully as some of my friends plan their European vacations. One assignment I regularly give myself is to write about what I’m afraid of. No problem. I’m afraid of lots of things, not just the biggies like chronic illness and death, but some more particular things like dogs (I’ve been bitten six times), grass and trees (deer ticks), and country music (don’t ask). I could write for years about what I’m afraid of. In fact, I have.
But if I’m stuck or need to go in a new direction, one I’m not sure of, I give myself a second assignment which is harder and more painful, so painful that I can only bear doing it every year or two. Instead of writing what I’m afraid of, I write what I’m afraid to write about.
My deal with myself is that I write in longhand on a pad, I don’t reread it, and rip it into a million little pieces as soon as I finish. I’m a mess and I’m crying because what I’m afraid to write usually involves trauma and shame. But when I recover, I can write anything. I’m Babe Ruth whacking pitch after pitch into the bleachers. I’m Willie Mays stealing home.
The second instruction to my workshop participants, tell a lie, is on the surface not as troublesome, at least if you’re writing fiction or poetry. But how do you lie when you’re writing nonfiction? It goes against everything that nonfiction is about. The troops are grumbling. Hands are in the air. I love it.
In 1967, June Jordan, Grace Paley, Muriel Rukeyser, and Anne Sexton founded Teachers & Writers Collaborative, one of the first organizations to send poets and writers into schools, including Kenneth Koch, who worked with students in P.S. 61 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In his landmark book, Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, Koch not only narrates how he taught his students to write but includes hundreds of poems that the kids produced. When Koch instructs his students to tell lies, he’s really giving them permission to use their imaginations.
I wish I had thanked Koch when he was alive, because Wishes, Lies and Dreams changed my life. In 1973 I was a twenty-two-year-old fledgling poet, a three-time college flunkout working construction in New York City when I picked up his book at a newsstand in Penn Station. As I read it, I realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach kids to write poetry.
The problem was that I would have to go to college, and based on my track record, I didn’t think I could succeed. Koch gave me the guts to try anyway. I signed up to take night courses as a non-matriculated student at college number four, and three years later graduated from college number five. I then spent the next thirty years teaching kids in Atlantic City to write poetry. Thank you, Kenneth Koch.
When I ask my writers to tell a lie, I too am asking them to use their imaginations. However, unlike Koch’s fourth graders whose imaginations are on speed dial, many adults, even creatives, sometimes have trouble plugging theirs in or finding the on switch.
The easiest way to lie in nonfiction is to exaggerate. As an example, I read the following segment adapted from my recently completed memoir, Once Upon a Time You Lived in a Castle. This scene takes place in 1957 when I was seven years old. I was living in Staten Island and hadn’t seen my mother in six months.
“Thelma finally comes to visit. She must have taken a subway and a ferry from Manhattan, and then a bus or a train or a cab or a goddamn spaceship, who knows? But there she is, my beautiful, beautiful mother in her mink coat, black dress and black hat with a black feather.”
Was “goddamn” part of my seven-year-old vocabulary? I doubt it. Did I really think my mother arrived by spaceship? Nope, but the exaggeration conveys the surprise…the shock I felt when she appeared.
Another way of lying is to use description to deepen and develop a scene. How could I possibly remember what my mother wore on that day more than sixty years ago? I’ve seen a photograph of her wearing a mink coat so that’s what I dressed her in. And the black hat with a feather? You wouldn’t want my mother to go bear-headed, would you?
So, what happened after my mother showed up? Here’s what I wrote. “Maybe she hugs me, kisses me, tells me it’ll be all right, but probably not.”
You can get away with a lot by using “Maybe” and its cousins, “Probably” and “Perhaps.” An adverb of uncertainty is a great way to tell a lie that reveals the truth. And because it’s impossible to remember exactly anything that’s been said more than ten seconds ago, every line of dialogue you write is a lie.
Maybe…perhaps…probably the boldest, bravest, craziest batshit lie I’ve come across in nonfiction is in A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip: A Memoir of Seventh Grade. Kevin Brockmeier writes a chapter in which his adult self visits his twelve-year-old self who, after a humiliating episode, is hiding out in the boys’ lavatory. Adult Kevin tries to convince child Kevin that he’s going to survive. While the youngster has his doubts, he begins to relax and eventually leaves the bathroom to face the world he believes is out to get him.
Yikes! If Brockmeier can weave a magical scene into his memoir in which he and his preadolescent self share the same time and space (What would Einstein think?), my mother can commute from Manhattan to Staten Island in a goddamn spaceship, wearing her mink coat and a hat with a feather in it. And that’s the truth!
Peter E. Murphy was born in Wales and grew up in New York where he managed a nightclub, operated heavy equipment, and drove a taxi. Author of eleven books and chapbooks of poetry and prose, his work has appeared in The Common, Guernica, Hippocampus, The New Welsh Reader, Rattle, The Sun and elsewhere. He is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University in Atlantic City. www.peteremurphy.com