In my last blog, I wrote about using prompts or ten-minute jumpstarts to fire up our writing. Yet are we just filling notebooks with exercises? What can come of these jottings?
In a Paris Review interview, Amy Hempel talked about an assignment (prompt) from her teacher, Gordon Lish. She said:
The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, dismantles your own sense of yourself. And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was.
And what was her worst secret? “I failed my best friend when she was dying,” she said. It became the subject of the first story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” one of the most anthologized stories of all time.
Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life: A Memoir (winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, 2011) was built around telling his worst secret. In the first sentence, he writes: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”
One day in his last year of high school when he was driving his father’s Oldsmobile, a girl on a bike swerved in front of the car. He was unable to avoid hitting her, and she died. The girl was a fellow classmate, Celine Zilkes. Strauss buried the secret for years, not telling anyone. Until the birth of his own twins, when he says he felt “with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all—never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this.” (See his interview with Colum McCann.)
Here are two writers who have written successful artistic accounts of “worst secrets”: one fiction, one nonfiction. Which genre do we choose to explore a secret? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry? In his workshop at the 2013 Sanibel Writers Conference, Strauss (who writes mostly fiction) told us that he chose nonfiction for Half a Life because he wanted to get the facts right. It was his answer to the news articles that reported the accident. Amy Hempel chose fiction for her elliptical, poetic story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Lucille Clifton wrote poems such as “the lost baby poem.” So . . .
Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet. ― W.B. Yeats
And have no fear. After all, to begin we need only a pen and notebook and ten minutes.
For other writers who have written about “worst secrets,” see work by Susan Cheever, Jeannette Walls, Kathryn Harrison,Pat Conroy, Sharon Olds, and Nora Ephron (who kept her own impending death a secret while planning her Exit.) Also Nabokov’s Lolita,Sophocles’ Oedipus, and St. Augustine’s Confessions come to mind. In the current issue of The Paris Review (“The Art of Nonfiction No. 5”), the French writer Emmanuel Carrére discusses (among other things) his telling of secrets in My Life as a Russian Novel.
Writing Jumpstart: Use Gordon Lish’s assignment above. Or write about why you could never tell your worst secret. Or find the humor in a secret–and write that story or poem (maybe like Billy Collins does in “Forgetfulness” or “Writing in the Afterlife“–not exactly about secrets but about where “assignments” might take us.) Or invent a secret for a character in your novel or story. There must be lots of power in that word “secret.” Give it whirl for ten minutes. And another ten. That’s something about secrets that might keep you going for longer.