Marlena Corcoran: “It wasn’t like that”

Dr. Marlena Corcoran, today’s guest blogger, is the author of The Athena Mentor College Application Workbook and Passport to College: The International Student’s Guide to the Best Education in the World (see her website,, for more information). While participating in some of my daily writing challenges earlier this year, Marlena returned to her passion—stories inspired by her childhood in Brooklyn. I’m delighted that she’s chosen to share a story based on that work with you today.—Elaine

It wasn’t like that

by Marlena Corcoran

“It wasn’t like that,” says my sister.

She says it every time. Every time I publish something, the phone rings, and it’s my sister.

“It wasn’t like that.”

I listen to the list of factual errors, misrepresentations and misremembrances. Unlikelihoods. Conjectures.

I recognize transitions, metonymy, interior monologue. That’s what this is to me. Words on the page.

And then there are the plain old unattractive details that happen to be true, but did I really have to mention that.

And errors. If this were a quiz in a history class, I would fail. Even if every iota is, shall we say, correct, it just doesn’t add up for me in quite the same way it added up for everybody else. Each fact becomes a piece in a very wrong puzzle.

And then there are the things that only I would know. I get no phone calls there. Continued radio silence would have been so preferable.


Marlena Corcoran
Photo by Rachel Viader Knowles

So one day I joined an art action called “The Former Resident Project.” It was for people who used to live in Brooklyn. No current inhabitants allowed. This ensured we all were writing from memory. Our memories. Not a fact-checker in sight.

We were all invited to submit a story. I sent in eighteen. I’m sorry, but once I got going, I was on a roll. Decades of zip code 11209 got sent back to Rewrite.

The organizing artist printed out the stories on sheets of refrigerator magnet, and cut the stories to size. She traveled to the location of each story.

Did I mention they were site-specific.

She slapped each story on any metal thing that would anchor the magnet. Her idea was that people would take the stories home.

I don’t think anybody wanted my stories on their refrigerator. None of these stories was the King James Version of what went down in that particular neighborhood. But I was gratified to see the lamppost outside my childhood home covered with refrigerator magnets telling story after story of what went on behind those walls.

At least, as I saw it.

One of the magnets was set up far away, in an empty field. An airplane in the distance. Weeds. At the time, I couldn’t talk about it. The sign said only, “This was Barren Island.”


“Please return the family photos.”

You have to be kidding me. Return them to whom?

For once in my life, I did not ask myself what I had done wrong. I didn’t even reply to my cousin’s mail. I figured some day she might even think what a miracle it is, that someone twisted our lives into little pipe cleaner figures on a stage, that maybe might mean something to somebody else, or maybe might mean something all by themselves.

I thought back to my mother’s friend Audrey, talking to my mother about a movie that had just come out. It was set in our neighborhood: Saturday Night Fever.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” she hissed. “How could they say those things?” My mother nodded in agreement. “It’s nothing like that.” They turned to me. “Is it.”

I turned away. Maybe the miracle is that we agree on anything at all. How things are. The way they were.

Wie es eigentlich gewesen: how it really was.

Write better when you write more often. Join Elaine Bennett’s 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and we’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

“Everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes”

I’m going on vacation. My first honest-to-God, gonna-unplug-from-my-clients vacation in about 10 years. Yes, and I’m taking a vacation from this blog too.

The invaluable Anne Lamott says

“Everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes.”

And that’s not just toasters and modems—writers, too. I’ll let you know if she’s right. But stay tuned: I’ve lined up an all-star cast of fascinating people to guest-blog in my absence.

Enjoy them. And enjoy this lovely summer we’re having.



Stories shape perspective — whatever you create

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”—Anaïs Nin

Whenever we create—whether in paint or stone or words—we edit what we see. Our perspective unconsciously creates stories from the information we take in. And those stories shape perspective in our art. And in our lives.

It’s the creative equivalent of the old adage attributed to Henry Ford:

“Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’re right.”

stories shape perspective
Virgil’s story: Aeneas Flees Burning Troy, painting by Federico Barocci, 1598

Or as the poet Virgil put it in The Aeneid some 1,900 years earlier,

Possunt quia posse videntur.

In the 17th century, the English poet John Dryden translated that as,

“For they can conquer who believe they can.”

Note the absence of the pessimist’s perspective. Virgil had no time for losers.

Stories shape perspective
Homer’s focus: Achilles bandages his wounded lover, Patroclus By Sosias (potter, signed), 500 BCE

The Aeneid is itself an example of perspective shaping a story. Virgil revisits the story of the Trojan War, a mythological decade-long siege of Troy by Greek forces.

It’s the same general story the Greek poet Homer told so memorably a millennium earlier in his epic The Iliad. While both poems share some characters, Homer and Virgil focus on different aspects of the war and highlight its stories from different perspectives.

Eight million stories

One of the first police procedural dramas on American television always ended with the voiceover:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This was one of them.”

Homer and Virgil might have said the same thing about the city they chronicled. So can you—whatever story you’re telling. Start with your own perspective, your own feelings and observations, and you’re much more likely to create something original.

Proof that stories shape perspective

In the Picture Is Worth 1,000 Words Department, I give you this video from Canon. Six photographers take pictures of the same man. Each hears a different story about him, and those stories shape the portraits they produce.

Have a look. And think about how the stories you tell yourself shape your perspective.

Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

The cliché makeover — tell a story

cliché makeoverHow many times have you waded glassy-eyed through the personality-type alphabet soup? Introvert-extrovert…I’m sure there’s valuable science in there, but all those acronyms—ESFJ, INTP—make my brain hurt. Still, when you’re dealing with people, it’s important to understand the different personality types you might encounter. Don’t just present the same old material in the same old ways; give it a cliché makeover

That’s what my friend Joan Garry did in her book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. And at the risk of digressing, I often remind my writers to put themselves in their story especially when they’re dealing with subjects that might seem clichéd because while many other people can write about an issue, no one can write about it from your perspective. You’re not going to find a Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership written by Joe Smith. You know from the get-go you’re getting Joan’s advice, delivered from Joan’s perspective.

And Joan’s perspective can be wildly inventive sometimes. Perhaps that explains why we’re friends.

Cliché makeover: Personality types

So, the personality types. Instead of the ENTJs, Joan presents us with a series of archetypes. And not the standard Joe Go-Getter. No, she gives us characters we all know well:

Kermit the Frog

And then she invites you to choose one for your next board chair or executive director.

Each contender has something to recommend him. Of Superman, for instance:

“Would you say ‘No’ to him if he asked you for a donation?”

You have to admit, that’s an excellent point.

Joan uses real-world anecdotes to demonstrate what each character could offer in terms of nonprofit leadership. Finally, she outs herself as

“an ‘SK’—a Superman-Kermit combo. (Yes I am now making fun of every personality profile test you’ve ever been subjected to at work or during a retreat.)”

The gentle parody of the cliché makeover makes the material memorable.

Perhaps in the next edition she can find a place for Wonder Woman.

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“Reverse direction”—painting advice works for writing too

“Reverse direction.” Okay, that’s not what my friend’s painting teacher told her. He told her to turn her painting upside down, but the SEO gods only know one direction: up.

reverse direction to get another perspectiveWhat happens when you turn your painting upside down? Well that still-life you’re drawing stops being a bowl of fruit and a bottle of wine. Instead, it becomes a collection of shapes, of light and shadows. Draw that and when you turn the canvas rightside-up again, you’re likely to have the best wine bottle and fruit bowl you’ve ever drawn. Because you were thinking about it from a different perspective.

Of course, that advice works for writers too. Tell the story backwards. Bring a seemingly minor detail to the forefront. Take a different approach.

Change your perspective. It might turn an ordinary message into something memorable.

Reverse direction — platitudes become profound

One of my clients gave me permission to share some of my work for her in my class last week. I wanted to show them how the right story can elevate an ordinary message.

“Take care of yourself,” “unplug,” “focus on the task at hand”—these are not messages likely to stir anyone’s soul. But find the emotional center and weave a story around that, and what might seem to be platitudes turn into memorable advice. These true stories resonate with her audience; they write back and share their own experiences. They are engaged, finding the truth of the message in their own lives. And the more an audience engages with you, the longer they will remember what you have to say.

And the truth shall make you unique

There’s another benefit to this storytelling. Because we’re using true stories and talking about my client’s honest reaction to them, we know her message will be unique. Anyone can say, “I taught my daughter to ride a bicycle this weekend. It taught me the value of persistence. You can do anything you put your mind to!” Only my client can say,

“Letting go was the hardest part. For me, not for my daughter. She kept shouting, ‘I’ve got this, mom! Let go!’ And I did. And she did.”

And then we weave in the business part. For the record, I made that stuff up about the bicycle. To paraphrase what they used to say on TV, the anecdotes have been changed to protect the innocent.

But coming at your message sideways instead of head on, that’s the key to it all. Reverse direction and see what happens.

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If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it? — Frequent Questions

Q: If writer’s block isn’t real, why do so many writers have it?
A: Because they think they should.

True story: I used to have a stereo whose sound cut out intermittently. Speaker wires coming loose or something. The problem persisted for a good long while. Annoying, but an easy fix: just jiggle some connections.

writer's block
Jacket design for the original London cast recording, released in the U.S. by RCA

One Saturday morning long, long ago, I was kneading bread, happily singing along to a record playing on the stereo. The original London cast album of Side by Side by Sondheim, if you must know. The first track finished and I waited for the next song to begin—”You Must Meet My Wife,” a slyly acerbic duet. Only…nothing. No sound at all.

The speakers must have cut out again, I thought. But I couldn’t do anything about it; my hands were covered in dough. So I resigned myself to kneading in silence. Then I realized that “You Must Meet My Wife” was not the second song on that side. It was another duet, “The Little Things.” And the moment I realized I’d been listening for the wrong song, I heard the music again.

It wasn’t the speakers that broke; it was my brain. Having decided which song I would hear, I became incapable of hearing the song that actually played. Once I adjusted my expectations, allowed myself to be in the moment, I heard the real song loud and clear.

I think writer’s block is like that.

Don’t pathologize writer’s block

I suppose I could have reacted differently to the blip in my hearing. If the internet had been around back then, I might have Googled “sudden hearing loss” and gone down a rabbit hole of diagnoses, each scarier than the one before. But I didn’t have the internet (or health insurance, for that matter), so I just chalked it up to a strange case of mind over matter. And filed it away as a metaphor that would surely come in handy some day.

Like today.

Maybe you have something think you should write—like the thank-you note to Grandma. Or something you’re scared of writing—like that semi-autobiographical novel. Or something you have to write—that unaccountably boring assignment from your client. I should state for the record that my clients’ assignments never bore me, but I can imagine that such things make the Muse run screaming in the opposite direction. And who can blame her?

Does that mean there’s something wrong with you? No, it means you’re a human being. A creative one. And there’s a reason Henry Ford didn’t put writers on his assembly line: we can’t turn out an unbroken stream of quality words every time the factory whistle blows.

Thinking, not knowing exactly what to write every time you look at your keyboard—they’re perfectly normal processes. Don’t pathologize a perfectly normal process. Because once you allow yourself to believe that “writer’s block” is real, it’ll come back again and again. And writing will become progressively more difficult.

Hear the music that’s playing

Maybe you’re listening for the wrong tune. So be present and try writing to the tune that is playing.

Set yourself a writing exercise. Write something irredeemably silly. Write something serious—but write it in crayon. And not the staid black crayon, either. I’m talking neon green.

Allow your pet rabbit to take over as guest author and write the next chapter from her perspective. Get out of your lane, get out of your head. And stop thinking it’s writer’s block. Because writer’s block doesn’t exist.

If you’re secretly attached to your files full of unfinished writing …if you enjoy collecting rejection emails…if you worry that effective marketing would generate too much income for your business DO NOT register for my VIP class on Revision.

“A separate reality” — Malcolm Gladwell on writing for the ear

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience.”

separate realityThe second season of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast doesn’t begin until Thursday (June 15th—mark your calendars!). But in searching for it, I found an interview he did last summer with writer Virginia Heffernan. They talk for a bit and then Gladwell recreates the final episode of Revisionist History Season 1, and then there’s more talking and some Q&A.

One of the things that struck me was Gladwell’s comment about writers creating private experiences within their work, jokes or phrases that only they (and perhaps a select group of friends) know about.

This came up after Heffernan asked him about the experience of writing for the “radio” versus for the page. She said she heard a kind of irony in his delivery—something more than the “just the facts” delivery of the news anchor and he said:

“There’s always a separate reality to what you’re writing that’s specific to you and your experience. Your father or mother will use some phrase and you throw it into a story and every time you see it you’re kind of—. So when you’re reading, you’re reliving all of that and it’s coming out in the way you talk in a way that you’re not consciously aware of.”

I’ve done that once. Someone challenged me to use the phrase “pink satin”—or perhaps it was “hot pink satin.” And I worked it into a blog post seamlessly. But, yes, if I had to read it aloud—as Gladwell does—I can imagine I’d smile. And my listeners would hear that smile creep into my voice. Absolutely, that hot pink satin exists in an entirely separate reality from whatever concept I was writing about. It would show.

Is all writing a “separate reality”?

When you get right down to it, though, isn’t everything we write a separate reality? We may not always choose our words based on a dare, but we do choose them. That’s why no two accounts of any event will be identical. The things that resonate with me may not resonate with you.

I think I’ll use the idea of separate reality in the retreat I’m planning for next spring: Maybe I’ll show my writers something, or give them an experience, and have them write about it. Ooh, yes. That’s going into the planner.

Thanks to Malcolm Gladwell and Virginia Heffernan. And, seriously, listen to Revisionist History. It’s like New Yorker articles for your ears.

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

The “radical overconfidence” challenge

“Radical overconfidence” is like stage makeup. If you’ve got enough makeup on to look good in the daylight, you’ll wash out completely onstage. To command the audience’s attention from the stage, you’ve got to exaggerate your features. Make your eyes pop with some false eyelashes. Redden up those lips.

Sara Benincasa practices radical overconfidence
Sara Benincasa, photo by Iconic Pinups

And so it is with radical overconfidence. Especially for women, what we identify as regular-strength confidence remains all but undetectable to other people (especially the male people). So slap on the metaphorical false eyelashes and learn how to be radically overconfident.

I first encountered the concept in Sara Benincasa‘s funny, practical, and poignant book Real Artists Have Day Jobs (And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School).

Now, we’ve all seen people whose confidence far outpaces their abilities. (In fact, you may feel that such a person resides in a certain edifice—let’s describe it as a white house—in Washington.) No one wants to be that person. Well, no one with a modicum of self-awareness. As a result, many of us over-correct. Instead of radical overconfidence, we practice radical underconfidence.

The problem is, that doesn’t get us anywhere. Underconfidence keeps the brilliant woman manager from speaking up in a meeting; overconfidence keeps the arrogant men in the room from listening when she finally does. In the world of creativity, underconfidence keeps perfectly good writers from sharing their work even with a writing group—while overconfident writers pound out the book proposals and ink publishing deals. Or self-publish their poorly written drivel.

Radical overconfidence and you (…okay, and me too)

Benincasa writes about “radical overconfidence” in the context of walking into a meeting, perhaps a pitch meeting:

“What would happen if I engaged in radical overconfidence?….if I displayed chutzpah aplenty—the sass and strength that I imagine are the rightful possession of a richer, bolder, better-looking person? What would go down if I waltzed into that joint with my head high, my smile bright, my shoulders squared, and my heart brimming with the belief that I kick fucking ass?”

What indeed?

For Benincasa, radical overconfidence means advocating for herself:

“Rather than being sweet and unassuming, I had to be bold and brave. I could still be nice. I could still be kind. I could still celebrate other people’s achievements and glean wisdom and understanding from studying their feats….But enough of the meek shit….If I was to get what I wanted from life—or at least from the entertainment and publishing industries—I had to act like I owned it. I had to act like I was owed it by virtue of my sheer awesomeness. I had to display radical overconfidence.”

So here’s my challenge—to you and to myself. Let’s practice radical overconfidence. Start with one act of radical overconfidence a day, every day for a week. Just once a day, walk into a room like you own it. Hand something you’ve written to a trusted advisor and ask them to read it. Publish something you’ve written on Medium.

Don’t think you’re good enough? Have you read some of the stuff on Medium? Yes, there’s a lot of good writing on Medium and elsewhere. But I bet you could find five pieces that aren’t nearly as good as the piece you’re afraid of releasing in the world. Without even breaking a sweat.

Get in touch with your “sheer awesomeness” and “be bold and brave.” Put your work out into the world. Listen to Sara Benincasa:

“Life is too short to waste time pretending to be small and inconsequential when you are actually as vast and powerful as a distant star.”

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

Changing perspectives — data with a human face

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Data”? Unless you’re a science fiction fan, chances are you’re thinking “numbers.” One of our jobs as writers is changing perspectives on data—helping people to grasp what those numbers mean. What they reflect about the world, about us.

Changing perspectives
Sallie Krawcheck knows how to tell a story with data. Photo by Grace Villamil, CC BY 2.0

Sallie Krawcheck does this about as well as anyone I’ve encountered—including master storyteller and genius investor Warren Buffett. But that doesn’t surprise me. Krawcheck started out as a financial analyst. And successful analysts know how to turn numbers into memorable prose, raw data into recommendations people will follow.

Today, as CEO of the global professional women’s network Ellevate, she’s set her sights on changing perspectives—women’s perspectives about their relationship to money; the business world’s perspectives about its relationship to women. Judging from her book Own It: The Power of Women at Work, she’s doing a damn fine job of that, too.

Changing perspectives — name your data points

Let’s take the subject of how few women hold seats on corporate boards of directors. Depending on how you slice the pie, it’s 15%, 14%...I haven’t seen any number larger than 20%.

Now there are lots of ways to talk about 20%—one in five, two out of ten. Admit it: your eyes are already starting to glaze over. And you care about this stuff. Imagine trying to sell it to someone who doesn’t see how it affects him.

So what does Sallie Krawcheck do? Instead of reeling off numbers, she names her data points:

“There are literally more men named John, Robert, William, or James on corporate boards than there are women.”

Is that brilliant positioning or is that brilliant positioning?

Okay, it doesn’t tell you the actual data—she leaves that for the footnote. But giving human form to the numbers turns the data from an abstraction into something people can easily relate to.

Changing perspectives—getting people to look at a familiar subject in a new way—helps people develop empathy, and empathy creates change. We need a whole lot more empathy in the world. Telling stories instead of reciting data seems a great place to start.

Shape your stories to make them memorable—discover how in my hands-on revision workshop. Click here and I’ll let you know when we launch.

What the audience wants. (Hint: It’s not you.)

Fresh off a great session with the folks in my 12-week writing program, talking about what the audience wants, and I run into this helpful gem from

4 Common Mistakes To Avoid In Job Interviews

What do job interviews have to do with writing? Not much.

But what do job interviews have to do with delivering what the audience wants? Absolutely everything. Job interviews are all about the audience—the people you want to hire you.

Yet most interviewees walk into the situation assuming it’s all about them. As a certain elected official might say: “Sad!”

Your audience at an interview doesn’t care that your current boss is a certifiable narcissist. In fact, as writer Ashley Stahl points out, talk trash about anything and you might as well tattoo a giant, red NOPE on your forehead. (Seriously, would you want to be the next boss of someone who’s got a track record of complaining about her bosses?)

Focus on the audience and you’ll avoid committing what Stahl calls “job interview suicide.”

give the audience what the audience wantsWhat the audience wants — it’s not what you think

I understand why you think the audience wants to hear about you. Whether you’re interviewing for a job or giving a speech, they did invite you to talk with them.

But what the audience really wants in just about any situation is to hear about themselves and what you can do for them.

As Stahl writes:

“Too often I hear about job seekers getting caught up in sharing context about their day-to-day [Note: it’s not about you!], and as a career coach I beg them to focus on their achievements.”

She advises her clients to prepare two bullet points about their accomplishments in each job they’ve held and to:

“…make sure to share at least one of your achievements as they relate to the job you’re interviewing for.”

That’s my emphasis added. Translation: Think about what your audience wants to hear. Show them you’ve considered their needs by filtering your experiences through their lenses, not just yours.

Frame your story in a way that people in the audience can see themselves in it. It’s not about what you accomplished—it’s about what you learned, how you grew, what impact your work had on your company or your clients. And don’t expect statistics to do all the heavy lifting for you. Data points mean nothing unless you can frame them in human terms.

So talk about about the results you got for your company; people in business like results. But also talk about the emotional impact your work has had. Help your audience see how the things you do make the world a better place. That’s not just you tooting your own horn; that’s you offering information your listeners can adapt to fit their own lives or business situations.

Be yourself—it’s the only choice you have

Very few people are the first in the world to do something. Chances are that whatever you’ve done, your audience has already met people who’ve done the exact same thing—especially in a job interview, where they talk to many people with virtually identical skill sets. But you can guarantee that no one else they’ve interviewed is you. So your best option—in fact, your only option—is to be yourself.

Stahl writes:

“In a world where our workspace can often demand that you’re ‘putting on a face,’ you can set yourself apart with one unique quality, and that’s authenticity.”

For interviews Stahl recommends “talking to the prospective [employer] as if they’re a distant family friend.” That frame makes sense to me for an interview: it builds in some distance that can keep you from sharing Too Much Information.

I often advise people writing speeches for themselves to imagine they’re talking with a colleague—and make sure it’s a colleague you like! That generally helps eliminate some of the stiffness an inexperienced speaker (or speechwriter) might feel.

During your first prep session, pull up a chair and tell your imaginary colleague some stories related to the topic of your speech. Stories about your work, about your education, about the time you realized this was the profession you were destined to follow, about the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on the job. Record the ramblings and then sort through them the next day. Not everything will be usable in your speech, but the best anecdotes will stand out. And they’re stories that nobody but you can tell.

Just keep your audience’s perspective in mind when you tell them.

Want to get better at writing speeches? Click here to get my free tips for speakers and I’ll notify you when my next speechwriting webinar launches.