Corinna Fales: “Stupid is as Stupid Does”

Identifying as a victim (or even a survivor) will limit you — unnecessarily. You cannot identify as a victim and be or feel empowered. They are opposites. Identifying as a victim is a form of self-hatred because you are so much greater than anything you have experienced and doing the victim thing brings self-sabotage to create the […]

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Identifying as a victim (or even a survivor) will limit you — unnecessarily. You cannot identify as a victim and be or feel empowered. They are opposites. Identifying as a victim is a form of self-hatred because you are so much greater than anything you have experienced and doing the victim thing brings self-sabotage to create the victim reality. I know because I did it. But what happened to you is not you. The more you stick to a story of harm, the more it will stick to you. Do not let it become you.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Corinna Fales.

Corinna Fales is a professional writer and editor whose social activism led to this book. Her first book, Different: Our Universal Longing for Community, is an honest, interview-based conversation about race, class, and other differences between people. In 1983, she graduated from The State University of New York (SUNY) with a BS in Social Theory, Social Structure and Change; in 2000, she completed her MA in Social Policy, also at SUNY. She has held editorial positions at Columbia University, The City University of New York’s School of Professional Studies, nonprofits, public agencies, and non-governmental organizations; and has authored published articles on Alzheimer’s and more, as well as a field research report for the Library of Congress. In 2019, after fifty years in New York City — the last twenty-five of which were lived in Harlem, where she worked with kids in public housing to help give voice to their stories — Corinna moved to North Carolina. In 2020, she facilitated MLK Day for employees of Duke University’s Health System and continues to work to promote inclusion in the community. A still active #MeToo woman, she also maintains her freelance writing/editing business. Learn more at her website

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

I was in training to be a shrink (psychoanalytic psychotherapist) and had to present a case study to a group of senior shrinks so they could decide whether I was ready for the next level of training. In struggling for words to capture my patient, I found myself writing weird and unprofessional-sounding things, like “I could suddenly see her, and she was a lobster.” But they felt right. I could not maintain my integrity and change those descriptions, so I kept them. It was a huge risk. After my presentation, attendees praised my writing. And that was when I realized that I loved the writing rather than the topic. I loved the work of figuring out how to say what I wanted to say, as honestly and clearly as I could. Even better, I realized that it was only the thorny process of writing, itself, that had taught me what I really thought about the complex and difficult-to-describe case I chose to present. And that process — of learning something unexpected and often unwelcome about myself or what I really think, which occurs often when I write — is the most fascinating part of writing. (A bit more on that in a minute…)

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I didn’t begin my writing career till I was in my mid-forties. I had quit my career as a shrink and was disoriented, having given up my professional identity. Then I got a fascinating gig for the sociologist who developed the field of jury research. It involved interviewing a panel of murder-trial jurors to understand how they had arrived at their seemingly bizarre verdict. Again, I loved writing up my findings. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, I was asked to write a field research report for the Library of Congress (from notes the researchers had taken). A friend who had been offered the project did not have time to do it and said she was sure I could handle it. I was thrilled and terrified. Me — do that? Part of the report was later published. The rest is history.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

I was my own biggest challenge, as are many of us. To get out of my own way, I had to let go of an unconscious victim identity that had sabotaged me all my life. I overcame it with determination, courage, and years of deep work on myself with the help of some extraordinary therapists. (I describe some of my work with them in the book.) I had to be willing to see things about myself that I did not want to see, become who I really am, and write from that vulnerable and wiser space. I would not trade the experience for anything, tough as it sometimes was. Belonging to myself is the best thing there is.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I can’t think of a funny story that occurred when I was starting out, so I’ll tell you a story about a mistake I made somewhat earlier that relates to writing: I was living in a small town on the Hudson River, north of New York City. For a graduate-school research paper, I decided to learn about the town’s fire department and rescue divers. The report I wrote glowed with well-earned praise for the men, but I also noted a few sexist and racist remarks they had made (this was a long time ago). As I was about to deposit the completed report in the town library (as promised) for all to read, I realized that it might not be the smartest thing in the world to criticize the people who would respond — or not respond — if my house caught on fire! So I deleted those remarks, delivered the censored version to the library and only submitted the uncensored report to my professor. Good catch — important lesson!

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

In my professional work as a freelance writer/editor, I just completed collaboration with a gastroenterologist on a comprehensive patient guide to Disorders of Gut-Brain Interaction and am now beginning editorial work on the unusual memoir of a cancer survivor. Both projects are interesting, useful, and inspiring. In terms of my own writing, I am primarily involved in getting This book is NOT a safe space “out there” because I am passionate about its message. When I wrote my first book, Different: Our Universal Longing for Community, I had no idea that there was a second book in me. Then, one day, there it was. I will know when it’s time to write again. Meanwhile, I help other people with their writing, so I get to work with words all day, anyway. What fortune!

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I think readers will find it interesting to learn how and why I landed in Cook County Jail, and what I learned from that (Chapter 3). Also, “Stupid is as Stupid Does” (Chapter 4) is an outrageous and funny story about getting mugged; and my interview with Ayo (Chapter 11), who grew up in the one of the toughest neighborhoods in the country, is wise and deeply inspiring. (That’s three stories, sorry!)

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Identifying as a victim (or even a survivor) will limit you — unnecessarily. You cannot identify as a victim and be or feel empowered. They are opposites. Identifying as a victim is a form of self-hatred because you are so much greater than anything you have experienced and doing the victim thing brings self-sabotage to create the victim reality. I know because I did it. But what happened to you is not you. The more you stick to a story of harm, the more it will stick to you. Do not let it become you.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

Nothing can “make” you become a great author. But the following five things will help you become the best author you can be:

Find and maintain your genuine voice. If you have several different voices, use the one that fits the piece you are writing. My voice in my first book, Different, is not like my voice in This book is NOT a safe space, but both are me. Just be sure that you and your voice are always genuine.

Write from your heart, edit with your head. First, let it flow (unless it is more organic for you to do a lot of editing as you go). Then edit with fresh eyes. And always maintain your integrity in the writing process and the integrity of what you write. The content of both my books changed in significant ways from what I had planned because I chose to reckon with surprises that surfaced along the way and demanded to be heard.

Respect your creative process. Some people write every day as a matter of discipline and principle. I write only when I have something to say (but I do have the pleasure of working with words all day on my assignments as a professional writer/editor). For my own writing, once I know what I basically want to say, I let it develop organically. I just let it — and I listen. I have never even worked from an outline. Everyone’s creative process is different (and I am notably a nonfiction, not a fiction writer), so you need to figure out what works for you and do that.

Write because you must, not to become famous. Very few authors become famous. Write because you need to. And don’t try to impress. Honesty and integrity shine through. Trying too hard and phoniness do, too.

Think, discern, lose your ego. Think deeply about your subject (nonfiction or fiction), use a discerning eye when you edit, and scrap what does not serve the story, no matter how much you love the way you wrote it. Ego interferes with truth-telling and authenticity, and you need them to be a good author. Ego also interferes with learning from the writing process — which, as I noted, has led me to many unwanted surprises and confusions, all of which eventually deepened and enriched my work.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I follow two the key practices I have alluded to (1) Stay true to myself and maintain my integrity and the integrity of my writing, no matter what. (2) Respect the writing process when I discover something new about myself or what I think — then allow it to inform what I write. I have come up against places I really did not want to go, but I had to, to preserve my integrity and the integrity of the work. The story of how I landed in Cook County Jail is one such example. I was embarrassed to write it, but it kept clamoring in my brain for me to let it into the book, so I finally did. And I learned a lot from doing so and reprocessing my fourth and last jail experience through writing.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I am inspired by almost any fiction, nonfiction, and films that tell their story well. I love the delicious language of writers like Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Maya Angelou, and Anthony Doer, to name just a few. Above all, I love true stories (in books and in film) about courageous people who risk their lives for what is right, or who manage to overcome difficult circumstances (like Ayo, in Chapter 11), or who become real friends with people not from their milieu. I love true stories that show the human spirit in a down-to-earth, unglamorized way. The memoirs of Marjorie Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling and Jacob’s Ladder are an example. My favorite movie — Cross Creek — was made from those memoirs. And then, of course, there’s Brené Brown!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start the Open Eye / Open I movement to help us become open to each other once again. It would be a righteous, peaceful, truly inclusive, kind, loving movement of people working together to open our eyes and selves to what is going on in this country because we, the people, do not benefit from this split. We think we are “woke,” but we are not. Although we have finally become aware of many injustices (It’s been almost sixty years since I went to jail for civil rights), we are too focused on being angry at each other to notice who thrives while we tear each other apart through political correctness and cancel culture, or hurling accusations at the “other side.” (Cancel culture, BTW, is reminiscent of the Red Guard’s behavior in Maoist China during the so-called cultural revolution. Beware!) Also, since both sides of the press are a key part of the problem, we cannot learn from them. But we can stop our divisive behavior, even if we do not agree with each other. We can choose to get to know each other, learn about each other, talk with each other, and move toward each other. We can choose to stop being the naïve servants of interests that do not align with ours. We can have Open Eyes and Open I’s.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @corinna_fales


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