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Writing For Your Life Today

It makes a difference where and when we grew up

Malcolm Gladwell brings the Matthew Effect to popular attention in his book Outliers, which I warmly recommend. Gladwell blows apart the fanciful notion of rags-to-riches success.

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact, they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

“It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It’s only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.”

From “Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds” by Mark W. Schaefer

The Intriguing Opening

We’ve become all too used to clickbait headlines we see on the web (“10 Surefire Ways to Lose Weight: You Won’t Believe #7”). Creating intrigue is a valid approach, but we shouldn’t follow the formula of being somewhat misleading and crassly provocative. Better options are available. 

Making readers curious is the flipside of the thesis opening. Instead of being straightforward, we are oblique and mysterious. We rouse their interest, and in doing so encourage them to keep reading to find out what we mean, how what we say could be true, or what will happen next.

You may not believe me, but I have news about global warming: Good news, and better news.

Noah Smith, “The End of Global Warming,” The Atlantic

Smith sets up a thesis that is contrary to much conventional wisdom, but he doesn’t exactly tell us how this could be the case. We definitely want to read the next sentence. 

The following one-page prologue offers us a gripping mystery.

It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research. During what Europeans were pleased to call the Age of Discovery, Jesuit priests were never more than a year or two behind the men who made initial contact with previously unknown peoples; indeed, Jesuits were often the vanguard of exploration…..

The mission to Rakhat was undertaken not so much secretly as privately – a fine distinction but one that the Society felt no compulsion to explain or justify when the news broke several years later.

The Jesuit scientists were to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem  Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God.

They meant no harm.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow

In this novel about making first contact with an unknown culture, the first line and the last line of the prologue set off a string of issues: What was predictable in hindsight? How could their good intentions go so horribly wrong? And what exactly did go wrong? These questions drive us to the end of the book to find out what happened and why.
from “Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality” by Andrew T. Le Peau, Intervarsity Press

Breakthroughs usually take time to develop

The snap judgments of intuition – as powerful as they can be – are rarities in the history of world-changing ideas. Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they are transformed into something more substantial: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another lunch lingering in another mind, or by an internal association that finally completes the thought. Because these slow hunches need so much time to develop, they are fragile creatures, easily lost to the more pressing needs of day-to-day issues. But that long incubation period is also their strength, because true insights require you to think something that no one has thought before in quite the same way. Flash judgments are often just that – judgments. Is this guy trustworthy or not? Is the sculpture a fake? A new idea is something larger than that: it’s a new perspective on a problem, or a recognition of a new opportunity that has gone unexplored to date. Those kinds of breakthroughs usually take time to develop.

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books

How to Make Your Story a Story for Others

Around my workplace, we often refer to our mission as “people for others.” St. Ignatius and his companions formed the Society of Jesus for the purpose of “helping souls.” Helping souls is at the heart of what most spirituality publishers are about. By definition, writing that is aimed at people who are either “spiritual” or “religious” endeavors to help them in their spiritual development.

Writing is quite a solitary experience. The words begin in one person’s mind and out of that person’s interest or passion. Then, when it’s in the process of publication, this spirituality writing becomes a business venture, because even not-for-profit publishing houses must stay in business. 

So even though it’s a big deal to write a story, it’s an even bigger deal to make it a story for others. In pulling that off, the writer must transcend her individual realm and deliver something that the publisher can market and sell. What a world. 

My job is helping writers turn their stories into stories for others. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

  • Understand that what helps you write the story will not necessarily help someone else read the story.
  • Respect the experiences and vocabularies of the reader. 
  • Create a structure (outline, progression) that assists the reader in following where you go.
  • Remember that this is not about you.
  • Work from the assumption that your book makes a promise to the reader.
  • Create an experience for the reader.

from “The Art of Spiritual Writing” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

What is Cumulative Advantage?

Since Merton’s original paper debuted more than 50 years ago, the Matthew Effect is also more commonly referred to as Cumulative Advantage. 

The most accepted description of this idea is that the advantage of one individual or group over another grows over time, which means that the inequality of this advantage grows, too.

Cumulative Advantage magnifies small differences over time and makes it difficult for somebody who is behind to catch up.

  • Research shows that those who start with an initial advantage attain better career positions, wealth, social status, educational opportunities, and even health.
  • The Matthew Effect has been connected to those receiving Oscar nominations.
  • A research study of 20,000 athletes across four sports leagues concluded that those who had the initial advantage of early coaching as children had longer and more profitable professional careers. 

From “Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds” by Mark W. Schaefer

Creative Writing as a Spiritual Practice


by Debbie Bronkema

I say these words, and whatever room I’m in, I see a light go on in somebody’s eyes.  There are stories in us that are too hard to tell straight on.  There are ways we are desiring to grow that need words put to them, to feed our souls and connect us with the power of God.

Whether we are writing fiction, or telling our own stories through memoir, or putting poems to the page – we can feed our spirits by connecting with writing as a spiritual practice.  We can learn to be intentional, and attentive, to listen, and to experience gratitude. 

In the past ten years, as I’ve explored these places of intersection, I have witnessed the power of words to connect us with the Presence of God in our lives.  I have seen stories transform people’s relationships with each other and with God.

How does it work?  Here’s an easy place to get started.  Do you remember the haiku format –the three line 5-7-5 syllable pattern for poetry?  Slow down for a moment today, and notice something you want to remember, or something you are grateful for.  Then use this format to describe it.  You’ll notice you need to be extremely intentional with each word to make it convey what you really want it to say.

Want to know more?  Visit my website,  or email me at to learn about upcoming retreats and workshops,  or to connect with me through being part of an online writing or creativity group.

Humble Beginnings

Our exploration of the inner workings of Cumulative Advantage starts in 1968 with a Columbia University professor named Meyer Robert Schkolnick 

Meyer was born into a poor family of Russian Jews who had immigrated to the slums of South Philadelphia in 1904. “We were living the lives of those who would come to be known as the deserving poor,” he later wrote, “fueled with the unquestioned premise that things would somehow get better, surely so for the children.”

The immigrant family had trouble making ends meet in their new homeland, and a bad situation turned into catastrophe when his father’s uninsured dairy shop burned to the ground. Meyer had to go to work as an hourly laborer at an early age to help his struggling family. 

But despite his off-and-on schooling, Meyer became a serious scholar. By the age of five, he was walking by himself to the nearby Carnegie Public Library, immersing himself in books on science, history, and especially biographies. He was such a frequent visitor that the librarians adopted him as family.

As an adult, he later remembered that through this library, the “seemingly deprived South Philadelphia slum was providing a youngster with every sort of capital – social capital, cultural capital, human capital….everything except financial capital. 

From “Cumulative Advantage: How to Build Momentum for Your Ideas, Business, and Life Against All Odds” by Mark W. Schaefer

Memoir’s Small Frame

Memoir revolves in an orbit of its own choosing, and therefore its pieces are often unified by a theme or period of time. The material is always the author’s life, and the narrator, (the speaker, or “I” voice), is always the author. Unlike autobiography, which attempts as complete an account of one’s life as possible, starting from the beginning, memoir begins where it wishes and concludes when its story is told. Memoir is more elastic, unpredictable, and crafted than autobiography. Because memoir does not strive for a complete accounting of one’s life, it depends on other elements, typically themes, to give it form.

What are some of the grand themes of your life (abandonment, coming out, fear, courage, letting go)? What are the questions that you ponder when you wake up at night (or that recur in your journal) that you wish you could ask others about at potlucks or over tea? Make a list. The grand themes of your life become the grand themes of your memoir.

from “Writing the Sacred Journey: The Art and Practice of Spiritual Memoir” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Skinner House 

Understand the Difference between Personal and Public Writing


I’ve lost track of all the manuscripts that have come to my editorial desk from people who survived tragedy, who processed the experience through writing, and who then came to feel strongly that their written accounts would help others dealing with a similar tragedy. We editors dread the arrival of such manuscripts because we know that (1) 98 percent of these are not publishable and (2) regardless of their quality, they needed to be written. That is, people often need to process their lives by writing about their experiences, but needing to write is not the same as writing something that should be published.

That sounds cold, but honesty will take people further than polite denial will, and my desire is for people to move forward whatever their situation. So, for anyone out there who wants to understand the difference between personal and public writing, here’s what I’ve tried to communicate through more than a few carefully written rejection letters. 

  • Personal writing is for the person doing the writing.
  • Personal writing is too specific to one situation to translate well to anyone else’s situation. 
  • Personal writing helps those close to the event make some sense of it.
  • Personal writing has a specific purpose and needs no other justification.
  • Personal writing is usually emotional, passionate, and tunnel-visioned.
  • Public writing requires time to gestate and develop from the initial writing that generated it.
  • Public writing is shaped for the readers, not for the person writing it.
  • Public writing takes the concrete details of a single, personal experience to generate a discussion of the more universal experience readers will relate to. 

from “The Art of Spiritual Writing” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

Both environments are dense, liquid networks

A metropolis shares one key characteristic with the Web: both environments are dense, liquid networks where information easily flows along multiple unpredictable paths. Those interconnections nurture great ideas, because most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation. Genuine insights are hard to come by; it’s challenging to imagine a terrorist plot to fly passenger planes into buildings, or to invent a programmable computer. And so, most great ideas first take shape in a partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas. 

From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson

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