Since launching this newsletter, a number of subscribers have emailed me with questions about the work I do, how I do it and where I find the time to do it all. In this last episode of Here’s One Thing About Writing, the video series I created to share tips and strategies I’ve learned and adopted to help improve my practice, I’m answering four of these questions, including how I got to write well in English even though English is not my native language.
You can watch the video for the answers or read the transcript pasted below it. If there’s anything else you want to know, drop me a note in the comments section. And if you’re a paid subscriber, stay tuned for a Calendly link in September to book 15 minutes with me, along with the first installment of Unfiltered, a conversation with creatives about how they handle everyday life challenges.
With love and purpose,
By Fernanda Santos is a reader-supported publication. To receive all new posts and support my work, consider becoming a paid subscriber if you’re not one already.
Hi, I'm Fernanda. And we're here with the sixth episode of this series that I have called “Here Is One Thing About Writing.”
So, over the past several months, I've received a number of questions from you with curiosities about my writing process, all the different things I do, even how I got to write in English, which is not my native language. So I picked some of these questions and I'm going to answer them today. But if you have additional questions that you want me to answer, feel free to post something in the comments or just send me an email and I promise to get back to you. Let's get started.
The first question I got here for you is from someone who wrote, “I often struggle with figuring out how to start my stories. What is the hardest part of writing for you?”
I also struggle with writing my stories, but I used to struggle with that a lot more. One of the videos that I have, the first video, actually I talk about that. I have being very intentional about thinking about what my story is really about. I sit with my material after I finish reporting, after I've done all the interviewing that I think I need — of course there's always some extra stuff that's needed. I look at all the research that I've done, all the different things I've read. And I frame in one sentence that's clear, concise, very specific what my story is about. And that way, when I'm thinking about how to start this story, I have that destination in mind, that focus in mind, that point in mind, and it really makes it easier for me.
But I'm not going to lie and say that I sit and like magic words flow out of my fingers onto the screen, that's not how it is. The reality is that starting a story is often the most frustrating part for me. It's often the time when I really regret actually haven become a writer. And I feel like I should have picked something different to do — Why didn't I decide to be a lawyer like my mom? But then once I get past that hurdle, everything sort of falls into place, especially when I am very intentional about framing the focus of the story, keeping that in mind and using that to guide every single decision I make. So, I hope that's helpful to you and I hope that next time is set down to write starting your story it's not so hard.
Here's the next question I have. “When did you learn English and how did you learn how to write in English?” So, first of all, thank you for thinking that I write well. I happen to agree. I think I'm a pretty good writer; it's okay to be honest about our skills and our abilities. I'm always growing, always learning. But I do know that I have gotten to a point where I can express myself really well with words that are not in a language that's my native language. I am from Brazil, so Portuguese is my native language. I'm also fluent Spanish and I speak some French, at the very least enough to have conversations with taxi drivers when I go to New York and they're from Ivory Coast or some French speaking country in Africa.
But, anyway, I started learning English at the age of nine in Brazil. My father was actually passed up for a promotion because he couldn't speak English. So he was very adamant about me and my siblings going to school after school to have English classes and learn how to speak English. But of course it wasn't until I moved here as an adult at the age of 25 to go to graduate school that I realized that, okay, I do speak some good English, but gosh, there's a lot still for me to learn. The best way for me to learn, I found out, was to watch TV, to learn the pace of the language, to learn the colloquial way that people express things that I had learned how to express in a much more formal way. And my teachers were all British, actually, so I used to pronounce words even funnier than I do these days.
So, over time I went from trying to mimic the way other people write to actually writing with the words that I know. In other words, instead of aiming for something that is not natural to me, I said, how about figuring out what comes naturally to me, what is my style, my voice, and then work to get that to come across when I put words on a screen or on paper, or however the words come out these days? So, it just requires a lot of practice, like everything in life. I look at my early stories here in this country — when I first moved here, I was a reporter for the Union News and Sunday Republican in Springfield, Massachusetts — and I cringe a little bit. But I am also very proud of myself for having come as far as I have. And I still have some places to go.
Here's another question. “I am 68 years old and I have decided to take writing classes to improve my writing. What advice do you have for someone who's just getting started?” Well, one advice you already gave us, right? Take some classes. Hear what other people have to say about writing. Take what's helpful to you, leave behind what doesn't apply to you, what doesn't agree with you. Read. Read a lot. Read different things. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read funny and read sad. Read random things that you find in, I don't know, manga at the bookstore, but also read the deep type of books with tons of words and pages that are written in a different spirit, with a different approach. And then figure out as you read all these different things, as you experience writing done by others, what moves you the most? What pulls you in the most? And then, with that, you can kind of start defining sort of like your area of interest and maybe eventually even an area of expertise.
I developed a great interest in human-driven stories. My stories are focused on people. They're built around people, even policy and politics. The stories that I write about are focused on the people who are experiencing the effects of those policies or the results of a certain type of politics in a certain kind of place. The book that I wrote about 19 firefighters is focused on the human story — who were these men? I am very much driven by human-focused stories. So, I've taken to paying a lot of attention to how writers introduce characters, how they develop their characters, how they might choose the details that make that character three dimensional or multidimensional to me.
Usually when we're starting out, we try to emulate others. Don't emulate others. Find who you are, find the writer within you and try to work hard every day to improve that writer that you already are. We're all born storytellers, right?
So I have two more questions that we're going to talk about. The next one is — oh, I love this one! “You do so much, how do you find time?” Had you walked into my house when Ike Easley, who is doing this video here with me, walked in, you would've seen that my life sometimes is complete chaos, but it's kind of organized chaos. I do a lot of things at once for a certain time of the day. I kind of set aside time when I can multitask and it's okay to multitask because the tasks that I'm engaged in are not task that require my full and complete concentration.
So for example, this morning, I had to deal with talking to my editor from the Washington Post, who called about a column that he wants me to write. So we had a conversation about that. And right after I hung up the call, I knew that somebody was arriving, an electrician was arriving, to do something in my garage. And then right after I finished talking to the electrician, my daughter's math tutor arrived to give her a math class. And then Ike arrived with all his equipment to do this video. I knew that these things were going to happen back to back to back to back. But I said I can handle all these different things within this timeframe of my day. Then right after I'm finished here, I'm going to eat because I’ve got to eat, feed my body and my brain, and then I am going to sit down and write for two hours. When I do that, I turn off all my notifications. I put away my phone, I don't check my email. It is my writing time. My daughter knows that. I close the door. She doesn't bother me unless the house is burning down, as I tell her.
So I think it's all about prioritizing, figuring out how much can you do all at once and for how long can you do different things at once. Can you have your mind like different tabs open in your head at the same time and when is it that it's time to close all these tabs, leave just one open and focus on that. If you kind of break down your day in that way, maybe you will be able to do a lot of different things. Not everybody is wired the same way. I actually have a lot of envy of people who can just focus on one thing and spend the whole day on it. I'm a little bit all over the place so it works for me to have times of the day when I'm multitasking, but it's also really helpful to me to have times of the day that I'm focused on one thing. Nighttime is for my daughter. I pick her up from school. It's her time. That's also part of my prioritizing and part of the many things that I do. I'm also a mother, I'm first and foremost a mother. So, you know, it's one suggestion. There's no formula to this. You got to kind of try and see what works for you.
So, the last question. “I know you're working on a book” — a friend of mine asked this question — “can you tell us what it's about?” I think she wanted to know what the book is about and I told her, “I'll talk to you about it some other time.” So, yes, I am working on a second book. It's a memoir and it's a completely different kind of writing than any of the writing I've done. I've done a lot of personal essays recently. But this is a whole book that is based on ... Not based on it, it is about my life. It's about, in one sentence, how I, with the death of my husband, lost the America that he taught me how to love, and then I had to find new meanings for self, home and country as my daughter and I were left here to figure out life on our own.
So this is my short pitch, a very short pitch. Hopefully it's interesting and then when the book comes out, you will want to read about it. I am almost finished with my manuscript. It's going to my beta readers. They're going to take a look at it, give me their feedback. My agent has been very patiently waiting to get the manuscript, but we decided to go with the full manuscript for this one to see the whole story developed and see how I can make it better. I have no idea when it's coming out, but I hope that it will be within the next six months. Maybe within the next six months I will have a publisher and then we'll go from there. But if you stick around, you continue to follow me, you continue to read my newsletters on Substack, you continue to watch the videos, you're going to be the first one to know whenever I have any news to share about this book.
But for now, this is what I have for you. I really appreciate you being here, believing in me and most of all, investing in yourself. See you next time.
By Fernanda Santos is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.