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Last week, acclaimed journalist and Skillshare teacher Susan Orlean gave her students a special opportunity to ask her anything. Questions ranged from writing and teaching to stories she’s saving for a rainy day. Fellow Skillshare teacher Grace Bello even jumped in with a question!
The New Yorker staff writer recently launched her first online class, Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth With Style, where she shares her tips, techniques and secrets for writing a compelling portrait of the most mysterious person you know.
Check out some of the best questions and answers from Susan’s AMA below:
Do you keep a list of the story ideas you never pursued? Are there ever any that nag at you, that make you think there are some investigations you’d like to reopen? Or do you feel as though they are in their rightful place in the realm of stories that never were? (Alex Cornacchia)
SO: Hi Alex, yes, I do keep a list of stories that I just haven’t gotten around to. Most of them do nag at me — they’re good enough that I know I can always go back to them if I’ve run out of new ideas. Others I’m sure I’ll never do, but I like keeping a list so I never feel like I haven’t got any stories I can jump into during a dry spell.
Can you talk a little bit about the editorial process at The New Yorker? I’m curious about how much input your editor offers, how much research support you get from editorial assistants, etc. Thanks! (Grace Bello)
SO: The editors at the New Yorker offer as much (or as little) input as you want during the reporting and writing stage. The editing is, of course, a different matter, although it’s still very much a collaborative process: nothing is ever changed without the writer agreeing to it. And if there are disagreements, you talk it out and figure out a good compromise. The focus is always on making the story as good as it can be but also to keep it as much in the writer’s voice as possible. We don’t use the editorial assistants for any reporting, generally, although they help occasionally in tracking down sources. Some writers might have their own assistants to do more research but the magazine doesn’t provide that kind of support.
Really love in the class when you mention who has influenced you and the creative nonfiction field. Wondering who are some of your other favorite authors, both fiction and non, living and not? (Stephanie Frerich)
SO: Ah, my favorites: William Faulkner, Pat Barker, James Joyce, for fiction; John McPhee, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell for nonfiction. But there are so many more!!!
Hi Susan! I’m a huge fan of your work (I loved your webchat last year with Mary Roach) & also a new science writer myself. I’m interested in creating a book proposal and I was wondering — how do you personally usually begin your proposals after you have an idea that you want to research and pitch? (Callie Leuck)
SO: Hi Callie! I like to start by working out in my mind why I find the story compelling. I think the proposal should focus on that aspect — it needn’t “solve” the story but rather it should present the excitement and curiosity you feel about it, and how you think readers can be drawn into that excitement with you. Talk it out with someone before you start writing the proposal and explain why you want to do it and what’s exciting about the idea, ask the questions you want to answer, talk about how you’ll pursue them — and that’s your proposal.
How do you figure out what the theme is underlying your work? (Leslie Scrimshaw)
SO: Such an important question… and so essential to making work really deep. What I find is that the more I research and report a story, the more certain phrases resonate and echo, and I start making note of those. With The Orchid Thief, for instance, the idea of ‘passion’ kept presenting itself, no matter who I was interviewing and how different they were from each other, and I began to understand that was what the book was all about, on the deepest level. I think when you’ve really reported a story thoroughly and immersed yourself in it, the theme presents itself to you as the glue holding all your impressions together. If you haven’t found that, you might need to go deeper and learn more and ask yourself what you’re drawn to in the story beyond the most superficial layer.
What do you normally do when you have writer’s block? (Linh Cu)
SO: I walk away from my computer and take some time to just think about what I’m trying to say. I definitely do not sit at the computer banging away in frustration! Walk away, think about what you’re stuck on, see if what you need is more information (which is usually the case) and work on that until you’re ready to start again.
Can you recommend regular practices to incorporate hat might help nurture reporting and writing skills? (Najeeb Hasan)
SO: Hi Najeeb — the regular practices are the simplest ones. Read as much as you possibly can. Practice observation. Keep lists of words and phrases and sentences that thrill you. Tell stories out loud so you practice the rhythm and structure of story-telling. And most importantly, tell yourself often that you are a writer, and then embrace that.
Hi Susan – I’m wondering how you conquer self-doubt during the writing process. (Mallika Rao)
SO: Self-doubt is part of the writer’s psyche, no matter how much experience and success you might have. The fact is that being a writer is an act of boldness and nerve: You are standing up, figuratively, and saying “Listen to me!!” You have to feel entitled to do that, and there are a lot of times when you won’t. You’ll wonder why anyone should listen to you, or why what you have to say is worth saying, or whether what you say and how you say it is in any way unique enough to warrant attention. And the only cure for that is to remind yourself that you chose this, and that it’s a privilege to be heard, and that you can make someone see or hear something new, and that’s wonderful. And then you just keep going. And you have to remember you’ll feel that self-doubt frequently, and you just have to knock it down and continue on.
What is the hardest thing to teach when it comes to creative nonfiction? What do writers always get wrong? (Tony Levelle)
SO: The hardest thing to teach is voice, since it’s got to be innate and authentic. You can only help a writer feel confident enough to write in his or her own voice — you simply can’t create it for them.
Hi there – I’m really enjoying your online lectures, thanks so much for the inspiration! I’d like to ask: which project (short or long) has been the most difficult to structure and how did you end up finding a solution? (Jennifer Deayton)
SO: Hi! Glad you’ve liked the lectures. Structure is always the biggest challenge for me, and of course books are hardest simply because of the length and huge amount of material they involve. But the most frustrating piece I’ve ever tackled in terms of structure was a story I did for The New Yorker last year about Horse_ebooks, a conceptual art project on Twitter. I knew I couldn’t begin to tell the story without explaining all of those elements — what conceptual art is, what Horse_ebooks was, and even what Twitter was. It was absolutely maddening!