Eight Things We Learned About Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean has written about almost everything. In addition to being a staff writer for the New Yorker for more than two decades, she has contributed articles to globally recognized magazines such as Vogue and Esquire and has published eight nonfiction books, including The Orchid Thiefand Rin Tin Tin. The acclaimed journalist has had an exceptionally wide-ranging career. Wherever she writes, she has a unique way of transforming ordinary characters into extraordinary stories.

In her first Skillshare class, Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth with Style, launching today, Orlean shares intimate access to her writing process, from finding topics and speaking with subjects to what happens when she really sits down to write. We had a chance to sit down with the voraciously curious writer during the filming of her new class, where she talked with us about her motivation behind writing, the book she thinks that everyone should read and what music she’s listening to now.

Skillshare: If you have to sum it up in a few words, what are you passionately curious about? Susan Orlean: I suffer from an excess of curiosity I think, because there’s almost nothing I’m not curious about. If I were to have to define it though, I would have to say I’m really curious about how and why people live their lives the way they do. It might sound like a broad subject but that really is what interests me and what draws me into stories. I think it gives me a glimpse of life that’s very intimate, but also gives me a much bigger sense of life in general.

SS: What keeps you motivated and keeps you going? SO: I really love writing. I love the process of learning, and I love the experience of feeling that I’ve taken that learning and taught it to other people. It’s inspiring just on the pure face of it. It’s a great, great feeling, and that has motivated me from the very beginning and continues to be a thrill.

SS: Who inspires you? SO: My inspiration really comes from the long list of writers who have passed through the pages of The New Yorker. It was my dream to write for The New Yorker. It has a kind of history and enormous catalog of work that’s absolutely remarkable, and it continues to inspire me. It’s thrilling to be associated with what I think is the height of the creative nonfiction world. Being part of that is really inspiring. It can also be, at times, very intimidating but in the best sense. It gives me these very high standards to aspire to and the thrill of being a part of it.

SS: Do you have any new projects on the horizon? SO: I’m working on a new book about the Los Angeles Public Library. Both the life and times of the library and the arson fire that burned it down in 1986. So I am deep in the reporting on that and haven’t written a word yet, but that’s because I don’t know the whole story yet.

SS: What’s the next skill that you want to learn? SO: I would like to be really good at playing guitar.

SS: What is your favorite music right now? SO: My very favorite music at the moment is the Swedish band First Aid Kit. I love music in general, but that’s my current fixation.

SS: What is one book that you think everyone should read? SO: I think one of the many books everybody should read is starting with the basics, The Odyssey. If you want to look at great literature and great writing and the entire phenomenon of storytelling, you can start with something as fundamental as that, and you’ll learn an awful lot from it.

SS: If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be? SO: The one piece of advice I’d give myself is don’t be in such a hurry, and I would apply that to almost every aspect of my life.

Go behind-the-scenes and learn the basics of writing with Susan Orlean in Creative Nonfiction: Write Truth with Style.