Writing tips from Susan Orlean

I adore fabulous people who admit that they suffer the same self-doubting crapola as the rest of us.

Susan Orlean, author of many bestselling books and writer at the New Yorker, claims to have wondered, basically, what the hell she was doing, while starting work on her latest book “Rin Tin Tin.” “All writers feel a little bit like fakes. Or am I the only one?” she asked this summer at the Mayborn Conference, which focuses on narrative nonfiction.

I stumbled across my conference notes recently, and here a bit of what the luminous Orlean said about writing “Rin Tin Tin,” which took her into a new world of historical research.

“Everyone who was important to the story was dead. And the rest of them were dogs.”

Orlean said that even though she dove into the history of Florida land scams and the exotic flower trade for “The Orchid Thief,” she worried that she didn’t know how to do the research for a project where all of the main characters kept dying. Google alerts on various “Rin Tin Tin” actors kept her mailbox full of obituaries. (“Just the word ‘archive,’ is like, boring”). She told her husband that anyone could look up the information she wanted. He told her, “Anyone could look it up, but you’re looking it up.”

“It’s never about the exclusivity of the material. It’s about you choosing to tell the story,” Orlean said.

I love that.

If you don’t know anything about the subject matter, that’s fine. Embrace the ignorance. You just learn to the point that you can be a teacher, and carry readers along on the process of learning.

“I’m interested in the experience of being a student,” Orlean said. “Part of the journey of the writing for me is writing about something I know nothing about.”

Orlean makes it fun to learn alongside her. If you haven’t read her before, try the story she wrote about a taxidermy convention (http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/lifelike.html) and another one about Midland as the home of George W. Bush (http://www.susanorlean.com/articles/a_place_called_midland.html).

And some writing tips from Orlean:

  • Reading aloud. Stories need pacing and must be absorbing. Orlean reads hers aloud to see if it has the right rhythm.
  • First readers. Find one. Orlean’s is her husband.
  • Notecards. Orlean uses them to lay out the flow of the story. You don’t want to see the whole of the story at once.
  • Keep reporting. She doesn’t get writer’s block. It’s “reporter’s block.” Stop and go do more reporting if you don’t know what to write.
  • Be a confident learner. Confidence is important as a reporter.
  • Lose the nut graf. (In journalism, this is the sentence or paragraph that tells you the point of the story, and it’s usually close to the top). At the New Yorker, Orlean said, “If you wrote a nut graf, it would be removed.” It forces you to look at: What is the story?
  • Everyone needs an editor. “Editors always see the logical holes,” Orlean said. “What you get from a great editor is you get pushed to the next level.”

The University of North Texas’ Mayborn Conference is held every summer in Grapevine, by far the most horrible time of year to go anyplace near Dallas, or really do anything in Texas other than swim. But the speakers, like Orlean, are so interesting that you won’t want to leave the air-conditioned comfort of the hotel conference room anyway. So don’t let the weather scare you away. It’s a friendly mix of authors, journalists, academics, students and writers of all sorts. (http://www.themayborn.com/conference-and-competitions)

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