Friday, September 28, 2012

Susan Orlean at the Travel Writers Conference: on writing and immersion

Susan Orlean signs books at the Travel Writers Conference
Susan Orlean--prolific journalist, author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, and staff writer for The New Yorker--says her approach to writing a story is to just go and spend time with someone. Her preference is to throw herself into new situations. No agenda, no prepared questions. She calls it "a sort of emotional Outward Bound."

At this year's Travel Writers and Photographers Conference, held at Book Passage each August, Orlean was interviewed before an audience by conference chair and travel editor Don George.

Orlean likened immersion journalism to travel writing in that both forms follow "a voice of beckoning."

And, like travel, no matter how many times she meets success she inevitably faces "panic, despair and deep, existential loneliness." Part of her reporting process is telling a magazine she has no story.

"There's nothing worse than wandering around Midland," she said of the place in Texas where George W. Bush claimed he wanted to be buried. No story leads. Panic. Despair. Until she attended a real estate office BBQ and a petroleum luncheon "with crispy, 90-year-old oil men." The result: A Place Called Midland.

Orlean said she always wanted to be a writer. As a child she wrote little storybooks about her family's trips. She "always thought writing was magical," but she didn't know what kind of writer she wanted to be until an article in LIFE magazine caught her eye in high school. It was a slice of life story of a small town family doctor.

"I thought, 'I want to do that kind of story,' " said Orlean. So she made a pros and cons list, something like this--

Pros: fun, interesting.
Cons: no jobs, don't know how.

Thankfully none of the cons panned out. Her father urged--even bribed--her to go to law school (he's a lawyer who wanted to be a writer), but she convinced him to give her a year to try.

Susan Orlean (photo credit: Gaspar Tringale)
"I want to do this so badly, you've got to hire me!" she told a tiny monthly magazine in Oregon, where she moved after college. Her only experience was editing her high school yearbook, which she even brought to the interview! Nevertheless, her passion convinced them to give her the job. So far, avidly reading The New Yorker was her only training, but she soon realized she had good instincts for what makes a good story.

"If I'm curious about something, it's a story idea," Orlean said. "I see a narrative in the discovery."

Learning on the job, including being mentored by her editor at Willamette Week (an alternative news weekly), Orlean said, was the equivalent to graduate school. She moved on as a columnist at The Boston Globe and as a contributor to Rolling Stone and Vogue, then wrote for the "Talk of the Town" section of The New Yorker before becoming a staff writer in 1992.

One thing Orlean was clear about from the get-go was she didn't want to be a daily journalist, reporting the news. She has always followed the path she was initially inspired by: immersion journalism, or what Robert S. Boynton refers to as "reportorially based, narrative-driven long-form nonfiction" in the introduction to his book The New New Journalism: Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft. (Orlean is one of 19 authors interviewed in the book, which I read in my Research for Writing class with Lisa Harper at USF.)

Take her story of a grocery store. 10,000 words. Most people wouldn't know what could be exciting about that. Leave it to Orlean to find a gem: she profiled the owner, whose kids had gone off to college and wanted nothing to do with the family business, and who decided to pass on his trade to a dedicated employee--a young immigrant.

"I felt like I was looking at the story of America," she said.

Orlean shoots the breeze with the locals. She pays attention. At day's end she writes notes on textures and impressions. She begins to gain mastery of the information, gets to know her subject. When she starts to hear the story in her head, she knows she's ready for a story to take shape. That's when the writing craft kicks in.

Orlean's advice: Create "a rhythmic, paced experience," engaging a reader from the first to the last word. If a theme hasn't emerged, then you haven't done enough reporting. Find the narrative arc, using a phrase or image that "clicks." Read your work out loud. Teach yourself to hear movement in a piece.

"As a writer you dream of a reader feeling they've gone somewhere."

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