How I Write: Susan Orlean
Published: January 22, 2002
|Literary journalist Susan Orlean has found her writing voice by focusing largely on ordinary people and capturing, as she once put it, "the stuff people usually miss." A staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992, her subjects have included a female matador, the title story in her latest book, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup; Hawaiian surf girls; artist Thomas Kinkade; an African king who drives a New York City taxi; and "The American Man, Age Ten." Her book The Orchid Thief journeys through the strange subculture of Florida's obsessed orchid collectors. (A movie treatment is planned, with Meryl Streep playing Orlean.) Saturday Night, a look at how Americans spend their favorite evening, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1990. Orlean graduated from the University of Michigan and wrote for alternative newsweeklies before breaking into magazines. She lives in New York City.|
Credits: The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup (2001); The Orchid Thief (1998); Saturday Night (1990); and Red Sox and Bluefish (1989), a collection of newspaper columns.
Why: I've never wanted to do anything other than write. It's like being a magician--taking words and making pictures with them, taking readers to places and into situations they'd never be in otherwise. It's something I've wanted to do since I was 5.
How: Once I'm done with my reporting, I type up all my notes, then read through them and highlight sections that I think I'll use, and then spread them out in front of me and sit there, brooding, twiddling my thumbs, making coffee, drinking coffee, brooding a little more, until a lead starts to tickle at the back of my mind. I write that and if it works, I keep going. I don't outline--I like to have the piece grow sort of organically. I work on each sentence until I think it's right, and then move on to the next. When I'm writing the last sentence, I'm usually done--it's then a close-to-finished draft at that point. I read the piece out loud a few times, listening for clunkers, and then turn it in to the authorities.
When and where: I write both at home and at The New Yorker offices. I'm not finicky about being in a particular place or having a particular lucky pencil or anything like that--I've written in hotel rooms (quite often, actually) and in temporary quarters, and it hasn't much mattered to me. I usually have trouble starting to work until mid-afternoon, but I'm trying to start earlier so I can end earlier. When I'm working on a big project, like my books, I usually give myself a daily word quota to fulfill, so that I have some interim sense of accomplishment every day. I write exclusively on a computer.
Ideas: I read the little odd pieces in the newspaper, and pay attention for any wisp of an idea--a handout, a leaflet, a conversation, an advertisement--that might grow into a story. I get lots of stories suggested to me, but they often don't interest me--although every now and again ... That's why I never turn anyone down who says they have a great idea for me. I think you have to always be paying attention to the world around you, and then ideas will present themselves.
Writer's block: I don't get writer's block; I do get stuck at various points, and usually I realize it's because I don't know what I'm trying to say, or don't know enough about what I'm trying to say, rather than simply not being able to write. When I'm stuck, I try to talk it out with someone--often, if I explain out loud what I'm trying to put down on paper, it becomes much clearer to me. I also like to read other writers when I'm stuck, and hope something in their work will give me a jump-start.
Advice: Report more than you think you have to, and then do a little more reporting--it will always, always pay off in the writing. Don't write the story you think you're supposed to write--try to really figure out what interests you about it, even if it's not at all what you thought it would be. Read good writing. And most of all, put your heart in it, in every single word and every single sentence.
Photograph by Gasper Tringale