The details write the story: Four Questions with Susan Ager

Interviews
Susan Ager

Susan Ager is a prize-winning journalist of many years, now freelancing for National Geographic. Getting her start at the Associated Press, in Lansing, MI and San Franciso, for a quarter century she wrote and edited for the Detroit Free Press. She worked as a full-time coach, at the Free Press and dozens of other papers. For 16 years she wrote a thrice-weekly column and traveled the state of Michigan for a popular project she called “Tell Susan Ager Where to Go.” Her 1992 book “At Heart” is an anthology of her early work. She is a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, in part for pioneering coverage of the spread of HIV in her state. She lives in northern Michigan with her husband, Larry Coppard.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

The details write the story, and the details only get better the more time you spend with your subject or topic. Even on daily stories, a second phone call never hurts. Repeat interviews with profile subjects provide exponentially more insight and info. (I have often been quoted as instructing writers I’m coaching, “Go to the bathroom,” which means take time off to think about what you’ve got and your next step – but you never know what you’ll learn from the shower curtain or the magnets on the mirror.) Immersion journalism is, of course, my favorite: Live with your person or live in the place. If you live by these principles, you will know so much that you can write your story from memory, without checking your notes, leaving XXXs where you’ve forgotten a small detail. This is tremendously freeing.

What’s been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That it gets both easier and harder. It becomes easier to craft sentences and paragraphs once you understand how readers consume words and ideas. It becomes harder to think through how a complex story should best be told. Which details to leave out is always challenging: You don’t want to over-spice your stew.

If you had to choose a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?

A great writer – a status I occasionally achieve – seduces readers. Take a walk with me, even though you don’t know me. Hold my hand. Let me lead you down a path you’ve never walked before. You might feel wary, or tired, or feel the faint beginning of boredom, but take another step with me, and another. Haven’t I surprised you with almost every step so far? I’ll take care of you. I’ll make sure the path is easy or, if challenging, at least worth the effort. In the end, you’ll be glad you trusted me, and will want to spend more time with me again.

What’s the best piece of writing advice someone gave you?

“Write from memory,” mentioned above. And, “Just vomit.” Clean it up later. All that advice combined freed me from a bad habit of writing slowly, rewriting my first sentence three times, then rewriting the first paragraph endlessly — then flipping through my notebook and changing it all again. I tell writers now, “Get the clay on the table then shape it into the story you want.” Don’t check your notes until you’re done, then be cautious about including anything you had forgotten to include the first time. If it wasn’t important enough to remember, why add it now?

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