What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?
That writing is an extension of your lived experience, and no number of all-nighters at the computer or overtime shifts in the newsroom will bring maturity, wisdom, empathy or perspective to your work. It’s hard to describe something you’ve never felt. It’s hard to truly listen unless you’re willing to be changed. The writers I admire have rich and messy lives. So, say yes to things. Say yes to walking instead of driving, to loving something you are bound to lose, to spending time with someone lonely, to booking the cheap ticket at the last second, to doing whatever the thing is you would do were you not afraid.
What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?
That I’m still doing it. Like everyone, I started out sure I’d fail or be forced into PR by poverty. I am a serious introvert, and I wasn’t sure I could do the reporting, honestly. But it turns out that introversion is just one more tool. I’ve had an amazing time doing work I cared about for people I admired. I met the smartest, quirkiest, fiercest, most loyal people and married one of them. I’ve made plenty of money. I have always felt good about this thing that I devoted my professional life to. It’s an honorable and important thing.
If you had to use a metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be and why?
I’m Chicken Little. I worry a lot, and fret and brood and pace and sulk, and then while I’m painting the garage or trimming the dog’s toenails, I’ll get a piece of an idea, then another piece, and another. So when I’m writing, it always looks like I’m not writing, and I always feel like I’m going to die or get fired. I don’t sit down at a keyboard until I have to, but by then, it all just comes out of me and it’s fine. This really annoys my husband, by the way.
What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?
Two cheers for understatement – Mike Wilson
Kelley Benham French is senior editor for narrative and special projects at USA TODAY and a professor of practice in journalism at Indiana University. She spent a decade at the Tampa Bay Times, where she was a 2013 Pulitzer finalist. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with her three daughters and her husband, the writer Thomas French.