Craft Lesson: How to Cope with Emotional Interviews

Craft Lessons

Like countless others, my heart went out to the victims and families and friends of those who lived and died in the shocking June 24 collapse of the Champlain Tower South condominium in Surfside, Fla. I also had in mind the reporters who descended on the scene and faced the painful task of interviewing survivors and the loved ones of those dead or still missing. 

In my two decades as a newspaper reporter, I became well-acquainted with that aspect of the job. At one point, if you’d asked me about my beat, I’d have replied, “Death.” 

More times than I can count, I was dispatched to write about those left behind after the unthinkable happened: a child killed by a school bus, the high school friends of a classmate killed during a failed 1980 rescue mission to rescue the American hostages held captive by Iranian revolutionaries, the bride-to-be caught in a crossfire between police and a desperate parolee. My father had died when I was ten, and that often proved an effective way to show empathy for people I imposed on at one of the worst moments of their lives. Death binds. 

When I was teaching at The Poynter Institute, a reporter once emailed to ask about the appropriate response when a subject breaks down and begins to cry during an interview, a common occurrence.

“I’m not a very touchy-feely person,” the reporter said, “so I feel as though it would come across as fake or forced if I were to make myself give the subject a hug or touch their hand or something similar to that. But I feel so heartless simply continuing the interview while they dab at tears.

“Most often, these subjects are essentially strangers whom I have engaged in an emotional interview, so I feel as though I would be crossing some sort of line by moving closer to them or touching them or crying with them as though we were close friends.”

For help, I touched base with Joe Hight, then managing editor of The Oklahoman and no stranger to covering trauma in the news. 

As a reporter and editor, he covered the first mass post office shooting in 1986 in Edmond, Okla., the 1995 domestic terrorist bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City and the aftermath of killer tornadoes. 

He was also president of the executive committee of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. It’s “a global network that brings together journalists, educators and health professionals to improve media coverage of trauma, conflict and tragedy, as well as the consequences of such coverage for those working in journalism.”

As reporters increasingly face emotional interviews after what seems like an unending cycle of mass shootings, wildfires, hurricanes and other catastrophic weather events, Joe’s advice remains timely. 

“You are not the only journalist who has struggled or will struggle when interviewing people who become emotional during an interview,’” he counseled.

“Certain interview questions may prompt an emotional response, especially if the subject is remembering a loved one who died tragically. It’s your response afterward that is important.

“Most people don’t need a hug from a stranger, and all of them don’t need a fake or forced response. They need someone who’s compassionate and human.”

I wish that Joe’s wise advice had been available to me as I sat with friends and family who were grieving a loss. I’m grateful, though, that it may offer help for reporters who find themselves, as they inevitably will, in that situation someday. His tips:

First of all, don’t stop the interview because someone cries and you feel uncomfortable. If you do, you might deprive the person from expressing natural and proper emotions.

Simply express again how sorry that you are about the situation or loss and then be especially sensitive to the subject from that point on. Put down your notebook and ask whether there’s anything that you can do to help, such as getting a tissue or a glass of water. (You might even want to bring tissue yourself if you think the interview could become emotional.)

When the subject becomes somewhat composed again, ask softly “Are you okay?” and then “Do you want to continue the interview?” If the answer is yes, politely express that you’re taking notes again and ask the next question in a soft tone. Then be patient and listen.

At the end of the interview, thank the subject for talking to you “during these difficult times.” Then ask if you can call later to check on facts or quotations, and possibly on information that may have been missed.

If the person sobs uncontrollably or cannot respond further, it’s then that you should consider discontinuing the interview until a later time. Before leaving, ask whether the subject wants you to contact someone or needs anything else. Then ask whether it’s okay to call or return at a certain time. A simple nod may be the reply.

Finally, if you are troubled by what happened during the interview, be sure to talk to someone who’s a sensitive and trusted listener so you can debrief from the emotions that you absorbed yourself.

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Horrible Messy Drafts: Four Questions with Lois Kapila

Interviews

Lois Kapila is the editor and a reporter at the Dublin Inquirer, an independent reader-funded newspaper in Dublin, Ireland. She has worked at The Statesman newspaper in Kolkata, India, and freelanced for anywhere that will publish her. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Journalism and European Journalist of the Year. 

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

To not be afraid to think. It sounds stupid but for a long time I think I was scared to think, as if by asking questions about what I’d been told or engaging too deeply with what I was reporting on, would be biased in some way.

It took me a while to get past that, to realize it was okay to not just be a scribe, and to clock that following a fair, journalistic process—and thinking a lot and asking plenty of questions along the way to all kinds of people—was the most important thing that helps you get as close to the truth of something as possible. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I’m doing it. I still can’t get over the fact that I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to meet, and listen to, and talk to, so many people. I hope I always stay surprised. I dread the day when I take that for granted.   

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

Can I be a mapmaker? Trying to chart out the world so we can see where we stand and where we’re headed or could go—although, I’m thinking ideally more here-be-monsters than AA road map.

Or maybe a glassblower, training for years and years to craft something simple and clear. (I guess that’s also turning hot air into something beautiful, hmmm…)

What’s the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave you?

Write drafts. Horrible messy drafts. And start them straight away and don’t get hung up on how ugly they are. That, of course, is one of the many things I’ve learnt from you by the way, Chip.

Like pretty much everybody reporting and writing these days, I’m so pressed for time and if I don’t start writing as soon as I start reporting, I don’t have the breathing space to revise and cut and rearrange and spot gaps.

BOOKBAG: “12 MINUTES AND A LIFE”

Bookbag

Story by Mitchell S. Jackson and a Nieman Storyboard annotation

12 minutes and a Life,” a Runner’s World story by Mitchell S. Jackson, recounts the short life and lynching of Ahmaud Arbrery, who died in 2020 running while black in Brunswick, Ga. Last month, the piece won a Pulitzer and a National Magazine Award for feature writing. Earlier this week, Nieman Storyboard published an annotation of Jackson’s prize-winning story, the product of a long interview I had with the writer. In just three weeks of non-stop work, Jackson reported and wrote the story, which was published four months after three white men ambushed Arbery. It’s an object lesson in narrative magazine journalism; one that combines traditional journalism, forensic presentation, and Black English to tell the story. We talked about the culture and evolution of language, braided structure, and why Jackson put himself in the narrative.

The annotation offers extraordinary insight into how an innovative writer and scholar works and thinks in ways that expand the possibilities of narrative nonfiction. One of which is that a 6,000 word masterpiece doesn’t always require a year to produce. I learned a ton: about reporting, writing, linguistics, diction, Black culture, and story structure from our conversation. I think you will, too.

P.S. After our conversation, I devoured Jackson’s debut novel, “The Residue Years,” and a memoir, “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family.” They are both raw, gutsy and acutely personal portrayals of the blight of poverty, crack addiction and dealing and the world of pimping out women for prostitution amid the small Black population in Portland, Ore. I can’t recommend them more enthusiastically.

Guest Craft Lesson: What postcards can teach writers by Jacqui Banaszynski

Craft Lessons

Postcards have always held a special place in my life. If I were a collector, postcards would be high on my list. Not for the initial image, but for the act of sending and receiving, and the magic of storytelling involved in that action.

When I send students off into the world or reporters on assignment, the one thing I ask is that they send me a postcard. I’m always delighted when one follows through. I love seeing the images they choose, being introduced to their handwriting (a rare thing these days) and being enchanted by the mini-story they’ve chosen to tell me.

Because that’s another huge value of postcards. They are the perfect venue for practicing the craft ~ and purpose ~ of storytelling.

For years, when I traveled, I would send at least one postcard a day. I’d usually write at day’s end, perhaps at a bistro over a glass of wine, or maybe mid-afternoon over a coffee. My goal was not to say “Hey! I’m at the Parthenon!” But to instead share a moment or scene or experience from that day. To tell a story.

The ritual of putting pen to paper caused me to slow down and reflect on my day. To enter that mental/emotional story space that writers occupy.

Knowing I would write reminded me to report ~ to pay closer attention to the world as I moved through it. It caused me to be on alert to the little dramas that played out around me ~ to note the particular blue of the African dusk, the disorientation that came from staring at the stars in the southern hemisphere, how a table of Romanians kept guard over their too-drunk friend. (And yes, to find a post office and a stamp.)

Knowing the writing space was limited ~ maybe a 2×2 inch square ~ took the pressure off. The blank page/screen can seem endless and intimidating. A 2×2-inch postcard square? Hardly.

The reality of that space limit helped me focus. Verbs had to be active. Descriptions spare. Detours eliminated.

Writing on paper instead of the computer meant I had to accept my first draft and then let it go. No do-overs. (In daily news parlance, hit the SEND button!)

Knowing I would be writing to someone I cared about me made me care about what I wrote. It became an investment in a personal connection. I wanted them to see what I saw, to feel some of what I felt, to wonder a bit at my wonderment.

And that means I had to draw on the craft tools that writers employ to create story magic: scene, description, action, metaphor, dialog, sensory detail, tension, emotion.

All in a 2×2-inch square.

I carried this practice forward to classes and workshops. I once had students write a postcard a day for a month. Another time I had workshop writers pick someone they wanted to thank ~ maybe an inspiring teacher or the editor who gave them a chance or the brother who paid their rent one desperate month in college (Thank you, Jeff.) ~ and send that person a postcard. Capture their relationship and gratitude in a 2×2-inch square.

Of late I have transferred some of this practice to Facebook. When I’m overseas, I make it a mission to post a true story each day ~ what I think of as a nano-narrative. It still teaches me what, as writers, we all need to learn, relearn and practice:

  • Pay attention to the world around you. Slow down. Open yourself to experience. See with your eyes, your mind and your heart.
  • Find the center of a story. Develop a moment, a character, a scene, an experience.
  • Choose words that are vivid and precise, evocative and metaphorical.
  • Lower your standards and learn the value of Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Draft.” Quit thinking at some point and write.
  • Write ~ deeply and personally ~ to someone you care about. Then learn to care about everyone who might read your writing.

Here are two of my nano-narratives from trips as evidence of all of the above. They are far from perfect. Just little stories.

Romanian Retrospective 14 (10.15.2012) Breakfast in Socodor, far western Transylvania. This was served the morning after a huge welcome dinner the night before. All made at Simina Mistreanu’s mother’s village farm or that of the neighbors. The tomatoes were picked that morning, served with the dew still on them and sweet as apples. Cheese and bread were delivered fresh by neighbors. Large plate of fat-back served with enthusiasm, but I said my health insurance would be cancelled if I indulged.

CHINA DISPATCH 9 (July 11, 2009) ~ I was prayed awake by chanting. Drifted over to the Daci Monastery next to the hotel, paid 3 yuan (45 cents) and entered an oasis of peace. Hundreds of women had shed shoes and purses, donned brown robes from a common laundry basket, and wound round and round the temple through a maze of prayer cushions, chanting in a low, meditative melody as an elderly monk rang a small brass bell to keep time.

Stepping into the Unknown: Four Questions with John D. Sutter

Interviews
John Sutter/Photo by Edythe McNamee

John D. Sutter is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Salt Lake City. His work has won the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the IRE Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Peabody Award and has received two EMMY nominations — one for new approaches to documentary and the other for environmental reporting. With support from the National Geographic Society, MIT and others, he is directing “BASELINE,” a pioneering documentary series that aims to tell the story of the climate crisis beyond a lifetime. At CNN, where Sutter was a senior investigative reporter, producer and columnist, he created and directed several award-winning projects, including “Two Degrees,” “Vanishing” and “Change the List.” He currently is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and is a former Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He also is a visiting instructor at The Poynter Institute.

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

I’ve learned to call people back, to follow up, to visit a second and third or fourth time. When I first started writing I unknowingly (and now, embarrassingly) operated in a sort of Story Vacuum mode. I’d swoop in, gather up the story … and then leave. I didn’t follow up often. I didn’t have time to. Or thought that. It was always on to the next thing — right away. I’ve learned that a) I don’t like being the Story Vacuum guy. It feels wrong. And b) you find far better, truer stories — stories you didn’t know are there — when you spend time with people. When your interactions are more reciprocal, more like a relationship, less extractive. This is part of the sentiment behind the documentary I’m working on now (called BASELINE), which is following four communities between now and the year 2050. That’s … an extreme case. But I’ve learned that following-up more consistently can be a quick-and-easy thing to add to your writing practice. It’s kind, it’s human, and it helps us get closer to hidden truths. Or that’s my hope.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That it’s not over. I got laid off from a newspaper in 2008, not long after I was out of college, and I thought I needed to find another line of work. I applied to other lines of work. The truth is that my writing life needed to morph and change from there — away from a just-print mindset and toward podcasts and film and multimedia production. It’s surprised me that all of these very different-seeming things are really just extensions of a core writing practice. 

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

Diver! I was a springboard diver when I was younger/fitter (once upon a time, a video clip of me diving, horribly, was the top YouTube hit for “painful belly flop”!) and I think a lot about that leap-of-faith moment that occurs when you start walking down the diving board. Not when you jump. Before that. When you decide to start walking. That act of stepping into the unknown feels a lot like the start of the writing journey for me. I want it to be practiced — it usually doesn’t end in a belly flop, hopefully — but I don’t want to know how things will turn out. That’s the fun. It’s always moderately terrifying. You always learn something.

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

Jan Winburn edited my stories at CNN for the better part of a decade, and one of the many things I love about her is that she always answers the phone when you’re the field. Like, always. I called her once from a drought story in the Texas Panhandle. It hadn’t rained there what seemed like forever, and I was going to spend the day with a rancher who was giving up on the business and selling his herd. And then, that morning, it started raining. Not a lot. But enough that the guy decided to hold out hope and keep the cattle. The human part of me was like: Cattle! Rain! Generational business continues! Yay! The CNN-just-flew-me-out-here-to-tell-a-drought-story part of me was like: *#@!. So at some point I went to the car and called Jan, kinda flipping out about how Mother Nature had decided to rain on my drought story. She was calm, per always, and delivered the simplest and best possible advice: Write the rain story.

J

Craft Lesson: Time is on our side

Craft Lessons

“When do you write?” asks a writer friend who juggles family, a demanding university teaching job, and studying in an MFA program. 

Implicit in the question, I believe, is another, more pressing one: “How do you find time to write?”

That’s a question I’ve often been asked, not because I’m the most productive writer in the world.

I am not.

But the question misses the mark. It’s not about finding time to write, but making it. 

For inspiration, I turn for inspiration to busy people who have made time to pursue writing dreams that may lie outside their day jobs or family lives.

Best-selling author Scott Turow also had a demanding day job — as a federal prosecutor in Chicago — when he wrote the first 120 pages of his first novel, “Presumed Innocent.”

“I used to write on the morning commuter train,” he told an interviewer in 1986. “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.”

Anne Tyler sat down to write her early novels in her Baltimore home after her children went to school.

In the 19th century, Anthony Trollope wrote novels in the morning before he set off to work from the English countryside to his job as a postal official in London. His discipline was astounding.

“I finished on Thursday the novel I was writing, and on Friday I began another,” Trollope wrote in 1880. “Nothing really frightens me but the idea of enforced idleness. As long as I can write books even though they be not published, I think I can be happy.”

Many years ago, influenced by Scott Turow’s commuter approach, I adopted it on my morning Metro ride from suburban Maryland to the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. The early ’90s was the busiest time in my life. I had a consuming job as a Washington correspondent, and at home, my wife Kathy and I had a toddler and infant twins. I suggested Kathy and I wear tee-shirts emblazoned with the title of the Warren Zevon song, “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”

Instead of trying to make up zzzzz’s on the subway, however, I was able over a period of several weeks to draft and revise a short story about a Mom forced to take over as coach of her daughter’s Little League team. “Calling the Shots” was published, after a year of waiting, in 1998 in Elysian Fields Quarterly, a literary baseball journal.

These days, as a freelancer and retiree, of course I have much more flexibility. I check the news, listen to The New York Times podcast “The Daily,” and then write several times during the day, juggling assignments, drafting content for my newsletter, hanging out with three precious grandchildren, dog walking and working on fiction and memoir.

By the evening, I’m usually too tired for anything but YouTubeTV. That was the case years ago in Washington, too. I never had the energy to look at the short story that captured my attention that morning.

Still, brief daily sessions of 15-30 minutes, as Turrow proved, demonstrates the value taking advantage of every free moment to wite. 

Writing regularly, even if only a single paragraph at a time, develops critical mass over time.

So what are ways to make time to write?

  • Use the mass-transit or another incremental approach. You don’t climb a mountain with one step, but with many.
  • Decide what matters — watching, for the tenth time, the “Soup Nazi” Seinfeld episode, or taking the half-hour to write.

I’ve always loved this quote on the subject from essayist Annie Dillard (who wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”). “You can take your choice. You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, ‘I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.’ “

  • Exercise. Even a brisk 15-minute walk can pay off with relaxation-producing endorphins and an energy boost.  
  • Lower your expectations. Large blocks of time you dream of can prove useless if you agonize over the quality of what you’re producing. Every time you realize your fingers are poised over the keyboard, start banging away. It’s called freewriting and is best done in timed bursts, anywhere from a few minutes to, my preference, a screenfull. 
  • Manage your time, as I wrote in the most recent “Chip’s Writing Lessons.”. Examine your schedule, daily, weekly, even monthly, for pockets of time and energy. Be mindful of your circadian rhythms, those times of the day when you have the most energy.
  • Wake up 15 minutes earlier. Take a bite out of lunch.

At the beginning, quantity, not quality, rules. What sounds counter-intuitive — to  write well, I must first write badly — reflects the reality that the writer, especially at first, is not the best judge of the material.

Writing is a process of discovery. You need something to revise, however awful you think it is. Writing can’t take its final shape until you have enough distance, psychic or temporal, to see the holes, the flaws, unanswered questions and flabbiness that can be stripped away with a writer’s helpful friend: the “delete” key.

Finally, I take heart from the words of Robert B. Parker, the late master of detective fiction.

“There is no one right way. Each of us finds a way that works for him. But there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to finish your writing day with no more words on paper than when you began. Writers write.”

Willing to Go Deep: Four Questions with Norma Watkins

Interviews

DSC_big smile.jpg
Norma Watkins

Norma Watkins grew up in Mississippi and came of age during the civil rights struggles. Her award-winning memoirs, “The Last Resort: Taking the Mississippi Cure” and “That Woman from Mississippi” describe the anguish of being a liberal in that troubled time. She studied writing under Eudora Welty and is professor emerita at Miami Dade College, where she held an endowed chair. Her upcoming novel, In Common, follows two women who sacrifice talent, spirit, and wellbeing for love. She lives in northern California with her woodworker husband. 

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

Perseverance is the most important lesson I’ve learned as a writer. Perseverance and its sister, patience. I work for years on a book. The one I’m doing a final revision on now began in 2010. I tell myself it doesn’t matter how long I take to get it right, or better, though I am impressed by people who can turn out one a year, and death may catch up with me.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

I love feedback. I belong to a small writing group and their observations continue to surprise me. We’ve met long enough to be frank with one another. Compliments are nice, but constructive criticism is better. I’ve found, to my surprise, that I assume too much from the reader. I see a scene so clearly in my head; I see the characters as they speak, but frequently neglect to describe what they do physically. Thinking: Can’t the reader tell by what they’re saying? Evidently not.

What metaphor would best describe you as a writer?

During the pandemic, I let my hair go white, which is amazingly liberating. As a writer, I am a white heron, observing patiently, and willing to go deep for tasty morsels.

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

John Dufresne once said: You get three exclamation points in a lifetime (Meaning, your words should express the emotion, not punctuation). I haven’t used an exclamation point since.   
 


Craft Lesson: The Thief of Time

Craft Lessons

Over the years, I’ve met many writers with countless ideas for stories, magazine articles, novels and screenplays. Some have succeeded in finishing (and even publishing) their work, but many never survived the exhilarating flash of inspiration that launches a piece of writing. Oh, they’d begin with great hope, with a single line, or a few paragraphs or pages. But stuck in a quicksand of doubt, they couldn’t go on. Doubt, that crushing emotion, overtook them. Writer’s block ensued. Nevertheless, they resolved to go on. Tomorrow, they promised. Over the weekend when I had free time. During the vacation that was coming up. Time after time, they did what many people have done since the beginning of time. They put it off.

The Romans, an Empire that had its beginnings before the birth of Christ, had a word for this failing of the human spirit: procrastinatus. Pro meaning “forward” and “crastinus” signifying “of tomorrow,” a linguistic origin transformed over centuries into the English procrastinate, “the act of intentionally putting off something that should be done,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. It took an English poet, Edward Young to capture its essence. “Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,” he wrote in Night Thoughts,” a series of poems composed between 1742 and 1745, during the dark hours of night, when the anguish over abandoned dreams is greatest.

“Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience,” the writer James Surowiecki has observed. Of course, it’s not just writing that procrastination defeats. It’s the garage cleaning you’ve been meaning to put off, the mud-caked car that needs washing, the tax forms due in April, any number of tasks that nibble away, but still remain untouched. For writers, though, procrastination is the enemy of progress, the stomach-churning agony of being unable to move on and finish a story, no matter how exciting the idea, relentless the deadline, or disappointing the failure to act.

Over a career of five decades, I too became an expert at one of the most common of human failings, an ancient flaw that lies behind mountains of abandoned dreams, a towering torment of the half-finished, the half-done. Procrastination has been a companion at some point on nearly every writing journey I ever embarked on.

There are infinite ways to procrastinate: pace, video games, disappear into the black hole of social media, binge-watch, even tackle distasteful household chores. For me, one of the most successful approaches is to research. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the topic I’ve spent a lot of time studying—the craft of writing—is the one that’s kept me from doing the writing I should do.

Challenging as procrastination is, years of experience in my own work and helping other writers with theirs has taught me not to surrender to despair. Delay can be defeated.

The first step is to acknowledge that everyone procrastinates. All of us face tasks we’d rather avoid, whether it’s conducting that first interview, writing that first line, responding to an email, or just doing the dishes. Recognizing this reality means you must be ever vigilant for the telltale signs of resistance. For me, it’s the simple act of hesitation, realizing that my fingers are hovering over the keyboard, paralyzed.

In this case, my solution, one reached after years of procrastination, is to lower, nay abandon, my standards and type as fast as I can, thinking with my fingers, and trying to drown out the voice of doubt that clamors to be heard with the clatter of keys. What I wrote was immaterial. “I want to write a short story about a man struggling with dementia but I have no idea how to start,” or “Damn, my post on procrastination is due tomorrow morning..”

This freewriting, I’ve discovered is more than just throat-clearing; very soon, miraculously, prose begins to emerge. I begin to describe a man is in his 70s, as his memory problems progressed from losing his keys, misplacing his wallet, and forgetting names to the terror of getting lost while walking his dog in what had been his familiar neighborhood. Not great, I tell myself, but it’s a start and it kicks me into gear and over many sessions, I draft and revise “Jacaranda.” I’ve reached the point of submission to literary journals, although of course, I’m procrastinating about that.

But wait. Besides, lowering your standards and freewriting , here are some other valuable techniques, their value bolstered by users’ comments.


1. Know tomorrow’s task today.

This is the technique that made my friend and mentor, Don Murray, one of the most productive writers I ever knew. Perhaps, he mused, the subconscious takes over when you assign yourself a task the night before.

“What surprised me is how much I feel better knowing that I know what I will be doing tomorrow. I’m the type of person who needs to write down everything or I’ll forget it. I find it reassuring and calming. It puts me in control and gives me a sense of order. I’m not as scatter-brained trying to remember everything at once.”
–Jane Kim

2. Follow productivity expert David Allen’s two-minute rule: If you think a task will take you two minutes or less, do it now.

“What surprised me was how much I could get done in tiny chunks–maybe it wasn’t so much the sheer amount of work as finding mental space to tackle it.”
–Ellen Sung

3. Eliminate piles. Instead of letting paper stack up on your desk, either put it in folders or toss it.

“I learned that it is a lot quicker to find things when you don’t have to shuffle through 50 pages of other unrelated issues. I learned that filing is a good thing to combat the urge to pile things up. I had to do something with the papers, and filing was a good physical way of keeping from falling back into the bad habit.”
–Preston Smith

 So let’s not tarry any longer. Don’t put it off. Gulp and go. Right now.

t

Be Present: Four Questions with Susan Orlean

Interviews
Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean is the author of eight books, including “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup”; “My Kind of Place”; “Saturday Night”; and “Lazy Little Loafers.” In 1999, she published “The Orchid Thief,” a narrative about orchid poachers in Florida, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film, “Adaptation” starring Nicolas Cage and Meryl Streep. Her book, “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” a New York Times Notable book, won the Ohioana Book Award and the Richard Wall Memorial Award. In 2018, she published “The Library Book,” about the arson fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. It won the California Book Award, the Marfield Prize, the USC Library Scripters Nonfiction Award, and the Maxine Cushing Gray Award. It was also longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2018.

Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992, and has also contributed to Vogue, Rolling Stone, Outside, and Esquire. She has written about taxidermy, fashion, umbrellas, origami, dogs, chickens, and a wide range of other subjects. She was a 2003 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. She is currently adapting “The Library Book” for television. She lives with her husband and son in Los Angeles.

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

I’ve learned to be present — to really focus on the moment, absorb it and appreciate it. This applies both to writing and to life in general. We spend a lot of time as writers troubling over the right tape recorder and the right writing software and that sort of thing, when the quality of your attention is really all that matters. Being a writer requires being a “super-observer” and noticing more than other people might observe. The rest will just fall into place. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

How entrepreneurial you have to be! I never thought of myself as a small business owner, but that’s exactly what I am. That’s not a very romantic or artistic notion but it’s reality, and the better you are at running your business, the more you’ll be able to devote yourself to the more artistic aspect of your work. 

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

I’m a widget-maker. The widgets I make happen to be sentences, and I run a little factory that churns them out at a steady pace. 

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

Many years ago, my first great editor told me to look at my work as having three distinct parts: reporting, thinking, and writing. They have to be done in that order; you can’t write until you’ve done your reporting and then — the crucial step that’s often overlooked — you have to think about what you’ve learned and what you’re trying to say about it. Only then can you put pen to paper. Writing is the end result of the other two steps. It’s the best advice I’ve ever been given, and I think about it all the time. 

Craft Lesson: Time Management for Writers

Craft Lessons

From 1972 to 1994, I was a newspaper reporter. Those two decades established patterns and work habits that often make it immensely difficult to control my writing life. Desperately trying, and often blowing deadlines made me a captive of the ticking clock.

I persist in trying to gain control of my time, my stories, and myself. Of course, I recognize that this is a laughable notion.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. That desire to exercise control — over gravity, the weather, people, our lives — is one of the hallmarks of Homo sapiens. Writing, like any creative endeavor, is a desperate attempt to wrest control, to impose order on chaos, to stop time, to play God if you will.

Time management is one of the most important self-improvement techniques, but one least utilized by journalists. Writers too often feel enslaved by the clock, and the calendar, when, in reality, they can seize control of their time.


Complete this sentence:

If I managed my time, my stories, and myself better, I would be ______________________.

What did you write? “Less stressed,” “Getting better evaluations,” “Happier with my stories,” “Covering my beat more effectively”? How about “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize,” “Happier,” or as one participant at a workshop cried out,“Married.”

There’s no right answer, just the articulation of dreams all of us have, dreams that can be achieved if we can use time as an ally. Here are some practical approaches that can help.

Build a “mountain of stairs.”

Think of your next story, whether it’s a daily, project, short story or book, as a “mountain with stairs — a set of smaller steps leading to the top,” advises Eviatar Zerubavel in his inspiring and practical guide, “The Clockwork Muse.”

Break it down into its components: A story consists of reporting and research, focusing, planning, drafting, revising, editing. Assign time estimates to each step. Then keep track of the actual time for those steps.

It will take you time and experience to be able to estimate accurately. Invariably, the tasks that we think take a long time can be accomplished more quickly, while those that we think are a snap take more time than we thought. Develop a more accurate gauge of your time.

Writers on deadline feel under the gun, but they don’t realize the power they have. After all, what can an editor do between the assignment and the delivery of the story except worry and pester? Talk about powerless!

Set your own internal deadlines. As a Washington correspondent working under often insanely tight deadlines, I realized the chances of making a factual error were high, so I set my own deadline. If the editor wanted my story at 5 p.m., I hit the print button at 4:45 and spent the time double-checking names, titles, quotes, facts, and figures. When I hit the send button, I felt confident in the story’s accuracy, saving myself those middle-of-the-night horrors: “His middle initial was C!”

Work in brief daily sessions.

This is the key to productivity, says psychologist Robert Boice, who found that productive writers don’t chain themselves to their keyboards all day long. Instead, many follow the pattern of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon: “Keep a regular schedule, and write at the same time every day for the same amount of time.” Regularity, not overwork, is the key to productivity.

What most writers, especially journalists, do is binge. They procrastinate for hours, building up a steam of guilt, anger, and rage that ultimately leads to indifference: “I don’t care how bad it is, I’ve only got 30 minutes left.”

Then, once they’re writing, they are afraid to stop. They write in a fury until deadline or just after, irritating their editors and ensuring that their copy will be hastily edited. They think that they’re preserving their flawless prose. Unfortunately, they’ve robbed their readers of a fresh eye that might notice a confusing sentence or important information buried deep in the story. And when it’s all done, they’re exhausted, stressed out, and ready for a drink.

“Time is in the air you breathe,” said Peter Davison, the late poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. “The writer who fills many shelves does not breathe more eagerly than the crabbed sufferer from writer’s block, but the two differ in the ways they use their oxygen.”

Don’t leave all the writing until the end of the day. Write an early draft to find out what you already know and need to know. Take time to focus and plan. Try writing through the entire story, hit the print button, and mark up the printout. Input the changes. On daily stories, work in 15- to 30-minute drafting sessions, then edit and revise. For projects, write before all the reporting is done. Write in sections. The key is to avoid bingeing.

Make friends with a clock.

A timepiece is a way to control the procedure even if you can’t control the material. For a long time, my preferred technology was a now vintage, I believe, Radio Shack Talking Timer, which counted down, up, and signaled time’s up with a series of beeps ranging from a car horn to a teakettle. These days I just set my alarms with my Amazon Alexa when blocked because, while I can’t control how well I write, one thing I can do is write quickly. Invariably, within the first two minutes I leap whatever hurdle my psyche has erected. I think that’s because fear and doubt build a mountain that we think we have to climb over when, in reality, it’s just a threshold. Free writing creates a threshold between the state of paralysis and the state of grace.

People confuse time management with an anal-retentive obsession with the ticking clock. In reality, time management demands infinite patience.

“Writing is a craft that takes many years to develop,” Sue Grafton, the best-selling mystery author, said in The Writer. “The publishing world is full of talented, hardworking writers who’ve struggled for years to learn the necessary skills. I counsel any writer to focus on the job at hand — learning to write well — trusting that when the time comes, the Universe will step in and make the rest possible. Writing isn’t about the destination — writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else.”

None of us can guarantee that our stories will be brilliant. But we can control our time and when we do that we greatly improve our chances of achieving our dreams of success.