Don’t Lose Heart: Four Questions with Madeleine D’Arcy

Interviews
Madeleine D’Arcy/Photo by Claire O’Rorke

Madeleine D’Arcy is a fiction writer based in Cork City, Ireland. Her second book, “Liberty Terrace,” a linked short story collection, was published in Oct. 2021. Her début short story collection, “Waiting for the Bullet” (Doire Press, 2014) won the Edge Hill Readers’ Choice Prize 2015 (UK).In 2010 she received the Hennessy Literary Award for First Fiction and the Hennessy New Irish Writer Award.Her work has been published in several anthologies and her short fiction has been listed in a variety of competitions, most recently the Craft International Short Story Award 2020 (US) and the Writing.ie An Post Irish Short Story of the Year 2021. She has also completed a novel. Since January 2017, she has co-curated Fiction at the Friary, a free monthly fiction event in Cork City, with fellow-writer Danielle McLaughlin.

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

Talent is not enough. You also need patience and diligence. My advice to emerging writers is to take your time, learn your craft, read a lot, try to make your own work as good as it can possibly be – and don’t send it out until you’re sure it’s ready.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

In 2010, I won the Hennessy Award for Emerging Fiction and the Hennessy New Writer of the Year Award on the same night, with my first ever published short story. It was a surreal experience. I was absolutely shocked. To be honest, I was a bit drunk as well, because free cocktails were provided at the event and my reasoning was that I might as well enjoy the night and party on, since there was no way I was going to win.

Another big surprise was to win the Edge Hill Reader’s Choice Prize for my first short story collection, Waiting For The Bullet (Doire Press, 2014).

I never expect anything. It is probably best to have low expectations. A writer’s life will also involve fallow years, when life puts obstacles in your way. All you can do is persevere. The good times will always come around again if you don’t lose heart .

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

I figure I might be a bee. I buzz quietly around my own little patch of the world, taking an interest in what’s happening and quietly going about my own business. I am small and hard-working. It would be easy to underestimate me or ignore me, and I have had to deal with all kinds of drones and several obnoxious queen bees in my time, but I’m learning not to be such a push-over. Most importantly, in the end, after a lot of hard work, I manage to produce some fine honey.

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

I once did a workshop with the late, great Canadian writer, Alastair MacLeod (1936-2014). His novel, “No Great Mischief,” won the 2001 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award). He was a truly wonderful man, both funny and wise. He said “The best writing is specific in its setting, but universal in its theme.” I think that sums up
good writing perfectly.

Let Others Speak: Four Questions with Valerie Boyd

Interviews
Valerie Boyd/Photo by Jason Thrasher

Valerie Boyd is a professor of journalism and the Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Georgia, where she founded and directs the low-residency MFA Program in Narrative Nonfiction. She is author of the critically acclaimed Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, which was hailed by Alice Walker as “magnificent” and “extraordinary”; by The Boston Globe as “elegant and exhilarating”; and by The Denver Post as “a rich, rich read.” Formerly arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Valerie has written articles, essays and reviews for The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Bon Appetit, Creative Nonfiction, The Oxford American, Essence and Atlanta Magazine, among other publications. She is currently senior consulting editor for The Bitter Southerner magazine. Valerie has spent the past several years curating and editing a collection of the personal journals of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. “Gathering Blossoms Under Fire: The Journals of Alice Walker” will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2022. Valerie’s edited collection, “Bigger Than Bravery: Black Writers on the Pandemic, Shutdown and Uprising of 2020,” also will be published in 2022.

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

The most important lesson I’ve learned as a storyteller—as both a writer and an editor—is to be quiet enough to let others speak. Even if I am the narrator, or the lead storyteller, every character has a story, every person in the room has a voice—and every story deserves space to unfurl, every voice deserves a listener. My job is to listen, to amplify, to synthesize, to distill. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise of my writing life has been my development as an editor and a teacher of writing, alongside being a writer myself. Writing is often a solitary pursuit, and one stereotype of the writer is that of an isolated, anti-social hermit. A genius perhaps, but still a lonely hermit. Yet I revel in my connections with others and I deeply value collaboration and community. So I have pleasantly surprised myself by fashioning a writing-adjacent career that allows me to preserve my precious solitude as a writer while also calling forth community. In this way, I can be selfish with my writing time and simultaneously generous with my offerings to others as an editor and teacher. For me, this is so gratifying. In 2015, writer/filmmaker/world-changer Ava DuVernay tweeted something that became instantly quotable T-shirt material, and it certainly resonated with me: “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small.”

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

I think of myself as a producer. Whether I’m working as a writer or editor, my role is to bring all the cooperative components together to produce an amazing, moving, memorable show.

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

The best piece of writing advice I ever received was also wonderful life advice. I was about to go on my first book tour, and the novelist Tina McElroy Ansa advised: “Always eat breakfast.” A book tour, like a life, can be so unpredictable, she suggested. Who knew if you’d have time to eat along the way? So feed yourself—whatever that may mean for you—before you rush headlong into the day. That advice has resonated with me through huge challenges in my life: If I can just feed myself, first thing, I’ll make it through whatever the day brings.

An Act of Generosity: Four Questions with Bronwen Dickey

Interviews
Photo by Rebecca Necessary

Bronwen Dickey is the author of Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) and a contributing editor at The Oxford American. Her essays and reporting have also appeared in Esquire, POLITICO Magazine, Newsweek, Outside, Men’s Journal, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times Book ReviewThe Los Angeles Times, SlateGarden & GunPopular Mechanics, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Artist’s Residency Fellowship, a Hearst Editorial Excellence Award in reporting, a Lowell Thomas Award in travel journalism, and in 2017 she was a finalist for the National Magazine Award in feature writing. She lives in North Carolina, where she teaches journalism at Duke University.

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


When I was in college, I thought the point of writing was to impress people with all the big words I knew and all the fancy things I could do on the page. I was always grasping for others’ approval, as though the Big Arrow of Life were pointed in one direction: Toward me. I wanted to be a Writer more than I wanted to write, and that made me miserable. 
That’s one of the reasons I prefer to speak about the craft in terms of “skill,” not “talent.” Skill is something you can learn and perfect if you care enough to put in the effort, whereas talent feels slippery and mysterious. The same goes for “work” vs. “inspiration.” If I waited to write until I was “inspired,” I’d never type a single word. But work? That I can show up for, again and again. 
Over time, I’ve come to understand that nonfiction storytelling is not a performing art. It’s not about praise or acclaim or literary pyrotechnics. If you think about it that way, you will always feel like a failure. The best writing is not about the writer. It’s an act of generosity. It’s a humble and imperfect gift one person offers another, a way of saying to a bunch of strangers you will probably never meet, “I went out exploring and I learned something incredible. Do you have a second? I’d love to share it with you.” That’s the greatest lesson. That the Big Arrow points the other way. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?


That the work never gets easier. Never, ever, ever. The more you do it, the more possibilities you see in front of you, and that can make you crazy. You just have to show up and plow your acre the best you can.
As I tell my students, every story is a house, but every story doesn’t have to be Versailles or the Taj Mahal. It can be a cozy one-room cabin.  Your job, as the architect of the house, is to 1) make sure the roof doesn’t cave in and 2) make it comfortable enough that a stranger might want to spend some time there. That’s it! 


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


I’m a dependable, non-judgmental tour guide through the rocky—and occasionally perilous—territory of the subject. 


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

“You have to love it. Because if you don’t, the people who love it will kick your ass.” — Chris Jones


“Write what you want to say. The questioning, the changing, the editing…that all comes later.” — my dad

Say Yes to Things: Four Questions with Kelley Benham French

Interviews
Kelley Benham French

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.

THE MEANING HIDDEN IN FRONT OF ME: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH THOMAS FRENCH

Interviews

Thomas French with his daughters Brookie and Greysi

Thomas French teaches journalism at Indiana University. For nearly three decades before, French worked as a narrative project reporter at the St. Petersburg Times/Tampa Bay Times, specializing in serialized storytelling. Angels & Demons, a story about the murders of a mother and her two teen daughters while visiting Florida, earned him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1998. French is also the author of four nonfiction books. Most recently, he and his wife Kelley co-authored Juniper, a book about the premature birth of their oldest daughter.

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

I’ve learned so many things over the years. I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest things about being a journalist is that it asks you to keep learning something new all the time, every day. I guess the single most important lesson has been the realization that meaning lies everywhere around us and within us. 
One time I asked a subject of mine – a self-taught scholar of many disciplines — what she liked to read for her own enjoyment. Her 12-year-old son, listening to the interview, blurted out, “She reads puppy books.” I asked what a puppy book was, and the boy grabbed a worn and dog-eared romance novel off the shelf — The Golden Barbarian, with the cover showing a young maiden melting in the arms of the aforementioned savage —- and said, “You know, they fall in love, they get married, they have puppies.” Then he handed me the book with a knowing grin and said, “Check out page 192.”
I loved that this brilliant woman’s 12-year-old son knew where the dirty parts were in her romance novels. It was one of those details so beautiful that I knew right away it would end up in my final draft. But it wasn’t until much further down the road, after this woman ended her marriage and decided to raise their five children on their own — all because she was sure that there was another man waiting for her, a man better suited for her — that I realized I had missed the meaning of this woman’s devotion to her puppy books. She was lonely. She did not believe that the man beside her understood her or truly knew her or was right for her. She wanted to find someone who would love her the way she deserved, and by God, she found him not long afterwards and married him and moved with him and the kids to a big house in France.
The mystery of who this woman was and what she truly wanted had been in front of me the whole time, hidden inside The Golden Barbarian. And I had missed it. I had overlooked all of these big things waiting inside this little detail.
It was just another reminder, one of hundreds over the years, that I need to pay attention to everything and look for the meaning hidden right in front of me.


What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

 Okay, so I read this passage once in The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso’s astonishing retelling and reframing of Greek mythology. It was an insight the writer had about the multiple versions of each myth and all the heroes and gods and goddesses.
“Mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths,” Calasso wrote. “But in each of these lives and deaths all the others are present, and we can hear their echo.” 
Those lines hit me like a thunderbolt. I was about 35 at the time, and I knew that in those few decades I had already lived several lives and had already died and been reborn several times. And if that was true of me, then it had to be true of all of us, not just mythical figures, but the human beings whose stories I was trying to chronicle. And when all of this washed through me, I realized I had a lot more digging to do in my reporting. Because up until then, I hadn’t recognized the multiplicity of each person’s experiences. I hadn’t seen it, because I hadn’t known to look for it, and once I did learn it, my reporting instantly went deeper.


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

Wow. On my better days, I guess I’d compare myself to someone who digs, a miner maybe. Anne Hull once scribbled me a note on a piece of scrap paper and gave me some advice that I’ve held onto tightly ever since. I hope she’ll forgive me for sharing it: Don’t turn back. Understatement. Insight. The scalpel. Tool into the past without misty eyes but with the compass and charts of an explorer. Tunnel there . . . As the boys in Princeton, W.V. say: Get dirty, brother.


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

 I’ve been extremely lucky in my writing life to have learned from so many great journalists. The best advice I ever received — and I received it from many — is the same advice I give myself every time on deadline and the advice I give every writer I work with, whether they’re doing a quick daily or burrowing inside a massive book.
“Keep going.”

Turn on the Valve: Four Questions with Sean Tanner

Interviews
Sean Tanner

Sean Tanner is a rising star in the Irish literary scene. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, The Lonely Crowd, The Holly Bough, The Forge Literary Magazine, and The Moth Magazine among others. In 2017 he won the Hennessy New Irish writing award for first fiction, and in 2018 he received the John McGahern award for literature. In 2021 he was awarded a full literature bursary (scholarship) from the Arts Council of Ireland.

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

There’s no such thing as writer’s block. What there is though, is a reluctance to write poorly. I think sometimes you just have to turn on the valve and clear the crap out of the pipes before you can get the good stuff. Once I realized this, the whole thing became a lot easier for me. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?


All of it I guess. Any kind of success I’ve had has been a surprise to me. Every time I get an acceptance, I am surprised and elated. I remember my first big acceptance, I genuinely thought it was a prank. I thought it was some cruel friend having a laugh at my childish ambitions. I googled the email I got the acceptance letter from and everything. This is not uncommon either from I hear. How much success will it take to convince me I am a capable writer? A lot, probably.


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

I guess I’d be like the intrusive drunk who has no respect for your personal space, the one who leans in too close and breathes whiskey fumes in your face while whispering some illicit confession, hoisting an unwanted confidence upon you, as you listen appalled, and embarrassed.

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

I think you can apply this to any artistic endeavor, not just writing. It’s a quote from the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk : ‘“A genius is the one most like himself.”
Not saying I’m a genius or anything, but this struck me as important when I read it, and to me it says something important about voice and integrity, and how that translates onto the page.


POWER THROUGH: FOUR QUESTIONS WITH ELLEN GABLER

Interviews
Ellen Gabler

Ellen Gabler is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Since joining The Times in 2017, she has covered health and medical issues in addition to reporting on sexual harassment. Ms. Gabler previously worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a reporter and deputy investigations editor.

At The Times in 2018, Ms. Gabler was part of a team awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of sexual harassment and misconduct. She has also received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in National Reporting and shared with colleagues the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, Scripps Howard, Gerald Loeb, and National Headliner awards, among others. 


A native of Eau Claire, Wis. Ms.Gabler has a bachelor of business administration from Emory University and a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She began her career at the Stillwater Gazette, in Stillwater, Minn. and has worked at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

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

To not be a wimp about it. Writing well is hard. It takes planning, dedication, re-writing, thinking about your reader, and listening to those who edit/read your work. I’m often stunned by the amount of drafts I go through on some of my most important stories. The re-reading, re-writing and re-thinking of ledes, sections, endings, transitions and everything else can be exhausting and maddening. But, that is often what it takes to pull together a really strong piece.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

The biggest surprise ties in with the biggest lesson. I’m surprised that writing can still be pretty challenging, despite the fact that I’ve been a reporter for nearly 20 years. But the good thing is, now I KNOW it is challenging, and remember that I just need to power through. And every story is different. Some come easier than others. I’ve also learned to enjoy the process more, and think of it like I’m training for an athletic event. I swam competitively through college, and we spent years practicing our starts, turns, finishes — really fine-tuning every part of a race. Writing is the same. The training never really ends, and every time you do it, it is going to be kind of hard. So you have to accept that and jump on in.

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

To me, writing is a lot like building a snow fort AND putting together a puzzle. To build a snow fort, you need enough snow. To write a story, you need enough “stuff” or reporting to build the story. Often times when I’m having trouble writing, it is because I don’t have enough “stuff.” Getting all the snow to build your fort can be a pain. The same is true with reporting. But, you need to do the hard work of getting all of the “stuff” before you can write.

As for the puzzle part, that’s pretty self-explanatory. Even though it is ALSO often a pain, I do love the part of writing where you get to take all of your reporting and make it fit together. I like being surprised by how it turns out, and really delight in the little moments when you find the right transition or perfect place to put a quote.

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

To remember that you are telling a story, not writing a research paper. I think a lot of times as investigative reporters, we can be boring. Your story doesn’t matter if no one reads it, and so it is really important to try to write in a compelling and approachable way.

Although to be honest, there isn’t just ONE best piece of writing advice. I have gathered up little pieces of advice over the years from listening to other reporters talk about their work, and simply from reading. The more you read, the more you notice what works and what doesn’t work. Then you can apply it to your own stories. 

Beautiful Language is Contagious: Four Questions with Nicola Twilley

Interviews
Nicola Twilley/Photo by Jenny GG

Nicola Twilley is co-host of the award-winning Gastropod podcast and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her first book, “Until Proven Safe: The History and Future of Quarantine,” was co-authored with Geoff Manaugh and published by MCD, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in July 2021. She is currently writing a book on the topic of refrigeration for Penguin Press.

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

I’ll give you the lesson I have learned and learned again, but still fail to apply far too frequently: write your notes and thoughts down as soon as possible. Sometimes when I’m reporting, especially when my schedule is packed and I’m tired, I get lazy and let my smartphone do the work, figuring I’ll just take some photos, record the conversation, and go through it all later. Then, at the end of the day, I collapse instead of jotting notes and mentally reviewing what I experienced. But, while I believe in photographing and transcribing everything (no better way to relive the interview and capture the nuances of voice, as well as details I might have missed in the moment), looking at photographs and transcripts later just doesn’t yield all the same richness that bubbles up when you sit down at the end of a long day of interviews and let your mind tell you what was important.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That I can write! I grew up thinking that, if I was good enough to be a real writer, I would already know — the way athletes know whether they’re good enough to be professional by university or before. I thought it was a matter of innate talent, and that, if I had that kind of talent, someone would definitely have mentioned it at some point. I didn’t know any writers, so I had no real-world point of comparison, either. It wasn’t until my husband started a successful writing career that I realized that, if he could do it, maybe I could too. (He also believed I could, which helped!)

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

I’m a combination detectorist and carpenter. The reporting part is all about finding nuggets — you can develop a sense of where they might be and how to extract them, the way detectorists find buried treasure. The writing is carpentry — I can’t start writing till I have my first sentence, but then it’s a relatively straightforward matter of joining everything together so it forms a pleasing structure, and planing it down to try to get rid of anything extraneous. A slow, careful, craft-ful assembly process.

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

To write my notes and thoughts down as soon as possible! (See answer 1; this came from Michael Pollan, and, whenever I have the discipline to follow it, I am grateful.) My favorite piece of writing advice to give to others is to read good writing. I firmly believe that beautiful language is contagious. That, and use the right dictionary.

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.

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