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

Willing to Go Deep: Four Questions with Norma Watkins

Interviews

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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.   
 


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. 

Run Your Own Race: Four Questions with Brendan O’Meara

Interviews
Brendan O’Meara

Brendan O’Meara is the host/founder/producer of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, now in its ninth year, where he talks to people about the art and craft of telling true stories. He also produces Casualty of Words, a daily micropodcast for people in a hurry. He is an award-winning features writer, newspaper opinion page editor (until he will inevitably get laid off), founder of podcast maker Exit 3 Media, and author Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. He’s wrapping up a memoir on his father and baseball called The Tools of Ignorance. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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

I don’t think it can be understated that, One, there is no unilateral path through this morass and Two, knowing that, run your own race, embrace your own path, celebrate your path.

I got myself into a lot of “trouble” by thinking there was a singular path to writing fame and prestige and notoriety. It led me down a toxic path of jealousy, envy, bitterness, and resentment that was compounded by the insidious rise of social media. “That person is doing what I want to do and here I am selling running shoes, writing slideshows (Winners and Losers from the Daytona 500 for $50) and he’s got a 3,000-word profile in Outside and he’s my age or younger and what the hell am I doing wrong and I bet he isn’t writing these terrible slideshows or stacking produce at Whole Foods and certainly Wright Thompson or Susan Orlean never had to do this. So if I was really ANY good at this, then why am I landscaping and doing reporting calls on my lunch break? Surely my heroes and peers weren’t doing this, right?

When my first book came out, the book deal came as a result of fitting a woman for shoes who knew an editor at the press who published the book.

Another job I had, doing calls on lunch breaks, won an award for this piece. basically while dirty from cleaning up hedges all day in Jersey City.

What you realize, often after a long, long, long time is that you can’t know someone’s privilege or the lucky break or the sheer titanic and singular focus others might possess. Or, more likely, they are doing unglamorous work to pay the bills (ghost writing, content marketing, maybe a day job at Trader Joe’s) and they don’t post that on Instagram. All you see is the veneer of non-stop winning.

By stopping with the comparison game, and celebrating other people’s work as much or more than your own, you’ll find your time will come and someone else will look at you and think, “It looks like they’ve been there the entire time.” 

There are more 10 and 15-year overnight success stories out there than you realize. In a culture that values precocity and youth above the grind and experience, run your own race and avoid 30-Under-30 lists like COVID.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

This might be a controversial statement but I’ll say it anyway as a double major in college and someone who earned an MFA in 2008: college doesn’t matter. A body of work matters

Any job I have ever gotten was based on life experience and the body of work I amassed by showing up every day, drip by drip. Here, I made this.

I’m mentoring an 18-year-old high school grad. She’s very bright, is not enrolled in college, and by happenstance our paths crossed (she emailed a bunch of newspaper editors here in Eugene and I was the only one who responded to her). I’m working with her to build a body of work she can show clients or potential employers or editors because when you pitch an editor a feature, they never, never, never ask you where you went to school. They ask for your clips and whether you can deliver on what you’re promising. 

College has a purpose, but make no mistake: unless you’re studying to cut open human bodies, higher education has more in common with high school only with more drinking. Why accrue the debt if you can just do the work?

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

I write about horse racing quite a bit and there are horses who are plodders, who are slow out of the gate, trail the field, conserve energy, save ground, and do most of their damage (See Zenyata… “This! Is! Un! Be! Lievable!)–if they do any damage at all–late in the race. They let the “rabbits” and “speed balls” set blistering paces on the front end, wait for them to tire, then surge from the back of the herd. This echoes one of my favorite quotes from the run of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast when I first spoke with Pulitzer Prize finalist Elizabeth Rush, “I’m just a mule. I just show up every day and climb very, very slowly up that mountain.”

I’ve always been a bit of a late bloomer, one who has been frustrated by the precocious around me (which makes me bloom even later since I waste too much of time worrying about things outside of my control) and a culture that puts a premium on the precocious at the expense of those with more experience, those who need more time to hit their stride, or those who don’t reach exit velocity until they’re in their 40s or even 50s. Maybe older. 

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

“Don’t get writerly on me, Brendan.”

In the memoir I’m wrapping up, “The Tools of Ignorance: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball,” I’d have what I thought were nice painterly flourishes or pyrotechnic language befitting of a David Foster Wallace wannabe. [Note to wannabes of any ilk: There’s already a [FILL IN THE BLANK]. We need [YOUR NAME HERE]. 

Prose doesn’t have to be lyrical or pretty to be artful. My editor telling me “Don’t get writerly” was saying me this: Surrender to the story. Tell the story straight. Get out of the way. Let the story be a warm bath you can sink into  (Dammit! See?! I’m getting writerly!).

When you lock into the story, do your best to get out of its way and let it do the heavy lifting. The truth and relatability of the story will carry the reader. 

There are stylists out there, but odds are you’re not Jimi Hendrix or Miles Davis or Wes Anderson. Do your best to fade into the background so the reader almost has no idea how they got from page 1 to page 324. 

Don’t Wait Until You’re Not Afraid: Four Questions with Lonnae O’Neal

Interviews

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer for ESPN/The Undefeated, specializing in the intersection of race, sports and culture. In 2018, she was a top five winner in the Associated Press Sports Editors contest. She was a two-time 2019 National Association of Black Journalist’s Salute to Excellence Award winner for projects and general reporting. Prior to joining the Undefeated, she was a Washington Post reporter and columnist for two decades, during which her recognition included the 2016 first-place winner of the Society for Features Journalism award for excellence in commentary. In 2000, O’Neal won the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism award for distinguished work in the coverage of race and ethnicity in America. That same year, her feature story “White Girl” was the subject of a special broadcast of ABC’s “Nightline.” She is author of I’m Every Woman, Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood and Work.”Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at The Undefeated. She has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.

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

Humility. I’m always clear that there’s so much I don’t know about the subjects I’m writing about and about the writing process itself. Being mindful of that allows me to stay open to the lesson, to the parable, to the source, to the quote that you’re going to miss if you think you’ve heard everything, or that you know so much. It keeps you present all the way through to the end of the interview, when somebody finally trusts you enough to give you a nugget, or send you a document. It allows you to see and hear poetry in details people often take for granted. Finally, it can make you obsess about being accurate, contextual, brave, because people don’t have to trust you with their stories.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

As a young writer, I was so afraid, I couldn’t bring myself to start a story with my name, my byline. I came to realize there was something to that. That it was an old newspaper convention that you don’t file with a byline, it’s something given to you. I used to think the more I wrote, the easier it would get, but that has not been the case.

I’ve written just about every kind of story there is, often on deadline, and while that’s given me a skill set, those butterflies, that first shiver when I get an assignment, or when I finally sit down to write it, has never left me. I’ve just learned how to write anyway. It’s helpful in that I can tell students, don’t wait until you’re not afraid. That’s not the signal you’re looking for. That’s not the permission you seek. Instead, acknowledge the fear, breathe through it, phone a friend, set a timer, come up with a routine that takes you through what the great Washington Post writer, Henry Allen, used to call the Stations of the Cross. And then, if you’re lucky enough to have a little time before you file, sometimes even time to just read what you wrote, you can find all these places where you get to soar. And if you’re very lucky, that can make all the suffering worth it. Ar least until the next time!

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

I think I’m a singer. Sometimes I get these notes in my head and I reach for them. Or perhaps it is an arrangement that finds me whispering into a voice recorder at 4 in the morning, or scribbling sentences on napkins. Once, or twice, or three times, when I hit my highest notes, it can feel like I’m talking to God. But mostly, I just feel like I have this thing in me that I have got to sing out, even if nobody is listening. I used to say even if nobody is paying me, but of course that was when I was young, and just made of emotion.

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

I’ve never forgotten when the great Donna Britt told me — that writing is a sustained application of ass to chair. Beyond that, my favorite piece of advice is to read. Read constantly, read everything, share what you’ve read when something speaks to you. It will you give you metaphors, it will help you connect dots, it will help you fall truly, madly, irrevocably in love with words. Also, one more thing, the incomparable Jabari Asim, a former Post colleague and now director of the MFA program at Emerson College, introduced me to “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” He used the Ralph Ellison essay to remind me that there is always a critic, someone who knows more than you, on any subject you write about, and you must do enough research to gain authority (and the knowing, if not respect, of this little man) at whatever level you are writing. He folded the lengthy disquisition about standards, and quality and the duty of the artist into convenient shorthand. “Chehaw!” Jabari sometimes urges me. It’s a reminder to never ever simply coast on pretty words. To always go deeper.

The Importance of Restraint: Four Questions with Kim Cross

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Kim Cross

Kim Cross is the author of “What Stands in a Storm,” a narrative nonfiction account of the biggest tornado outbreak on record. A full-time freelance writer, she has bylines in Outside, Bicycling, Nieman Storyboard, and other magazines. When she’s not writing, she’s mountain biking, fly fishing, or exploring some glorious place without phone reception in Idaho. Her nonfiction narrative, “Noel + Leon, a True Story from the Middle of Somewhere” won the Gold Lowell Thomas Award for foreign travel reporting from the Society of American Travel Writers, was named as one of the Best of 2020 in the Sunday Longread and was included in David Brooks’ annual Sidney Awards. Her most recent piece, “My Month of Doing 100 Wheeliea Day,” appeared in Outside.

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

That “no” doesn’t always mean “no.” Sometimes it just means “Not right now.” 

I’ve come to realize that so much of landing a pitch has to do with timing: what’s going on in the news and the world; what the editors have on their lineup; the gestation of a story that’s still unfolding in real life. I wrote a true crime book proposal that almost sold in 2014 (the deal fell through). I was disappointed, but didn’t throw it out entirely, because my gut said the timing wasn’t right. Today, the market is way different for true crime is very different, so I’m reconsidering that story. 

I’ve found that sometimes a story can’t be rushed. It almost feels like it has a will of its own, and no matter the writer’s agenda or skill, it can’t be written until the story is ready. I know this sounds a little woo-woo, but my instincts on this have almost always been right. I have pulled eight-year-old story ideas out of a folder named “Rejected” and sold them when the time and venue and fit was just right. I guess the hard part is knowing which ideas are worth resurrecting and which should stay in the “rejected” folder. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

That my non-writing life would intersect with my writing life in such unexpected and integral ways. J-school instilled the belief that it was unprofessional or even narcissistic for writers to put themselves in the story. But some of my most successful stories—not only in terms of professional recognition but responses from readers who related—have been personal essays. When an essay about fishing with my late father was selected for Best American Sports Writing, I was flabbergasted: I didn’t know fishing was a sport, and had never considered sports writing, despite being a competitive athlete since the age of 9. This also opened the door to a niche that had never even occurred to me, and made me realize an expertise I never even knew I had. Now I write quite a lot about bicycling and fishing—two passions that don’t feel like work to me!

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

One of the first things that came to mind is a home-builder. Everyone does it differently, but for me, a narrative starts with a blueprint: a plan for the story structure. And, as with building a house, the plan often evolves as the product starts to take shape. After I lay the foundation and frame the walls (ie complete the rough draft) I do a walk-through to see if the rooms are in the right place. If not, this is the time to tear down walls, move windows, and decide you don’t need that extra room. Only then do I start fleshing out the story, hanging drywall and mudding over the seams (which can be an exquisitely frustrating process). Last comes round after round of polishing: adding trim and paint colors (which sometimes change). Those last rounds of finishing touches—word precision, activating verbs, tightening prose, tinkering with cadence and flow—are when the magic happens. 

For me, narrative structure—the sequence of scene, summary, and exposition—is the foundation of a successful story. When a house is well designed, a stranger can walk in and, without help, figure out where to find the bathroom or the kitchen. Likewise, a story should keep the reader feeling effortlessly oriented. 

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

Mike Wilson, whom I consider my Jedi Master, taught me the importance of restraint. Particularly when writing emotional stories, where there’s a risk of being maudlin or cliche. The bigger the emotion, the smaller you need to write. My personal measure of success for most stories is whether it makes a reader feel something, so I try to stir up a universal emotion through details so concrete and singular that they’re the antithesis of cliche. Instead of describing the emotion, try, as Hemingway advised, to write “the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion.” 

Stories Are the Way We Connect: Four Questions with Glenn Stout

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Glenn Stout

Glenn Stout began freelancing in 1986 and became a full-time writer in 1993. The only Series Editor of The Best American Sports Writing over its 30-year existence, he is the author, editor or ghostwriter of 100 books. His titles include Young Woman and the Sea; How Gertrude Ederle Conquered the English Channel and Changed the World, now in development as a motion picture for Disney+, and, most recently, Tiger Girl and the Candy Kid: America’s Original Gangster Couple. A citizen of the U.S. and Canada, he grew up in Ohio, studied poetry at Bard College, and worked as a librarian at the Boston Public Library before turning to writing. He now lives in Vermont where he writes and serves as consultant and freelance editor on book proposals, manuscripts and longform features.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned about writing?

To learn how I write, not just word by word, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, but also to learn the process that works for me both before and after the words first go on the page. I think when we begin to write we often sabotage ourselves through comparison with others. We all want to write like writers we admire, but discover we don’t sound that way. Then we learn that writer “A” hews to a strict schedule and writes a thousand words a day… and some days we write and some days we don’t. We learn that writer “B” meticulously takes notes on index cards… while we scrawl in notebooks and create vast piles of pages of reporting. We learn writer “C” creates grand sculptural dioramas of every story in advance of writing it… while we an outline that could fit on the palm of our hand. It’s easy to look at our own words and methods and feel diminished, lesser than. But instead of beating ourselves up by comparison, better instead to learn to recognize those first few snippets that sound like ourselves and build from that, and find the methods that best work for ourselves. Not that we don’t learn from others; we do, but the lesson is that while there is no single best way to write, there are many ways, and each of us has to discover the way that best works for us.

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life?

Realizing that stories are the way be connect with others, that they are the basis of communication and connection. For a long time I don’t think I was aware of this, but when I began working with other writers it suddenly became clear and I finally understood why I do what I do.

You may meet a stranger and exchange small talk, but at some point you start sharing stories with one another, and when you do that you begin to find a part of yourself in the story of another. That is how we connect, and why we connect, and that’s why we do this. Because, let’s face it, none of this, really, makes sense in terms of making a living. Writing can be isolating, it doesn’t always pay well, if at all, and most of what we do only speaks to a limited audience. It’s hard to make a living this way. If you look at it logically, there are thousands of reasons not to be a writer. Yet people do it all the time. And I think the reason for that is because we’re put on the planet to connect with others, and the only way we know how to do that is through the stories we share.

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

I always say I’m a laborer. When I was younger I was fortunate enough to work several years in construction, first as laborer, then form carpenter and foreman, working in concrete and steel. That experience taught me as much about writing as any workshop or conference I’ve ever attended. I learned that you can begin with a complete empty slate, a roughly graded empty lot, but that by dint of labor, showing up each day, staying at it, focusing on the job right in front of you, that six months or a year later, well goddamn, there’s a building. And then you can do it again. It’s the same way writing a story, or a book. You stay in the chair long enough, do the next task, and there it is. Writing is done in increments, one after the other. The result can be art, but the execution is mostly labor and effort, and that, in the end is all you can control. If you show up every day…

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

Listen to written words spoken aloud. My early background in writing was almost entirely in the writing and study of poetry, and I learned that sound is just about everything, that it is the sound of the words, as much as what they mean, that distinguishes writing. I believe that a work can be accurate and correct in every way, but if it lacks sound and rhythm and pace, I don’t think it sticks in our brains, the impact is blunted. Then we don’t occupy the work, it remains at arms’ length and we don’t experience and inhabit the story, and I think that is the goal: to be immersed in a story so that when it ends we are somehow changed in way large or small. I think sound is the key to that experience, where no part of the work pushes us away, or disrupts the experience. I’m not saying we read aloud always, but that by reading aloud we learn to hear, and by learning to hear we can also learn to write so others listen and hear us.

You Have to Sit in the Chair: Four Questions with Sally Jenkins

Interviews
Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist and feature writer for The Washington Post. She was previously a senior writer for Sports Illustrated. She has been named the nation’s top sports columnist by the Associated Press sports editors four times and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. In 2013, she earned a first-place AP award for “Do No Harm,” an investigative series, co-written with Rick Maese, on medical care in the National Football League. She won the 2021 Red Smith Award for “major contributions to sports journalism,” the same prize her late father, sportswriter Dan Jenkins, won in 2013. Jenkins is the author of 12 books, four of which were New York Times bestsellers, most recently the No.1 “Sum It Up” with legendary basketball coach Pat Summitt. She is also the author of “The Real All Americans,” the historical account of how the Carlisle Indian School took on the Ivy League powers in college football at the turn of the century and won. Her work has been featured in Smithsonian, GQ and Sports Illustrated. A native of Texas, Jenkins graduated from Stanford and lives in Sag Harbor, New York.

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

That there is no such thing as writing without discipline and structure. Inspiration is almost a mirage. It’s not that it doesn’t exist; it does. But if it’s not married to method, regimen, it’s useless, it’s just a scrap of paper floating on a breeze, flying away from you. What makes something conveyable is the regular work. You have to sit in the chair for at least two to four hours for something worthwhile to happen. And it’s a stunning thing: if you will do that, if you’re willing to sit there fearfully but faithfully in front of a blank white screen and just try for a few hours, then you will produce a page or a few pages that are fixable, improvable, until they become coherent. 

       But then you have to revise. And then revise again. The difference between a first draft and a second draft is about a 35 percent improvement. And the difference between the second draft and the third draft is another 35 percent of improvement. So, if you’re doing the basic math, 70 percent of what happens comes after the initial inspiration. Those revisions are like eating day-old oatmeal. Frequently when I read over my first draft I feel like crying. Sometimes I do cry – because I’m a cat-in-yarn incompetent who can’t organize a simple sentence. But at the end of the second draft, I’ve at least untangled the string. And after the third, I’m not happy but I’m not mortified. And I know that I at least worked at it, so I can hold my head up over that. 

       And then, a lot of times, it’s published and other people tell me they like it, and I re-read it, and I think, “Well that was pretty good. I’m pretty proud of that because I know how I worked at it.” I have one strength and one strength only as a writer: I work at it. 

What has been the biggest surprise of your writing life? 

The things that come out of my head. That’s the biggest surprise of all. 

I am stunned at the words that come unlooked for. I mean stuff just appears – and you don’t have any freaking idea why or how. It writes you. That’s why you have to sit in the chair for four hours. Because you don’t know what will happen, when the invisible thing that really holds the pen or hits the keys starts moving. I have used words I didn’t know I knew.  

I’m also surprised at how everlastingly scary it is, to sit there and court incompetence and to take chances with words. You’re almost never punished for taking those chances. That’s surprising. If you take the chance – and revise with discipline – then the chance will reward you with quality. I read something once that the songwriter Paul Simon said. He said, I’m paraphrasing, there’s a point where you’re stopped and scared, and you have to tell yourself, what are you so scared of, and move past it. And then the good things come.  

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

I am a prisoner breaking rocks with a shovel. Like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, saying, “Yeah Boss,” while I chop at the ground.

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



Two pieces. One was from my Dad. “Don’t ever let a thing out of your hands until it’s as good as you can make it,” he said. He meant within the confines of a deadline, of course. But he also meant, you do your best every time out, don’t you ever mail it in. 

And then there was Tony Kornheiser’s advice to me as a young writer at The Washington Post. “You’re only as smart as the people you talk to,” he said. Which also stuck. You have to seek out smart people and you have to listen, and you have to store up all the information, as well as the thoughts and words, that come from that. 

Writing a naked memoir: An interview with Tommy Tomlinson

Interviews

A book with a canary-colored cover holds a place of honor on my bookshelf. It’s Tommy Tomlin’s 2019 memoir: “The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America.”

Tomlinson is brutally honest about his weight; at one point the scale read 460 pounds. He strips himself naked, literally, to describe what his morbidly obese body looks like and explores the addiction to food that began as he grew up in a fat, salt and carb-loaded Southern household. He talks about his sex life with his wife, Alix Felsing.

He balances his own story with the larger crisis of the county’s obesity epidemic, bringing to his reported memoir the journalistic skills honed during a career as an award-winning reporter and columnist for The Charlotte Observer and magazine writer.

Before I interviewed his last summer for Nieman Storyboard, I made a list of questions. “I wanted to know,” I wrote back then, “why someone who feels the stigma of obesity every day would expose himself so nakedly, to the extent that he describes how it affects his sex life. How did he weigh the honesty needed to tell a true story with the need to protect those who are part of that story? And perhaps most important when considering memoir—or any intense reconstruction that relies on the quirks of memory—how did he report the past with any assurance of its accuracy?”

These are the kind of intimate questions that anyone writing memoir, especially about sensitive topics, must confront. Tomlinson’s answers provide crucial answers.

Here are excerpts from our interview. reprinted with Nieman Storyboard’s permssion.

Of her memoir, “Hunger,” Roxane Gay said: “When I was writing it I was worried about exposing myself like this, and being this honest.” Did you feel the same way?

There are things in this book that I had never told anyone – my wife, my closest friends, anyone – before I put them on the page. But I decided early on that if I was going to do this book, I had to do it right. Other overweight people – or people with any other addiction, really – would be able to sniff it out if I faked it. Even more, I’d always know. So I kept pushing myself to be more honest, to tell the truth the best I could.


Your prologue starts with a very brief memory. Then the book launches, on New Year’s Eve 2014, with the bluntest of statements: “I weigh 460 pounds.” From there you spool out what that means in every part of your life in pretty graphic detail. How do you decide how far to go? And how do you walk the line between exposing and protecting yourself and others, like your wife and mother?

Tomlinson with his mother, Virginia, who died in January 2018
Tomlinson with his mother, Virginia, who died in January 2018 Courtesy of Tommy Tomlinson

I held to the same standard I’d hold any story I do: What are the details that tell the most? What’s necessary to tell the whole story? I don’t tell EVERY detail about my life, but I did my best to leave in everything that I thought mattered to the story I’m trying to tell.

I told my family I was doing the book and that they might be part of it. I also showed them the manuscript ahead of time – not something I’d normally do, but I think the rules are a little different in memoir. They all felt it was fair and true. My mom died in January (2018), but she got to see an early version. She thought it was good, except for all the curse words.

You write frankly about your sex life as a teenager and a married man and your inability to have a child with your wife. How do you balance the memoir’s demand for intimacy and honesty with respect for people you care about?

That was the hardest line for me to draw. Early on, when I read a section at a writers’ retreat, somebody asked me: “Is there gonna be any sex in the book?” It’s not the kind of thing Alix and I talk about with other people. But I thought it was important to give a glimpse into our private lives (and it’s only a glimpse) because one, it’s something people naturally wonder about, and two, it speaks to some of the consequences of my weight. As far as my sex life before Alix, it’s intentionally vague – I didn’t want to drag anyone into this book who didn’t want to be there.

When I interviewed you in 2004, after you won the ASNE award for profile writing, you said anytime you have a long story, you need a way to break it up. For your book, how did you decide to use a one-year time frame and the scale (your weight) as a structural device? And how did you decide to weave the story of the fattening of America – which is essentially an extended nut graf – throughout the book rather than deal with it in one place?

The calendar is always a handy way to frame a story, and it especially made sense for this one because everyone who has tried to lose weight measures at least month by month. So that made for a natural 12 chapters. The book is not really about how much weight I lost – it’s more about learning about yourself as a way to get ready to lose weight – but of course I was trying to lose along the way, so I marked the end of each chapter with how I did that month. And along the way I wanted to zoom out from my story into how this is a more and more prevalent American story, so I circled back to that idea several times along the way.

How do you report your own past? You vividly reconstruct scenes and remembered conversations from as far back as early childhood, your college and early newspaper years. How do you know these memories are accurate?

One role model for me was David Carr’s great memoir “The Night of the Gun,” where he went back and reported out his drug-fueled early life – there were a lot of things he didn’t remember. I remembered most of the things I wrote about in this book. But I did check out my memories with Alix, my family and friends. I wasn’t a reporter in quite the same way, because a memoir, at heart, is a really long essay. But I did check the facts.

One thing I made sure not to do is quote stuff from decades ago as if it was verbatim. I’m always skeptical when people remember long conversations from 30 or 40 years ago with such accuracy they can put it in quote marks. I don’t believe I have anything like that in the book. I do have a few moments where I remember the gist of what somebody said, and I might put that in italics.

Having said all that, there are some scenes in the book where I had to rely on my memory. There’s a scene early on when I’m 3 or 4 years old, playing in our front yard, watching kids on the other side of the fence play kickball. I don’t know who any of those kids are. But it’s a really vivid memory for me – in fact, it’s the first memory I have. So I went with it, hoping the reader will know that what I wrote is the best I can remember.

You can read the entire interview with Tomlinson here.