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. 

Four Questions with Nicola Twilley

Interviews
Nicola Twilley

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

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.