Susan Orlean: Why I Write

Acclaimed author Susan Orlean explains her many reasons for being a writer.

Why We Write Cover

In "Why We Write," twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation.

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Anyone who's ever sat down to write a novel or even a story knows how exhilarating and heartbreaking writing can be. So what makes writers stick with it? In Why We Write (Plume, 2013), twenty well-known authors candidly share what keeps them going and what they love most—and least—about their vocation. In this excerpt from chapter 16, Susan Orlean explains why being a writer was the only job for her.   

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He believed the dog was immortal. “There will always be a Rin Tin Tin,” Lee Duncan said, time and time again, to reporters, to visitors, to fan magazines, to neighbors, to family, to friends. At first this must have sounded absurd—just wishful thinking about the creature that had eased his loneliness and made him famous around the world . . .
—Opening lines, Rin Tin Tin, 2011 

As a writer, what do you do and where do you go, once Meryl Streep has been Oscar nominated for portraying you in the movie adaptation of your book—or, in Susan Orleans’s case, the movie, Adaptation, of her book? Susan Orlean decided to do everything and go everywhere.

Susan Orlean is an exceptionally wide-ranging, voraciously curious journalist with an exceptionally wide-ranging career. A staff writer and blogger for the New Yorker since 1992, she’s written articles about nearly everything—chickens, dieting, dogs, surfer girls, Jean Paul Gaultier, Bill Blass, a Harlem high school basketball star, Tonya Harding, taxidermy—for Rolling Stone, Vogue, Esquire, Spy, and a host of other publications.

“I always dreamed of being a writer,” Orlean explains on her website, “but had no idea of how you went about being a writer—or at least the kind of writer I wanted to be: someone who wrote long stories about interesting things, rather than news stories about short-lived events.”

A true American treasure, Orlean lives an adventure-filled writer’s life. In doing so, she’s created a definition of journalism that didn’t exist before and remains unique to her. One suspects that if she were other-gendered, there would be a name for it, like Gonzo journalism, or New Journalism. “Sue Journalism,” perhaps.

Susan Orlean

Why I write
Writing is all I’ve ever done. I don’t think of it as a profession. It’s just who I am.  

I write because I love learning about the world. I love telling stories, and I love the actual experience of making sentences. From age five or six, the earliest time I could imagine myself as a person with a job, being a writer was all I imagined I’d be. I’d fallen in love with the idea of stories—telling them and hearing them. I was enchanted. The only problem was that when it came time to leave college and have a profession, I thought, Jesus, how do you make it a job?

My parents wanted me to go to law school. I grudgingly proposed that I would, if they’d let me first take a year off after finishing college. During that year I managed—very unexpectedly—to land a job as a writer at a little magazine in Portland. I had gone to the interview for the job with no clips, no experience, but a lot of passion; in fact, I basically announced, “You just have to hire me. This is all I want to do. Just this.” Frankly, hiring me was a very good decision for them, because wanting to be a writer is a huge percentage of what makes you be one. You have to want to do it really badly. You have to feel that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. That’s how it was for me. From the moment I got that job, being a writer was utterly and totally a fit I’d never experienced anywhere else. I didn’t have training. I learned on the job and from a series of very good editors. I think my pure desire made up for my complete lack of knowledge and experience.

True to my promise, one year later I took my law boards. But then I informed my parents that I wasn’t going to law school. My father was furious with me. I think he was worried about it being a real gamble as a way to make a living. Even after my first book came out, he was still suggesting that it wasn’t too late to go to law school as a fallback. I said, “Dad, I don’t plan to fall back.” If I’d had a fallback I might not have toughed this out and made it work.

A lot of my friends who thought about being writers ended up going into law or advertising or PR. They still dreamed about writing, but they couldn’t give up their good jobs. Fortunately I never had a good job to give up.

All the work’s a stage
When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.  

Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.

Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.

Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.

Where I write
I don’t need to be in a perfectly quiet place to write. I don’t need a lot of fussy special conditions. But I do need my material to work from within reach, and I do need a certain sense that I’m not going to be interrupted for a chunk of time.  

That means I find it really hard to write when my son, Austin, is in the house. I can report in any situation, but writing—no. Austin used to ask if he could just sit in my studio while I wrote; he promised to be quiet. I thought, There’s no way in a million years I can write with this little person there. No way he could be quiet, either.

After Austin was born, it became pretty important to have a private workspace, so I built myself a little studio. It’s only fifty yards from the house, but it has a door I can close. I have a very Virginia Woolf need for my own space—not my old space, which was the dining room table. I don’t need it to look a certain way; I just need to feel it’s mine. I need to put things on the wall that don’t require approval from anyone else. I need to be able to leave at night with my notes laid out in a certain way and know they’ll be exactly that way when I return in the morning.

I got lucky
Unlike most postcollege first jobs, the first job I got out of college, at that magazine in Portland, Oregon, was an actual writing job, not being an assistant to a writer. My editor told me to think of ideas that would make good stories, and then he told me to go do them. When the magazine folded, I briefly worked at a radio station doing odds and ends, and then I got another writing job at the Willamette Week.  

My first big break came in ’79 or ’80 when I was twenty-whatever. A senior editor at Rolling Stone who’d grown up in Portland saw my stuff in the Willamette Week. He called me and said, “You should be writing for Rolling Stone.” I almost fell over. It opened the door for me. I started contributing to Rolling Stone, and then the Village Voice, and then I began figuring out ways to freelance for other national publications.

I’m surprised by how shrewd I was about how to make my way in the writing world. Portland wasn’t exactly the hotbed of the writing world, but there were stories happening there, interesting stories. So I contacted national magazines and said, “I’m here, and I know some good stories here, so let me do them.” For instance, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a cult leader, had bought a huge, ten-thousand-acre ranch in Oregon and established a community of his followers there. He was a controversial figure who owned forty-eight Rolls-Royces while preaching antimaterialism, and yet many very intelligent, educated people had joined his group. It was a fascinating situation, so I contacted the Village Voice and said, “I’m here, and I’d love to write about it.” They had nothing to lose since they didn’t have to pay to send me out to Oregon, so they told me to go ahead. In the end, my piece ran as a cover story in the Voice, and through sheer luck the week it ran happened to be the very first time they used color on the cover, so the piece got lots of extra attention because of that. It was one of many instances when I felt I just had good fortune on my side.

I started getting calls after my story ran in the Voice, and I started writing for Mademoiselle, Vogue, and GQ. I was a new, young writer, not living in New York, so for many editors, I offered a wonderful sense of discovery, to find a new writer. I left Portland and moved to Boston. I started itching to move to New York, and in 1986, I finally did.

And then I got luckier
The best time I’ve ever had as a writer—this is strange, but true—was years ago when I was reporting a story for the New Yorker, and I traveled with a black gospel group for a couple of weeks, writing about their world.  

There was this moment when we pulled into some tiny town in Georgia, and we were having dinner in a local diner and I had an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t stop being amazed, thinking, This is my job. I’m in Georgia with this black gospel group, and I’m talking with people I would never have met as long as I lived if this wasn’t my job.

I was feeling the exhilaration of stepping into an alternate universe. If my life had taken a different path, I might have been having dinner at a country club in a suburb in the Midwest, but I’m not. I’m here. I’ve had a version of that experience many times, and it’s always so powerful.

And then it got hard
The hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my career was being several years late with Rin Tin Tin, and having a young child, and being confronted by my publisher asking where the book was, and feeling simply overwhelmed.  

Frankly, that moment was one I’m not sure a lot of men would have experienced: I can’t do this all. I don’t know how to be a writer with the demands of having a kid. That was my hardest, lowest point ever as a writer. It’s funny, because I’d like to say that my hardest time ever was struggling with a sentence. But that’s the one situation that I thought would get the better of me.

I got the contract for Rin Tin Tin in January 2004, and I got pregnant that spring. It was a challenging book. I loved the idea but I didn’t know how to write it. It was a book I had to wrestle into shape. Then Austin was born, and I realized I’d never figured out how I was going to go do the reporting I needed for the book with an infant to take care of. Time just started adding up.

Originally I’d asked for two years to write the book, which was ridiculous. I said I could do it that quickly because I was trying to make my publisher happy. They’d paid me a lot of money, and I wanted to make it sound as if they’d have their money back in no time at all; they’d hardly miss it. What I should have said was, “Give me eight years because I have no idea how long it’s going to take.”

Your publisher is a frenemy in the most pure sense. You pretend you’re on the same team but in many ways, you’re not. You don’t want them to see the slightest shred of weakness because you don’t want them to begin to question the project or their belief in you. So instead of saying, “I don’t have a fucking clue how to do this book; give me more time,” you say, “It’s a breeze; I can do it in my sleep.” I wanted them to think I was just the easiest author on earth, that everything about this experience would be easy for them and profitable and fantastic.

I can’t blame publishers; it’s just a part of my personality. I want to please people. I feel like I should always be the good girl. I haven’t developed a diva routine in which I say, “Hey, you should give me a lot of money and I get to be as difficult as I want to be.”

The fact is that I got multiple extensions because Rin Tin Tin was proving to be much bigger, more complicated, and much harder to do because I couldn’t travel hither and yon easily to do the research I needed to do. And I didn’t feel I could reveal my vulnerability to my publisher.

I got two extensions for one year each, because I was wary about asking for a much, much longer extension, which was what I needed, because I thought it would indicate that I was having trouble. So then I was late, and then late again.

In a way it was the best thing that ever happened to me. When I asked for yet another extension, my publisher balked, and it became clear that they were no longer that invested in my book. So I got out of the contract and went to another publisher that really embraced the book and understood my need for more time. I took a loss on my advance, but I was philosophical about it. Advances are just that—advances. They’re not payments. They’re not awards.

It’s a job—and an art form    
It makes me cringe to call myself an artist. Even if it’s true.     

I’m making art of a kind. At the same time I’m very pragmatic. I don’t treat myself as this precious flower. The fact that writing is a job doesn’t undercut the fact that it’s also an art.

When I was first getting started, I thought, What’s important for me is to write as much as possible. If that means writing for fashion magazines, I’ll do it, even if that isn’t where I dreamed of writing, but I’ll do a good job of it. I had friends who said, “Ew, you’re writing for women’s magazines? I’d never write for that magazine.” I thought, How nice for you to be so picky. And anyway, I’m going to write a great piece wherever it runs.

I think the content is more important than the context. And I figured that if I wrote well, eventually I’d get to pick where I got published. I can write a really good story for Vogue or Mademoiselle or anywhere, and I can say with pride that it’s not all about the packaging surrounding the story: my pride is about the story itself. That’s a pretty practical attitude, and I’m glad I have it. It’s served me well. That’s my attitude about life, too.

The Vitals
October 31, 1955  

Born and raised: Cleveland, Ohio

Home now: Columbia County, New York

Love life: Married since 2001 to CFO (and former Harvard Lampoon editor) John Gillespie

Family: Son, Austin, born 2004

Schooling: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Day job?: Staff writer for the New Yorker since 1992

Honors and awards (partial listing): Editor of The Best American Essays 2005 and The Best American Travel Writing 2007; Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, 2003; Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Michigan, 2012

Notable notes: 
• Susan Orlean was played by Meryl Streep in the film adaptation (Adaptation) of her book The Orchid Thief. 

• The Hudson Valley home of Orlean and her husband and son is also home to nine chickens, three ducks, four guinea fowl, four turkeys, and ten Black Angus cattle.  

• In 1998, Orlean wrote an article about surfer girls for Women’s Outside magazine. In 2002 the article was made into the film Blue Crush, starring Kate Bosworth.  

• Follow Susan Orlean on her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.   

Susan Orlean Collected Works

Red Sox and Blue Fish, 1987 
Saturday Night, 1990                                               
• The Orchid Thief, 1998                                    

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup, 2001           

My Kind of Place, 2004

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, 2011

Film Adaptations 
Adaptation, 2002 
Blue Crush, 2002 

Animalish, Kindle Single, 2011                  

Susan Orleans’s Wisdom for Writers

• You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.

• You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.

• You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.

• Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.

This excerpt has been has been reprinted with permission from Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers On How and Why They Do What They Do, published by Plume, a division of Penguin Group, 2013.