Susan Orlean’s Writerly Autopsy at Hugo House



Leaving the house always takes a bit of courage. It’s so much easier to stay home and read a book. But on this night I didn’t hesitate, because I had a ticket to Susan Orlean’s Writerly Autopsy at Hugo House. Susan Orlean is one of my writer heroes. As tight-fisted as I am, I didn’t even hesitate to buy a ticket when I saw she would be speaking. Of course, a ticket was only $12.

Traffic through downtown and Capitol Hill during rush hour quenched some of my fire, so when I spotted a pay lot I didn’t even bother looking for free street parking. I just pulled in and tried to catch my breath. Parking cost $14. I spent more to store my car for two hours than I spent to learn about Susan Orlean’s writing process.

This struck me as profoundly wrong, a symptom of some deep flaw in either my personality or the structure of modern society, or most probably, both. So I tweeted about it, then noticed a typo in my tweet. A typo in a tweet about an event for writers. I deleted the tweet, convinced there was something deeply flawed in myself as a writer.

Two hours later, I left Hugo House prepared to write the great American work of narrative nonfiction.

Susan Orlean is one of the great writers of our time, a specialist in stories that aren’t quite stories, the sort of writing that very few people can pull off at all. Yet when she talks craft (a pretentious word I can’t stand, but can’t seem to avoid) she is so practical and down to earth that I become convinced it’s quite manageable.

When Orlean speaks about writing, she speaks as a traveler. Her stories are about taxidermy, or orchids, or trailer parks, but they are told with the air of a stranger in a strange land, a sense of discovery and exploration. Orlean’s petite figure at the podium (she is as short as I am and much slimmer – it must be all those hours at the treadmill desk) looks like a wise child, her secret mission the discovery of wonder.

I’ve been to several “evening with” author events this winter, but I loved the structure of this one the best. First, Orlean gave a talk about writing, then, after a short intermission, she was joined by another author (Claire Dederer of Poser, who was one of my favorite panelists at AWP a couple years ago) for a dissection of one of her features, a cover story from Esquire called “The American Male, Age 10.”

I won’t bore you with my pages and pages of notes. But Orlean made three interconnected points that sum up her philosophy on writing, and since I’m all about the writing lessons lately, I will share those here.

  1. Writing is a way of living in the world.

She began with the observation that people always ask whether she records interviews or takes notes. (The answer is that she has a pen that is also a recorder.) But that is the wrong attitude. In real life, you don’t travel to a new place and meet someone new and think, “I should be taping this.” Instead, you open your heart and ears, and really listen. (At this point I dropped my camera back in my bag. I knew was going to write this post, but no way was I going to be the audience member snapping photos after that comment.)

  1. Curiosity is the engine that drives the process.

Her stories always begin with a discovery that sparks the response, “Huh. Who knew?” She then throws herself into the new subject headfirst and continues to explore until the learning curve tapers off. Only then does she begin to write.

  1. It is useful to be humbled when writing.

It is a moral imperative as a writer of nonfiction to level the playing field. The writer is automatically coming from a place of privilege, and to acknowledge one’s subject as the expert is equalizing. Also, people are off their guard when they think you’re an idiot.

And, as a professional hack whose topics are not always of my own choosing, I found another of Orlean’s pronouncements, related to point #2, particularly inspiring.

There is no subject that has nothing in it to interest you if you are a writer.





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