Susan Orlean closed her talk at Hugo House by quoting something she said she'd hope to someday turn into a bumper sticker. "Writing is life. Approach your writing in the best way you can imagine approaching life. Ears open, eyes wide."
Kind of long for a bumper sticker, but not for a talk she delivered to a captivated crowd at Hugo House last night. Perhaps she could, instead, make a series of bumper stickers each with one of her three operating principles about writing, which she opened with. They were the heart of her talk:
For Orlean, writing is a form of discovery. Using the example of taxidermy, she talked about finding a friend's catalog of supplies ("noses, eyeballs") and feeling surprised that "there were more than two taxidermists in America." A Google search uncovered the World Taxidermy Championships competition happening in a week's time.
Watching Orlean talk about the flush of curiosity, fascination, and excitement at the moment of discovery made it easy to picture her, the next morning, entering David Remnick's office, barely able to contain herself.
"I want to write about taxidermy."
And then, Remnick, after a moment. "I'll have to check if I have anybody on that."
She walked into the convention knowing nothing. She feels that studying beforehand only serves to pull her out of the moment she's having with the real people she's meeting. This requires her to be ignorant in the face of experts. It requires, she says, a great amount of humility, and experiencing the rolled eyes of the experts who probably who, thankfully, suffer through explaining it to her. And, the article that followed ran in the magazine in 2003.
There's a moment in her research when the formally steep learning curve starts to flatten, and that's when she says she's ready to start writing. Her goal is to seduce people. To lure them in and show what she saw. To show, and never to explain.
She embeds very consciously through the prices the code words and messages needed to tell the story. Partially, she does this to avoid the "nut graph", which you will never find in her stories, but mostly to keep the reader intoxicated and close, to make them feel as if she was telling the story just to them. Something she learned from early readings of John McPhee, who seemed to be writing just for her, as she read.
Orlean is a charming person, funny, present, and open. Her success, surely, is part due to her well applied brilliance, but it also has something to do with the sheer size of her ovaries. Most of her pitches follow the lines of "I know this sounds crazy, but I want to write about ___. You have to trust me." She not only sells it, but she delivers, time and time again.
Having her was another coup for Hugo House, and another amazing get for curator of events Peter Mountford, capping off a season of visits from other prestigious writers like Maggie Nelson, Daniel Handler, and Jonathan Lethem.
Orlean talked for almost an hour, then after a break, sat down with memoirist Claire Dederer to answer more questions about craft, process, and her general outlook, before taking a few audience questions.
An audience member asked her about failure, and those ideas that just didn't pan out. It was like she didn't understand the question (she totally understood the question). She talked setbacks, and how editors often encouraged her to keep going when she felt all was lost. But she never talked about abandoning an idea. She always presses through the thicket to find the path.
It would seem, in Orleans' case, that a project about to fail is an opportunity to uncover another angle. We witnessed it in practice last night. According to a few whispers around the room, but unbeknownst to the general audience last night: Orleans didn't know she was supposed to deliver a speech before the interview until she arrived in Seattle. Her lecture was entirely extemporaneous and unpracticed. Which, for a nearly flawless and inspirational talk, only makes you appreciate her all the more.