The Forest and The Trees

Every now and then, we need a reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing. If you’re a writer, in particular, a creative nonfiction writer, you might get so caught up in the facts that you forget about the craft. Or you’re so impressed by your literary style that you forget about the story you’re trying to tell. You don’t know whether to focus on the forest or the trees. Thank goodness for those moments when you’re forced to stop, let go, and be taken back to your roots. For me, this kind of thing happened last week, thanks to Susan Orlean.

I teach creative nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies., a non-profit school in Portland, Maine, that offers semester intensive programs in documentary writing, radio, and photography, all with an additional focus on powerful and responsible storytelling, collaboration and multimedia work in a variety of mediums. In other words, it’s awesome. Ten years ago, I was a student at Salt. I’d just come out of undergraduate school with a degree in anthropology; all I knew was that I loved learning about people, and there were no jobs in the universe that were looking for a 22-year-old junior woodchuck anthropologist. At Salt, I had my very first experience ever being in a writing workshop. My instructors told me that, if I worked hard enough and had healthy motives, I could do this–tell stories–for a living. Until that point, I didn’t know that was even a legitimate career, but I knew it’s exactly what I wanted. Ten years later, not only do I make my living as a creative nonfiction writer, but I also get to teach at Salt, educating and promoting storytellers, pushing students to “do work that makes their documentary hero’s jaw drop.” I have the two greatest jobs in the world.

Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times

Just last week, my own documentary hero (or “shero”) visited Salt. New Yorker writer and author of the latest bestseller Rin Tin Tin (among others) Susan Orlean is a witty, fearless, and extremely fun-to-read writer. She’s known for writing stories about “ordinary” people (and finding the extraordinary in them). The other week, Orlean give a master class to the students at Salt. She talked in detail about her own path as a writer, the mistakes she made along the way vs. what she did right, and she schooled us on what makes a good story. (Stay tuned for a link to the talk via Salt). Not only did Susan hit my students’ as well as my own “refresh” button, but she spoke with Freerange’s (and Salt alum) Claire Jeffers about the importance of digging deep into your characters, Maine writers versus New York City writers, and what career she might have chosen in another life. I urge you to allow your refresh button to be pushed and read the interview HERE.

As ever,
Mira P.
Founder & Director of Freerange Nonfiction