I listen to a lot of podcasts but few are more consistently good than Longform, a series for serious journalists and non-fiction writers. The most recent episode featured Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote “The Really Big One,” an article about the Cascadia fault line which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Host Max Linsky asked her about how to find good stories, tell good stories, and what’s more important than outlining. Here’s a transcribed bit from the end of the conversation.
(Source: “199: Kathryn Schulz,” longform.org [June 29, 2016]).
Max Linsky: You sent this tweet: “A mere million years into my career and I have finally figured out the secret of writing: Find a killer story.” At this point in your career, a million years in, what are you looking for in a story? You are in a position here, it feels like, where you can kind of write about whatever you want.
Kathryn Schulz: I am looking for stories, which is a shift for me. I am always drawn to ideas. I notice big, abstract things in the world and so I have always registered ideas, and now I find that I am very interested in stories. I would love nothing more than — this will never happen — I dearly wish that my next book were going to be just a yarn, like The Perfect Storm. I’m not kidding. I actually think that book is incredible. So part of me, I have got an eye out for a really wonderful yarn.
The story of Louie Tamale was a great yarn, and I was so happy to find it, and I would love to tell some more of those. . . . The risk of something like that earthquake piece as you get a little taste of, for instance, how much more people like to read about natural disasters than literary criticism. And it is easy to be seduced by that. And I know I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go chasing things that I think are kind of hot stories.
Schulz: Oh, because there is so much else in the world. And because part of what make a story beautiful is the fact that you are dying to tell it and that alchemy, the story that you are dying to tell, in my case doesn’t always, or even often, line up with the kind of obvious popular story or great story. And, again, I don’t mean this disparagingly. I am grateful for other people who tell those stories well. But I think it is distracting.
I am glad that there are people at this organization who crunch the numbers on what stories get the most hits, because I would like for The New Yorker to survive and remain economically viable and so on and so forth. But I don’t want to become that person. I don’t want my own choices to be dictated by what I think is going to fare well with other people. I am interested in the things that I would love to write either because they land squarely in the stuff-Katherine-is-obsessed-with category or because they push the boundaries of what I feel like I know how to do.
Linsky: Those feel in slight tension to me. The stuff you really know well and the stuff you don’t know at all.
Schulz: Absolutely, sure. I mean I will tell you, frankly, I have never written an easy book piece, but it is easier to write a book piece [book review] than any other kind of piece, for a very simple reason, which is you don’t have to explain what you are doing there on the page. You are on the page because someone else wrote a book and you are writing about it. I don’t have to justify my presence of mind taking up room in the magazine.
Every other story you need to explain: What are we doing here? Why are we learning a piece of history from 1909 in nowheresville frontier Wyoming? You have to kind of justify your existence. In every story you have to figure out: What am I arguing here?
For a long time I thought my problem as a writer and why I was so slow and everything, took so long, was I didn’t outline and if I only knew the order the piece was going to go in, I would write it much better. And so I started outlining and it still was a disaster and took forever and I realized, no, the issue isn’t outlining. The issue is you have to do the very hard work of stepping back and thinking: What is it about? Truly, what am I claiming here? That’s the guiding light that is going to pull you through the piece? Not like this section and then that section and then that section. You needed to know that at some point. You have to put things in order, but order is irrelevant if there is not a worked out, coherent idea that you know you are writing about.
Linsky: Do you think it is only recently that you have been able to take that step back and see that consciously?
Schulz: Well, it takes various forms. I mean, like a lot of things I think we all have the same revelation over and over. I always know that I need to figure out what the heck I’m writing about, and not like this is interesting because x, y and z, but, literally, this is the heart of this piece and I can articulate it for you in a sentence. That is hard work and it just takes time.
I would say that the thing that I am figuring out now is how to use reporting in service of idea driven writing, of rich and linguistically interesting writing. For a long time those things felt intention to me. I love to report, but then I had all this material and I couldn’t figure out how to marry it to the kind of writing I like to do. And I think that is what I am trying to sort out now.
Linsky: You say it is hard work to do that thinking and to figure out what the story is about. How do you think about that work? What is that work?
Schulz: It is literally thought. It is the work of the intellect. I never experienced this more clearly than while writing the book where I could feel it. It was a muscle I had worn out. You are just trying to figure out: Ok, I am writing about wrongness, truly what would be the logical structure for a book like that? What is the claim? How then do you lay out the idea? Why do you decide to put x chapter first and y chapter next?
And those are questions about logic, and they are intellectual questions, like even in something a “straightforward” as a book piece.
Part of this is an issue of length. I really admire Dwight Garner, one of the daily book critics of the New York Times. That man can write a one-thousand-word piece about a book and it doesn’t need a lot of structure and it doesn’t need a grand claim. He is very witty and all he is doing is telling you what the book is about and how it works and he is smart about literature and it is a pleasure to read.
I am often working to the tune of 5,000 words. And if you are going to convince someone to stick with you for that long, you damn well better be making a point. And my job is to figure out what that point is. And it is shockingly hard. I mean it really is like: Why this book? Why does it merit attention when the 99 other books in my TBR stack, my “to be read stack,” are getting ignored right now. And what am I trying to say about it? And am I making a deep point about literature? Am I making a deep argument about literature? I don’t know how to explain it better than to say that it is actually the work of thinking, of trying to clarify first for yourself and then for your reader an idea . . .
And maybe you never even see that stuff in the piece. Maybe it is scaffolding that drops away because once as a write you know what you are writing about. You don’t need to hit the gong. The gong sounds all on its own, if you do your work right. But you have got to know what it is.
Linsky: Does that work get easier?
Schulz: I don’t think so. I keep waiting for it to. I wish it did. I think some things about writing get easier. I have gotten better at “murdering my darlings.” I can let go of stuff quicker when I realize it is in my way. I can iterate a little bit faster. I have gotten better at realizing when I actually do need to just go think. But the thinking itself, it can’t get easier, because it is bespoke every time. You are not thinking in the abstract, like lifting a 20-pound weight this week and a 25-pound weight next week. You are thinking about a particular thing and so it is always novel. If it were the same answer as last week’s answer you would be writing a boring piece. You would have already written it. So, no, I think it is just really hard every time.