How did you become a writer?
I became addicted to praise at a very young age. So the first time a teacher praised my writing, I was on my way. Then I started writing for the school newspaper and got hooked on the fix of a regular byline, feeding a hungry ego that constantly craved more. At some point, fortunately, the intrinsic joy of storytelling took over from the need to be recognized for it. Not entirely, of course. I was flattered enough to answer these questions, for example. Guess I haven’t hit bottom yet.
Name your writing influences.
Reading E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web as a child was the first memory I have of understanding that there is real skill in using words to evoke a sense of place, using dialogue to evoke character, and using narrative structure to keep the reader hooked until the end. If you can’t remember this book, I recommend re-reading White’s description of the smells and sounds of the barn in summer. Magical.
Because I write primarily for broadcast (TV and radio), I write “to the ear,” which is a simple way of saying I try to write the way I talk, conversationally and not always in complete sentences. That last sentence, for example? Way too long. I have been fortunate to be mentored by some of the finest broadcast writers, starting with Charles Kuralt when I was at CBS News. He taught me that “spare” and “elegant” are not mutually exclusive concepts. He once wrote a complimentary note to me, about a commentary I had written. It is, to my way of thinking, the highest praise I have ever received. I still have the note, and only a thin shred of modesty keeps me from framing it and putting it next to what most people would consider the Really Important Awards on the shelf.
Another journalist who had an impact on my writing is Ted Koppel. Working for and with him at Nightline was both inspiring and instructional. When he made changes in my script--and he did not always feel the need to so (he was that rare commodity--a secure anchorman)--he made the script better with a simple re-shuffling or clarifying. Clarity--cutting out the verbiage--was his hallmark.
And, of course, I have been influenced by many writers over the years. Irony, a sense of the absurd, understatement--these are some of the qualities I treasure in a writer. Calvin Trillin can say more in a few lines of poetry (okay, doggerel) than most writers can say in a thousand words. And Elmore Leonard creates entire worlds out of simple lines of dialogue. Brilliant.
When and where do you write?
When? Morning, if possible. My brain, fueled on caffeine, does best before 2 p.m. After that, it’s not good for much. A few mindless rounds of Angry Birds, perhaps. I also do very well under deadline pressure. So despite my preference for early hours, I can write anytime if the alternative is abject humiliation for failing to “make my slot,” as they say in television news.
Where? As someone who has done most of her writing in a noisy newsroom, I can write just about anywhere. I once had to finish a script on my laptop while riding in a bumpy helicopter, returning from covering a forest fire. I cannot recommend this writing venue as conducive to excellent prose. My best writing-- at least the most pleasurable for me--is now produced at the small table where I am presently sitting. It is in a corner nook of my home in Colorado, with views out the window of the San Juan Mountains, a meadow and a forest. Also the occasional deer and elk passing by. The house is a straw-bale construction, making it unusually quiet. You can hear the snow melting and dripping from the roof. When I sit here, it is very easy to get into “the zone.” Hours of writing can elapse before I even realize it. This is where I wrote my last book, Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns, a look at weekly newspapers in rural America.
What are you working on now?
This is a really rude question. It makes me want to say, “THIS!” But that’s just a defensive reaction to the fact that I am not doing the work I should be doing. I am planning to develop a commentary series called “Senior Moment” for--I hope--airing on public radio. I have been planning on developing this for months now. I was going to do it today, but instead this interview provided me with a handy diversion. I like to think (and there really is some truth to this) that the writing process actually begins before a word is typed into the computer. Some part of my brain is actively developing this stuff, I just know it. It would really, really help if I had a deadline. “Writing on spec” is not a concept that I really understand.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not for long. The only time I really froze while writing was while working on my first book, “Now This—Radio, Television and the Real World.” I made the mistake of reading a work by one of my favorite authors at the same time, which led me down the dark, dead-end alley of “compare and despair.” It took a couple of weeks to recover.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Don’t give it away. In this age of the blogosphere, where everyone seems to think they have something worth saying and are willing to say it for free, you should work tirelessly at the craft of actually saying something well. Then get paid for it.
Award-winning broadcast journalist Judy Muller is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She has also been a commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition” and host of a topical radio program called “Town Hall Journal” on KPCC FM in Los Angeles. For the last five years, she has been a contributing correspondent to KCET TV’s “SoCal Connected,” where her reporting has won numerous honors, including a George Foster Peabody award, a Columbia DuPont, an Emmy and two Golden MICs. Her latest book, about weekly newspapers in America, is entitled Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns (July, 2011, Univ. of Nebraska Press). She is also the author of Now This--Radio, Television and the Real World (Putnam).
Prior to coming to USC, Muller was a correspondent for ABC Network News, reporting for such broadcasts as Nightline, World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Good Morning America, and This Week. During her 15 years at ABC, she covered such stories as the Rodney King beating trial, the Presidential campaigns of Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey, the Los Angeles earthquake in 1994, the O.J. Simpson case, and numerous environmental stories throughout the West.
From 1981 to 1990, Ms. Muller was a correspondent for CBS News, where she was a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and CBS Weekend News. Her primary duties, however, were in the Radio News Division, where she anchored a daily commentary, “First Line Report,” “Correspondent’s Notebook,” and was the summer anchor for “The Osgood File.” She also covered the space shuttle program, both national political conventions in 1988 and the 1988 Bush Presidential Campaign.
Ms. Muller was previously an anchor for KHOW-AM in Denver and WHWH in Princeton, New Jersey. She began her career in journalism as a reporter for the Colonial News in Princeton, New Jersey. From 1970 to 1973, she was a high school English teacher in Metuchen, New Jersey. A 1969 graduate of Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, Ms. Muller has received numerous journalism honors, including an Emmy award for coverage of the O.J. Simpson case and an Edward R. Murrow award for coverage of the impeachment of President Clinton.