How did you become a writer?
I've always written--my mom says I even used to sit with a pad of paper and make rows and rows of squiggly lines before I knew the proper alphabet. As a kid and teenager I gravitated toward poetry and short stories. But once I reached college I became interested in narrative nonfiction. After looking at MFA programs while working as an assistant in book publishing in NYC, journalism school seemed downright practical (everything's relative). So I wound up getting my master's degree at the Missouri School of Journalism. From there, I was incredibly lucky to get an internship at Scientific American, which led to reporting and editing jobs there--as well as, indirectly, to my first book, Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I was lucky to be supplied with terrific books--by my parents and grandparents--and surrounded by wonderfully encouraging teachers when I was growing up and through college and graduate school. I could never say my humble writing efforts have been influenced by such great works, but books that I return to again and again include: Moby Dick, Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses, Trawler (by Redmond O'Hanlon) and Trsitram Shandy.
When and where do you write?
I only recently moved from Brooklyn to Colorado and became a full-time freelance writer--with an actual home office. Before that, I wrote my articles for work each day at my desk in Scientific American's open floor-plan offices and worked on my book at home in the evenings and on weekends (admittedly, mostly from an arm chair or the couch). Now, I sit down to work in my little office at my little desk facing the mountains in the morning right after breakfast. The morning often gets consumed with email and managing various projects. Midday I try to break for lunch and a run (or bike or swim). My real, focused writing starts closer to 4pm (by which point, I've usually migrated with my laptop to my arm chair) and lasts until my fiancé harangues me enough to knock off for the day (usually around 7pm).
What are you working on now?
I have some feature articles and a blog series coming out this spring that I'm excited about. I also do ongoing editing work for Scientific American and maintain a regular blog there called "Octopus Chronicles." Right now I am mostly scrambling to polish off a handful of lingering freelance writing assignments so that I can clear a little bit of writing (and brain) space to finish up proposals for a few new book ideas.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Will I make a lot of enemies if I say, not really? I suffer more from writer's procrastination. And when I do finally make myself stop reading email and start writing, I always end up over writing. And I think there are three reasons for this: 1. Much of my daily writing is for monthly, daily, or online publications, where I am working with a word count limit (800 words never seems long enough to explain the awesomeness of sequencing ancient pathogens!) and tight deadlines. 2. I currently stick to journalism and other nonfiction, so the material out there in the world is endless. 3. I'm still relatively new to this professional writing thing, having been out of journalism school for only five years now. But I think I may take it as a good sign if I start getting writer's block. That would mean I am actually giving an article or book the time and mental space that it deserves.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I think it's pretty common advice, but I recommend writing as much as possible. Even if it's not for publication. That said, do start writing with an eye toward public consumption. That doesn't mean dumb things down or pitch silly stories if you don't like silly stories. But crafting a succinct, engaging, well structured article or story is a challenge--and one that will force you to become a better writer. And if you can, find an editor or experienced writer who is willing to edit your work and talk through their revisions with you. I learned some of the best and most basic lessons from my daily editors when I first started working at Scientific American. Also, get a deadline. They are what keep me in business.
Katherine Harmon Courage is an award-winning freelance journalist and author who recently traded in the wilds of New York City for those of Colorado. From there she works as a contributing editor for Scientific American and also writes for WIRED, Gourmet, Popular Science, Nature, and others. Her first book, Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea was published in 2013 by Current, a division of Penguin Random House. Her work was also recently featured in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. Visit her website www.katherinecourage.com or follow her on Twitter: @KHCourage for more about health, science, writing, and, of course, octopuses.