How did you become a writer?
It’s easy to look backward today and point to all the childhood traits and habits that steered me toward writing, but that arc wasn’t visible to me until I was about 25. I’ve always loved reading, especially if it was under the covers with a flashlight after my bedtime, or behind a stack of boxes in the warehouse of the patio furniture store where I worked in high school. When it came time to head off to college, though, it was very hard for me to let go of science and particularly math. My dad, who has a very utilitarian view of education, encouraged me to study patent law. But my mom’s more romantic take on academia, which emphasized the reading of paperbacks in the shade and the irresistible sex appeal of beret-wearing philosophers, seemed truer to me at the time. I ended up majoring in English and philosophy.
In the philosophy department, I gravitated toward the subject of ethics in the context of international economic development. By the time I graduated, a career in literary writing was the farthest thing from my mind. It seemed to me that all the world’s endeavors -- art, science, entertainment, etc. -- were petty personal projects so long as a single person suffered from extreme poverty or a preventable disease, which is why after college I shipped out to Kyrgyzstan for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps. If they’d sent me to a warmer country, or at least a nicer one, I might be digging wells or distributing mosquito nets this very minute. But I was lonely in my village and insufficiently prepared for my job. When I was robbed twice in one day -- first by a Bishkek teenager, then by the police I’d turned to for help -- I decided it was time to reconsider my career path.
I had more free time in Kyrgyzstan than I’ve ever had before or since, and I spent that time reading and writing. It didn’t occur to me in those days to try and publish anything, which I now regret, but I assiduously documented every detail of my life in lengthy emails I sent to just about everyone I’d ever met. And when the power went out, as it did most nights, at the hour of some corrupt hydroelectric dam manager’s choosing, I closed my laptop and read by candlelight. On top of the books I was reading -- nearly two a week, on average -- I borrowed stacks of old New Yorkers and Harper’s from a local university’s English department, and in that way fell in love with long-form journalism. I spent my last month in Kyrgyzstan frenetically working on an application to intern at Harper’s, which is where I ended up after Peace Corps.
A lot of former Harper’s interns head straight into the world of freelance writing, and a lot of them have thrived. By the time my internship ended, however, I’d become a pretty solid fact-checker but had absolutely no idea how to go about pitching or writing a story myself. After pouring coffee for a few months at a Starbucks in Harlem, I headed out to California to pursue a master’s in journalism at UC Berkeley. I was frequently distracted by all the twenty-first century bells whistles in the school’s curriculum -- web design, video editing, etc. -- but I did end up learning a few things about writing and, just as crucially, I came out of the program having met a few friendly editors willing to read my pitches. I’d call this a happy ending, but it’s really just the beginning. The end will come when I pay off my massive student debt.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
I have a deep love of science fiction, and I tip my hat to any writer who breaks down the barrier between supposedly superior “literary fiction” and conversely inferior “genre fiction.” Michael Chabon, Colson Whitehead, and Joss Whedon are champions in this arena.
Other favorite writers include Bill Cotter (especially in Fever Chart), for his insane-yet-rational characters; Tom Bissell and Robert Ashley for treating video games like the art form they are; Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) for steering a pretentious philosophy major back to the real world; Jon Mooallem (Wild Ones) for seeing the sublime in the goofy and the goofy in the sublime; and Randall Munroe (of the comic strip xkcd) for his infinite curiosity and perfect sense of humor. “99% Invisible” host Roman Mars has so far stuck to radio, but if he ever writes a book I’ll buy every copy and read each one separately.
My first significant lesson in writing came in the fourth grade, from a woman whose name I can’t remember -- I’ll explain my debt to her below, under the question about writer’s block. As an adult, though, my first lessons came from Wittenberg University’s English Department, particularly from D’Arcy Fallon and Kent Dixon. At Berkeley, I benefited infinitely from the attention of Cynthia Gorney and Kara Platoni, as well as that of Eric Simons, Jennifer Kahn, Edwin Dobb, and Michael Pollan.
When and where do you write?
I write almost exclusively at the dining room table in my apartment, mostly because I work best in silence, but also because the snacks in my refrigerator are cheaper than the ones at the café and I can go the bathroom without worrying that a stranger will steal my offensively expensive computer. Also I’ve been suffering from some unexplained lower back pain for the better (or rather, obviously the worse) part of the past year, which requires me to rotate between sitting and standing positions while I work. There are not a lot of public venues where this is feasible. The main downside to working at home is that it’s surprisingly easy to go several days without leaving the apartment, provided the kitchen is well provisioned. The Boy Scout in me believes a day spent inside is a day wasted, which is an unfortunate view to hold when your job(s) mostly requires sitting in front of a computer.
As for when I write: I work full-time as a contributing editor at Circa, which is a “mobile-first” news organization (a little bit more on this below). That job involves a lot of writing, and in my case a fair amount of copy editing, but it’s a collaborative publication without bylines. The freelance writing that bears my name I usually work on in the evenings and on the weekends. Although it’s an unhealthy habit, it’s not uncommon for me to work straight through the night, which is not wholly unrelated to my relationship with writer’s block, which I address below.
What are you working on now?
As I mentioned, I’m a contributing editor at Circa, which takes up the lion’s share of my time. A Silicon Valley startup is the last place I would have imagined myself when I first entered journalism school, but it’s been very interesting to approach and, if we are successful, “reimagine” journalism through the eyes of several bright tech entrepreneurs.
As time allows, I also contribute periodically to the New Yorker’s Currency blog, and here and there to other magazines and websites. Lately I’ve been particularly interested in the business and culture of video games. I’m also working on a short radio piece about the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships for The Organist, which is a show produced jointly by McSweeney’s and KCRW in Los Angeles.
Oh, and I’m just starting to look into writing a book. All I should probably say at the moment is that it will be a journalistic, non-fiction book best shelved in the business section, stemming from several pieces I’ve done for the New Yorker.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I sometimes find it very difficult to start a piece -- once I have a little momentum it’s easy to keep going, but I like to write my intros first and it’s hard for me to move on until their tone is just right. When I’m particularly desperate, though, I do have a strategy for pushing through that I picked up from the nameless teacher I mentioned above. In the fourth grade I participated in a contest called “Written and Illustrated By…”, which is pretty much what it sounds like -- a bunch of kids writing and illustrating (and binding) their own books. The woman coaching us through the process, who in fact was probably not a teacher but an outside volunteer, suggested by way of analogy that the best way to start a painting, to overcome the intimidating perfection of the spotless canvas and its infinite potential, was to swipe the brush at random across the surface -- to “destroy the power of the white.” In addition to being an excellent slogan for the Black Power movement, this proved to be excellent advice in its creative sense, at least for me. The strategy may be obvious to writers with cooler heads than mine, but if I truly can’t think of anything worth writing, I just tap out a string of random words -- usually curse words. Occasionally I forget to delete them.
What’s your advice to new writers?
It’s always worth reiterating that you don’t need to publish to write, the implication being that there is literally nothing stopping anyone from becoming a writer. But that notion comes with an obvious caveat: it’s no fun to write if no one reads your stuff. At least that’s how it is for me -- in the Peace Corps my audience was my family and friends. I’m not exactly sure who reads the things I write these days -- my mom and my girlfriend, at least, and presumably also the folks enumerating my work’s failings on Twitter, although you never really know.
But anyway, if my point is that writing is a lot more satisfying when there’s somebody waiting around to read it when it’s done, then the good news is that there are more places to publish, and more literate humans reading these publications, than ever in the history of humanity. The bad news is that most of them pay little or nothing. So hold on to your day job unless you have some outstanding reason not to, but don’t interpret a lack of lucrative work as a lack of creative achievement.
Unfortunately I’m also obliged to say that if your goal is to publish in “prestigious” publications, set aside some time for that dreaded but necessary pastime: networking. It’s not as cynical as it sounds -- there’s a vast pool of writers competing for limited space in our favorite magazines and bookstores, and editors are disinclined to sit around waiting for the writers they haven’t heard of to prove themselves when there’s plenty of great work flowing from the pens of the ones they have. One published piece of writing can lead to another, just as one friendly cup of coffee can lead to another. The writing is, of course, the most important thing, but it never hurts to tell someone what you’re working on.
Ted Trautman has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Slate, Wired, and others. When he manages to leave the house he is reminded that he lives in Puebla, Mexico. But more importantly, he’s an Eagle Scout, a Trekkie, and a Minnesotan.