How did you become a writer?
I’ve always been a writer ever since, well, I could write. I loved writing short stories when I was a kid (there’s a family classic I wrote in fourth grade from the viewpoint of a piece of bubble gum in a bubble gum machine.) I also wrote poetry from childhood on, received some awards, and was included in some anthologies. I added on journalism probably in high school, when I wrote and was features editor for the school newspaper. I enjoyed – and still do - learning about new things. interviewing people and bringing to light issues or wrongs most people don’t know about. And I managed to get hired to do that.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Well, my grandmother, who was from Germany and not warm and fuzzy, loved my writing and strongly encouraged it, as did my parents and numerous teachers. But the drama of Watergate and the role of Woodward and Bernstein – I was in my teens then – certainly influenced me. So did some of the great journalists I read in my hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, such as Barry Bearak and David Lamb – they travelled the world writing about fascinating topics and also crafted beautiful sentences. Joan Didion’s spare direct writing was also an influence, and brilliant non-fiction books like Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas and Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. I am so impressed when an author can make an apparently dry or difficult subject, as Lukas did with Boston school desegregation or LeBlanc with urban life in the Bronx, and turn it into a compelling narrative that changes how I look at things.
When and where do you write?
In my house, in what was first called the play room, then the TV room as my sons got older. It’s an odd, two-level room, so my desk, computer and all my stuff is on the upper level. It actually has worked surprisingly well over the years. When my sons were young, I mainly wrote while they were in school, but sometimes I had to do an interview when they were deep into a TV show or video game. They quickly learned that if I made a wild gesticulating motion with my hand, they had to hit the mute button.
What are you working on now?
A long education piece for a national magazine that is still in process, so I don’t want to talk about it because I’m superstitious and it’s not published yet. I just finished an article for the Berkeley Alumni Magazine that I’m proud of on the research behind why most of us fail to live up to own ethical standards and how that can be changed.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. I’ve certainly had the writer’s dread of the blank screen, but I’ve always forged ahead. I think journalism or even writing non-fiction books is different, though, than writing novels. As the paperweight on my desk says, “The ultimate inspiration is the deadline.”
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
At my first internship at United Press International, a seasoned editor told me, “You can give the same article to 10 different editors and it will come back 10 different ways.” It is so important – and I have to remind myself of this even now, decades later – that there is no one way to write anything. Also “ass in chair” which some famous author (I can’t remember who) said was her best piece of writing advice.
What’s your advice to new writers?
You can’t be a writer without being a reader. And be willing to do lots of grunt work, but don’t sell yourself short.
Alina Tugend is a long-time journalist and author who has worked in Rhode Island, Washington DC, Southern California, London and New York. From 2005-2015 she wrote the award-winning biweekly Shortcuts column for The New York Times business section. She still writes regularly for the Times, and her work has appeared in numerous other national publications, including The Atlantic, O, the Oprah Magazine, Family Circle and Inc. Magazine. In 2011, Riverhead published her first book, Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. She currently lives with her husband (and two sons when they’re home from college). Follow her on Twitter at @atugend and see more of her work at www.alinatugend.com.