How did you become a writer?
I’ve always written as a way to make sense of the world, starting with my childhood diary. For me, there is some mysterious thing that happens when I sit down to put words on a paper: I find thoughts and feelings I didn’t know I had, discover things I had observed without noticing; see connections I hadn’t made before. But it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realized I could tap into that process for a living: by becoming a journalist. I started out as a daily newspaper reporter, (my first job was at the Wichita Eagle-Beacon), and gradually moved onto longer and longer forms of writing. In 2004, I came up with the idea for my first book, about the near-extinction and rejuvenation of the American chestnut tree. Doing that book I realized I’d found my groove as a writer. I like the time and space and editorial control of writing a book. Despite the economic insecurity and occasional loneliness, I only hope I get to do more.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
That’s a long list: I’m influenced by every good book that I read. For instance, I just finished Tara Westover’s astonishing memoir “Educated,” and liked the way she crafted each chapter as its own mini-story, each adding to the overall narrative arc. My second book, “Plastic: A Toxic Love Story” was partly inspired by what Eric Schlosser did in “Fast Food Nation”: showing how something as ubiquitous and banal as fast food actually shaped our world and the way we live in profound and surprising ways.
Probably the biggest influence on my writing is my incredible writing group, North 24th. I’ve had the great fortune to be part of this group of Bay Area women writers for the past 15 years. There are eight of us at present—including Allison Bartlett, Leslie Crawford, Jeanne Carstensen, Leslie Crawford, Frances Dinkelspiel, Gabrielle Selz, and Julia Flynn Siler—with a wide range of interests and writing styles. We meet twice a month to workshop one another’s work. Between us we’ve produced more than a dozen books and more essays, magazine and newspaper articles than I can count. Whether it’s my work being critiqued, or someone else’s, I always come away from our meetings having learned something more about the craft of writing and feeling inspired.
When and where do you write?
For years I rented an office in the neighborhood. But now that my kids are grown, I finally have the luxury of an office at home. I tend to keep pretty regular hours. Lately I’ve been starting my day around 6AM and work for a few hours before taking a break for exercise and breakfast. I really like that early morning clarity and quiet. Unless I’m pressed by a deadline, I knock off around 5 or 6.
What are you working on now?
I’m just starting a new project about a traveling theatre group that develops environmental-themed plays and then tours them on bicycles. It’s called Agile Rascal Bicycle Touring Theatre. Starting in February (2019) they will be touring Florida with a play about climate change and the end of fossil fuels. I’m planning to accompany them on the tour and see what it’s like for a group of artists to be raising environmental issues in one of the most environmentally imperiled parts of the country. I’m hoping it will yield a book.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I don’t know if this is writers block, but I often hit points where I feel stuck: I can’t figure out a structure that works, or how to describe a certain event or capture what I want to say. I used to find this incredibly painful. I would spend days beating my head against the wall, trying to force a way through the puzzle. Then several years ago I realized that getting stuck is just part of the writing process. My conscious mind may not know how to solve the puzzle, but somewhere in my brain, I’m working on it and a solution will eventually come bubbling up. Trusting that process doesn’t make the writing go any faster or easy, but it’s a lot less angst-ridden.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Leave most of your reporting on the cutting-room floor. That advice came from Bruce Porter, one of my teachers at Columbia Journalism School and a great magazine writer. He said 90 percent of what you report will never make it into a story. For me, that’s come to mean two things: I have to do a ton of research and reporting to ensure I have a wealth of material. I should only use the quotes, characters, anecdotes and descriptions that will advance the story I want to tell.
What’s your advice to new writers?
I think Annie Lamott had the best advice: don’t be afraid of the shitty first draft. No one gets it right the first time, or the third or the fifteenth. Writing is revision. It’s really helpful to find people to share those early drafts with, provided – and this is critical -- they are kind and insightful readers. I think that’s critical these days. The bottomless hunger for content by online media has made it easier than ever to get published, but harder than ever to be edited well.
Susan Freinkel is a San Francisco-based writer who writes about science and the environment. She is the author of American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree (2007), which won a 2008 National Outdoor Book Award and Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (2011). She has written for a variety of national publications including: The New York Times, the Washington Post, Discover, Smithsonian, OnEarth, Health and Reader’s Digest.