Orlean enlivened the night with numerous anecdotes and tips, but four in particular took root in my mind. Here they are:
I’ve heard this kind of story over and over from successful journalists. Talent is part of the equation, but finding a way to get your story – whatever obstacles the world throws in your path – is an equally important part. It’s happened time and again in my own life, too. When I arrived in Siena late at night and every hotel and hostel was “completo,” I ended up sleeping on the third-storey stoop of a stony apartment building – and wrote a piece about the unexpected revelations that adventure conferred. When my evening flight from Dulles to San Francisco got canceled and I was suddenly spending the night in Leesburg, Va., I wrote a piece about that. When you know where you want to go, find a way to get there. And when your bus breaks down, look around: Stories abound.
Look for your connection to a place and follow that thread: Orlean talked about how she approaches a place by looking for something quirky or idiosyncratic that connects her to that place and becomes her point of entry. When she wrote about Morocco, for example, she approached it through the unlikely portal of donkeys. She began by analyzing the essential role donkeys play in the daily life of the medina of Fez, whose ancient alleys are too narrow to accommodate motor vehicles. That focus led her to an extraordinary institution called the American Fondouk, a free veterinary clinic in Fez that was founded and funded in 1927 by a wealthy American woman who had been distressed by the condition of the donkeys. Orlean met the Canadian currently in charge of the Fondouk and through that connection, found a guide to take her to “the epicenter of the donkey universe in Morocco,” the grand donkey market at Khemis-des Zemamra. When she wrote her article, “Where Donkeys Deliver,” these connection-stones paved a poignant pathway into the heart of Morocco that I had never read before.
Orlean’s words reminded me of the advice I pass on in my Travel Writing book: Look for your passion point. It may be puppets in Paris, potatoes in Peru, or hula in Hawaii – whatever connects your passion to the local culture, that’s your entryway. Pursue it and see where it takes you. A great example of this notion is the article “Mexico: Guitar Central,” by Los Angeles Times writer Chris Reynolds. In this wonderful piece, the quest to track down and buy the perfect handmade guitar reveals the quintessential qualities of a Mexican mountain town and its high, homespun art. Pursue your passion point, and my bet is it will open up a place and its culture to you in a way that they’ve never been seen — and written about — before.
Be in the moment: One of the most piquant points Orlean made is that she doesn’t really like taking notes on the spot. “I like to spend a fair amount of time not worrying about note-taking,” she said. “I like to have time to get the feel of a place before I’m scribbling.” Later, she elaborated, “I don’t take exhaustive, extensive notes, but I do indeed take notes on the spot — I have my notebook with me always, and jot when I need to — and I definitely use notes when it comes to quotes. But I care more about paying attention and absorbing where I am. I count on my memory as much as I count on my notes.”
I absolutely agree about wanting to be in the moment, and this has been an ongoing frustration in my career as a travel writer. The moment you take out pen and notebook, you detach yourself from the scene you’re seeking to describe. Over the years I’ve tried to modulate this detachment so that I’m constantly plugging and unplugging into the experience I’m describing – hopefully so fast that I don’t lose the electrical connection to the flow of the experience itself. On the other hand, I’ve always found that the notes I take on the spot are my best, most vivid portals right back into that experience, so that I can recall it, surround myself in it, three weeks or three months after the trip ends. I expressed this to Orlean and she agreed, “Notes taken on the spot are sharp and instant, and are very important; memory is not sufficient.”
So: Immerse yourself as much as you can in the moment – but take enough notes so that memory can find its way back long after that moment has passed.
Surprise me: One last delightful point Orlean made was the value of surprise. Almost invariably her stories begin, she said, with something that surprises her. The Taxidermy World Championships, for example: “What’s that all about?” she thought when she first heard about the competition, and the quest to understand that obsession led to her acclaimed 2003 piece “Lifelike.”
The same process applied to “The Orchid Thief.” The genesis of the book was a short newspaper story about a convoluted case of orchid theft in Florida. At first Orlean just didn’t understand all the fuss: How could people be so passionate about a flower? As she tried to answer this question, the journey took her deeper and deeper into the orchid’s musky, mysterious, maddening swamp.
[Photo credit/Flickr user Jonrawlinson]