Techniques for Drawing Inspiration

At a recent job interview, I was thrown a curveball of a question: “Who are your favorite nonfiction and fiction writers?”

Now, I’m a journalist by trade and a student by early mornings and nights. My limited free time is usually spent reading Refinery29’s Money Diaries, New York Times Magazine articles, Columbia Journalism Review profiles, and an ever-growing stack of New Yorkers. I rarely take notice of the byline over the headlines.

When I repeated the question to a professor of mine a few weeks after the interview, I tacked on that I spent much more of my time reading thick history tomes for class, rather than curling up with hot chocolate and a good fiction book. I didn’t have time to invest in a meaty fiction book. He didn’t have any of it.

“My task for you in the next few weeks before you graduate is to go to one of the bookstores in town and buy five fiction books,” he said, peering down at me like I was a child. “And read all of them before you graduate.” The implication was to take note of what I liked and didn’t like.

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Like a good student ignoring her real homework, I set forth on my journey. I’d bought a book by Bich Minh Nguyen when I was in Seattle over spring break, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.  I devoured Stealing Buddha’s Dinner over two days, jotting down notes in a small blue notepad about what I liked. Nguyen introduces an idea or anecdote at the beginning of the chapter, goes off on a tangent, then circles back to it in the end. I also remembered what I didn’t like in fiction writing. True to the nature of fractured recollection of childhood and hardship, the chapters were hardly linear, jumping between when she was 5, 10, then 7 as she remembers different parts of her life.

While a non-chronological retelling is typically the bane of my existence as a reader, I was inspired by Nguyen’s decision to do so because of its similarities to journalism. In journalism, you stick to the inverted pyramid format, where the most important points take priority over a chronological recap. Nguyen did something similar with her work, revealing aspects of her childhood in a way that contextualizes her decisions.

I’ve been drawing the same kind of inspiration in the nonfiction world from staffers at the AtlanticNew Yorker, and New York magazine. A summer ago, I began my internship at San Francisco Magazine and fell in love with seemingly endless ways to craft a narrative. My scavenger hunt for unique writing styles led me to compelling female writers like Jia Tolentino of the New Yorker and Jessica Pressler of New York magazine.

Pressler’s most recent work for The Cut, New York‘s online women’s vertical, is a riveting story about a grifter named Anna Delvey, who cons her way into the semi-elite circles of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. While the subject herself is compelling, it is Pressler’s precise delivery that sells the story. Through a series of detail-filled retellings, I slowly built a grasp of who Delvey is and why she did what she did. At the beginning of the piece, I had no idea what Delvey is up to, and I wasn’t quite sure why I should care. Yet little by little, Pressler convinced me that this woman’s story was intriguing and unlike any other I had read before, even in my wildest fiction fantasies.

Unlike Nguyen’s work, Pressler’s story was semi-chronological, pinpointing the moment that Delvey first step foot in the hotel lobby that would come to be her home and ending with her surprising fall from grace. But even in the vivid descriptions of Supreme clothing and facials that cost more than three quarters’ of textbooks, I found purpose in every sentence Pressler cranked out. I rallied against the overuse of quotes in a podcast with fellow Professional Writing – Editing minor Jeremy Levine, and yet Pressler flipped my beliefs upside down by proving that every quote is a brushstroke in a painted portrayal of Delvey’s life. The story hovers around 7,800 words of pure narrative.

It’s funny to me that I like Nguyen’s and Pressler’s writing styles so much. As a journalist, I pride myself on writing succinct, clean copy. The most important point comes first. The quotes are for colorful enrichment. If it isn’t necessary to the readers’ understanding of the issue, it doesn’t belong.

And yet, Nguyen, Pressler, and so many more authors out there have mastered the technique of suspenseful storytelling. (It helps that both of them were either excellent self-editors or had such geniuses at their disposal, because the lack of typos make the pieces so easy to read.) They’ve developed the kind of writing I want to emulate some day: one where every word, even the most frivolous of them, has its purpose in a story.

That deep desire to become a better storyteller is born out of my decade-old dream to become a novelist chronicling the lives of the upper middle class and 1%. My brief brushes with creative writing have always stagnated with the same conclusion: I write a lot, but how often do I write with a clear end goal in mind? News writing has come so naturally to me because the challenge is to get to the point, but writing creatively as a journalist and hopeful novelist is much harder to get right. Using my powers of observation to glean those methods from other writers, though, will change that.

I’m still only one book into my five-book reading list (sorry, Paul), but I’ve already noticed more purpose and clarity in story outlines and writing structures. I’m learning to deviate from the rigid lines of journalism’s inverted pyramid format to pursue more narrative-driven stories. The last time I did something this scary was when I packed my bags and moved to San Francisco for an unpaid internship. Fear, though, drove me to the greatest heights when following my ambitions, and the resulting inspiration will keep me there.

 

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