Friday, July 20, 2012

Susan Orlean on writing leads

Meyrl Streep plays Susan Orlean in the movie Adaptation
(Note: The 'lead' is just the opening or beginning of a piece of writing. It can be a single word, a single sentence, a paragraph or several pages long. In journalistic jargon the word is sometimes spelled lede. Both spellings are pronounced with a hard 'e' as in 'leed'.)

Susan Orlean on writing leads, from an interview at UC Davis.

WOE: Are you really conscious of looking for a strong lead?

ORLEAN: I’m very conscious of its importance. I can’t rest until I have a lead that thrills me. The problem is that I can’t write the second, third, fourth, fifth sentences until I have the first. That’s part of the problem with the story I was just working on. I had all the material and a million scenes in my head that I knew I had to write and that would have been relatively easy to write. But I couldn’t start until I started.I think it’s the nature of a really good striptease act, that you’ve got to choose very carefully which item of clothing you’re going to take off first. Because it’s got to be enough but not too much, and it has to be arresting so that you think, “Hmm. Well, what comes next?”
     I’m not sure where my leads come from. Often they’re not specifically on the topic, or they’re almost preambles to the story—although the lead I just wrote ended up being very straightforward. But I feel I know when they work, even if they’re kind of oblique and seem a little off topic.
Sometimes if I feel that I’m echoing something I’ve done before, then I actually don’t do it. Any time you have a longish career you’ve got this fear of repeating yourself.
     I do think a lead has to be intuitive. There has to be something intuitively real about it even if it seems eccentric or off-topic.
     I’ve been asked a million times about the lead to “The American Man, Age 10” [“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”] and I’ve said, “You know, it’s not like I set off thinking this is going to be a story about marrying a ten-year-old.” The lead came from an emotional response. It was a story about being inside his head and seeing the world the way the ten-year-old would see it. But I’m not a ten-year-old boy, so I guess the next closest thing was imagining that I was in his world as his bride.

No comments: