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May 18, 2015

How Sarah Stodola (Author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors ) Writes

Journalist and creative non-fiction author Sarah Stodola shared her writer s file with me in this episode. Her recent book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors is a fascinating collection of the habits and habitats of heralded scribes.

Ms. Stodola is also an accomplished journalist and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Mental Floss, The Daily Beast, The Fiscal Times, Conde Nast Traveler, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, Storyboard, Slate, and many others.

Take a listen to learn about the process of an author who is a curator of true writer porn, a window into the processes of the greats.

In this 21-minute file Sarah Stodola and I discuss:

  • How to Write About Great Writers
  • The Weird Trick Coffee Shops Play on Productivity
  • Sarah s New Definition of Writer s Block
  • A Surefire Way to Find Freedom from The Internet
  • Can a Season Be a Muse to Writers?
  • Where Does True Writing Genius Really Come From?
  • Why Writing is Rewriting
  • The Three Rules for Writing a Novel
  • Why You Shouldn t Worry About Your First Drafts

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

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The Transcript

How Sarah Stodola (Author of Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors ) Writes

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at

Kelton Reid: These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers, from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond.

I’m your host, Kelton Reid: writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week, we’ll find out how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer’s block.

In this episode, journalist and creative non-fiction author Sarah Stodola stopped by to share her file with us. Her recent book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors is a fascinating collection of the habits and habitats of heralded scribes.

Ms. Stodola is also an accomplished journalist and editor whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Mental Floss, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and many others. Stay tuned to learn about the process of an author who is a curator of writer porn, a window into the processes of the greats.

Sarah, it is a great pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you for joining me.

Sarah Stodola: Thank you for having me. I’m excited.

Kelton Reid: Your book is one of the coolest things that I’ve found this year to dig into, and I m really enjoying it.

Sarah Stodola: Thank you.

How to Write about Great Writers

Kelton Reid: The way that I describe it is, it’s a cross between non-fiction and some really interesting sociology, psychology about the habits and habitats of these famous writers. It’s right in line with what I’m doing with The Writer Files by picking the brains of working writers from all different realms.

I’ve called it writer porn in the past. It’s just really a purely, amazingly well-researched look into the minds of these great authors. Let’s get into your file, if you don’t mind, and talk a little bit about your process.

For listeners who don t know you, who are you, and what is your area of expertise?

Sarah Stodola: I have a strong background in journalism that’s crossed over with creative writing over the years. I’m working at the intersection of that, really focusing on literary writing.

Kelton Reid: Where can we find your writing?

Sarah Stodola: In a lot of different places. I do a lot of travel writing. You can find me in The New York Times travel section quite a bit. I’ve recently started doing a series on different literary topics for a publication called Mental Floss. Of course, you can find me in my book.

Kelton Reid: Yes, and I will drop a link to Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors in the show notes. That way people can find it. They definitely should find it. It is a fun, fun read. What are you working on presently?

Sarah Stodola: I’m not at a point where I am in any way ready to embark on another book project. I’m back to doing shorter pieces at the moment. I’m also doing a lot of stuff on the editorial side. I’m the editorial director of a web site called Strolby. I’m just about to launch a little side project with travel writing, an online travel magazine that’s called Flung. You’ll have to stay tuned for that. It’s not launched quite yet.

Kelton Reid: Let’s talk a little bit about your productivity and really dig into your process. In the book, you define different classifications of writers. You ve got the nine-to-fivers, the productive procrastinators, which I love, autodidacts, et cetera.

Let’s talk about your process. How much time per day do you read or do research yourself?

Sarah Stodola: I would say it definitely varies depending on where I am in a project and even what kind of project I’m working on. With the book, before I would even start writing a chapter, I was spending at least a week just on research for a chapter.

There were these phases of very intensive research where I wasn’t even doing all that much writing. On shorter pieces and my everyday writing life, I would say the average probably runs more to a couple hours of research and reading.

Kelton Reid: Before you put pen to paper, or start to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?

Sarah Stodola: In the mornings, I definitely don’t get started without a cup of coffee. Things feel really wrong to me if I’m sitting down at my desk without a cup of coffee in the morning.

Kelton Reid: Me too. What is the most productive time of day for you? Do you have a favorite locale for writing?

Sarah Stodola: Most productive time of day, mid to late morning probably. I sit down pretty soon after getting up in the morning. Probably by 7:30 or 8:00 I’m sitting at my desk. I ease into true productivity. I hit my sweet spot a little later, probably from 10:00 to noon or something is when I’m at my best. By mid-afternoon, I’m usually worthless.

The Weird Trick Coffee Shops Play on Productivity

Sarah Stodola: I write at home the most often. I’m really comfortable at home and hunkering down by myself for the duration of the day. I do find that when it comes to mid-afternoon, when I feel like I’m fading, but I do want to keep going, that’s the point where sometimes a change of location can be helpful. Those are the times that I might head out to a coffee shop or someplace to work.

Kelton Reid: I love that answer, and actually, I fully resonate with that. I feel the same way. When I start to get antsy here and less productive, a coffee shop is almost like a psychological trick.

Sarah Stodola: It is, and it’s stupid. You’re by yourself, and then you go out to a coffee shop, and all of a sudden there’s other people there that will notice if you’re not working, or at least that’s how it goes in my head. Then I feel the pressure from outside to get to work.

Kelton Reid: Agreed. Even though you are still alone at the coffee shop, technically, because if you’re me, you have your headphones on, and you’re in the zone. It is something about the sound of the coffee shop and/or the eyes, the other eyes of people judging.

Sarah Stodola: Agreed.

Kelton Reid: Are you working?

Sarah Stodola: I definitely experienced that — the judging — also.

Kelton Reid: Are you a writer who likes to listen to music while you write, or do you prefer silence?

Sarah Stodola: I do both. I don t know if I have a preference. Sometimes I think to put music on, and I do it. Sometimes the whole day goes by in complete silence. The one thing I can’t handle is NPR. My boyfriend loves to listen to NPR in the mornings. It ruins me. I can’t focus at all when it’s on.

Kelton Reid: Would you say that you stick to a schedule of a certain number of hours when you’re working on, say, a deadline?

Sarah Stodola: Definitely, the power of the deadline gets me working longer hours than I would normally be capable of. On a typical day, I’m probably sitting at my desk for probably seven hours or so. Not necessarily all of those seven hours are spent being very productive in my writing. That’s the chunk of time that I give to it.

Kelton Reid: Do you write every day?

Sarah Stodola: When I’m working on a longer project, I do. Getting in the rhythm of being in it every single day is really helpful. When I’m between projects, or if there’s not something really pressing, I’ll allow myself to not write in a day if nothing is compelling me to do it.

Kelton Reid: I think I know the answer to this next question because you talk quite a bit about writer’s block in Process. Do you yourself believe in writer’s block?

Sarah s New Definition of Writer s Block

Sarah Stodola: What do you think the answer is?

Kelton Reid: I think you do, but I don t know if you have ever suffered from it personally.

Sarah Stodola: I don t think I have ever suffered from it. Do writers go through phases where they cannot complete the projects, or the piece that they want? Absolutely. I think our understanding of writer’s block is usually not quite accurate.

The way I see it, all writers can physically put words on the page any time. What we call the block is not a block of being able to write. It’s a block of being able to get what we want to write out on the page. It’s a block of ideas more than writing.

Kelton Reid: Well put. Let’s talk a little bit about your workflow. What hardware or typewriter model are you working on over there?

Sarah Stodola: I use a Lenovo Yoga, I think it’s a Yoga Pro 2. It’s a laptop.

Kelton Reid: Excellent. What software do you find yourself using most for writing and your general workflow?

Sarah Stodola: I’m pretty consistently on Microsoft Word.

Kelton Reid: Do you have some methods of madness for staying organized?

Sarah Stodola: I do. I am a compulsive list maker. I have a perpetually running to-do list that I probably re-write completely every couple of days. That’s definitely a crutch of mine. When I was writing the book, I actually had a folder for each of the 18 authors that I cover in the book. Each had their own folder, and I had a whole filing cabinet system to keep all of my research and drafts organized.

Kelton Reid: I’m sure that was pretty sizable.

Sarah Stodola: It was. It got a little unwieldy after a while.

Kelton Reid: How do you unplug at the end of the day?

Sarah Stodola: It’s pretty simple, I think. I usually, mid-afternoon, go on a long walk with the dog, which I find is really helpful to my state of mind. Later on, usually a glass of wine.

Kelton Reid: Just a quick pause to mention that the Writer Files is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform, the complete Web site solution for content marketers and online entrepreneurs. Find out more and take a free 14-day test drive at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

A Surefire Way to Find Freedom from the Internet

Kelton Reid: I skipped my favorite question of the bunch here. I think it’ll probably be a pretty good one for you. I have to go back to, do you have any best practices for beating procrastination?

Sarah Stodola: I do. I am a huge proponent of the program Freedom. I don t know if you’re familiar with it.

Kelton Reid: I’m not.

Sarah Stodola: Freedom, I think it costs $10. You download it. When you open it, it asks you how long you want to be blocked from the Internet. You enter the increment of time, and then the program starts. That’s it. You have no choice but to be in the Word document from there on out.

Kelton Reid: That sounds actually pretty effective.

Sarah Stodola: It’s amazing once the program is running how often I, without even realizing I’m doing it, start to switch over to the Internet to check my email or to do something. It’s involuntary almost. Then I start to do it, and I can’t do it. I’m like, “Oh yeah, right. I’m supposed to be writing.” I come back to the piece I’m working on.

Kelton Reid: I am a big fan of the timer method. I do like that element of it. I think I’m also somebody who appreciates being able to get on an online dictionary, so that would be tough for me.

Sarah Stodola: Yeah, when I am using Freedom, I’ll end up taking a few little notes down about things I need to look up on the Internet once I’m allowed back on it.

Kelton Reid: That’s cool. Let’s talk a little bit about creativity now. Can you define creativity in your own words?

Sarah Stodola: I think that true creativity is very closely aligned with, related to, originality. It’s to be able to do something that’s never been done before or to do something in an unprecedented way. It’s to envision something out of nothing basically.

Can a Season Be a Muse to Writers?

Kelton Reid: Who or what is your muse at the moment?

Sarah Stodola: We were just talking about this. I would actually say that springtime has reawakened my interest in all things. We had such a bad winter here. I hunkered down to such an extent that I was not interacting enough with the world to come up with ideas any more. I’m having this huge interest in everything over the past month or so.

Kelton Reid: Springtime in New York City is one of the most amazing times, for sure.

Sarah Stodola: It’s the best, yeah.

Kelton Reid: When do you personally feel the most creative?

Sarah Stodola: When you have that feeling of the urge, it’s definitely right after this spark hits me — the spark of a new idea. When you’re feeling really motivated and inspired by that idea is definitely when I feel the most creative. I usually find that if I don t follow through on that spark and that impulse right away, I’ll often lose it. If I’m like, “Oh, that’s a great idea. I’m so inspired by that,” and then I don t sit down and work on that idea right away, the next day when I come back to it, I’m not feeling as creative about it anymore.

Where Does True Writing Genius Really Come From?

Kelton Reid: What makes a writer great?

Sarah Stodola: I talk about this a bit in the introduction to Process. There’s certainly this element of genius, if that’s what we want to call it, that has to be present to make a writer great. There’s also, in all of the great writers that I wrote about, there’s also this element of perseverance.

Why Writing Is Rewriting

Sarah Stodola: Even though these are the world’s greatest writers, none of them write perfect, or even close to perfect, first drafts. All of them have been willing to rewrite something 12, 13, 14 times if need be. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel completely from start to finish and rewrote it three times before it got accepted for publication.

That’s something that tends to get forgotten. The very thought of writing a draft of a book one time is so daunting. Then to have it not work and then to go back to it and start completely over and do it again, it s amazing that writers are willing to do that. That definitely factors into producing a great writer.

Kelton Reid: Who are a few of your favorite writers at the moment?

Sarah Stodola: I’ve been super into Nick Paumgarten at the New Yorker, his features that he writes for them, I’ve been so into. He did that Billy Joel profile a few months back, which I just thought was so fantastic. Currently, I’m reading Knausgaard, the My Struggle books. I’ve finally dove into those. I’m really loving them.

Kelton Reid: Are there six of those?

Sarah Stodola: I think there’s four right now. I don t know if there’s going to be more, but I know the fourth one just came out.

The Three Rules for Writing a Novel

Kelton Reid: Can you share a best-loved quote?

Sarah Stodola: Yeah, it is, “There are three rules for writing a novel; unfortunately no one knows what they are.” That was Somerset Maugham that said that. We spend so much time trying to figure out the formula for writing, and it turns out nobody really knows what it is.

Kelton Reid: Yes, and we also have an Internet crammed full of millions of ideas on this.

Sarah Stodola: Right, exactly.

Kelton Reid: Just for fun, who is your favorite literary character?

Sarah Stodola: Today, I was just going back and rereading parts of Balzac’s Human Comedy for a piece I was working on and was re-introduced to the character of Lucien in that, who’s this very ambitious writer. He’s this really good rendering of literary ambition gone wrong and gone awry.

Kelton Reid: If you could choose one author living or dead, for an all-expense paid dinner to your favorite restaurant in the world, who would you choose, and where would you go?

Sarah Stodola: I think it would be Oscar Wilde. I think that would be a guaranteed fun night. I think I would let him choose the place.

Kelton Reid: Good call, and pick up the check.

Sarah Stodola: Definitely.

Kelton Reid: You talk a little bit about writer’s fetishes in your book. Do you yourself have a fetish?

Sarah Stodola: I don t in terms of collecting or anything like that. I definitely fetishize your basic Paper Mate mechanical pencil. I need those so badly for editing. I always have dozens and dozens of them on hand and dropped all over the house. It’s definitely a very important item in my process.

Kelton Reid: Sounds like a fetish and perhaps a hazard. Who or what has been your greatest teacher?

Sarah Stodola: In the literal sense, a grad school professor of mine, Melissa Monroe, was definitely the best writing teacher I’ve ever had in terms of craft and in terms of the exact type of encouragement that I needed at that time in my life.

These days I’m also in a writing group that I’ve been active with for probably three or four years now. It’s become this amazing resource for me for testing out my writing and my work.

Kelton Reid: Can you offer any advice to fellow writers on how to keep the ink flowing and the cursor moving?

Why You Shouldn t Worry about Your First Drafts

Sarah Stodola: Part of it is to not worry so much about what the first draft is going to look like. At least half the battle is getting that first draft down on paper. Once it is down, you’ll look at it and probably have a good idea of how to fix it.

Kelton Reid: Where can fellow scribes connect with you out there?

Sarah Stodola: The best place is probably on Twitter. My handle is @sstodola.

Kelton Reid: Very good. Thank you so much for sharing your process with us. I really do hope that writers and listeners find Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors on Amazon and in bookstores. It is pretty awesome.

Sarah Stodola: Thank you.

Kelton Reid: Thank you so much for coming on.

Sarah Stodola: Great. Thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: Remember, if you’re having a rough go at it, some of the greatest writers of all time have sat exactly where you’re sitting now. Thanks for tuning in. For more episodes of the Writer Files and all the show notes, or to leave us a comment or a question, drop by WriterFiles.FM.

Please subscribe to the show on iTunes. Leave us a rating or a review and help other writers to find us. You can find me on Twitter @Kelton Reid. Cheers. See you out there.