As host of The Creative Nonfiction Podcast, Brendan O’Meara is no stranger to talking about the art and craft of storytelling. In this craft-focused excerpt, we’re digging into Episode 336, in which he interviewed Atavist editor Jonah Ogles and freelance writer Cassidy Randall about her work on the latest issue of The Atavist.
Cassidy Randall, a freelance writer based out of Montana, sees herself more as a writer than a reporter, or a writer first then a reporter. There isn’t any question she can report, as evidenced by her Atavist Magazine piece “Alone at the Edge of the World,” but take a look at this opening sentence — read it aloud — and you will hear a writer at work:
“In the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean, a small, red-hulled sailboat tossed and rolled, at the mercy of the tail end of a tempest.”
The alliteration is beautifully embedded in this 25-word sentence.
“I love rhythm in sentences,” Randall says. “One of the reasons I had chosen some of those longer sentences was that I wanted it to feel dreamlike, so that you have a long time to be in this moment.”
Randall’s story charts the story of Susie Goodall as she competed in the Golden Globe Race, a race to sail solo around the world. By this piece’s very nature (Randall was not in the boat with Goodall), it’s a masterclass in recreating scenes, something vital to this kind of storytelling.
“I like to spend a lot of time saying, ‘Tell me what happens. Do you remember this?’ And if there’s a detail that I want to hear about that maybe gets a little glossed over, I always make time to go back. I’m constantly writing these notes that say, ‘Go back to this one thing. What was this? Be sure to follow up on this.’ And so it’s just a series of questions.”
Randall also digs into how she deals — or doesn’t deal — with rejection, as well as myriad other struggles common to the freelance-writer experience.
Please enjoy this excerpt below, and listen to the full episode for more.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and concision.
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Brendan O’Meara: If I had a harrowing boat-journey story, should I turn to you to edit it?
Jonah Ogles, Atavist articles editor: The answer is, you should turn to Cassidy to write it. Man, she nailed this story, it was so much fun to work on. She had a really good handle on her character, and clearly knew what she was doing when it comes to adventure writing. Yes, the writing is good, but I’m talking about pure narrative, the arc of the story itself — Susie Goodall’s experience. When you get something like this, you just let it do its job. You tell the story, and you get out of the way, except for the parts where you absolutely need to be there.
One of the more chilling aspects of the story is that you really feel like you’re in the boat with Susie, and you feel the power and terror of this wave. When I spoke with Cassidy, she said that in an earlier draft there’s — not a set piece, but several paragraphs explaining rogue waves, which sounds fascinating. But to your point, it might have been a little hiccup among what were already very good story blocks.
This is a story where we cut things — not because they were bad, but because Susie’s story on its own was so good. Rogue waves are a fascinating phenomenon, and especially when it comes into play in this story, because statistically speaking it shouldn’t have occurred during this race.
Cassidy had all this really fascinating stuff about rogue waves and the scientific consensus about whether they’re predictable in some way. The problem is, it happened during the storm, when Susie is out there on her own. As a reader, I’m already there. I’m invested. If you’re watching a movie, it’s like reaching the climax, and then stepping away for a second to have some narrator speak to you about the context of the scene. That’s fine, but what we want to know is, is the dude going to fire the gun or not?
The peril of nonfiction in so many ways.
I do this a lot: When I’m cutting early in a piece I’ll say, “there may be a place for this later in this particular story.” We didn’t end up reinserting it but there were other things that we did find a home for elsewhere. But in that moment, I just didn’t. And this is maybe selfish because as a reader, I just didn’t want to be away from Susie and her experience.
We often talk about how these Atavist stories are puzzle-like in nature. What were some of the challenges that were unique to this piece as you were bringing it to life?
This was less of an editing challenge than a challenge for Cassidy, although she really pulled it off: The majority of the words occur with Susie alone on a boat. It’s like that Robert Redford movie Alone, where he’s sailing alone on a boat, and there’s virtually no dialogue. That’s a difficult thing to do. How do you write thousands of miles of solo sailing, which includes periods of time in which nothing happens? How do you make readers feel close to this character when you don’t really get to see her interact with anyone else? You have to be really deep inside Susie’s head. Originally, Cassie had these snippets: Here’s 200 words about marine wildlife she saw; here’s 400 words about this piece of equipment malfunctioning. All of it has value and lets you know Susie in different ways, but as a reader it felt like getting postcards from somebody on a trip. “Having fun, had a good dinner.” It was hard to feel like you were on the boat with her. So we tried to streamline.
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Another challenge was that her family becomes very concerned for her once she goes through the storm. After something like 12,000 words next to Susie, all of a sudden we need to be away from Susie to experience what’s happening outside of her little bubble. So it was really a trial and error situation: Let’s try dropping in with her family right here, and let’s try 400 words. How does that feel? Not quite right. Let’s move it, let’s shorten it up, let’s lengthen it. And we just did that until it felt like we’d gotten it to a point where you’re never away from Susie so long that you’ve forgotten where you are in the narrative. But you’re with the family long enough that there’s some emotional resonance with them as well. You’re not just hearing what they feel; you feel it too.
You said this was one of the more fun stories that you’ve been able to work on. What makes a story fun for you as an editor?
I’m still totally an Outside magazine guy at heart. I like adventure stories and survival stories and feats of human endurance. It checked that box for me naturally. Originally, Seyward [Darby, The Atavist editor in chief] was going to run lead on this, but I’m really glad it worked out that I got to jump in.
Cassidy had strong opinions about what she wanted the piece to do, but was also very happy to collaborate and listen to differences of opinion, so it felt like we were always pushing the story forward in a good way. But part of it, too, is that Susie is just a really interesting character. She’s not only doing this interesting thing, but she has an interesting perspective on it. And maybe this is another testament to Cassidy, but it seemed like they really had a good connection, and that Cassidy had a good sense of how to convey Susie’s thoughts and experiences in the story. “Can you get us closer to this character?” was never a note I had to give during this story; we were just close to her from the beginning.
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Cassidy, what are some of the inspirations that you draw from so you can synthesize pieces of this nature?
Cassidy Randall: In preparing for this piece, I actually read some sailing books. The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier about his journey in the Golden Globe. So many of the other competitors in that original Golden Globe were having a horrific time with loneliness and leaking boats and weather and dealing with a lot of mental stuff — and he was just gazing at the Aurora and watching dolphins frolic. I also read Voyage for Madmen by Peter Nichols, which also chronicles the logs of those sailors in the original Golden Globe, and is a pretty propulsive read. If you’re a sailor, he uses a lot of sailing terminology that ocean people absolutely love. But if you’re not a sailor, it might be kind of harder to get through that.
I wish I could write fiction, honestly. I have trouble personally getting through a lot of nonfiction books, so to ask what influenced me in writing this, I would just list fiction book after fiction book. It’s like my entire upbringing of reading to figure out how to weave together several different arcs into a single … arc, for lack of a better non-repetitive word.
What novels or short stories do you return to again and again?
I’m rereading some Louise Erdrich. I just think that her books are just incredible. She came to speak in Missoula recently. I reread Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry recently. Holy moly, what a tour de force; that’s an incredible one.
Your Instagram bio just says, “writing stories on environment, adventure, and people exploring the bounds of human potential.” And I was like, “well, that about sums up her Atavist story.”
How did you arrive at it?
My family is a family of sailors. I’ve never been able to get into bluewater sailing — I love the mountains, I love skiing — but my sister is an avid sailor, my dad taught us how to sail, my uncle’s a sailor. I had a friend who was following Susie Goodall around the time the Golden Globe was coming back, and that introduced the story to me. I pitched it around; my Time editor had really wanted a story on the race, but we couldn’t fit it in. When Susie pitchpoled, I ended up reporting about that for Adventure Journal. And then I had written about Jean-Luc Van Den Heede for Men’s Journal. So I was familiar with the race. And in reporting that story on Susie, I had noticed that she never really talked to anybody. When she got back, no news outlets had anything beyond her statement, which I thought was really interesting.
The podcast 59 North is now known as On the Wind.
I reached out to her last year, because I was thinking about writing a book on women and sailing. I had no idea that she would check this email that goes through her website, but I sent a note saying that I was really compelled by her journey, that I’d heard her talk about it on this podcast called 59 North, and that I’d love to just talk to her and see where she was in life now. We had a lot of conversations before she agreed to work on a story with me. We built up a lot of trust together, I think because she’d had some bad experiences with the way that her story was told.
As your story illustrates, Susie was dangled out in front as the lone woman in the race, and it ended up being a real study in gender and media. When you were getting that trust that you mentioned, how did you gain her confidence to be able to tell her story in a way that honored her place in the Golden Globe?
I think that’s almost something to ask Susie, but I actually did ask her that, too, towards the end. She said she liked that I didn’t have some pre-thought-out narrative in mind — that I wanted to hear everything that she had to say, essentially. Even as I was formulating some of these arcs, I would run things past her, like “Does this seem like what you were actually feeling?” So much of the story, it feels like you’re in her head, and that’s a huge responsibility. I think the fact that I was really collaborative with her even after we’d had hours upon hours of conversations, I think that that made her feel more at ease, too.
The real challenge in third-person nonfiction is to get in the head of your principal figure. As a reporter, how did you go about interviewing her so that you were getting between her ears?
I wanted to know so much about her background. I mean, we spent so much time talking about just the prep for a voyage like this before we even got into setting off. I wanted to know about her love of sailing, how the ocean had obsessed her, and maybe that helped a bit with building trust. I’ve only done one blue water crossing ever, but I could at least understand the pull of the ocean. And so I asked her a lot about that.
I always want to know how something feels in someone’s body when they’re scared or when they’re thrilled. I want to know how those emotions feel, and where people feel them. She had this beautiful way of talking about celestial navigation, where she talked about how some sailors used to be so in tune with the ocean that it would speak to them, that before compasses Vikings would mark where on the horizon the sun rose, or how Polynesians knew which direction they were going just based on swells and currents. That’s how we got into the fact that she had read all of these books, and how the books had influenced so much of why she wanted to sail solo and find this connection.
But the other thing is that I just love to let a subject go on. I don’t like to interrupt, and I often find that people will go in the best directions when they’re just allowed to talk.
Robert Caro famously wrote in the margins in his notebooks, SU SU — as in, “shut up, shut up” — anytime he was interviewing a source, be it for his Robert Moses biography any of his volumes of Lyndon Johnson. Oftentimes reporters and writers want to interject to prove how smart they are, prove how much they know. But oftentimes, the best interviewing tactic you can do is to just shut up. Silence can do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Oh my gosh, absolutely. Sometimes thoughts take a while to process, and a lot of people have never been interviewed. I mean, Susie obviously had quite a lot, but I don’t know how much people had given her space to actually speak, either, because I think a lot of things were time-sensitive. A lot of us in general aren’t used to being listened to, and by asking the next question we might cut something off that hasn’t been fully formed. You have no idea what could possibly come out when somebody fully processes a question that you’ve asked. I think that’s really fascinating.
This story is really a masterclass in recreating scenes; you weren’t in the boat with her, but it felt that way. Let’s talk about how you went about getting that degree of recreation.
I think that also comes from having enough time to speak to somebody that you can say, “walk me through what happened.” You’re not always lucky enough to be writing with or about somebody who remembers so much. And honestly, if she hadn’t written down what happened to her during the wave, she might not remember either. But she did remember so much of the actual voyage and the prep, which is incredible.
But I also think that since I’ve been in a small sailboat, I’ve experienced some things that are similar to what Susie experienced in different mediums. Like, I’ve felt my stomach drop like that before — not because I’ve been involved in an 80-foot wave, but it helps to be able to run that past somebody and say, “does this translate?”
One particularly chilling scene was when she’s in the middle of a storm, then all of a sudden it goes quiet — because a giant wave that is approaching is blocking all the sounds. How do you even begin to build a scene like that?
This is almost exactly how she described it to me in the lead-up to that moment. She remembers exactly how that felt, that moment when she thought that someone had turned the wind off — and then had this feeling of no, no, no, no. It’s like gold for writers when somebody remembers something like that. That’s like a privilege. Jim Harrison talked about how he wrote Legends of the Fall in nine days, and it was like taking dictation from the gods. If you’re a nonfiction writer, when you have a source like this, and somebody who’s willing to talk about it like that, it is like taking dictation. It’s incredible.
What do you think it is about long journeys — be it the Pacific Crest Trail or circumnavigating the globe — that draws us to them, and that we find so much meaning in?
I mean, I think that we evolved with the natural world. And we’ve been so removed from it in such a geologically short timespan that I think we mourn that in a lot of ways. That’s often what people are seeking when we head out into the woods, the ocean, the mountains: it’s where we feel more alive. When you talk to people, particularly in adventure sports, there’s this thin line between life and death, and proximity to the elements brings us so much closer. I think that’s a morbid way to put it, but it’s this idea that we’re part of something bigger — and we aren’t at the top of this bigger thing.
Well, there’s an element of our modern lifestyle that’s very sedentary. We fall into very grooves of our everyday routines, and it’s very hard to break out of that and to find comfort in discomfort. It’s at our core to be able to push our physical limits, but there’s a lot pulling at us not to do that, be it social media or television. As an outdoor person, how do you try to make a good partnership with discomfort?
I’ve made it a priority to live somewhere where I have access to less development. There’s wilderness a mile up the road, but of course, these things are disappearing very quickly, too. I think it’s a conscious thing that we have to make time to go out and be far away from cell service, which also is harder and harder to do these days. For our honeymoon — and most people would think this was horrible — my husband and I walked across the Bob Marshall, the biggest wilderness in Montana, for seven days.
We’re the only people who would honeymoon with mosquitoes and blisters. But it was so important for us to go and do that, right? We sacrificed what could have been a European vacation or something in order to just reconnect, to have that time with our thoughts. To have to just take care of yourself, I think, is such a powerful thing. But it takes intentionality for sure.
In the story you write that what often drives people to quit a race of this nature is the loneliness — it really breaks people. Being a writer is often an exercise in loneliness, also, especially if you’re a freelancer in somewhat remote locations. What’s your relationship to loneliness?
I used to say that I was a raging extrovert, but I’m now married to more of an introvert and I think he’s made me realize I have more introverted tendencies. I mean, as an extrovert, I’m not good with loneliness. And, again, I’ve done nothing like what Susie has undertaken. On the History Channel’s hit show Alone, where people are dropped in the wilderness to survive by themselves, the longest anybody has ever gone is 100 days. Susie spent 160 alone. I mean, that’s just incredible.
I think we all have different relationships to loneliness, and it’s finding that line between solitude and loneliness. For me, I know that being around people and relationships feed me so, so much that I can’t be alone for more than 24 hours. And you’re right — there are different kinds of loneliness, right? There’s this idea that it can be lonely being a freelance writer, because you feel like you’re the only one who’s getting so much rejection with all your pitches, or it seems like everybody else is making it and you’re not.
I started this podcast roughly 10 years ago, to appease a lot of the loneliness I was feeling — but also to maybe metabolize the toxic feelings of jealousy and competition I was feeling. Because it did feel, like you just said, like everybody else was just killing it. And I was writing about the Daytona 500 for Bleacher Report. I’m like, “This isn’t the longform journalism that my heroes are doing, my peers are doing.” It took doing the show to realize that maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe I need to try to celebrate other people’s work and have these kinds of nourishing conversations to realize that we’re all wrestling with these feelings. We can look beyond the veneer of social media and get to the ugliness that we’re all dealing with and be like, “Okay, I’m not really alone in this endeavor.”
My God, I wish we talked about that so much more. I always think I’m the only one who struggles with it, and I know I’m not, because my husband is also a freelance writer. It’s just this pervasive thing. Maybe there are those writers who don’t struggle with impostor syndrome or rejection, but it seems unlikely. When you’re a creative person, I think you never think that your work is good enough, or that it’s done, or that it’s worthy; we all struggle with that. But we don’t talk about it enough.
And you’re seeing on Twitter that everyone is getting these great bylines. And you’re like, “Damn, why am I struggling here? I’m spinning my tires in the mud.” But there’s also any number of writing gigs that people aren’t tweeting about that subsidize some of those more prestige pieces — and no one really talks about the writing we don’t tweet about.
Or the other income! I have a friend who is a great writer, she’s an award winner. She’s told me that she couldn’t write without the income from her Airbnb, right? Or the people who are writing for some weird company on the side to make the narrative reporting work. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that they couldn’t freelance unless their partner was making good money.
I think that way all the time: “Wait a second, how have you had three stories in The Atlantic?” But there’s such a range of what a writer looks like. It could be the night janitor, whose novel he hasn’t sent out because he’s so terrified. It could be the person who’s only writing notes on the back of a napkin. It could be the full-time New York Times journalist. There’s so many different ways to be a writer. I wish that we all talked about that more, so we didn’t feel this pervasive “I haven’t made it” thing.
How have you made peace with or even embraced rejection?
Oh, God, I have not embraced rejection at all. That is so hard. Quite honestly, I’ve decided that I have to be really judicious about what stories I actually want to pitch. And I want to work on bigger projects like this Atavist story, because then you don’t have to hustle so much. And you don’t have to face so much rejection when you’re trying to get work. And in some sense for me, that’s really heartbreaking. There was a time when I used to have to write down what I had out, and when to follow up, because I had so many stories I’d pitched. I guess it’s like killing a lot of your darlings before they have the chance to be killed.
I’ve come to see rejection, or even silence, almost as a gift. Maybe this is just my own Jedi mind trick on myself, but if a piece finally is accepted, I’m like, “If it had been accepted five times ago, the pitch wouldn’t be nearly as good or fleshed out. So thanks for those four other rejections because now it’s actually stronger because of it.”
That is a far healthier mindset than the one I’ve had, I’m going to start adopting that.
Something struck me about your Atavist piece right off the bat. I’m gonna read just the first sentence here, because I think this piggybacks on a lot of things that we were talking about already. “In the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean, a small red-hauled sailboat tossed and rolled at the mercy of the tail end of a tempest.” It seems like there was a lot of attention put into the wordplay and construction of that sentence. What’s your eye for detail when you’re starting to construct sentences of that nature?
I actually try to avoid outright alliteration. I love rhythm in sentences — I actually talked a lot with Jonah about this. As I was writing it, there were a lot more long-ish sentences throughout; in the top edit, Seyward cut a few of them up and made them shorter. I think she was right, but one of the reasons I had chosen some of those longer sentences was to give the piece a dreamlike feel. That’s why that sentence starts out long, right? So that you have this long time to be in this moment.
You said in working with Jonah and Seyward that you learned a thing or two about pacing.
I told both of them that I wanted this to be a learning experience. I wanted to use this story-editing process with them to learn how to elevate my craft, and they both were very open to that. And they actually have the time to do that and are very willing to do that, which I’ve thanked both of them for. But it’s rare to find editors who have time to do that these days. So that’s a huge, amazing experience if you want to learn as a freelance writer.
I had written Susie’s journey originally, when she set off, in a series of very short vignettes. I had done that because I wanted to convey that not much really happens when you’re sailing, right? And when it does, it happens in bursts. But Jonah had this great point that you can’t really expect your readers to trust you at that point. He said that readers typically take around 750 words — not all the time, but in general — to really drop into what the writer wants them to feel and what the writer wants to tell them. So that was huge for me to understand, in terms of pacing and passage construction.
As we bring this down for a landing, I always like asking writers to offer a recommendation of sorts to the listener.
Well, since we were talking about fiction, I want to recommend to anybody who loves reading joyous writing — have you ever read any Brian Doyle?
Some of his essays.
I just actually read Martin Marten twice. The way he spends pages upon pages, creating this whole world before you even know why he’s brought you into it, and you become so close to these characters. It’s just incredible.
The other one I’d recommend: my husband and I read out loud to each other, and reading a book out loud is such a different experience. It’s so cool. We just read out loud Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All; my God, what a masterpiece.
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