Madonna’s Candy Corn, Tent Sales, and Crying on the Floor: Peggy Orenstein Weighs In

Recently, Thacher had the privilege of hosting celebrated author and journalist Peggy Orenstein as a visiting educator. Ms. Orenstein is the author of critically acclaimed New York Times bestsellers Girls and Sex, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and Waiting for Daisy, and is also a contributor to various publications such as Time, the Atlantic, the LA Times, and the New York Times. While at Thacher, Ms.Orenstein participated in a hilarious and educational interview with senior Ava Penner on female sexuality in the twenty-first century, in addition to leading several Q&A sessions for students. This weekend, I had the privilege of sitting down with Ms. Orenstein in the hopes of learning a little about journalism from this seasoned veteran.

Why did you decide to become a journalist?

I decided to become a journalist when I was 14, in 9th grade. I took a journalism class, and, honestly, it’s the only journalism class I’ve ever taken. It was one quarter in my freshmen year of high school, and I went out to do our assignment, which was a ‘sights and sounds’ piece. So, I went to this annual tent sale that they had at the local ski store. I don’t know why, but I just decided to sit and watch. And I kept on sitting and watching until I saw this mother and daughter arguing over whether the tent they were looking at was too short or too expensive, it was all pretty silly. And, in that moment, I don’t know, something about it just clicked. I just thought, this is what I want to do. Being a journalist is about being a storyteller, but it’s also about believing that every person’s story says something about the time that we live in and about the moment in history that we’re in, even if it’s just a mother and daughter arguing over a tent.

What do you think it means to be a journalist? What is the role of journalism in society?

I think journalism has a lot of different roles. One of the more obvious roles is telling the truth, and, in the process, creating a sense of accountability. And, especially right now, I think that sense of accountability is really important in politics because that role of truth-telling has been compromised in a way with the rise of the Internet.

There’s a lot of ways into telling the story of our time. You can tell it about power and politics, or you can tell it about ordinary life. The cliché about journalism is that it’s the first rough draft of history, and I think that’s really true, regardless of how you tell it. Journalism is telling the story of our time, and, for me, it’s about finding meaning. And, I suppose it’s also about pushing people to think, and perhaps act, in ways that impact the world around them. I don’t know that journalism has to push people to think in different ways, but it always has for me.

What does your typical writing process look like?

I started my career as an editor, and so I started by having a real job. Because of that solid foundation, I don’t have wacky hours like some journalists or people who write independently. Like, they’ll stay up all night or drink all night, but that’s not me. I’m very regular; I work like a normal person.

I’m gonna be honest; it’s not like it’s ever easy, and with books, in particular, it’s very difficult. It’s so overwhelming, just signing on to do a book. It’s huge; it’s gonna take you years, how are you going to handle it, how do you organize that? As a result of that overwhelming feeling, I often spend a lot of time on social media, or I play online games, or I do my emails, all those things are so destructive and awful. It used to be, before the Internet, that I would just call my friends on the phone. Or, sometimes, I’ll spend my time lying on the ground crying, convincing myself that I can’t do it, that I better stop, that I never could do it…

After a while, you just realize that it’s just a part of the process, that self-doubt and anxiety around writing. And now, I just think, “Here’s that part again” whenever I get that anxiety, and I can get through it more easily that way. I’ve never written anything where there wasn’t an aspect of that, but I think the difference between success and failure is that I hear that voice telling me that I’m completely worthless and I can’t do it, and I do it anyway. There isn’t a person alive who does a creative task who doesn’t feel that or have those kinds of voices in their head.

But, in terms of process, it’s different with every book. It’s not so different with articles, I guess. When writing, I try to write my notes up within 24 hours of taking them, or else I forget them or I can’t read them anymore. Transcribing is just a bear, I hate doing it, but I usually do it myself, because I learn a lot when I do it.  I usually have an idea about a lead and an idea about an ending, and then, I kind of fill in the middle. And then, I don’t know. Maybe I would feel less self-doubting if I knew what I did.

What have been some memorable, funny, or exciting moments in your career?

Madonna gave me some candy corn once, and said, “I don’t give candy corn to just anyone.” That was very exciting. I still have the package, not the candy; I ate the candy. But, I realize, what an idiot I was, I didn’t have her sign it or anything, so all I have is this empty plastic package of candy corn. There’s nothing that verifies it came from Madonna. The best thing I ever got to do was go dogsledding for a week in the Arctic Circle in Finland.

I think one of the reasons I like being a journalist is that it’s like being a student for the rest of your life. You’re always learning new things; you’re always in a new situation. That can be tiring sometimes because sometimes you feel like you never land; you’re never an expert. You never go “Oh, now I know.” You’re always on to the next thing; “What is this challenge? What is this world?” As a journalist, you get to be in all these different worlds that you would never be in otherwise, and you get to experience that world.

I’m actually a pretty quiet person. I’m from the Midwest, so I don’t really ask people a lot of personal questions in real life because I have a certain natural reserve. But journalism has forced me to go beyond that because I have to. You have to learn to be around all kinds of people and do all kinds of things. For example, I had to learn how to scuba dive, because I was doing a piece on a woman who was an oceanographer, so I got to go scuba diving with her.

So, sometimes there’s really these cool things. Other times, I’ve been in situations that I thought, “I hope I don’t get killed here”, and they’re kind of scary. But, you get to be in all these different kinds of situations, and it’s not always glamorous; a lot of the times it’s really boring, a lot of the time it’s really tedious, a lot of the time it’s really confusing, but every once in a while, it’s really cool.  

Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists at Thacher?

It’s such a different world from when I started writing, but I’d like to say one thing: Keep writing in whatever format you can. All through college, I never worked on my college newspaper, I never took any writing classes, because I was so concerned that if I was told I couldn’t do it; I wouldn’t do it. So I couldn’t write publicly, but I write in my journal all the time in college. And I read a ton. Then I did a lot of internships. I would just say to keep on writing in whatever way you can. It’s not a clear path to be a journalist, and there’s a lot of different kinds of journalists, so you have to just do what you can and be willing to eat breakfast cereal for dinner because you don’t have any money. But I sure love it, and I can’t imagine having lived any other type of life than this one.