by Joe Marren
Special to Poynter.org

Poynter asks that these pieces be written in the style of a friendly letter to a colleague whose newsroom or academy couldn’t spring the dead presidents to send him or her to the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism. Very well then, sisters and brothers, if you’re afraid of crowded spaces don’t go to any talks by American Scholar editor Anne Fadiman. She’s witty, she’s smart and she knows how to keep a packed room entertained and listening to her tale about her eight-year project.

The Nieman organizers say about 900 to 950 people are at the conference this weekend. It seemed like most of them were at Fadiman’s session. I won’t even mention the tall guy I sat behind, but that’s okay -- I came to hear Fadiman, not to see her.

Although each project is its own tale of "quivering moments" of creation, perhaps Fadiman’s story is really typical and can serve to illuminate and keep aspiring writers inspired about their projects. The project turned into a book called "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures." It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for current-interest fiction. Not bad for a first book that started out as a magazine article for The New Yorker.

"Well, what can I say, don’t try this at home," Fadiman joked to the audience.

In the interest of fairness it should also be noted that the original idea for the project was an afterthought in a series of several submitted to New Yorker editors. The story centers around a Hmong child (the Hmong are an ethnic group in Laos) who with her family of 13 siblings and parents settled in Merced, California. The young girl had epilepsy (the Hmong word for it roughly translates to "The spirit catches you and you fall down") and the book chronicles the mistakes in culture, language and ethics that dogged both sides. That is essentially the plot. But Fadiman said she didn’t know the plot or the fact that it would turn into a book when she undertook the project.

"If you think about it as a book it would seem so scary and take so long to do," she said. "So I suggest taking it one day at a time. In this case, I fell into it by accident. This book choose me."

And that’s the advice Fadiman would offer other writers seeking an entry point into a large project. Her finished magazine article, which the New Yorker did not use, was a 35,000-word piece that was supposed to run in three parts. But regimes change in governments and on mag mastheads and the original idea and finished piece were abandoned by the editorial staff.

"So what was I to do?" Fadiman asked. "It was too long for another magazine and too short for a book. Maybe writers need to be backed into a corner so they have no other choice but to write a book."

Okay, you’re now stuck with a book project. What’s next? Everyone is different but Fadiman advised writers to break it down into manageable chunks that can be checked off on a daily to-do list. Maybe that’s micro-management, but good organization helps when a footnote source needs to be cited correctly.

"By breaking down the big task into tiny subtasks, I knew that I needn’t have worried that I couldn’t finish this because I had the checkmarks," she said.

And so, with each chapter thought of as a self-contained magazine article the book was really more like writing "19 Life magazine features in a row," she said.

Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at marrenjj@buffalostate.edu.