Interview: Sara Corbett

Sara Corbett is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, co-author of A House in the Sky, and co-founder of The Telling Room, a nonprofit youth writing center in Portland, Maine. Here are some of her fine thoughts on practicing patience, measuring success, and what makes a story worth telling.

How do you describe yourself? Your work?

I'd describe myself as somebody who is by nature very curious and has been lucky enough to find a profession that aligns itself really well with being curious.

I would describe my work as an outgrowth of that. I have been writing for magazines for a long time now and each time I start a story, it’s like going on a new journey into a new world filled with new people. I love that feeling every single time. It never gets old.

What makes a story worth telling?

Arguably, any story is worth telling. [But] in order for a story to be told well, there has to be a real engagement and investment on the part of the storyteller. In my case, while I recognize there are all sorts of great stories out there, there are only some that reverberate in a really deep way for me and those are usually the ones I start to pursue.

When I’m reporting a story, there’s always a moment where I’m talking to somebody when my heart beats faster. It’s a literal sensation I have. I just know that there’s something about that moment and what that person is telling me that’s the nugget upon which I can build the rest of my reporting. You have to be open to finding those moments and experiencing enough people and enough points of view to get there.

Is there consistency across those moments for you?

In general, I find myself really interested in moments of fortitude in people. That can be as explicit as a survival story and as quiet as a profile I wrote about somebody, a comedian named Maria Bamford, who has really complex mental health issues but has built a highly successful and very public career by embracing rather than hiding those issues. I was struck not only by her fortitude, but also rather profoundly by that of her family as they live with and support who she is. Fortitude is, to me, an always compelling quality in people and it stretches across all different topics.

Is there a question that you’re looking to answer through your writing?

I don’t think there’s a specific question. I think in general I’m just trying to find more insight into the world we live in and into who the people around us are. The longer I do this kind of work, the less I understand about the world, actually. But that just makes it a bigger and more interesting place.

How do you practice patience?

In longform journalism, patience is key. Because if you really want to try to get at the heart of something and you want to be ambitious in reporting on complex situations, then you need to understand also that it often can’t be rushed. Sometimes it can take months, sometimes even years to get a story right.

I try not to put a lot of pressure on any one moment or any one day or sometimes even a stretch of weeks. I try to find the small things that go well. I‘ve made long trips, left my family, and flown all the way across the country to try to meet somebody and it hasn’t worked out. I once got bitten by a stray dog in India and had to leave where I was working and waste the next five days getting a series of rabies injections in a different city. It can be frustrating, not being able to know how things will go, and yet at the same time, it’s a big part of the job.

What do you want your readers to leave your writing with?

I hope that when people read my work, they never feel like they’re getting a point of view rammed down their throats. I hope they come away feeling like the world is a really vast and nuanced place and that this is a good thing and not a bad thing.

Is there any story that’s changed you more than another?

I think they all change me, to be honest. That’s why I love doing this so much. It’s that possibility of change, of learning new things, that keeps me going from story to story and makes this such fulfilling work.

It really is a gift every time you get to involve yourself in other people’s lives and really listen to them, and that’s the best part of my job. You’re humbled head to toe every time. I mean, honestly, every time.

How has your writing and your work changed over your career?

I think I’ve become more patient and I like to think I’ve become more empathic as time goes by. As I mentioned, the more I do this work, the more I see how much nuance there is to everything. I think that’s made me quieter, less opinionated about things. Because the more you listen to people, the more you realize it’s worth listening to other people and not leading with or being emphatic about your own opinions.

In writing and in life, how do measure success?

When I’m working hard on something, I get up really early in the morning and those first quiet hours of the day are 100% dedicated to writing. I just love doing that. I measure success by how I feel when I’m doing it. It’s not about, “Are people reading it? Do people like it? Is anybody paying attention?” It’s really about feeling lost inside whatever the project of the moment is because there’s no better feeling than losing yourself inside of the process. It’s less about the outcome and more about the process, and I just love the process of this work.

When I’m trying to decide whether to take on a new project, I think, “When I wake up in the morning, is this likely to give me that feeling of complete absorption?” If it is, then that’s a successful choice.

What have you learned recently that’s struck you?

I recently wrote a profile of somebody who did not really want anything revealed about her. What I ended up writing about was her need for privacy. For me, it was a great thing to ponder in this day and age where people like to disclose so much about themselves. It was refreshing and also challenging to write about somebody who didn’t want to disclose anything, and then to be challenged to write about why that’s a powerful choice right now.

What’s the best kept secret of adulthood?

I would say – and I would almost venture to say that this is the best kept secret of good non-fiction writing, too – that being kind and letting kindness lead you is an incredible strength. It will get you so much farther than some people would have you believe.

I don’t tend to be an oppositional person. I’m kind of a softie. But I’m not a dumb softie, and I think there’s a really interesting way to be both smart and kind or at least deeply open-minded. There’s a perception that as a journalist, you’re supposed to be hard-driving, challenging everybody, getting aggressive and all of that. Sometimes I find that the opposite—being a very attentive listener—actually yields something that feels closer to the truth.

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