Freelance Journalist/Travel Writer, The New York Times
Grad Year: 1983
I always knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was seven I wrote my first “Chapter Book” about my family. And though I gave them the fictitious name, “The Darlingtons,” nothing happened to any one of them that was not happening in my own family. No one was spared from the dog to my grandmother!
My truthfulness should have been an indication that I was not meant to write fiction, but rather chronicle the events around me. And so it happened I became interested in journalism during high school, working on the school magazine, as well as the yearbook. That, in turn, led me to study English Literature at the University of Michigan, where I could not imagine anything better than spending four years with words.
I knew that reading the best writers was the key to writing better, whether I ended up writing fiction or non-fiction. And, in fact, because I was most interested in writing features, I knew I needed to develop a strong narrative voice like that of Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson or Truman Capote, to succeed in my chosen area. Their non-fiction read like fiction—and, of course, they wrote in both forms.
Through my classes at Michigan, I learned how to analyze writing, research the period and social climate behind a piece of literature, and that there are many different ways to interpret an author’s words.
When I then started working in journalism in New York, first as a researcher for very senior writers, I was more than capable of helping them find the facts they needed to support their arguments and I was able to assist them with structure and clarity. These skills were learned in classes I took at Michigan, reading everything from Dickens to Dostoevsky, writing papers on the themes of expatriate writers in Paris in the 1920’s, and even studying poetry. My esteemed undergraduate degree then made it possible for me to be accepted into Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where I earned a master's degree.
My own career, which has led me to write travel articles from all over the world (I lived abroad for two decades until this past year), as well as features on business, education, arts, and culture (I am currently fascinated with Detroit), without a doubt holds a direct correlation to what I learned studying the rhythm of William Faulkner’s dialogue, the emotion behind Sylvia Plath’s verse, and the plot development behind classic works whether it was the Canterbury Tales or Wuthering Heights.
I don’t believe I ever would have succeeded at what I love to do without the background of my English degree from Michigan. I do not only hear the voices of so many authors in my head while I write, but also those of many of my professors, who were always encouraging, and truly understood that writing well is one of the most difficult things to do professionally or otherwise. And that the only way to improve one's writing is to work hard at it.
Jennifer Conlin recently sat down with us for a video interview in which she responded to the question of how English has helped her pursue her career as a writer and journalist.
Elizabeth Bender, Faith Adler Brown, Jennifer Conlin, Vanessa Febo, Chris Hall, Lawrence Landman, Amanda Richardson, Lisa Vandenbossche, Charles Aldrich, Betsy Carter, Howard Markel, MD, PhD, Silvia Chung, Katherine MacNair, Kelly O’Connor McNees, Kurt Taroff, Fred Uleman, Sarah Marwil Lamstein
Related Career FieldsCommunications/Marketing, Journalism, Writer, Teach/Work Abroad