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Samuel Hoffmann | The Journal Gazette
Writer Susan Orlean chats Thursday with students in an advanced fiction writing class at IPFW.

In ordinary life, writer finds poetry

– Literary journalist and author Susan Orlean visited Fort Wayne to talk about extraordinary people, but not those who are extraordinary in the conventional sense.

“The challenge is to write about ordinary life and to show readers how (people) are exceptional,” she said. “There’s poetry in the facts of ordinary life.”

Orlean finished up this year’s Omnibus Lecture Series when she spoke Thursday evening in the Rhinehart Music Center at IPFW.

Debrah Huffman, assistant professor of English and linguistics, introduced Orlean to an audience of about 250 people, calling her an extraordinary writer. Orlean has published several books, including one that inspired the Oscar-winning movie “Adaptation.” Among her magazine credits are articles in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vogue, among others.

She is originally from Ohio and earned a degree in English from the University of Michigan. She said that returning to the Midwest felt familiar to her, “especially the weather.”

Even as a child, Orlean always knew she wanted to be a writer. She attributed her knack for finding great stories on being “chronically curious.” She has written on a variety of topics like cults and origami and profiled a 10-year-old boy from New Jersey, an orchid thief and the German shepherd that played Rin Tin Tin.

Her first book, “The Orchid Thief,” inspired the movie “Adaptation” in which Meryl Streep plays Orlean. When asked about it, Orlean said being played by Streep was “surreal.”

“I love the movie, … but the first time I saw it, I was so nervous and in such shock I didn’t remember anything about it,” she said.

She said she has seen it several times since.

Earlier in the day, Orlean spoke to an advanced fiction writing class of about 20 students, taking questions about her life and career. She gave students writing advice and shared some of her favorite stories. She said she hopes she inspires students and offers something a degree sometimes doesn’t, like how to turn writing into a career and the practical attitude required to do so.

Her own writing career started out at a small startup magazine in Portland, Ore. She now splits her time between New York and Los Angeles while working on her latest book. But speaking is also a part of her work that she said she really enjoys.

“I really love sharing some stories about what it’s been like doing what I’m doing,” she said.

Her lecture focused on the people she’s met and how they are extraordinary in their own ways. She said an important part of her work has been exploring the idea of finding the exceptional in the ordinary.

“I feel like everybody is (extraordinary). And I really do believe that,” she said.