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Jessica Bruder’s Writing Routine: “My best story ideas are the kind that have haunted me with questions each night.”

Jessica Bruder is an American journalist and author of Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 2020.

My best story ideas are the kind that have haunted me with questions each night.

Jessica Bruder ’00 | Amherst College

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One of the best writing tips Jessica Bruder has received in her writing career didn’t come from some literary great, or some workshop, or some course. Instead, it came from Linda May, an Amazon warehouse worker (who Bruder later wrote about in Nomadland).

“She told me about working in an Amazon warehouse, how she often felt like quitting,” Bruder recounted in an interview with PBS. “Whenever that feeling came on strong, Linda asked herself, ‘Can I do this for just ten more minutes?’ The answer was always, ‘Of course!’ This was a strategy she’d picked up from Alcoholics Anonymous, but it works for writing, too. It’s a great way to flatten resistance.”

Born and raised in New Jersey, Bruder graduated from Amherst College in 2000 and received her Master of Journalism from Columbia University in 2005. According to her college profile, Bruder’s career “zig-zagged all over the place,” experimenting with poetry and editing the literary magazine before she fell in love with narrative nonfiction after she graduated.

After spending a few years writing for The New York TimesWIREDNew York and Harper’s Magazine, as well as publishing her first book, Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, Bruder start working on her next project; a nonfiction book documenting older Americans who had given up tradition housing, following the Great Recession, to adopt van-dwelling lifestyles.

I was living in a van as a journalist, as research for my book Nomadland. Over the course of three years, I followed Americans who had been squeezed out of traditional housing and moved into vans, late-model RVs, even a few sedans. I drove more than 15,000 miles — from coast to coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border. And night after night, I bedded down in a new place, whether a truck stop or the Sonoran Desert. Sometimes I stayed on city streets or in suburban parking lots, which rattled me in ways I’d never expected.

In ‘Nomadland,’ the Golden Years Are the Wander Years | The New York Times

For Bruder, being immersed in the nomadic lifestyle was vital to writing the book. “The idea was if I really wanted to be a faithful chronicler, I would interview people but I would also observe them,” she explained. “And I would learn in both ways.”

Shortly after Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century was published in 2017, Frances McDormand and Peter Spears optioned the film rights to the book. Directed by Chloé Zhao — best-known for her independent films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider — the adapted film version was a commercial and critical success, winning the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 93rd Academy Awards.

When it comes to her writing routine, Bruder is a night-owl, or a “vampire bat” as she puts it. During the day, she’ll spend most of her time on life admin tasks – “I walk the dog, scramble eggs, answer email, spend time with (or at least talk to) people I hope to write about, mess around with narrative structure, edit journalism students’ stories, devise seminars, write pitches, get some exercise, water my unruly plants, etc.”

It’s usually after dinner that Bruder starts her writing for the day, often working until 2am. She described a typical nighttime writing session in an interview with PBS:

There’s nothing like making a hot cup of coffee and firing up my laptop when most people are winding down. The distractions melt away. When I’m in flow, I feel like I’m driving at night on an empty highway, just cruising, sipping that coffee and keeping my eyes on the spot where my headlights break the dark. I used to go really late – until 4 a.m. or so – but that’s gotten harder. Morning people rule our world, making it difficult for night creatures to avoid their influence.

‘Nomadland’ author Jessica Bruder’s best piece of writing advice didn’t come from a writer | PBS NewsHour

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