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How the New Yorker’s Susan Orlean Became an Internet Star

The acclaimed magazine writer isn't afraid to experiment with digital media.

Susan Orlean, a New Yorker staff writer since 1992, will be at Sixth & I tonight.

Susan Orlean‘s innate curiosity has made her a writer’s writer, the kind who inspires a sort of wild fanaticism typically reserved for kittens and pop stars. She got her start at a tiny, now-defunct monthly in Portland and in 1992 landed her current gig as a staff writer at the New Yorker, where she’s earned a reputation for her oddball sense of humor and remarkable knack for finding stories in the most unlikeliest of places.

It’s this same curiosity that has taken her beyond the written page. Orlean, who will appear tonight at a belated National Puppy Day celebration at Sixth & I, has become a proponent for digital media. The acclaimed magazine writer has a podcast about crying, an online video class about creative nonfiction, and nearly 300,000 Twitter followers who legitimately love seeing pictures of her cat. “I’ve always been really curious about different ways of telling stories,” Orlean says. “I’m somebody who’s really comfortable in the digital world.”

Her podcast, Crybabies, is just one example of that. Hosted by Orlean and actress Sarah Thyre, the podcast is all about what makes people cry. The premise is simple: Talking about crying encourages guests, which in the past have included comedian Jenny Slate and parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic, to open up about their lives. Much like Orlean’s book, Saturday Night, which focuses on how Americans spend that one night off each week, Crybabies serves as a portal to tell a greater tale.

“It’s an entirely unexplored idea,” Orlean says. “I’ve always liked taking a single notion and applying it to a real variety of settings or individuals to see the similarities and differences in them.”

Podcasting’s cool factor has grown exponentially, with promising upstarts like Invisibilia hoping to piggyback off the success of Serial. To Orlean, this rapid rise resembles what happened to blogging, a once-personal format that, like podcasting, can have lax editorial oversight and unlimited space constraints.

It helps that podcasting is convenient for a writer with a busy travel schedule. The same can be said about Orlean’s venture with Skillshare, an online video school. For $10 a month, Skillshare students get access to more than 1,000 classes, including Orlean’s. Her class–a video lecture series with nearly two hours of instruction time–has already been viewed by more than 2,000 pupils. Budding journalists get easy access to a famous writer, and instructors get a convenient way to teach without sacrificing too much time.

Though the online course doesn’t encourage student-instructor interaction, she’s comfortable communicating with them–and the rest of her fans–through Twitter. The way Orlean, a Twitter user since 2007, talks about the platform makes her sound just like a social media editor, except she uses words like “storytelling” and “craft” instead of “engagement” and “strategy.” She says she uses the platform to “think out loud” and connect with readers. For her, it’s just another way to practice her craft; much like she would for a magazine story, she considers things like persona, voice, and narrative. “I tell stories. I write them. I see them printed on the page. But there’s another side of me that enjoys learning about what this other stuff is,” she says.

That means tweeting out advice to young writers and sharing quirky tidbits about her personal life. Orlean spoke to Washingtonian during her trip to the airport, and within two minutes of hanging up, a fresh tweet had materialized on her account.

Check out Susan Orlean’s event at Sixth & I alongside author Alexandra Horowitz, as they share stories about their canine companions. Bonus: The Washington Humane Society is bringing dogs. 7 PM, $15.