Take a peek into the life of journalist, nonfiction writer, and writing instructor, Kenneth R. Rosen, a writer who travels the world in search of a good story. He recently served as writer-in-residence for literary journalism at the Banff Centre in Canada and a Foreign & Security Policy Transatlantic Media Fellow at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He joined the staff of the The New York Times in 2014, is a contributing writer to WIRED, and he has two nonfiction books hitting the shelves in 2019 from Little A and Bloomsbury.
Beginning September 30, 2019, Ken will be teaching the powerfully productive nonfiction course: Wrangling & Writing the Book Proposal. It is 8 weeks and designed to get you well on your way toward having a proposal that will sell your nonfiction book.
Ken shared some thoughts with One Lit Place about writing, his good fortune as an author, and some advice for nonfiction authors.
1) Do you consider yourself a journalist or a nonfiction writer? What would be the distinction in your mind?
I fancy myself a writer whose primary income is derived from journalism. Though perhaps I may be more a features writer or long form narrative journalist. I really don’t know. Things change, people grow, and when you go beyond traditional, daily beat reporting the lines tend to blur.
2) You’ve written about the Kurds fighting against ISIS (the cover story in the April 12, 2019 international Newsweek), mass graves in Syria for Wired, and a short memoir about how you escaped a life of being a “six-oh-one”, a jail kid in New Jersey, for Hazlitt. How do you gravitate to projects? What do you find appeals to you in the assignments you take on?
I pursue stories that help me better understand the world. Generally it starts with a question, as all good stories begin. More recently my stories have been philosophical inquiries — what is the moral feasibility of identifying every dead body in a city trying to rebuild itself, or what happens when a lesson is learned by proxy but not first hand, to use the two stories you mentioned. Other times, like the Newsweek cover story, I am reporting on a changing political and social landscape and those stories are meant to inform if not edify.
3) You work at The New York Times as a Senior News Assistant. What’s it like to work at the Times?
It’s a blessing.
4) You’re writing two books and continuing to work on articles, winning award after award for your journalism, but you continue to teach university courses and for One Lit Place. What’s the appeal of working with other writers in the early stages of their craft while you’re working on several projects at the same time?
It’s completely selfish. Working with writers at any stage gives me a remove to see what is not working in my own writing. A lot of my students have been surprised to hear me say that writing is not performed in a vacuum. It requires assistance and advice and workshopping and editing and feedback and revision.
Even if you’re having conversations with your pet, or yourself, or that willow along your favorite walking path, writing is a process not an achievement, though in the greatest of instances it can become a prize but only after a long slog. And you need support for something like that!
So, in a very particular way and depending on whatever current project I am tackling, my students become my teachers.
5) Having just finished up at the MacDowell Colony, a venerable and very well-reputed writers’ residency and on the heels of being the writer-in-residence at the Banff Centre in Canada, how do you keep your “butt in the chair”, as it were, and maintain a writing practice?
I think you basically said it. Writing is 90 percent seat time. Even if I’m reading or researching or staring at a screen, it’s important to be devoted to that seat. You may not write all the hours you spend there, but it is a start.
Getting to the computer or typewriter or quill and ink, whatever your preferred writing tool, is half the battle. The rest is easy!
6) What advice do you have for writers interested in working in journalism, narrative nonfiction, or memoir? Any pitfalls you’d suggest they avoid? What do you suggest they do to get their book-length project published?
The best advice I can give is seek and you will find.
Nonfiction writers working on book-length projects know that what sells the book more than the manuscript is a killer proposal. Kenneth’s Wrangling & Writing the Book Proposal is a nuts-and-bolts course that takes nonfiction writers through the process of how to write a great book proposal.
The course begins Sept. 30, 2019 and runs for 8 weeks.