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Gillian Flynn discusses background in journalism

Before Gillian Flynn was a best-selling author best known for “Gone Girl,” she was a journalist, with a focus on reviewing the arts. On Tuesday, Oct. 12, she visited the university to discuss how her background in journalism helped with her fictional writing career, both for her novels and for her television screenplays. 

“I don’t think I would’ve ever written my first novel if I hadn’t been a journalist first,” said Flynn. 

She said she learned two important things as a journalist: that she doesn’t always want to write and that first drafts are “kind of a slog.” Flynn said that she loves revising her pieces, but that getting the first draft down can be a challenge as it can be difficult to translate the idea in her head to words on a page. 

Flynn also said that having a background in journalism helped her not take criticism as harshly. She said that “sometimes it stings,” but that she can also learn from the critique she received. She is also aware that one bad review does not reflect the true quality of a work. 

“Reviews are purely that one person’s opinion, not the opinion of the other hundred or so people that work [at a company], not the opinion of the Internet in general.” She also said that getting interviewed was not nerve-wracking after having conducted so many herself. Having that experience, she said she understood that journalism was not a “monolith” “out to get her.” 

Revision and learning from feedback was something that Flynn stressed in the event. According to Flynn, this is true in both journalism and fiction writing. “To me, the best kind of editor is the person who asks you useful questions, who asks you why a certain [point] is in there,” said Flynn. 

Flynn said to the audience that if you can’t defend the point, then it’s not necessary, but if you can, then you can understand the true value of the argument you’re making or the plot you’re writing.

Flynn also gave advice to aspiring journalists. She stressed the importance of asking hard-hitting questions, even of people you admire. “Risk asking questions that maybe you don’t want to hear because you put them up on a pedestal,” she said. “You are never going to be friends with that human being because you talked to them for an hour.”

She mentioned playing to individual strengths in the talk. “I wasn’t great at reporting, wasn’t great at getting scoops, but I was a really great writer,” she joked. 

Flynn had a lot of practice, though, saying that her father used to take her to the movies every week growing up and then asking her to consider her thoughts on the film. “He would never let me get away with ‘I liked it,’” she said. Even at a young age, “I was being asked to justify my thoughts and opinions.” 

Her final point of advice was to “read broadly—or watch broadly if you want to be a screenwriter. There is no such thing as a waste of time watching a movie or reading a book as long as your brain is working.” 

The Gillian Flynn event was hosted from 3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in person in Olin-Sang 101 as part of a guest lecture for Josh Wolk’s course, JOUR 114B: Arts Journalism, Pop Culture and Digital Innovation. This event was sponsored by the Journalism Department.

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