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Famed author George R.R. Martin strengthened writing skills, love of storytelling at Medill

Martin shared his career journey with Medill students on campus this fall

Medill alumnus George RR Martin laughs as he tells students a story
Medill alumnus George RR Martin (center) talks with Medill students
Medill alumnus George RR Martin poses for a photo with Medill students and Dean Charles Whitaker
George RR Martin with Medill students and Dean Charles Whitaker (back row, center)
Medill alumnus George RR Martin with Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81)
George RR Martin with Dean Whitaker

Like his world-famous science fiction and fantasy novels, author and Medill alumnus George R.R. Martin (BSJ70, MSJ71) has taken many twists and turns in his career. One thing that has remained constant, however, is his passion and incredible skill for writing and telling stories, which were honed when he was a student at Medill.

“The skills I learned at Medill had a huge impact on my life,” Martin said. “Journalism forced me to go out and do things that my shy self wouldn’t have done. I had a lot more confidence to go anywhere and talk to anyone.”

Martin, whose series “A Song of Ice and Fire” was adapted into HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” met with 15 Medill students this fall when he came home to the Northwestern campus. During the conversation led by Dean Charles Whitaker (BSJ80, MSJ81), Martin gave the students an inside look at his career and writing process.

Martin grew up in a working-class family in New Jersey. “I’ve been writing stories since I was a small boy in the 60s,” he told the students.

When deciding where to go to college, he tapped into his skills and decided to pursue a degree in journalism. He did research and learned that “Medill was the best journalism school in the country.” Looking back on his time at Medill, he said it was good for him in a lot of ways.

He learned how to research various topics, which he joked was a lot harder to do in the 1970s before the internet. He pursued his passion for history by choosing it as a minor. As often as he could, he would create short stories for his assignments to practice his creative writing skills. Throughout his career, Martin has found inspiration for his novels in history.

During his five years at Northwestern pursing both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Medill, many things left an indelible impression on him, including the Vietnam War protests, the 23 inches of snow during the 1967 blizzard, his favorite restaurant, Spot Pizza, and the chess club.

After graduating from Medill, he held various positions, including directing chess tournaments as well as teaching at a small college in Iowa, a position he was able to get because of his master’s degree from Medill. He wrote part-time throughout the 1970s.

His first professional sale was a short story called “The Hero” in 1971. The following year in December 1972, he published the first story that got him attention in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine. “The Second Kind of Loneliness” was the story he pointed to when a Medill student asked him about being vulnerable in writing. Martin explained that it was difficult to write, but it’s the first story where he really showed himself. It proved to be popular with readers and was something he incorporated into his subsequent work. 

He quit teaching and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to write full-time. Although he ultimately shot to fame with his series “A Song of Ice and Fire” that became the televised “Game of Thrones,” it wasn’t a straightforward or easy road to get there.

Some of his books didn’t sell, and there were others he didn’t finish. He turned to editing and producing in Hollywood for a while in the 1980s and 1990s.

“My career has crashed and burned twice,” he said. “There were times I didn’t think it was going to work out for me. You have to keep at it, you have to persist.”

When asked where his inspiration comes from, Martin said his work has drawn on his own personality, fears and desires. This, along with the foundation he gained at Medill, has helped him create some of the most popular science fiction and fantasy writing of all time.