Marion Roach Smith

How did you become a writer? My family is crazy with writers. My father was a sportswriter. My mother was the society editor of a newspaper. They actually met in the press box of a New York racetrack and, not surprisingly, gave birth to two writers, my sister and me. I am married to the editor of a newspaper.

Right out of college, I got a job as a copyboy at The New York Times. They had yet to transition to the word “copygirl.” Copyboy jobs were entry-level jobs that are now gone for the most part, and involved running (in heels) from desk to desk, carrying copy until 2:45 AM.

Eventually, I wrote a piece that appeared in The New York Times Magazine. I was 26. The piece was the first, first-person account of Alzheimer’s disease, appearing at a time when nearly no one --- including the editor to whom I first pitched it -- had heard of the illness. My mother was the patient. She was 51 and was losing her mind in handfuls.

The story caused an enormous stir. Within the first week alone, I ended up on the Today show, got an agent, was offered a book contract, and received thousands of letters from families who had no idea that others were suffering as they were.

It was an extraordinary response, and one that taught me the power of a fine magazine and what it can do toward social change.

Name your writing influences. As a kid I read Mad magazine and Emily Dickinson in pretty much equal measure, lots of novels, and The New Yorker. I think what that says is that I like to read over my head. I still do, right now reading The Marriage Plot, the most recent novel by Jeffrey Eugenidies. He’s much smarter than I am, but utterly accessible.

I teach writing, and tell my students to read reviews in good newspapers. Book reviews will lift you off the mere plot and help you think about what books are about. Maybe everybody but me knows this, but I find myself amazed pretty much daily at what I learn about life, dilemmas and good old-fashioned wonder from a well done New York Times theater review. I read them for plays I know I will never see. They are an education in thinking.

Where and when do you write? Early in the morning, as soon as the family is off for the day, and while they are asleep on weekend mornings is my best time to write. We live in an old barn that was converted into a house. My office is up at the peak in the roof. It’s my very own place. It wasn’t always like this. It took me a long time to get here, I promise, but I love it every time I get to come through that door to my office. 

Writers must be able to write wherever they are, whenever they can. My writing life is positively luxurious compared to what it once was.

“You’ve got to earn the right to write,” is a phrase I sometimes tell my students, and what I mean is you cannot hold your family or friends hostage by quitting your job and demanding to be allowed to write. Some of my students only have 45 minutes each day on the bus to write. They write. Nearly everyone in my classes has other jobs.

I encourage them to find one time, every day to write.

What are you working on now? I’m looking for a new book. It will be my fifth. In the search, I’m seeing everyone I can, asking them what they are thinking about, getting myself into the bowels of the local historical society and library, reading, reading, reading, going into archives and looking at photographs, watching lots of movies, catching up on contemporary fiction, in all, feeding my head.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? There is no such thing, despite being immortalized in story, no fewer than 33 movies, and as the threat lurking behind every time-sucking exercise and writing prompt. And if you don’t have writer’s block from prompts and exercises, you will. Give them up, do some research when you don’t know what to write next, and write.  

The inability to move forward melts when you open a reference book. Don’t believe me? Veteran’s Day is a yearly event, and I’ve never met anyone who does not have some response to war. You could write up yours for your local newspaper, or local radio station. Begin by looking up “courage,” “valor,” or “veteran” in the dictionary; read quotes on it in Bartlett’s, or paw through Roget’s Thesaurus, and the piece will split wide open.

Determined to get that letter to your daughter finished this year in time for her birthday, or that anniversary gift written for your spouse? Both are great intents. So get out the family photo album, plant it on your desk, and use it like the reference book it is. Literally refer to it, and write about what you see.

Other, deeply personal books work as well, including diaries, recipe files, and, of course, school yearbooks.

Research is also other people, since no one invested in your success will permit you to not write. For this, I have Margaret, my older sister. Both writers, neither one of us lets the other stay blocked for more than a few moments.

What’s your advice to new writers? Be hospitable to the work. It’s harder than it sounds. Don’t do your writing at the same place you do your taxes. Carry a notebook. Keep an index card on you at all times. Write things down right after they happen, and then think about what took place.

Read. Read. Read.

Write with intent. It’s a phrase I use all the time. If you want to write an essay for public radio, study the form, pick a date some months from now, work on your tale, rewrite it dozens of times, and submit it on time.

Avoid the temptation to use writing prompts and exercises. Instead, write with intent – a letter home, the biography of your marriage as a gift for your spouse, an essay for your child’s birthday, a personal tale for NPR, an op-ed for your local newspaper. Stop practicing.

Write.

We’re waiting to read you.

BIO: I am a writer, teacher and community volunteer. The author of four books, I most recently published The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text on Writing & Life (Grand Central, 2011). I worked for The New York Times and have been a commentator on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. My magazine publications include The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, The Daily News, Vogue, Newsday, Good Housekeeping, Discover, and Martha Stewart Living. Since 1998, I have taught classes in writing memoir. You can read more at www.marionroach.com.