Meet popular essayist and former NPR commentator Marion Winik, author of the Shebooks August in Paris and Guesswork. In this fun get-to-know-you session Winik shows off her love of language, her quirky sense of humor…and a secret talent, to boot.
Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
I teach at the University of Baltimore in the MFA program; I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and graduates for the last 15 years. In the ’80s and ’90s, I wrote technical manuals for a software company, and that job, though it may not sound interesting to everyone, was fun and challenging. I had the chance to work with a great group of people at the beginning of the tech boom—I had the very first Macintosh on my desk the day it came out.
Tech writing taught me the discipline I needed to be a writer. Before that, I really thought the whole career involved scribbling brilliant insights on napkins in bars at 3 a.m. As you can imagine, that only goes so far. To write 400-page manuals, you put your ass in the chair early and keep it there late and you type all day long and you certainly don’t bother waiting for inspiration. I’m not saying my work ethic is anything close to that now, but I definitely learned the basic procedures involved in producing a literary oeuvre comprising more than a few phrases.
I also worked for Stanley Kaplan test prep company for many years—I helped write and teach the SAT and LSAT courses at the New York headquarters and recorded tapes that were used in the centers around the country, and eventually I taught for them in Austin and New Orleans, too. Stanley Kaplan and his wife, Rita, were very much on the scene in those days; he was a character. He reminded me of my father, who was always giving you math problems and brainteasers and teaching you shortcuts for multiplying four-digit numbers and such.
What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?
I am an extreme Jewish mother, very doting and nurturing, cooking all the time, stuffing everyone’s faces, waiting on people hand and foot. People don’t expect me to be domestic.
Also, I am apparently much shorter than people expect me to be—I’m not sure why this is. I’m five-foot-three or five-three-and-a-half so it’s not like I’m teeny-weeny but I guess I somehow give the impression in my writing of being a towering giant. This is an especially common comment from people who used to listen to me on NPR or have heard on me on the radio now. Must be my big, deep voice.
Another funny thing is that people claim I often look totally different than I looked some other time they saw me and this can cause hilarious situations. The other night I had a guest speaker in my class; I invited her based on a great performance she did at my daughter’s elementary school. She kept asking me about this other storyteller we had seen. I didn’t know what she was talking about; finally she said, you know, the middle-aged white woman who told stories about dating. What? “Hey,” I told her, “that was me.” She was incredulous. “Were you wearing a hat?” No…maybe a little eyeliner. Apparently for me that’s a complete disguise.
What is your favorite word right now?
This morning I got my A.Word.A.Day email—I love these emails; they come every weekday from Wordsmith.org—and learned that the word spoof comes from a card game invented by a comedian in the 1880s. I love that! I am crazy about words and have many favorites. Once I was quite excited about using prelapsarian in an essay. I love to read lists of patois and slang: Jamaican, Yiddish, the Urban Dictionary, anything.
What or who inspires you most?
My children. Having kids saved my life and keeps me going. I am very close with all of them—Hayes, 26, Vince, 23, and Jane, 13. Motherhood is a never-ending inspiration for writing, because everything is always changing, not just when your kids are small but at every phase of life.
How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?
I think there is an American-Jewish voice in writing, a slant on things and a type of humor, that might be the strongest real Jewish influence on me of any kind, since I was raised by agnostics who passed on only the worship of bagels and smoked fish. Discovering the work of Philip Roth and Grace Paley meant a lot to me.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I have a column at the website BaltimoreFishbowl.com that comes out every three weeks and I write book reviews for Newsday and Kirkus Reviews. I don’t have a big book project going or anything but if one comes to me, I’ll be thrilled.
Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?
Let me start with some things I am not so good at. I am not good at walking and I fall down a lot, so as you can imagine I also suck at sports. I’m not so great at driving, either. I never remember to moisturize and am not skilled at putting on makeup. I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets. I don’t have much patience. I am not much of a gardener.
On the plus side, I can do a nice, long headstand.
Do you have a thought that you’d like to end with?
From William Saroyan: The most solid advice…for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.
Want smart and funny? Download Guesswork, Marion Winik’s irresistible collection of essays, only from Shebooks!
Originally published May 2014