Tag Archives: teaching

Marion Winik: “I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets.” | Q&A

MarionWinik_webCUMeet 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

Jeannie Ralston: “Don’t be afraid to be seen as crazy. People thought we were nuts.”

Writer Jeannie Ralston risked everything to give her two sons the education of a lifetime. Three years and several continents later, The Mother of All Field Trips is Ralston’s inspirational account of one truly epic homeschooling adventure. Here’s what Jeannie Ralston has to say about family, education and why money is a taboo topic in her writing.

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Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

I suppose I keep coming back to the idea that your attitude in life is everything. It’s not what circumstances you find yourself in so much, but how you deal with the circumstances you’re given. That was the theme of my first memoir, The Unlikely Lavender Queen. How I hated being in rural Texas when I first moved there, but eventually realized I had two choices: make it work or whine forever. That’s when I started embracing the lavender business my husband had started and my teensy little town. I hope I can hold on to this concept. It’s a hard one.

Another theme, which is reflected in my Shebook The Mother of All Field Trips: don’t be afraid to do the thing that other people say is crazy. People thought we were nuts for taking our sons to Mexico to live. They couldn’t understand the homeschooling step. Both turned out to be the best moves we’ve made as a family. I try to remember when I’m getting resistance that sometimes people react strangely because your actions are making them question the decisions they’ve made.

Have you ever written anything personal that upset people who were close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

My poor husband should have known when he married a magazine writer that his life was going to be end up in print over and over. For most of our life together he’s been good-natured about it, but that changed after the publication of The Unlikely Lavender Queen. Some readers didn’t like him, and people sometimes wrote unflattering comments on Amazon or other places. I think that hurt him a lot. It concerned me, to be honest. I thought it would be tragically ironic if the book I wrote about how we grew together over our years on our lavender farm was the thing that caused us to split up. Even though he’s got a tough skin, he did ask me to not write a book about the family again.

My Shebook The Mother of All Field Trips is an exception. He was agreeable to this book because we’d written blogs about our experience. Plus, he thought it might inspire other parents to try something unconventional with their kids’ education. I hope that’s true.

Is there anything that you consider *too* personal to write about? How do you find that edge?

I find it hard to write about money—mainly because my husband hates having anything about finances made public. He’s very adamant about that. I’ve had to turn down story assignments before because of this. Recently a women’s magazine wanted me to write about the money-power equation in marriage. I have a lot to say about that, but absolutely couldn’t do it and expect to keep my marriage happy. It just wasn’t worth it.

How do you define “truth” in your memoir?

I’m fairly strict about what I consider “truth” in memoir. I might compress events or experiences for space or understanding, but that’s it. For instance, in The Unlikely Lavender Queen: the decision to sell our house was more convoluted than I portray in the book. We actually had the house on the market; then I got cold feet and asked my husband to take it off. It was off for a while; then he got angry and put it back on with another realtor. It would have been too messy and hard to follow if I’d gone into all of that. So in the book, the whole decision- making process is condensed down.

I’m really against enhancing details and experiences to ratchet up the drama. I think if something is worth writing about it should have its own inherent drama or tension and a good writer should be able to pull that out without resorting to making things up. There are so many amazing true stories out there that don’t need enhancing. Those are the kind of memoirs I want to read.

Do you have a day job?

I have started teaching creative writing to high school students, and I’ve been surprised at how satisfying this is. I love bringing together all these free-floating, disconnected things I’ve learned over the years in my career and coming up with ways for students to understand them.

For instance, when I wanted to explain the fundamental structure of an essay, I told them to forget all the rules they learned in “regular” writing (you know, the basic five-paragraph essay that every English class teaches). I cut out a picture of a fishing hook, a vertebrae and a cowboy boot and taped them on a page, making copies for everyone. The fishing hook came first—for writing a first paragraph that hooks the reader; the vertebrae was the spine of the essay in which all the thoughts have to support the central idea; the cowboy boot came last—symbolizing the kicker, some way of tying up the ideas and getting out of the essay in a way readers will find satisfying. (I’ve also come up with lessons like 22 Ways to Start an Essay and SIx Ways to End it.) Last year, one of the seniors told me he was bringing my funky hook, spine and kicker diagram with him to college. That made my day.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been writing quite a lot of travel stories; I’ve been lucky to have great material from the trips we did with our kids, which are covered in The Mother of All Field Trips. I also have begun working with Prevention magazine, since I have a lot of ideas that fit what they do. My husband and I are more focused on exercise, diet, and health than ever, so that often leads to articles for them. It seems the magazines I write for have followed my life stages. I used to be a contributing editor at Allure—back in my twenties and thirties, when my life was much more “alluring.” Then when I was a new mom, I became a contributing editor at Parenting and it seemed every day my kids would do something that would make me think of a story idea. Now that I’m older and battling aging like crazy, Prevention makes perfect sense.

Other than that, I’m working on a novel that I’m really excited about. It’s based on some experiences we’ve had as a family—trying to find the perfect town to move to in the States after we lived in Mexico for four years. But for several reasons I wanted to write it as a novel rather than as a memoir (one of them being my husband’s reluctance to go that memoir route again). I’m having a great time with it and feel liberated not having to stick to the truth. It’s the truth, but better.

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Looking for adventure? Read Jeannie Ralston’s mini-memoir The Mother of All Field Trips, only at Shebooks!

Elizabeth Geoghegan: For better or worse, the city of Rome is my muse

Elizabeth Geoghegan is the author of the immensely popular Shebook The Marco Chronicles: To Rome, without love. Her second e-book, Natural Disasters, is on the way. In this fun Q&A session, Geoghegan tells how she fell for Rome, the Eternal City, and why fiction is sometimes more personal than memoir.

 

Are there any themes, characters, or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they, and what is their origin?

For better or for worse, the city of Rome has become my muse. I never expected to live here for as many years as I have, and I never imagined I would write a memoir about Italy, the precedents—Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen, Goethe, D.H. Lawrence, and Mary McCarthy to name a few—are impossible to live up to. But in the end, I finally allowed myself to put down a few of my own experiences in The Marco Chronicles. I wanted to debunk some of the romantic myths about life here and about Italian men. Everyone always seems so surprised when they discover I didn’t stay in Rome for a relationship. Of course, between the lines, the real love affair is with the Eternal City.

There is a dark humor in my fiction; but definitely my nonfiction is lighter, the voice more like my speaking voice, or as my Shebooks editor has said, it “sounds like me over lunch.” Ironically, writing nonfiction feels less personal to me. Fiction comes more naturally and happens on the page in a way that I find more intriguing because it draws upon so many overlapping experiences—my own, those I imagine, events read about, overheard, or at one time recounted to me. Quite often an image will be the starting point for a piece of writing. Other times it is a simple line that I get in my head and can’t let go of until I put it down.

In both nonfiction and fiction, setting is always crucial. I am interested in the intersection between geography and intimacy—how the landscape reflects the inscape or identity of a particular character. In fiction, the theme I return to is loss—whether the literal loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or even the loss of the self. Losing one’s way as a form of exile. I predominantly write about female characters who find themselves outside of things. I try to examine how they live their lives, what they become as a result of the relationships they form, what they learn.

Do you worry about not having the authority to write about situations that you don’t know firsthand?

I think the issue of authority is more integral to nonfiction. And even so, with the proper amount of research, many are able to write about situations they have barely been exposed to and pull it off with great aplomb. However, for an essay, I prefer to write closer to my own experience.

On the other side of things, fiction writers have always been given license to make things up. And they have always written from the point of view of various characters, real or imagined, as well as from the point of view of the opposite gender with great success. It is always a question of voice.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write. I was an early reader and I wrote my first “book” at age seven, which won a prize and meant my inclusion in a Young Author’s Conference. Since then, it has been a circuitous route toward and away from my writing, but it’s something I always knew I wanted to do.

What writing projects are you working on now?

A collection of interlocking stories where each takes place in a different city or country, and a novel set along the Silk Road. Readers can get to know my fiction in my forthcoming Shebook, Natural Disasters, which contains two short stories.

Do you currently have a job other than writing?

Yes, I teach creative writing and American Literature in several university programs here in Rome, which is something I very much enjoy.

What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I have had a lot of disparate jobs, from working as a stylist for a very successful photographer in Chicago to event planning in New York, to translating Italian screenplays in Rome. But I don’t think there is really any better education for a writer than working in a bar or a restaurant. The characters and stories are there for the taking—and usually they leave you a tip at the end of the evening.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

My mentor Lucia Berlin was one of the most underrated short story writers of her time. I recently discovered that FSG (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) plans to reprint one of her early story collections. I am so delighted other readers will soon be able to discover her work. She’s a true talent.

Otherwise, it occurs to me that the authors who most influenced me early on were those who lived in some form of exile (self-imposed or otherwise), apart from their culture and their native language—such as Paul and Jane Bowles, Marguerite Duras, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and Nabokov. Although I never planned on living the expatriate life, I ended up doing just that for the past fifteen years. Now it makes more sense to me why, on some intuitive level, I was always drawn to certain books that had an underpinning of exile in them. More recently, I owe a debt to Flannery O’Connor, who has had an unexpected and strong influence on me. O’Connor, too, lived in a kind of exile for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the lupus that disfigured the trajectory of her life and dictated where and how she was able to live.

Do you have a quote, mantra or thought that you’d like to end with?

“Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world.” —Flannery O’Connor

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See what all the fuss is about: read Elizabeth Geoghegan’s hilarious short memoir The Marco Chronicles: To Rome, without love.