Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Marion Winik

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Marion Winik is the author of the new collection of essays Above Us Only Sky and the books The Lunchbox Chronicles, First Comes Love, Rules for the Unruly, and Telling. She's been a regular commentator on NPR since 1991 and frequently contributes to More, Salon, Redbook, and other publications. Winik teaches in Carlow University's MFA program and lives in rural Pennsylvania with five children between the ages of 5 and 18 -- his, hers, and theirs -- her anarchist philosopher husband, and a small dachshund.

In a conversation with Literary Mama Fiction Editor and author Ericka Lutz, Winik discusses and debunks myths and truths about the writing life.

Winik and Lutz's Top Ten Myths and Truths of the Writer's Life
1. You need a lot of time to write.
2. Writing is a great profession to fit in between mothering duties.
3. Real writers write every day.
4. It's better not to share your work with an audience until you are completely done.
5. Serious writers need to get MFAs to truly learn how to write.
6. You need an agent.
7. The bigger advance you get, the better.
8. You must write THE novel.
9. A big press is always better than a small press.
10. It's who you know.

Myth #1:You need a lot of time to write.

Ericka Lutz: I think of this first myth as one that keeps a lot of people from trying to write seriously. You can start small, I think. A little at a time. You can do a lot even in ten minutes bursts when you need to. Of course, this chipping away can't last forever -- when a project catches you, when you're really engaged in it, you'll need to find the time. That's when you give up TV. Forever.

Marion Winik: If you're going to put out a major work of fiction every year or two, yes, you do need a lot of time on a regular basis. But even if you have very little time, or only sporadic bursts of time, you can still get something done. Take "Dysfunctional Families At Sea," a narrative essay about a cruise to Canada (in Above Us Only Sky). It's probably 3,000 words, and I got the first draft down in two three-hour sessions. I had the shape of the trip in my mind, I knew the high points, the jokes and observations I wanted to include (some were scribbled in a notebook I carry: highly recommended), it was really just a matter of planting my butt in the chair and typing. I wasn't done at that point, of course, but I was over the hump.

Myth #2: Writing is a great profession to fit in between mothering duties.

MW: I agree. I don't have a long attention span anyway -- see "Regarding My Diagnosis" (in Above Us Only Sky) -- so it's just as well that I have other things I have to do. Even more importantly, I find that mothering duties themselves are a source of inspiration. The bestselling author Judith Krantz has commented that people love to read about work. I think this is true, and mothering is one hell of a complex and interesting job. It has been the major inspiration of my writing for two decades.

EL: I remember thinking this before Annie was born -- that I'd stick her in a crib, and type next to her. Ha. I forgot about the fatigue factor, at least when mothering babies. And the kind of scattered focus required by mothering made me have to change how I wrote at least for a few years. I had to write in snippets instead of chunks, and I had a hard time with it, because I was working on a novel where I really needed the opportunity to think long thoughts.

Ultimately, though, it's a good fit for me, mothering and writing. There's a flexibility there. I have a part time teaching job, a full time writing life (even when I'm not writing I'm obsessed with it), and a full time mothering position. Mothering also has certainly been good for my nonfiction book writing career -- five of my seven books are parenting books (including On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting).

It makes sense, Marion, that mothering would be an inspiration for you. And readers really are loving books about mothering work these days; just think of Literary Mama's own Andrea Buchanan, Amy Hudock, Heidi Raykeil, Rachel Sarah, Jennifer Margulis, me, and more. We all have books about work -- mothering work -- either in the bookstores or forthcoming.

MW: Yes, when I started publishing back in the 90s, I thought being stuck in the "parenting" niche was embarrassing and limiting. Now it's obvious that all the cool work is here.

Myth #3: Real writers write every day.

MW: Not necessarily. Sometimes, when I've been through a fallow, self-doubting period or, on the other hand, when I've had a huge project I'm tackling like First Comes Love or the title essay of the new book, it has really helped my flow and confidence to carve a little ritualistic writing period out of every day. This is usually from about 5 am to 6:30 am, which I find a pretty magical time of day, and also is the only time when nothing else intervenes. Once I get that early start, I can often pick up my thread later, after the kids/the gym/the post office/etc. But normally I take days off every week, weeks off every year. I know that a lot goes on in my head when I'm not typing, and I trust that by now.

EL: I like your use of the word "fallow" with its seasonal connotations. In my classes, I always make sure to tell people that I don't write every day. (Neither does Rick Moody, by the way. He refers to himself as a "binge writer.") I have a lot of other things going on in my life -- I don't live the life of the leisure class, I have to work, and I have a child. More than that, sometimes I just don't have the inclination or the words. Sometimes things need to lie fallow a while.

Now that my daughter is half grown, I can leave her and go on writer's retreats, and that works really well for me because I can get all obsessive and work around the clock and stay inside my writer brain consistently. I try to get away for a few days every six to eight weeks to work on my fiction. And last year I left my daughter, my husband, and my dog for three weeks and did a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I missed them a lot. And the dog missed me a lot. But I got a huge amount of writing done -- I wrote three complete short stories and revised six more. I did more in those three weeks than I often get done in a year. Quite a binge.

Myth #4: It's better not to share your work with an audience until you are completely done.

MW: No, this is so, so not true for me, though I've heard it said often enough that I feel weird when I do it my way. My way is that I often find the stories I want to tell in my essays in conversations with my friends, and their questions and reactions shape its development. Finally, I write the piece, and reading it aloud in the draft phase is great for me, too, even if it's just to my husband over the desk.

I worked on "Above Us Only Sky" (the title essay in Above Us Only Sky) for several years; at one point it was a 350-page novel, at another point it was a total loss. Eventually I recast it as a 15,000-word personal essay. But I had thrashed around with it so long that I could no longer see it clearly. I knew I had to read it out loud, the whole thing, even though it would take an hour and a half to do so. And when I did, to an audience of about 150 at Women and Their Work in Austin, I found all the last changes that needed to be made -- and I also knew that finally it was finished.

EL: Well, for me, new work is so tenuous and delicate. I love to read my work out loud, but the piece has to be at a certain point before sharing it, otherwise it's a dangerous exercise; other people can send it off in a dangerous direction -- or kill it. Of course, good readers are invaluable -- it's the timing I'm quibbling with.

I would warn about finding the right people to hear the work. People who can honor what you are trying to do, as well as give good feedback. I have a few people who read all my stories, and, by the way, not all of them are writers. One of them is a computer person who isn't even a huge reader, but her responses tell me whether the story works on an emotional level, and her critiques are detailed and right on. But I wait until I've got a solid draft before I share any of my creative writing with anybody.

Myth #5: Serious writers need to get MFAs to truly learn how to write.

EL: No! At least, I hope not! I was always a little nervous about losing myself -- my writing voice -- in an MFA program. Plus it took me a long time to be able to accept criticism without curling up into a little heap and dying. By the time I was really ready for an MFA, I already had a writing community, and I already had a job teaching writing. And figured I'd come out of a program with more friends, some new craft, a lot of debt, and the opportunity to get . . . exactly the same teaching position I have now. I keep reserving the possibility though. Perhaps in another ten years I'll feel stuck in my writing, flush with cash, and ready for the intensity and bliss of two years in an MFA program.

MW: I think you should try, all your life as a writer, to share your work with others, to read everything you can, to go to lectures and readings, to teach and to learn, to draw the sustenance you need from the world of writers and writing. An MFA program is a great opportunity to do this, and to get in the habit of doing this, but you can do all these things outside the academy as well . . . it sounds like you did that, Ericka.

More important than an MFA, for most of us, anyway, is a community. My first collection of essays, Telling, was written with the weekly encouragement and criticism of a writer's group I was in at the time, and since then I've seen many an Acknowledgements page like mine.

Myth #6: You need an agent.

MW: Yes -- but only if you have something substantial to sell, and you need help selling it. Some beginning writers think the key to getting a career underway is getting an agent. But the key is doing the writing and then, usually, getting work published in journals, on websites, and in magazines. That much you can handle yourself, unless you're Margaret Atwood and it's worth somebody's time to negotiate the fee for the publication of your new short story in the New Yorker. And though over-the-transom submissions to the New Yorker are one of the longer shots around, I know someone who got a piece accepted this way once. Sadly, he had just given up on hearing from the New Yorker and published the piece in a local newspaper . . . which meant the New Yorker retracted their offer. Agghh!

EL: Gah. That would kill me.

MW: Once you're ready to take wares to market -- you've got a work of fiction or nonfiction that you believe can garner an advance with zeroes, find an agent. If you've been appearing in periodicals or online, they may even contact you. And because an agent makes a percentage of what you get, they will work hard to get you the biggest and best deal possible.

This is more or less what happened to me -- my agent found me in 1991 after she heard me on All Things Considered, and once she determined I had enough essays for a submission, she sold Telling to hard and softcover divisions of Random House for a lot of money. She helped me with movie and TV options (The Lunchbox Chronicles was a television pilot at one point!) and we worked together for four books.

However, by the time I was looking for a publisher for my new collection, Above Us Only Sky, I didn't need an agent anymore. I was planning to approach small publishers and I wasn't expecting a large advance; also, I was familiar with contracts and knew what aspects I might want to try to negotiate (for example, the ownership of subsidiary rights like broadcast, serial, or foreign.) And it has been just as I hoped -- working directly with Seal without an agent has been fine.

EL: Well, a good agent helps. When I was starting out, I loved having an agent run interference between me and bad editors, and hold my hand when I freaked out, and negotiate my contracts, and take me to lunch when I was feeling low. Unfortunately, if you have a product that won't sell a bundle -- like most fiction -- you might be better off on your own approaching smaller presses. Because agents need to make a living too, and often don't want to do that for you. Also, once you know your way around book contracts and editors a little bit, you're more equipped to handle your own dealings and don't need as much hand holding.

Myth #7: The bigger advance you get, the better.

EL: Um... sure! Never having garnered a huge advance, I think I'd like to try it sometime. On the other hand, I enjoy getting royalty checks for my books that have earned out their moderate advances. It's a nice bonus surprise in the mailbox every six months.

MW: Though it was an amazing, affirming experience for me to get a six-figure advance for my first book -- and the royal publicity treatment that went with it was lovely too -- it turned out to be a bit of a curse. None of my books ever sold at the level of the writers I seemed comparable to (David Sedaris, Anna Quindlen, Mary Karr, Bailey White), so I always felt like a failure and a disappointment . . . at the very least, a bad investment. Nonetheless, Random House stuck with me for several books, and I certainly am not blaming them or complaining. But at this point, it's a relief to get an advance I believe I can earn out. I want somebody's faith in my work to pay off for them, and I think this will be the case with Seal.

Myth #8: You must write THE novel.

MW: Please don't say that! Because there is nothing I love to read more than a novel, it has always been my dream to write one. But apparently my imagination just does not work that way -- and all the time and effort I have put into it (a lot, more than one time) has not led to a viable work of fiction.

In each case, my idea for the novel has been close enough to a true story that instead of throwing it away, I can change the names back, drop the made-up parts, and transform part of what I have into memoir. This was the genesis of First Comes Love (yes, bizarrely enough, at first I was going to write a novel about a woman who marries a gay man with AIDS), and also, as I mentioned, of the essay "Above Us Only Sky." "Waiting for Daddy," the first piece in the new book, was actually the opening chapter of a novel I was working on for quite some time. That novel was going to be called something like Mrs. Portnoy's Complaint . . . so I pirated that for another essay in the book. Sometimes the process is pretty convoluted, but I can't give up even when I want to.

EL: I think writing novels is overrated. (And I have two in the drawer and teach classes in novel writing). I know a few incredible, deeply respected, award winning nonfiction writers who say they feel the pressure to write a novel. As if they aren't really writers until they have succeeded in that form. Why is a novel considered the apex of a writer's career? Hmm. But for some people, perhaps it's easier to approach difficult autobiographical material through fiction first, then change it back to nonfiction. I don't know if that's true for you. I'm just saying.

MW: Well -- you're right, actually, because in both the cases I'm talking about I was afraid to tell the story as memoir, felt I didn't have the right, was worried about accuracy, etc. In fact, at one point I wrote a long letter giving all the "legal, moral and creative reasons" why First Comes Love could never be nonfiction. But you know, at the end of the day, we don't have to know where we're going; maybe sometimes we can't. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other 'til we get there, as hard and confusing as the journey sometimes is.

Myth #9: A big press is always better than a small press.

MW: Well, I dunno. Having been published by two big New York houses with lots of clout, a small West Coast house with lots of spirit, and also, early in my career, by very small literary operations, I would say it's a Goldilocks thing. The best bed is the one that fits you. That said, there is so much in the publishing industry that is a little "rigged" -- print runs determine what gets on the bestseller list, prestigious brand names determine what gets reviewed, etc. that the power of the major imprints and the deep pockets cannot be dismissed.

EL: Sure, both large and small presses have their charms. I was a small cog in the big machine of a huge churn-em-out publisher for a long time and at times, it was no fun. Ah, the joys of being a mid-list writer -- you don't get no respect. Working with the editors was fine, but getting laughed at by the promotions department? Ugh. You would think the writer would be the most important part in the publishing process, but it didn't feel that way. I felt like I was the least important piece. After that, I sure enjoyed working with Sourcebooks for On the Go with Baby.

Myth #10. It's who you know.

MW: Of course it is! So if you know Oprah, Sonny Mehta, and Ira Glass, good for you! But connections are made at every level, and you can overcome listless luck with energetic networking and goodwill-building among your peers. For example, I'm on a private listserv of mothers who write that endlessly yields opportunities to help and be helped -- readings, anthology submissions, article publications, feedback, blurbs, email addresses of editors, warnings and encouragement. It's who we know, even if we only know each other.

Never forget a favor and never fail to do one when you can (though don't give compliments you do not believe about someone else's work. There is always a way to be honest.) This way, when you need help, there may be someone out there who will help you.

EL: Yes, but I agree, you don't have to start out knowing people. Meet them along the way. Make friends, don't just "network." Be kind and generous. That private listserv is one of the ways I know you, Marion. And I love, and share, your philosophy of building a helpful writing community. That's one of the things we have here at Literary Mama, too; writer mothers of differing parenting styles and writing experience, all helping each other move our writing and our careers forward. And I think that diversity -- and the good will -- is reflected in our excellent magazine: Literary Mama.

An Excerpt by Marion Winik from Above Us Only Sky.
In the spring of 1981, when I was twenty-two years old, I fell in love with a girl named Anne and a boy named Mark. She was my good friend, and he was her boyfriend, and they hardly needed me to complicate their delicate situation, but they got me anyway.

For about twenty years, I avoided thinking about this episode, and when I finally did, first tentatively, then obsessively, big chunks of the story seemed to be missing. Like a temple at a Mayan ruin, it had to be reconstructed from what was still lying around. I went back and checked my date book from that year, a lemon-yellow spiral-bound Woman's Calendar with Lady Liberty on the front and feminist quotes inside. Scribbled among them were lists and appointments, plans to see Joe Ely and Grace Jones, names of forgotten movies like Robert Altman's Popeye.

On Saturday, January 17th, an entry says Dinner with Anne/Nodotties, and Nodotties is scrawled on many Saturdays following. Sideways on the margin of a week in April are the ingredients for Anne's black-bean recipe, set down in her elongated, slightly whimsical printing: Black beans, basil, garlic, oregano, onion, comino, Pace's, mustard, molasses.

There are a few hexagrams from the I Ching copied down along the way, sometimes accompanied by lines of advice, resplendent in its ancient impracticality. It furthers one to cross the great water. The superior man is yellow and moderate. Thus he makes his influence felt in the outer world through reason. But the violent disruptions of that May get no Chinese Deep Thoughts, just two words: Leave Austin.

When I was about halfway through my attempt to write a novel based on what memories I could dredge up from our shared past, I whisked off a jaunty letter to Anne, my first communication with her in many years. I told her about my project and said that of course I wanted her to be the first reader.

It seems she was surprised to hear from me. Marion, she wrote back a week later, on a piece of hemp-colored stationery in her famous handwriting, I kinda liked you when I met you, and then I learned to love you, but now you're just the skank that fucked my man when I was struggling to make a family.

If there were a museum of angry correspondence, this letter would deserve a special exhibit. I was shaky for days from the emotional sucker-punch, alternately avoiding the sheet of paper as if it were growling at me, then grabbing it to make sure it still said what it had before. As soon as I could gather my thoughts, I sent her a reply saying how floored I was, how I didn't think we had left things this way. She answered again, still angry, and again I replied by return mail.

Yesterday I received your third letter, Anne wrote back. I felt like Tommy in Goodfellas: I thought I told you to go fuck your mother. But I knew she wouldn't keep answering me if she didn't want to reconnect; I had a feeling she was about to conclude that I was too stupid to be mad at. I was right -- in her next letter, she put down the rifle and agreed to help me, sending me some of her journal entries from that time, then agreeing to spend an afternoon with me on a trip up north.

That afternoon in Baltimore as we pushed my daughter around the Inner Harbor in her stroller, talking about who we are now and who we were then, I was chagrined to realize how many of my recollections had been distorted and self-serving. I had things mixed up in such a way that all of my bad ideas and actions were less bad, and less mine. I had told myself, and had come to believe, that I was just a bystander swept up in the action, Woman #2, Townsperson in a Red Dress.

Well, Anne pointed out, it's true you were swept up.

Swept up like a person who runs into the yard as the funnel cloud approaches, arms spread wide.

Ericka Lutz is an author, solo performer, and teacher. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her fiction/creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals. Ericka teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She also provides private coaching on writing and writing process to writers and organizations. Her full-length solo show, “A Widow’s To-Do List,” is currently in development in San Francisco. For information on upcoming performances, visit Ericka’s website.

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