Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Marion Winik

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Marion Winik’s most recent memoir, [booklink isbn="9780762787135" title="Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living"], chronicles Winik’s return to the dating world and her experiences along the way. Winik is the author of six previous nonfiction books, including [booklink isbn="1582436347" title="The Glen Rock Book of the Dead"] and [booklink isbn="0375701702" title="The Lunch-Box Chronicles"], as well as two books of poetry. She writes a biweekly column at BaltimoreFishbowl and was a columnist for Ladies' Home Journal. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in creative nonfiction, Winik teaches in the MFA program at the University of Baltimore. She lives in Baltimore with her daughter.

In a conversation with Lisa Lynne Lewis, Winik talks about the importance of storytelling, the birth of “momoir” and the influence of the Kardashians.

Lisa Lynne Lewis: You’ve said that your stories about dating were shaped by telling them to people. How did this process help you? And were there certain parts of your dating experiences you were reluctant to share?

Marion Winik: I’m the opposite of people who say you shouldn’t talk about what you’re working on. I often find my way into the story by telling it! It’s a way to see how people respond, including what makes them laugh, and play with the narrative arc. I’d tell the stories to Jessica Anya Blau, who’s a close friend and neighbor, and of course she’d ask questions that would make me fill them out even more.

It’s always been a pattern for me to get over things by writing about them. After 30 years, I’ve learned how much storytelling changes the power relationship of bad things — instead of being the victim, you’re the impresario of your troubles. Storytelling is powerful enough to transform tragedy into a somewhat less devastating emotional situation, so transforming slightly ludicrous dates into funny stories was an appealing idea and very natural for me.

I also told the stories to students in my workshops, which was really a boundary-testing thing: I figured if I could get over telling them to a roomful of graduate students, I could get over writing about them on the page. Some of the stories really did have humiliating or unappetizing elements! In some cases I was really excited and hoping for these great things to happen and instead it was like that game show where they open the door and you get the goat.

This is my ninth book of baring my soul, but there were still parts where I felt like I couldn’t do it. Most of the time, I take it as a challenge: how to be brave enough to tell this part of the story.  There were plenty of places where I had that anxious feeling of self-revelation. Usually when I feel that way it’s because I know it’s interesting. 

LLL: In writing about your life, you’re consciously shaping it so it’s not just about working through things but about transforming your experiences into narrative. Can you talk a bit more about this? 

MW: The difference between writing a journal and writing a memoir is that one is for other people. No one is going to want to read the idiosyncratic details of your life — you could just go write a diary. On a craft level, writing creative nonfiction is not that different from writing fiction — all of the same elements apply, including paying attention to language and creating characters that are worth reading about so the stories will come to life.

LLL: What do you hope readers take away from [booklink isbn="0762787139" title="Highs in the Low Fifties"]? 

MW: On one level I really am hoping to give them a few hours of entertainment. It’s certainly my most entertaining book; my previous book [booklink isbn="1582436347" title="The Glen Rock Book of the Dead"] is about loss, and my first memoir, [booklink isbn="0679765557" title="First Comes Love"], is about my husband’s death. But I found that the book was about more than that. Being an older single person can be a positive choice, not a state of emergency or a problem that needs to be solved. When you’re over 50, a lot of people are like me, with kids, pets, jobs . . . so many sources of affection, companionship and love that it’s really possible that they don’t need to find a partner. I wrote an article for AARP’s magazine about this, called “Single and Loving It.” Since I wrote it, you can’t even imagine the mail I’m getting from people who feel the same way.

LLL: You had a great piece on The Daily Beast recently in which you interview your 13-year-old daughter about her reaction to your latest book — she seems pretty OK with it! Did your sons have a similar reaction to [booklink isbn="0375701702" title="The Lunch-Box Chronicles"], which you wrote when they were growing up? 

MW: They were 7 and 9 at the time, so it was a long time until they encountered it. There are a few things in the book they don’t love, but their main reaction now is that they’re proud of me. My son Vince is a struggling young artist — he’s a musician —so it means a lot to him to have a mom who understands about taking a creative path. My other son is in the financial industry and is super proud of me because he sees that I followed my heart and was successful in a field that’s really, really hard!

LLL: [booklink isbn="0375701702" title="The Lunch-Box Chronicles"] was published in 1998. How do you think writing about parenting has changed since then?

MW: I think it’s developed into a more literary genre. [booklink isbn="0375701702" title="The Lunch-Box Chronicles"] kind of made me the godmother of this whole giant generation of mothering writers. At that point, when people thought of parenting writing, they thought of Erma Bombeck or Dr. Spock. I was the beginning of “momoir” — blending authentic storytelling with the struggle of parenting. When I wrote [booklink isbn="0375701702" title="The Lunch-Box Chronicles"], it felt kind of radical to say, “For me, parenting is like dieting. Every day, I wake up filled with resolve and good intentions . . . the difference is, with dieting I usually make it to lunch.”

LLL: Many of your recent essays have been about your daughter. Given that some of the chapters in [booklink isbn="0762787139" title="Highs in the Low Fifties"] first appeared as essays on Baltimore, do you see a new book or essay collection in the works that’s focused on your relationship with your daughter?  

MW: Probably not. I like writing about her, and I know people like reading about her, but I think I’m a little more wary than I used to be and more careful about my children’s privacy. She doesn’t see it as invasive, though — she’s grown up in a different world, where it’s very common for people like the Kardashians to have TV shows about them.

I could see doing a collection about mothering that’s focused on parenting young adults. I think I’m still having a spectrum of parenting experiences that could be written about and are worthwhile and aren’t overplayed.

LLL: At one point in [booklink isbn="0762787139" title="Highs in the Low Fifties"], you write that your daughter has a “Leftover Mom.” Do you think she’d agree? 

MW: She would just laugh! For the most part, she’s pretty enthusiastic about my mothering. We’re like a little couple — we have a lot of fun together. I’m really lucky; one of the biggest reasons my life works is because of her.

She’s at an age where she’s changing fast. I wrote about this in “About a Girl” on The first time [your child grows up] you kind of can’t believe it, but when you’ve seen it happen fully before and you really know, it’s quite bittersweet. 

LLL: In a previous interview for Literary Mama, you wrote that mothering was a source of inspiration. 

MW: That’s still true. I had writer’s block for about five years when I was in my twenties, and it ended when I got pregnant. For me, writing and mothering have been inextricable.

LLL: What are you working on now?

MW: I have a collection of eight essays called Guesswork that’s coming out on Shebooks, a new publisher of short e-books for women that's launching soon. The essays are essentially about memory, including the way we remember things wrong and fill in the gaps. I have one essay about how things you remember wrongly for a long time eventually settle in to your sense of self, and another essay called “The Things They Googled,” modeled on the Tim O’Brien story. I don’t even have an e-reader yet – this is the tipping point, I imagine! I think both the subscription model and shorter format are really interesting. It’s not the death of the book; it’s the new life of the book.

Lisa L. Lewis has written for SlateThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Natural Bridge, Prime Number Magazine, and Cleaver Magazine, where she’s an assistant fiction editor. Based in Southern California, Lewis has an MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley.

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