by Debra Eve
Mastery, we’re told, takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That’s a daunting number, one beyond the reality of most writers. Perhaps it’s time to forget oft-repeated sound bites, to celebrate hours spent doing what we love, and to just find creative ways to address the challenge of being an author in this age.
I recently conversed with Marion Roach Smith on these ideas and more. Marion authored The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, which Poets & Writers has listed among its “Best Books for Writers.” For the past sixteen years, she has taught memoir classes to thousands of writers at The Arts Center of the Capitol Region in Troy, New York.
Her unconventional advice on time management and the quest for writing excellence will surprise you.
1. You juggle a blog, several writing projects, a teaching schedule that puts most tenured professors to shame, a daughter applying to college, and more. Before we explore how you do it, what’s your general take on time management for writers?
When we talk about time management, we’re really talking about earning the right to write. You can’t hold your family hostage and say, “I’m quitting my job. I’m going to start writing. We’ll eat cereal for five years because I know this book will be great.”
That’s just wrong on every kind of level, so it’s about time management to get to the right to write and, also, to get better.
Although I’ll teach any age, most of my students are adults. Many have powerful, compelling careers. Fewer and fewer people are waiting until they retire to write.
I have one student who has completed three memoir-based screenplays in the last couple of years. He’s a Ph.D. in Chemistry, he’s got a very large, successful company, a happy marriage, a house, two sons he’s raised. But from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m., five nights a week, he writes. That’s when his wife was helping kids with their homework or, as they got older, watching her favorite shows or movies. This was their deal. He never said, “I’m going to throw it all over to write.”
It’s not about hostage-taking. It’s about getting better all the time.
2. And what about your situation? Do you structure your day to include writing?
I do. I have “The Grid.” I made The Grid years ago and everyone teases me about it. I’ve gotten e-mails and letters addressed to my grid. My sister will call me and say, “Am I on The Grid?”
It’s divided into the seven days of the week. For instance, on Wednesday from 2:00 to 5:30, it says, “Work on SEO and website.” On Friday from 11: 30 to 1:00, “Write and stockpile posts.”
Everything is on it. Exercising is first every day, but also walking the dog, doing the gardening. Of course, I have to be flexible. The dog gets sick; my daughter needs to be picked up.
But The Grid is a remarkable way to see all that you do. It’s a remarkable way to say to yourself, “I’m a writer. I actually am a writer.”
This will be the only spiritual thing that I say, since I’m not a bumper sticker kind of girl: If you give your subconscious the smallest indication that you’re taking seriously this art thing, this writing thing, it’ll show up for you.
You’ll have dry periods, you’ll have periods like I’m going through now, where my daughter is applying to colleges and our lives are our deeply changed by the amount of time that we spend doing that. But knowing that that The Grid is there makes me not resent everyone else.
It’s not an expensive thing, but if you believe that all experiences begin with a retail moment you can go to Staples and buy the dry board. I used to have a dry board, but somewhere along the line my child stole it.
Now I just have a fully opened manila folder. It’s shoved up under a light fixture, and it’s in pencil. This is not something that cost me a lot of money to make.
But it’s up there and it changes. Starting in September, instead of “gardening” it will say “tennis match,” because my daughter plays competitive tennis. Nothing will get scheduled after 4:00 p.m. because I will be at every one of those games.
But I won’t be at the game resenting the game. Because The Grid got the work done or, at least, it reminded me to get the work done.
I might be writing a piece of journalism. I might be writing a blog post. I might be writing a eulogy, something I’m about to start for a friend of mine who is dying, which is breaking my heart. Those things need to be scheduled separately.
For writers, I don’t know how else you can do it.
3. How do you handle social media, the great author time-suck of the 21st century?
You must be really, really cold-blooded. You’ve got to be cold-blooded when you’re a writer. That’s the greatest time management tip I know.
You only need the SEO that makes somebody want to read your stuff. You only need the SEO that promotes the kind of stuff you feel should be out there in the world.
You’ve got a brand. You’ve got to live by your brand and die by your brand. I read enormous amounts of fiction. But unless it informs the memoir work, I don’t talk about fiction on The Memoir Project blog, I don’t talk about it on my Twitter stream, I don’t talk about it elsewhere.
And yammering away on Twitter doesn’t do any writer any good. You have to be cold-blooded all the time.
4. In The Memoir Project, you say, “the difference between morning pages and writing with purpose is the difference between a wish and a prayer.” You imply they’re a huge waste of time. Why?
I believe in writing for real. There’s only so much time in the day and I think that we’re obligated as humans to help one another. I genuinely think that helping people write is a tremendous honor, and I want people to write for real.
I want them to say, “I love my husband of 50 years and I want him to have the story of our marriage on our 50th anniversary in the form of a book,” as a student of mine did six months before her husband died.
It’s about goals. And blah blah blah is goalless. Morning pages and exercises and prompts are like playing against a tennis pro who hits every shot to you. You think you’ve got it nailed and then you try to play with somebody else and you can’t get a game going. So pick your form. Learn your form. Master your form. Write your form.
Most of my students don’t have more than 45 minutes a day to write. If you can write two pages in 45 minutes, and you only wrote Monday through Friday, you’d have 10 pages in a week. You’d have 40 pages a month. You’d have first draft of the book in under a year. But if you’re writing morning pages, you have nothing to show.
Write for real. Try it. Do you enjoy National Public Radio? Do you love their program All Things Considered? Did you know your local station has an outlet for it? Write one of those pieces. They’re first person, 615 words, a little edgier than not.
I’ve given you three facts and an assignment. You could get on the radio. You’re not going to get on the radio writing morning pages.
5. Also in The Memoir Project, you teach a huge, time-saving way to discover the structure of your memoir. I was skeptical, until I tried it. And it’s not about chronology.
No, it’s not. It’s a simple sentence. What is your book about? What is your argument? “Life. Is hard. Really hard. Unless. You get. A good cat. To live with.” There are your seven chapters.
Life: Who you are. Is hard. Really Hard: First show us hard, then show us really hard. One chapter each. Unless: Show us that you are open to alternatives. You get: This is where you show us all the things you’ve tried in order to make your life better, like speed dating, dieting, drinking heavily, perhaps. A good cat: Maybe you’ve had bad cats or good cats. Tell us. To live with: Show us living with that one good cat. Maybe there is a sad ending or maybe a happy one.
Once you get the sentence, you can wake up at 4:00 a.m. with a scene and know where to hang it. It may be three-quarters into the book, but there’s no panicky feeling of, “Maybe I should start the book with this!”
I’m not suggesting that all books should be written the same way. But I am suggesting that all books should be started the same way.
So a lot of this is about efficiencies and time-saving for me. These are tips I’ve learned along the way and the lessons were hard-won. It’s about getting it done as a writer.
More about Marion
Three weeks out of college, Marion went to work for The New York Times. Four books and countless magazine and radio essays later, the lessons learned at that great newspaper —getting it right and making it short—inform every piece she writes. Most of her work is now in the form of memoir writing, including her most recent book, The Memoir Project, A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text on Writing & Life, released by Grand Central Publishing in 2011.
Her first book, Another Name for Madness (Houghton Mifflin 1985), described the devastating effects of her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease in an era, not so long ago, when no one had heard of it. She has also written The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair (Bloomsbury 2005). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Times, and NPR’s All Things Considered.