When I was a child, my mother always twisted my long black hair in tight pigtails. But when her back was turned, I tossed off the rubber bands and delighted in feeling my hair going off in all directions, loose and unkempt. That was a metaphor moment for me, and it’s the kind of detail that author Marion Roach Smith promotes in her book The Memoir Project where she offers insight and inspiration on writing memoir. Her other books include The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, Another Name for Madness, and Dead Reckoning. Smith is the co-founder of TheSisterProject.com and has taught “Writing What You Know” classes since 1998. She’s done commentaries for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, and other notable publications.
Lori: You started writing for The New York Times within weeks of graduating from college. How daunting was that for you?
Marion: This question made me laugh out loud. No one ever asks me this. And they should. I think the assumption is that I must have been a better writer than most to get such a fine job. I was not. I was greener than green, and did not know what I did not yet know.
That’s a great place from which to learn, yes? The ability to become a writer requires – demands – shedding the “I know it all,” chip and taking on the “hmmm, how does that work?” outlook of life. Journalism’s ethic of making that one more phone call reinforces that.
Without curiosity, you forget to ask the right question, the thing that will illuminate the reader.
In a word, I was witless when I got to the Times, and somewhat better equipped when I left, six years later, to write my first book. During the witless phase I was a sponge, trying to take in everything that those marvelous, talented, curious people all around me could throw my way.
Report. Go out and report your life. It’s interesting.
–Marion Roach Smith
What are the biggest mistakes made by memoir writers? How can they overcome them?
The biggest mistakes memoir writers make is not reporting on their own lives, and instead thinking (see above) that they know everything – or worse, not writing because they feel they should know everything and do not.
Report. Go out and report your life. It’s interesting.
Get a notebook and ask questions. Go to your local historical society and research your own home. I did, and it turned up that my house was once a speakeasy. Cool dogs, right? Who knew?
In your book The Memoir Project you discuss the notion of a memoir writer being “hospitable.” Could you explain this and why it’s important?
I have only one maxim in my office—a little index card that reads, “Be hospitable”—and it has been there through four books, countless magazine pieces, radio essays, blog posts, and op-eds.
I’ve read that the great screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky kept a little nudge on his desk that said, “He gets it,” and I understand how that could be the sole encouragement a screenwriter might need. In any good movie, someone has to change, and be transformed. He will reach some transcendence, no matter how small. To do so, the protagonist must “get” the idea in play. For you to get the idea of writing memoir with intent, I suggest you be hospitable, though it’s harder than it sounds.
Being hospitable begins with preparing a clean, well-lighted desk to report to each day, and reporting to it each day, at the same time if possible. Even if 45 minutes is all you can allot, allot it, and show up.
Being hospitable requires that you slow down the process, and do some reporting before you being to write. Carry an index card in a pocket, and in your wallet, and the next time you watch Meryl Streep transport herself from one emotion to the next, note the spare gesture she employs. Capture effective dialogue you overhear. When you attend your daughter’s fourth grade piano recital, jot down an impression or two. It’s okay, I promise, since it beats the hell out of all those other parents texting on their Smart Phones.
I was fascinated with how you connected writing in general with your visit to a morgue. What can memoir writers learn from your experience?
First, that everything is material – but only if you are paying attention. Also that being counterphobic is a great place to write from.
But perhaps the best advice I can give from my experience in the morgue is to not resist thinking in metaphors. Things mimic one another across disciplines. You see it all the time, but your reaction is to tell yourself to turn off that kind of observation.
Don’t turn off that kind of observation. Not to go all bumpersticker on you, but stop and see the metaphor.
In Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair you wrote about the conceptions and misconceptions of red-haired people like yourself. What inspired you to delve into this topic? What was the strangest or most telling thing that happened to you because you have red hair?
I had heard that someone had “discovered the gene for red hair.” The person who told me this did not remember where she had read it. So, I thought about it for a few weeks. At first, it did not interest me at all. I’m a lifelong redhead and I found the whole thing meaningless. I mean, we don’t care about color genes. If we did, we’d realize we’re idiots for hating anyone based on their color of their skin, yes? .
Also, I figured that pigmentary genes are not going to win any prizes, make anyone rich or cure cancer, and that therefore they were of no value.
I was wrong.
When I finally did call the man who discovered the mutation – it’s not a gene – he told me a story that included sex, slavery, art, science, story, history and hatred. Not bad for one overseas call, particularly since he was a researcher in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Edinburgh was somewhere I’d never been. So I got on a plane and went, and the rest of the story took me all over the world researching all those topics and more.
One of the things that happens a lot, more so when someone knows about the book – in fact, it just happened two nights ago at a dinner party with my husband down the table and my dinner partner’s non-redheaded wife barely out of earshot – is a man confessing a lifelong obsession with redheads and thinking he is the very first man to do so. It’s fascinating. He is not hitting on me. It’s not that. Instead – and this is far more fascinating than any compliment to me and my red hair – these men are letting out something that is deep and private and, they think, unique to them. Having heard it all my life, the obsession some men have for redheads became something to research for the book. That’s what writer’s do: We observe and react, even when writing memoir. In trying not to merely personalize our response to something, we can see beyond our own noses.
What single personal memory would you choose that speaks volumes about your life and your journey?
Some years ago my husband did a very brave thing by telling me that sometimes my writing tried to sound academic, as though I was embarrassed for not being smart enough or something. He told me to write in my own, quirky, irreverent voice, the voice he loves. Brave man. That’s a dangerous thing to say to a then-young writer. He was right on, though.
It’s the irreverence of The Memoir Project that I love most. That’s my real voice, as well as a writing ethic I live by: Too much reverence about writing and you’ll never write.
Writing is messy. I call my first draft a vomit draft, a phrase that really offends some people. Get over it, I say. Chuck up everything you know about one small moment of life and let’s see what you’ve got.
What hobbies/interests/activities do you enjoy when you’re not writing or teaching workshops?
I think that all creativity feeds creativity. When I cook, knit, garden, play the piano or make up songs for the dog, I am feeding that same place that writes. I always advise people to lighten up about writing and cook, dance, sing, stitch or whatever, keeping in mind that it’s the same place. We tend to think about creativity silos. Me, I think of creativity as a great huge pool that we continue to draw from and contribute to. Sing to the dog. It will do your writing a world of good. The dog? He’ll let you know what he thinks.
Any upcoming projects?
A big goal of mine is to bring memoir classes to veterans. I met the great Gary Trudeau recently, who told me that when the soldiers returned from the Punic Wars, the elders of the villages would sit and listen to their stories. And it hit me that I could count on one hand the soldier memoirs I’ve read. Then, out of the blue, someone sent me this quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again.”
I’d love to help make that happen.