by Annie Scholl
In 1983, when she was 26 years old, Marion Roach Smith was tasked with writing an article for The New York Times Magazine about a then-little known brain disorder: Alzheimer’s disease. Smith’s mother was diagnosed with the disease at age 49.
“It doesn’t seem possible at all, but no one had ever heard of it when I wrote about it,” says Smith, 63, of Troy, New York. The article “caused a big stir. I ended up on the Today Show the next day. I ended up on every talk show in America.”
The first week after the piece came out, Smith had five book offers. She chose Houghton Mifflin. It was Nan Talese, her editor there, who “taught me that I can’t just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah all over the page about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. She worked with me and taught me that I had to have an argument.”
Their work together led to Smith’s first book, Another Name for Madness. She subsequently wrote other books with the help of other editors who shared Talese’s nonfiction book philosophy: You have to have an argument—and you have to choose scenes that prove it.
After four books and several magazine articles for major publications, Smith decided to take what she’d learned about writing and teach. In 1998, Smith began teaching “Writing What You Know” at an art center in Troy where she served on the board. Her weekly class grew from eight people to 25 and then had a lengthy waitlist. When the internet came along, Smith shifted from in-person to online classes offered through her website, marionroach.com.
The author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, Smith counsels her students to “write with intent.” Here she talks with Annie Scholl about her approach to writing and structuring memoir.
From your viewpoint, is there any place for writing prompts and that sort of thing?
No. They’re a huge waste of time. And the reason is that they give you a very strong sense that you’re doing it right. The same way that when you take a tennis lesson, it’s a wonderful thing. But eventually you have to go out and play with people who don’t hit it right to you. I believe in writing with intent, which is to study the forum that you want to write, whether it be a local public radio essay, an op-ed for your local newspaper, or the Modern Love column in The New York Times. You have to study the thing, master the thing, and publish the thing. Because writing from these writing prompts—they’re not teaching you the structure and writing is all about structure. It’s not teaching you the formative requirements of a piece. And it’s the same with books. You can’t write a memoir until you understand structure. You’ll never finish it.
I feel that writing prompts have helped me find a way into a piece, into a memory. When I say that, what’s your reaction?
So, my reaction to that is that you’ve got the memories, you’ve got the stories, you’ve got the various scenes from your life; a far more efficient and tried and true and will-never-fail-you method is to ask yourself what’s that scene about? What’s it about in the universal sense? Not what the plot is. That’s the plot. Not the action of the piece. What’s it about? Is it about mercy? Is it about patriotism? Is it about how grief is a mute sense of panic? Is it about how closure is a myth? What’s it about? And that is where your success will begin.
Why is the concept of the universal so important for writers to understand?
It’s what we’re reading for, no matter what you go into a book expecting. I’m reading a book I’ve read at least a dozen times: James Salter’s astonishing novel, Light Years. I’ve read it so many times that the copy is falling apart. The characters are beautiful. The scene is fantastic. But I’m reading it for what he’s teaching me about marriage and about the politics of living together.
I don’t think anybody’s reading to see what happens—unless it’s a romance novel, I guess they are. But with memoir, we’re feeding our sense of the universal, the big stuff, if a memoir is good. Memoir is mistaken a lot for a plot-driven genre. It’s not a plot-driven genre. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, we’re not reading to watch her walk the trail. We’re reading to see if she can become the woman her mother raised her to be; if she can inhabit the ethic that drove her into the grief that drove her into such despair. We’re seeing if she can come out of it and meet the ambition that her mother gave to her.
You teach writers to write with intent. What do you mean by that and why is it important?
It’s a phrase I came up with some years ago and I think it drives everybody crazy and I know that, and I know that nobody wants to talk about structure except for everybody has to and I try to make it entertaining. I really do. I show them my little algorithm: It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in Z. The idea of writing with purpose is such a glorious thing to me. Memoir is the single greatest portal to self-discovery. If somebody else teases up a topic for you, I think you miss the wonder of that self-discovery. I think the intent says you’ve been reading the Modern Love column in The New York Times every week religiously. Why don’t you try writing one? One of my students recently wrote one. It’s the first thing she’s ever written, ever published—ever, ever—and she’s writing a Modern Love column. That’s the proof. Write with intent. I mean, imagine how she feels. It’s fantastic. But she didn’t do it just sitting home using writing prompts. She studied that column like it was the talisman, you know? And poof. She nailed it.
Do you have a sense of why people who have discovered you don’t study with you?
Absolutely. It’s always the same thing. They really want to write autobiography. They don’t want to write memoir. And that’s fine. I’m the only person I know who teaches (memoir) this way—that it’s from one of your areas of expertise and you know what that is. You have something to say to us. Something you’ve learned after something you’ve been through, from which you factor in an argument, and you build a structure from that. It’s a fool-proof method if you do it—and there’s a lot of support for you if you do it this way. But it’s not for everybody.
Explain the algorithm and the argument.
All of us have endless stories and it’s just figuring out what they’re about that keeps us from writing them. ‘What is the story about?’ is the question that no one wants to be asked. They have, forever, been answering that question with its plot. What they’ve noticed is as they’ve pitched their plot to their husband, wife, partner, neighbor, sister-in-law, potential agent at a conference, that the person’s eyes glaze over. But if instead you said, ‘it’s about how closure is a myth as illustrated by me getting back in touch with my one hundred ex-boyfriends, only to find out that 99% of them didn’t remember me’—now I’ve got your attention, right?
I remember thinking, ‘you’ve got to get everybody to think ‘what is it about?’ and get them to stop answering that question with their plot. And how are you going to do that? Why don’t you come up with a little device so they can run it through?’ Okay. What are you writing? What is it about? How are you going to illustrate it? And how long is it going to be? That’s all I’m asking you. I wrote a little algorithm. It’s about X, that’s the universal. As illustrated by Y, that’s the personal. To be told in an essay, blog post, long-form essay, op-ed or book, right? Looked at that way, you can write 10 or 12 book-length memoirs in this lifetime. You write each from one area of your expertise.
And then it’s about what? It’s about what you’re arguing. If your area of expertise is that gardening will enrich your soul, oh, well, then it’s about x: how gardening will enrich your soul as illustrated by y: the story of me inheriting a house that came with a garden that I was going to till under and pave over until one day I saw some perennials come up through it and I got interested and the rest is history, to be told in z: a book. So, the argument is really what your book is about. So, your X factor and your argument are very similar.
What is your advice on writing practice?
It’s always about discipline. I teach (writing) three pages a day, five days a week, and you’ll get through the first draft in five months. I’m a huge believer in discipline. People just don’t talk about that. They talk about this cosmic stuff. This spiritual stuff. This ineffable stuff. Uh-huh. It’s discipline. Sit in a chair. Meet your word count or your page count every day. If you miss a day, don’t double up. Go right back to the routine. I happen to know it works.
Why is it important for us to write memoir?
I am a huge believer in memoir and defend it all the time. I genuinely believe that we share our humanity in memoir. I really do want to know what grief is. I really do want to understand persistence, resiliency, and patriotism. The big universals are much easier to witness in the human story than they are in philosophical discussion. I think we get to witness each other triumphing over things, taking on things, tackling things, being cowed by things, in ways that allow us to absorb that knowledge. I also think memoir has allowed for us to have some scant, few thoughts from the greatest disenfranchised people of this earth. I think memoir is responsible for keeping the human voice up and shared. If we share our humanity, I think we do better in this world.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.