Words of Advice on Writing
Marion Winik is a personal essayist and commentator whose work airs regularly on National Public Radio's “All Things Considered.” Her witty, insightful prose has also appeared in such publications as the Utne Reader, Glamour, and Texas Monthly and in newspapers and anthologies. Marion's latest book, Rules for the Unruly, grew out of an invitation to return to her high school to address the recipients of an award for academic excellence. Marion's other works include The Lunch-Box Chronicles: Notes from the Parenting Underground, which was selected by Child Magazine as a parenting book of the year; Telling: Confessions, Concessions, and Other Flashes of Light; and First Comes Love, a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Crispin Sartwell, and their numerous children.
Wherever I go, whatever I do, there is just one thing people want to know from me, one question that always comes up no matter what the context: How did I get on “All Things Considered?”
The story begins in December 1990, when my friend Liz Lambert looked up from reading one of my essays in the Austin Chronicle, our town's alternative weekly. “Mare,” she said in her West Texas way, “you should read these thangs of yers on NPR.”
“Yeah, Liz,” I said, “and you should be President of the United States.”
But not two weeks later, I got a postcard from NPR correspondent John Burnett, who had also been reading me in the Chronicle. Later we would become elementary-school parents together, but at the time our kids were in diapers and we'd never met. He asked if I'd like to come over and record a couple of the essays, and offered to take the tape to Washington and see what people thought.
I called him immediately, but not fast enough: His wife said he'd been sent to Iraq to cover Operation Desert Storm. Oh, great. Now the only thing between me and my big break was Saddam Hussein.
John finally came home and recorded me in late spring of ′91. I taped a piece about dealing with the Texas summer, and another about raising a child in a Jewish-Catholic intermarriage. Luckily my demo arrived during an early May heat wave in Washington and it went straight on the air.
That was ten years ago, and not long after that, I heard from a literary agent who wanted to help me publish a book of my essays. That was four books ago. So there are two morals of this story. One is: Liz for President! The other is, the whole thing started with me publishing essays for almost no pay in a local alternative newspaper. This is why I always tell people who are wondering how they can begin getting published to aim low — think small — go local. I spent years sending essays to major national magazines and saw them come back in my SASEs like clockwork. To get started, I had to look for a lower foothold.
There is always somebody who is interested in your work. At first, it may be your family members, compadres in a writing group, the audience at an open-mike reading. Well, fine. Take any audience you can get and work from there. Get it out there, get feedback, and maybe someday you'll also get a check. But if you start by looking for the big check, you may never find anything at all.