SA 053: Author and Memoir Coach Marion Roach Smith on Writing with Intent, and the Beauty of Observation

Marion Roach Smith

In this episode, I interview author and memoir coach Marion Roach Smith. We talk about memoir and what people get wrong with memoir, about writing with intent , and about observation and how writers are in the observation business.

Guest Bio:

Marion Roach Smith is a four-time, mass-market published writer and frequent public radio commentator.

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, which came out with Grand Central Publishing in 2011.

For fifteen years Marion has taught Writing What You Know. Much of her work includes a large helping of memoir, including the books The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning and Sexual Power of Red Hair, (Bloomsbury, 2005) and Another Name for Madness, (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and her commentaries for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Marion has written for The New York Times Magazine, Prevention, Vogue, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.


Some Questions We Ask:

  • When she hears the word “success,” who’s the first person that comes to mind, and why?
  • Did she grow up with this kind of self-awareness, this ability to capture these experiences throughout her life, good and bad,  that have translated to the written word?

Adversity can frequently be the mother of invention.

  • On wanting to be vulnerable but also at the same time feeling a sense of pulling back and being respectful to family: Does she deal with that a lot of these with students, and what would she say to somebody who’s struggling with that to get over the hump?

There are consequences to writing, as there should be. Some of them are good, and some of them you’re going to have to learn to live with.

  • Does she have a morning routine or a writing routine? What does that look like?
  • When she writes, is she editing the same piece later on that day, or is it a different piece that she’s focused on?

Perfectionism is the death of creativity.

  • What is her advice for those who aren’t writers but who probably need to use the writing process to get a better feel for themselves to be more productive and more fulfilled?

Ask yourself: What just happened here?

  • What determines whether or not a piece is the best ever? Is it the popularity or is it the way the words flow in that piece?
  • If she could have dinner with one person she admires, past or present, who would it be and why?

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

  • What she’s learned from writer William Kennedy
  • Her driving force in life
  • Finding a community that will support you in your writing
  • How her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease affected her writing career
  • Writing as math: the algorithm she teaches that helps you go from that larger, thematic thing that grabs people into illustrating it.
  • Story versus technical ability


Other books mentioned:
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp

Marion’s website:

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