The Baltimore writer, teacher and radio commentator Marion Winik is the Wile E. Coyote of the literary world. She has forged an impressive career and endeared herself to her audience by documenting her mistakes over four decades in unsparing and often hilarious detail.
Winik, now 60, has hurtled herself heedlessly off more cliffs than her cartoon doppelganger in pursuit of the Road Runner. But after a long free fall and painful landing, Winik inevitably climbs out of the coyote-shaped hole with all her parts intact, ready to celebrate another day full of risks, promises, doomed quests and manifold opportunities for errors of judgment.
“My super-power is that I say what I think,” Winik says.
No anecdote is too unflattering or decision too ill-considered for Winik to share with the readers of her 10-essay collections or her weekly “Bohemian Rhapsody” column for The Baltimore Fishbowl or with a radio audience. (Winik was an NPR commentator on “All Things Considered” from 1991 to 2006 and now hosts “The Weekly Reader” show for WYPR.)
Discovering from an “Oprah Winfrey Show” producer that her dead husband had been having an affair? See “The Oprah Diaries.” Rolling around a driveway while having sex with a friend’s husband? Check out “Above Us, Only Sky.” Embarking on a tryst with a hunky young construction worker who hits her up for a handout? Read “Desperate Housewives of Roland Park.”Succumbing to a phishing scheme? You’ll find it in “Hook, Line and Sinker.”
Winik will appear April 27 at the 16th annual CityLit Festival, the daylong celebration of the written word at the University of Baltimore. Highlights include a master class with playwright and novelist Kia Corthron, individual critique sessions with published writers and editors, and panel discussions on topics ranging from improving diversity in children’s literature to applying for grants.
Fittiingly, Winik will be in conversation with another memoirist, keynote speaker Dani Shapiro. “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love” recounts Shapiro’s discovery that the man who raised her was not her biological father.
Chances are that Winik will mention her eleventh essay collection, “The Big Book of the Dead,” which will be released in September. “The Big Book” combines two previously published volumes with new material and features 400-word micro-portraits of the author’s deceased friends, relatives, favorite rock stars — and goldfish.
Some essays reference Baltimore’s intractable social ills. One portrait describes the 1998 murder of drug dealer Devin Bias, whose brother is the author D. Watkins.
The square-jawed, truth-telling Winik is famed on the University of Baltimore campus for her at-times brutally candid analyses of student papers according to Watkins, her former student.
“Marion is not worried about winning popularity awards,” Watkins says. “The first paper I wrote for her was covered with so much ink it was heavy in my bag. She asked if I was sure that writing was the right program for me.
“But, that critique was really important for my career. Marion said my next essay was one of the best she’d ever read. She helped me become a better writer.”
Winik was raised in New Jersey and came of age during the 1970s, an era when psychoanalysis and confessional literature were arguably at their peaks in America. A few decades later, monologists as different as Spalding Gray and David Sedaris began penning personal stories in which humor sugars over pain.
In the 1980s, the twentysomething Winik was living in Texas — a state with which the author, who has red-brown hair the color of western soil and eyes the blue of a western sky, felt an immediate affinity. Texas, with its wide-open spaces and utter lack of pretension takes people as they come. So does Winik.
She began writing personal essays that were published in a local newspaper. They were read by National Public Radio’s southwest correspondent John Burnett, who nominated Winik as a commentator for “All Things Considered.”
The year after her national broadcast debut, Winik was contacted by a literary agent; her debut essay collection, “Telling,” came out in 1994. But though that book chronicles the author’s suicide attempt at age 12 and her cocaine and heroin-fueled relationship with her younger sister, it was positively ho-hum when compared to the disclosures in the book that followed.
“First Came Love,” describes how Winik fell for and married a gay former ice skater named Tony Heubach; how he was later diagnosed as HIV-positive and how Winik, determined to become pregnant, repeatedly had unprotected sex with her husband. She later giving birth to two sons: Hayes, now 30 and Vince, now 28. (Her 18-year-old daughter Jane is the result of her second marriage, which ended in divorce.)
The memoir recounts how as AIDS exacted its toll, Winik’s first marriage turned violent, and how, in 1994, she helped her desperately ill spouse commit suicide.
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still alive,” Winik says. “I was so crazy and so reckless — and I was so, so lucky.”
But Winik only appears to have no boundaries.
“Marion has very strict ethics,” said Winik’s friend, the Baltimore novelist Laura Lippman. “Mainly she’s writing about herself and not stealing other people’s lives. When someone comes into her life, it involves very delicate calculations about what to say and how to say it.”
For “Highs in the Low Fifties,” Winik’s 2013 book about her adventures in the middle-aged singles scene, Winik tracked down former dates and showed them the chapters in which they appeared.
”You’d be amazed at the things I was able to work out,” she said.
Like many talented people, Winik is complicated. It’s sometimes hard to know how to interpret her stories about herself. The real-life woman is hardly the human mess portrayed in the essays.
By her own account, Winik has earned more than one million dollars from her writing. She’s respected in her profession and is treasurer of the prestigious National Book Critics Circle. She’s on speaking terms with her children and has a slew of friends.
But has Winik achieved her success in life despite her mistakes or because of them?
It may be that both are true. There can be a thin and sometimes confusing line between self-destructive behaviors and fearlessness. As heartfelt as Winik’s warts-and-all essays are, they are also by their nature an exercise of the author’s craft and a source of self-esteem.
“There’s so much artistry under the surface of Marion’s writing,” says Betsy Boyd, who edits Winik’s Baltimore Fishbowl column.
“Her style is utterly her own. It has rhythm and flows poetically. It is a kind of music.”
Boyd, who knows Winik well, adds: “the Fool is maybe a good tarot card for representing Marion.”
The Fool is a wanderer who carries his worldly goods tied in a bandanna at the end of a stick. He stands at the edge of a cliff with one foot raised, about to step into the void.
“Marion has a gambling soul,” Boyd says, “and the real gambler is an artist. Marion is willing to risk everything she has to win it all. If she loses and falls into oblivion, that’s fine with Marion, because she reinvents herself every day.”
If you go
The 16th annual CityLit Festival will be held Saturday, April 27 at the University of Baltimore’s business center, 11 W. Mt. Royal Ave. Free, but there is a $10 fee for the critiques and master class. (Pre-registration is required for these events only.) For details, call 410-271-8793 or visit citylitproject.org.