I’m Melinda Wenner Moyer, Author of How to Raise Children Who Are Not Dumb, and This Is How I Work
Whenever I feel stressed about feeling “too busy,” I often turn to writers who seem to have supernatural powers of getting things done. One is Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science journalist who took the time to finish her manuscript, launch a newsletter, and keep me updated on Twitter – even during the pandemic.
Sure, Melinda isn’t supernatural, but she has a talent for efficiency that can be both a gift and a curse. Her book “ How to Raise Children Who Are Not Assholes” is coming out soon , and her title harmoniously combines authority (she wrote a column on parenting for many years) with down-to-earth pragmatism. I talked to her about how she deals with things, deals with distractions from her children, and who inspires her to do things.
I would love to hear what your work life was like before the pandemic and what it looks like now. How has this changed?
I almost always worked from home (except on business trips with reports), at a small desk in the corner of my bedroom. Before the pandemic, my kids (now nine and six) boarded the school bus at 8:15 am. Then I went in for sports and then worked from 9:15 to 18:30 (children came back from school. At 3:30, and then we had a nanny after school). My husband used to leave for work around 7 am and return home around 7:30 pm.
When the pandemic broke out, from March to August, the children were at home, as was my husband, and we did not have a nanny, so the working life was much more chaotic. I would have maybe three or four individual working hours during the official working day – an hour at work and an hour at rest, when my husband and I alternate between working hours and children’s responsibilities. However, I often sacrificed one of my allotted work hours to go for a walk or exercise. I needed to be alone.
Plus, I won’t lie: I often tried to work when I was at work with the kids, so that meant I was working at the kitchen table with at least one child on my face, interrupting me every three minutes asking for a snack. I never thought I could do it, but I think our brains are finding ways to adapt. (Now I understand – because it only happened when I was typing this – that when I hear my kids talking to me while I write, I somehow turn off my ears, end my train of thought, and then turn my ears back on again and chat with them.)
In the spring / summer I wrote a bunch of articles for the New York Times while my kids were there and interrupted me all the time. (I remember once – and I think I only remember it because I wrote about it – I helped my son with a science project while my daughter asked me how to pronounce the word “mermaid” while I was grilling meat for dinner while the source called me. Literally all at the same time.) I also wrote a lot at night, from 8 pm to 1 am or so. I really liked my evening writing blocks because they were the only ones that lasted longer than an hour and worked non-stop.
I am very surprised at how productive I managed to stay during this time. I think maybe it was because I was sticking with simpler stories that I could tell and write about in 2-3 days, and those stories somehow seemed manageable. And I felt that work in some important way helps me stay sane. I know many, many parents who simply could not focus on work in the early months of the pandemic, and I understand 100% why. But for some reason, I was hungry for work. I need this.
Starting in September, the children returned to school in person, and I was able to work normally again. Still much less than before COVID, but amazing. I know I am incredibly lucky. So many other parents are still in the impossible situation of having to juggle work, plus the kids at home, plus the remote school, and I sympathize with them every day.
Your book is called How To Raise Children Who Are Not Dumb. Where did you come up with this? Did your kids do something particularly nasty?
The journey to my book was interesting. I wanted to write a book for about ten years, but I could not come up with the right idea. Meanwhile, all my friends kept asking, “Why don’t you write a book for your parents?” because since 2012 I have been a parent speaker for Slate, and it came naturally to me. But I always laughed at the idea, and I think it all boiled down to sexism: I knew parenting articles weren’t taken seriously – after all, people often call it “mommy blogging” – and damn it, I wanted to be taken. seriously as a science journalist. I just never seriously considered it.
Fast forward to October 2018 when Brett Cavanaugh was confirmed. I was very upset to live in a country where millions of Americans were seeking to confirm someone who had just been charged with sexual assault before a higher court. Trump also just ridiculed Christine Blacy Ford on national television.
I was horrified that our country seemed to celebrate and reward the assholes, and that those assholes were powerful role models my kids learned from. As a mother, what I wanted more than anything to do was make sure my own kids didn’t turn out to be assholes either. I was at dinner with my husband on our anniversary, and I remember thinking about Cavanaugh, sighing, and then blurting out, “I just need to write a book called How To Raise Children Who Are Not Dicks .” To be honest, it came out of nowhere. Then my husband and I looked at each other, and he said: “That’s all!”
The next day, I contacted my agent and started writing an offer that week. (I also, by the way, just finished a proposal for another book on a completely different topic, and I realized I didn’t want to do this, so it was a really fun time. My email to my agent was basically “Hey, let’s throw this away another idea, I don’t like it anymore, and I also have a new one! ”I’m surprised he stayed with me.)
As for why this particular parenting idea stuck – I think it’s because I realized that such a book for parents can be very meaningful and important. It dawned on me that parents actually have a lot of power – by shaping the character of our children, we can collectively shape the character of our country. I wanted to help my parents with this.
When your moment is on fire and you’re excited about a new project, how can you keep the momentum and not be distracted by the next big idea?
I often find that as I delve into the story of the material, I become more and more fascinated, and I have more and more questions that I want to get answers to. This curiosity keeps me going. However, sometimes the excitement is late. I often try to break stories down into shorter timelines: I want to finish the interview by next week; by next Wednesday I will have finished reading the relevant studies and have my transcripts in order. Having these shorter deadlines for holding me accountable matters because I love the feeling when I have checked everything.
Sometimes I even create spreadsheets or to-do lists to cross out to-dos one by one and visually observe progress. When it’s really hard for me, I think about my sources, especially if it’s a consequence or a story in which the sources took risks or made other sacrifices to talk to me. I am indebted to them to keep moving forward and pushing their work forward.
One day during a pandemic, I had to go back to a very dark and sad piece to make corrections. The thought of tackling this topic really turned me off. So at first I set myself tiny goals: to work on a piece for only 10 minutes a day for several days. And then when I finished 10 minutes I would take a break and then work on something else. Knowing that I only needed to look at the piece for that short period of time really helped – and by about day three, I really wanted to spend more time on it, and I finished editing shortly thereafter.
With two children, you are often in a noisy environment. Do you have strategies for avoiding distractions and focusing on a lot of noise?
Sometimes I turn on the White Noise app on my phone to avoid distractions. When it’s very loud, I plug in white noise headphones. I was also known for strategically relocating my kids when they were doing high-profile cases.
Are there other platforms or applications that you use to manage your workflow?
No, I just always have in my head when a specific deadline comes, and what structure and length of the article dictates in terms of who I need to talk to and what other research I need to do. Then I work backwards and figure out when the various steps should happen.
However, I adore Skrivner for organizing my research. I used it not only for my book, but also for large functions. I love how it organizes everything visually and makes it easy to find everything. I also use Otter.ai to transcribe interviews, so I don’t have to transcribe interviews for hours. And I recently started using the Night Shift setting on my iPhone to reduce the amount of blue light I see in my watch before bed. I think it helps me fall asleep faster.
Do you have tools or gadgets that you just can’t live without?
Of course, a neck / back massager and a heating pad. In 2013, I developed a herniated disc in my lower back, and from time to time I had problems. (Election week was especially bad.) I am also always cold, so the heating pad serves a double purpose – I use it to calm my back as well as keep me warm. I also have a large external monitor set exactly at eye level so that I don’t strain my neck while I work. And a telephone headset so that I can type during a call. I couldn’t live without it!
I also love my Kindle, which I use to read books for both work and pleasure. It’s great because I can read in the dark even when my husband goes to bed. I sometimes buy paper copies of books, in part because I want to support my local bookstore, but I love the convenience of the Kindle, which I’m sure makes me read more than I would otherwise.
Do you have any favorite shortcuts or life hacks that will make your work and / or family life easier?
I always try to be productive and think of ways to be more efficient. In other words – and this is really not good, and my therapist persecutes me for it – I almost never relax. If I’m looking after my 6-year-old’s shower, I also use that time to update my professional Instagram or catch up on Twitter. When I clean the kitchen, I often listen to news podcasts. If I’m waiting to be picked up from the store, I call and buy Christmas presents. If I sit down to work and realize that I can’t grasp this clumsy feature, I will brainstorm productive things that I can actually handle (for example, answering the last interview with Lifehacker via email). On weekends, I rarely sit down. I am always worried trying to do something useful. This is probably a pathology.
About six years ago, I switched completely to home workouts. I didn’t want to waste time commuting to and from the gym. I do Suzanne Bowen’s barre training and honestly I don’t think I’ve ever been stronger. They also save me money. During the pandemic, it was great that I didn’t have to completely change my training regimen. I still work with her six days a week, and I really appreciate that I was able to maintain this sense of normality.
This does not mean that I do not indulge in hobbies (although my husband always says that I need more). In the afternoons, I sometimes stop early to prepare a gourmet meal because I love to cook and sit comfortably with my family. I bake a lot on weekends (and make ice cream almost every week). These things are not productive in terms of a career, but they are productive in the sense that they make me happy.
What lesson have you learned from the pandemic you intend to carry with you when we eventually fully return to the world?
I started long walks during the pandemic (listening to podcasts, of course) and don’t think I’ll ever stop. They took me outside and connected me to my area the way I love – for example, I often see neighbors gardening and we always wave.
I also learned that I don’t need to use a hairdryer at all. My hair is just perfect when air dry. More time saved!
Finally, I’ve learned that shorter snippets can be just as useful as larger deep dive opportunities, and are often more efficient and profitable. During many months of the pandemic, I could not come to terms with big stories and only took on something that quickly made a profit, and my income grew a little, which was really interesting.
Who else would you like to know how they work?
Oh, it’s simple. I have three of them, and they are all working mothers. One of them is Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University. She teaches, does economic research, writes a regular newsletter , and recently embarked on a massive research project to track the spread of COVID-19 in US schools. She has also written two very successful parenting books.
The second is New York Times correspondent Teffi Brodesser-Ackner . When her novel Fleischman in Trouble came out, it seemed that she was everywhere and at once, doing everything at the same time. But not only is she insanely productive, but she writes as if she spent four years on every proposal. It seems that every work of hers violates the unwritten rules of journalism, but for this it is always much better. I want to know how she manages to be so productive and original.
Finally, there is the New York Times science correspondent Apurva Mandavilli. Throughout the pandemic, she wrote the last few scientific articles a day, often on rather crude topics, and I wonder if she ever sleeps.