Margaret Roach: Droppin’ Out is Hard To Do
In her memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There: Trading in the Fast Lane for My Own Dirt Road, Margaret Roach often quotes pithy pop song lyrics to bring home a point in her account of how, at the height of her powers, she walked away from money and prestige as a key player in the top management at Martha Stewart Living to live full-time in the Columbia County weekend retreat she’d spent twenty years perfecting in her always-too-scant “spare” time. This Saturday, February 19, Roach, whose blog, A Way to Garden.com has become indispensable to gardeners nationwide will speak about The 365-Day Garden at the Berkshire Botanical Garden‘s popular Winter Luncheon and Lecture. She also will introduce her book there and, in the weeks and months ahead, at other public appearances throughout the region and farther afield. (For an up-to-date schedule, visit her website.) Recently, Margaret Roach spoke to Rural Intelligence about, among other things, the difference between a loner and an introvert.
RI: Didn’t you start out at Martha Stewart Living as the gardening editor?
MR: I left my job as garden editor at Newsday, a newspaper that covers Long Island and the boroughs of NYC, to become garden editor of Martha Stewart Living, yes. That was 1995; two years earlier, I had started writing freelance garden stories for Living, and as they ramped up the frequency of the relatively new magazine, I was brought on board full time to start a whole department to cover the subject.
RI: Those stories you did for all those years must have required you to be constantly flying all over the country. How did you manage your paralyzing fear of flying?
MR: In those days, I could fly—though I hated it. The job prior to garden editor at Newsday newspaper had been fashion editor (nobody would believe that if they saw my outfits now!), and that was brutal: flying to the collections in three overseas cities four times a year. I had to put my fear into a state of suspended animation then, and again when I traveled on garden photo shoots for Martha around the U.S. After September 11, 2001, my ability to stuff down the fear really diminished sharply, and I have flown perhaps once since.
RI: You are a self-confessed loner—an introvert—who held a position that must have required lots of leadership ability; lots of mixing it up with both your co-workers and powerful people outside the company. If it is so alien to your nature, why did you rise to the top?
MR: I enjoy solitude very much, but I’m not an introvert—I’m very interested in the rest of the world and other people’s thoughts and experiences, and engaging with new ideas (not just mine, but external ones) every day. I am an extrovert living in semi-solitude. My nature is actually very expansive—writing probably five days a week to my garden audience on A Way to Garden, answering hundreds of their comments and questions and emails in a given week, going out to lecture to large audiences periodically, teaching workshops in the garden in season.
I succeeded because I have strong social and editorial skills, love and embrace technology, and am a high-energy problem-solver, a heat-seeking missile, really, whether in my old life or here today alone. I never stop, and I can find and execute a Plan B or C or D if A fails, until I get the job done. Relentless Margaret.
I think solitude is often confused with introversion or even hermit-like behavior. I just need a lot of alone time to be at my most creative. During my corporate years I came upstate and decompressed on weekends; rarely went out till it was time to drive back to the city. That was the balancing act. Eventually it wasn’t enough; I needed more solitude, more peace, to be able to accomplish my creative goals: writing, renovating and remaking the garden, connecting to nature more fully.
RI: I always found shoptalk to be so compelling. Do you agree? If so, don’t you miss it?
MR: I have made the most wonderful “team” of colleagues in my new life, thanks to my love of geeky tools, and our water-cooler conversations go on all day long on IM and Skype voice. An ex-Marine programmer, an ex-Time magazine art director, a couple of other authors, various blogging friends: We have made a virtual community and are never really far apart.
There is the wider circle on Twitter, too, for “crowdsourcing” answers to things, but I do miss a couple of particular senior colleagues whose “ear” for writing was so great, and on whom I relied when I wanted help fleshing out a story. I don’t miss all those meetings I had to go to all day, however: so antithetical to creative flow!
RI: You say toward the end of your book that one of the benefits of your new life is that you don’t suffer from Sunday night return-to-work jitters anymore. That Sunday night dread is so universal, the family of a friend used to call it The Ed Sullivans. Do you think that, as a child, you would have been better off or happier if you hadn’t had to go to school? Aren’t we stronger, more resilient for having duked it out with that big, often disappointing and/or threatening, world called Third Grade? And isn’t being email@example.com just Third Grade writ large?
MR: First I should say that I loathed school. I skipped Second Grade so Third was hell; I had no penmanship skills (missed that curriculum) and was always feeling conspicuous for not staying within the lines (tee hee). Junior high was worse; being younger, I was physically immature, and the object of much teasing by hormonal boys. I told my parents I would not go to high school unless it was girls only. And then I dropped out of college multiple times, never finishing. “Doesn’t work to her potential”—that was me in school.
On the other hand, I love to work. Love it. Started working fulltime (at The New York Times, as a copy girl) when I was a sophomore in college and never stopped. Right away, I was able to succeed in that environment: solve problems, get jobs done. It was practical, not theoretical like school had felt. I got esteem from career, rather than feeling awful about myself as I had at school.
Nowadays, I work more than ever—the lid is off; I have so many ideas to get onto paper!—but whether it is Tuesday or Saturday I have no idea. I just eat when I want, write when I want, go up to bed when I want (and watch five episodes of a BBC series in a row if I want, starting at noon or nine p.m., makes no difference). My rhythm is my own, changing with the seasons and with the kind of project I am working on. Delightful.
RI: In saying goodbye to all that, haven’t you also foregone the euphoria of escaping on Friday night?
MR: Every night is Friday now, because each morning (afternoon, evening) is my own to fill as I like. So long as I manage to earn enough money to stay here, between writing and web consulting and garden workshops or whatever else it takes, every night is the night before another day of my own design.
RI: We’ve all read a lot of books about people dropping out in one way or another, starting over in an alien environment. In all of them, there are parallel journeys (Peter Mayle fixes up a house and in so doing learns how to get along with the French, Elizabeth Gilbert travels, prays, eats, and finds love). The literal journey also provides a framework over which to drape the wisdom gained. In your case, by the time you’d dropped out, you’d already owned your house for two decades and it and its garden were sufficiently exceptional to have merited at least one story in a major national magazine. As the author of a memoir was that a disadvantage?
MR: My “journey,” if you will, was more about setting myself free and sitting still (at least comparatively so). I think the mature garden’s powerful visual invitation to come outside and play was an advantage to me and my writing, because (as gardening has always done) it brought me into the most intimate encounters I have ever had with its creatures, who turned out to be my very best tour guides these first years here. Remember I had never witnessed most of the events that go on in my garden, even though I’d visited it for 22 previous years. So it was all new, really, exhilaratingly so.
RI: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
MR: I hope they will find it funny, because I like to smile about what we go through—put ourselves through—in the process of growing up. I hope if they have a little voice in their heads saying “I don’t have time for xxxx,” they will find a few hours a week to test-drive the thing they’re putting off. I hope that they will consider the healing power of solitude—you know, we give our kids “quiet time” and “time outs,” but we rarely give it to our multitasking 24/7 selves. And most of all, I hope they will find in it a curiosity about maybe letting nature into their lives in a bigger way. I daresay we’d all be a lot happier if we just got a bigger dose of (as our parents used to say) fresh air.