A Day in the Life of Maryn McKenna

Maryn McKenna is a freelancer focused on public and global health and food policy, the author of three books, and a senior fellow of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She is a columnist for Wired and has written for The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, National Geographic, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Modern Farmer, Nature, Slate, and others. Her stories have been anthologized in The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best Science Writing Online, and The Dirt: Dispatches from the Future of Food and Farming. She appeared in the 2014 documentary Resistance, and her 2015 TED Talk has been viewed 1.6 million times.

 

David Tulis

Maryn McKenna

What I’m working on:

Right now I’m juggling speaking engagements related to my third book, Big Chicken, which came out last September, while ramping up the freelance work that I scaled back while finishing the book. Book gigs require travel—in recent weeks I went to New Haven, Charlottesville, Young Harris, Georgia, and Washington, DC—so it’s necessary to fit story research and writing time around the trips, or into downtime within them. Along with those, I’m scanning for ideas for my new column within Wired’s new Ideas vertical; I write there every two weeks. And I’m starting to poke at ideas for a next book, but only episodically so I can pretend I’m not really.

Where I work:

My office is at the back of my house in Atlanta, close to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A creek once ran through the middle of my block, and when it was put underground, it made the house lots on my street twice as long as is standard here. My neighbors created gorgeous pools and gardens; my garden is still mostly ivy, but I have big plans for it. Whenever I get some spare money I try to add something, a few plants or a bench, and last fall I put in a pond. It’s very quiet, except for many birds.

Daily routine:

It depends on what size of stories I’m working on and what stage they are in. For really the first time in my career, I don’t have any opportunities to do daily or short-turn coverage. The stories I’m doing run from 1,500 to 6,000 words and can take from a week to months.

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If I have a smaller story to write or I’m mostly researching, I’ll make coffee by 7:00 a.m., make a first check of email, Twitter, and key news sites, go to the gym, and come back an hour later for the rest of the coffee, the rest of the news, and breakfast. I try to clear administrative tasks—interview requests, travel arrangements, accounting—by 1:00 p.m., eat lunch, and write, research, or do interviews afterward.

But if I’m in the midst of writing a long story or deep into a book chapter, I’ll go straight to my desk with my first cup of coffee, begin writing immediately, and hope to catch up to the rest of my tasks later in the day. Balancing productivity against guilt over what I didn’t do is probably my most consistent daily task.

Courtesy of Maryn McKenna

McKenna’s Desk. (Office cat, behind iMac, not visible in photo.) McKenna says: “The label covering the iMac’s camera reads: Nulla dies sine linea, ‘Not a day without a line,’ which was said by Roman author Pliny the Elder about a painter, but it works for a writer also.”

Most productive part of my day:

Early morning or late afternoon.

Most essential ritual or habit:

Dinnertime. Every night that we’re both home, my husband and I meet in the kitchen and have a drink while one of us preps dinner. We eat at the table, by candlelight, even if we’re just eating salad.

Mobile device:

An aging iPhone 6 and a Verizon Jetpack for Wi-Fi.

Computer:

MacBook Air 13-inch laptop; iMac 27-inch desktop; old iPad so I can have speech notes separate from whatever my slides are running on.

Essential software/apps/productivity tools:

Trying productivity tools is a delicious form of procrastination, so I’m always tinkering with this list, but right now:

  • Evernote, for stashing things as I’m reading
  • DEVONthink, for organizing materials once I’m ready to dive deep into a topic
  • AudioNote for taking notes at conferences
  • Pear Note + Call Recorder + Skype for phone interviews
  • Google Docs, for writing shorter stories and sharing them for editing
  • Scrivener, for writing long pieces and books; and
  • Zotero, for bibliographies
Courtesy of Maryn McKenna

Detail of one grouping of art in McKenna’s office.
Top, L to R: A propaganda poster that McKenna bought in Vietnam while reporting on bird flu (it urges people to raise more ducks); the cover of McKenna’s second book, Superbug; McKenna’s father’s certificate of vaccination against diphtheria. Bottom, L to R: Cover of McKenna’s first book; a cartoon about the CDC, signed by the artist, Dave Coverly; a cartoon of McKenna, by artist friend William C. Houston.

I schedule my deadlines and travel in a mix of iCal and Google Calendar, depending on whether anyone but me needs access to the details.

For daily planning, I’ve tried all kinds of apps, but it turns out what works best for me is writing everything down. I use a Moleskine vertical weekly planner hacked into an imitation of the famous Planner Pad.

Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:

It used to be Facebook and the Slack of my writers group, but Facebook obviously is problematic now, and my writers’ group has run out of conversation. So currently it’s Duolingo for language practice. I would love to get a new writers’ group started; since I live in a city with not a big concentration of science writers, I treasure having a virtual community.

My reading habits:

Every morning, the emailed newsletters for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Guardian, and Le Monde; and then EurekAlert!, and new-article alerts from journals and My NCBI. Then Twitter, using TweetDeck; I follow about 3,500 people and I’ve organized them into lists that serve as personal news feeds. In breaks during the day I try to catch up to other writers’ articles. Where I fall down is staying current with other science books.

Every time I’ve written a book, I’ve ended up finding a fiction author who’s new to me and bingeing on their work at the end of the day. For most of Big Chicken I was reading Seanan McGuire, and now I’m onto the French-police novels of Martin Walker.

Sleep schedule:

Inadequate? My sleep time is usually midnight to 6:30 a.m. I often go back to work after dinner even though it isn’t a very productive time; it’s a habit I’m trying to break.

 

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One Comment

  1. Vidya Sagar V says:

    Please let me know when you start/find a science writer’s group.

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