Reviewed by Daphnee McMaster
Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make A Messy Literary Life by Alexis Paige (Vine Leaves Press, Feb. 2022) is part memoir and part craft book for the misguided writer or anyone fallible and unequivocally human.
Paige’s collection of essays builds honest and comedic stories of the author’s life that explore self-reflection, the analysis of the hero’s journey, and racial power dynamics. Paige attempts to dissect her own writing culture, her adult ADHD diagnosis, experiences with the prison industrial complex, intimate relationships, and why we sometimes fall short.
From the title, one may expect a how-to guide for what it takes to become a successful writer. But Work Hard, Not Smart does not provide step-by-step clarity: It informs through often disjointed points of Paige’s life and decisions. Each essay is broader and more different than the last, teaching the reader that literary success is often found in reflection.
Paige’s bio is clearly that of someone who has lived a literary life. In addition to her new book, she wrote an earlier memoir in vignettes, Not A Place On Any Map, and her work appears in many journals and anthologies, including Longform, Hippocampus Magazine, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and Brevity, where she was an assistant editor from 2013 to 2019. She has been a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee and won the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize.
As Paige travels through many points in her life with each essay, it’s important to note that her writing moves almost like an unfocused thought. Essays talking about her classroom musings and quotes for students are followed by chapters centered on infidelity and first-time journalism jobs. She pens stories about social justice’s role in much of her life’s narrative and responsibly explains to readers the recipe leading towards consciousness. But what is most starkly drawn in each topic are Paige’s own shortcomings. Time and time again, she deeply analyzes an experience only to reflect on her own mistakes.
Toward the end of the book she writes, “I’m no stranger to breathing life into sentences and then sending them into the world, but breathing life into a book and then sending it into the world is different; it’s not only the scale of the project, but also the implicit request one makes of the reader for their sustained attention.”
Writing can be as communal or personal as any writer wants it to be. In reading Work Hard, Not Smart, it is easy to get lost in the wind of what Paige is intently trying to explore. This book does an exceptional job at pacing itself as though wandering the mind of an adult with ADHD, often moving fleetingly from task to task, interest to interest, and finding the mountain to climb when boredom creeps in. Based on her description of the book being an ode to adult ADHD, one may assume the work is purposely mapped out in a scattered method, or maybe it’s sheer happenstance. Either way, Paige writes stories of symbolic moments in her life that make her feel real, raw, and personable. As she navigates through life choices most would hide in their closet, Paige opens the door, comedically comments through the pain, and exposes herself in a way that holds your attention and empathy.
For those who value writing for all its chaotic, disorganized, and honest practice, Work Hard, Not Smart is absolutely worth the read. And Paige doesn’t let down the more organized writers of the world: She provides writing prompts in case shared experience ignites or dims their writing practice. Reading this memoir felt personal and is a humble reflection inside the mind of a seasoned, yet imperfect writer.