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Jottings

What to Tell and What Not To Tell?

As leaves blow off branches in New England to expose views of brooks that are normally hidden, my mind returns to the fine line for an author between remembering and revealing, as I work on my memoir about the writing life, Word for Word.

 

After my earlier gardening memoir was published, a radio interviewer asked if I had any regrets about writing so personally, and I found myself saying no, I had none. Reviewers hadn't criticized what I had revealed about myself, and readers told me that the personal revelations were what they liked best about the book.

 

In that book, Four Tenths of an Acre, I used no names of living people, only identifying them by their roles in my life. In my memoir-in-progress, it is impossible not to name people, so I have changed names, hoping that real persons will not be identifiable.

 

When to cross the line and reveal details about intimates remains a question for every author writing in the first person. There are few rules, aside from legal ones. I try to temper honesty with kindness and bad memories with mature insights. What stays in the manuscript are truths essential to tell but not without apprehension and with trust in my readers.

 

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Biography: Interviewing Artist Louise Nevelson

When I recently saw a production of "The Occupant," a play by Edward Albee performed by the Aglet Theatre Company, it was an experience of deja vu. After all, The Man in the drama interviews Louise Nevelson, which is exactly what I did in reality while working on my biography, Louise Nevelson: A Passionate Life.

 

Like The Man, a stand-in for Albee, I found it challenging to discover the truth about the artist. Indifferent to my search for facts, she was elusive about her turbulent and fascinating past, which began in Tsarist Russia and ended at the pinnacle of the New York art world.

 

So I examined what she erased or elaborated and took note of her unambiguous actions. I also looked at her sculptures, since she admitted she was working on her autobiography when she constructed Bride of the Black Moon from a rough plank and adorned it with a black crown. And when she created First Personage, a double figure suggesting highly fragile composure and barely restrained aggressiveness.

 

At times petulant or patient during our interviews, she was absorbed in her latest work-in-progress. After I turned off my tape recorder at the end of our last interview, she eagerly showed me what looked like another self-portrait--a black box illuminated from within filled with little fragments of black wood.

 

None of this was in the play, which was like more a conversation the playwright wished he had had with the artist, but never did.

 

 

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The Female Gaze

One of the books I often return to is a slim volume full of important thoughts, Writing a Woman's Lifeby the late English professor Carolyn Heilbrun.

 

It's about women who have written about their own lives--literally as memoir or autobiography, imaginatively as fiction, indirectly via biography, or secretly under pseudonyms. Many have only written honestly about themselves in letters or in their private journals.

 

Professor Heilbrun, a wife and mother, wrote detective novels under a pseudonym about an alter ego who was unmarried, childless, rich, beautiful, and free, "a figure out of never-never land," she admitted when looking back.

 

When writing about Georgia O'Keeffe many years ago, it was as if I was writing about whom I wished to be. A sideways treatment of a life happens because we are often afraid to write openly about our anger or ambition. Even famous women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir have described their successes as if they happened by chance instead of through their own determination and drive.

 

Why do I keep returning to Heilbrun's little book, first published by W. W. Norton in 1988? After writing biographies and beginning to publish in the first person, I found it inspiring to read about others who had written truthfully about what they had experienced and what they believed, the way I was trying to do in my books about childlessness, gardening, and in my forthcoming memoir about the writing life.

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Roth's Facts v. Roth's Fantasies

When Philip Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography was published two decades ago, I immediately bought it. While I liked many of his novels, as a writer of nonfiction I also yearned for some veracity from him. His imaginings could be head spinning--he even wrote a work of fiction with a protagonist named Philip Roth!--so I yearned for some truthfulness.

Roth lived in a nearby village in northwestern Connecticut, and I sometimes sighted him doing errands or at classical music concerts. He radiated intensity, whether looking in my direction or at musicians on stage. Something about his fierce dark glance made me keep my distance.

Recently I reread The Facts again while working on my own memoir. What did it tell me? The book that called itself an unconventional autobiography told me I could uninhibitedly TELL as well as show, two writerly tasks. In its way of playing with mirrors, it encouraged me to imagine and interpret and play around with structure while sticking to the facts.

It was also when I read Claudia Roth Pierpont's fascinating biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, again drawn to reality. At a book event I had the chance to ask Roth a question from a safe distance when she called him on a speaker phone. Recently, as he reached the age of eighty, he had said he was not going to write any more books, which had shocked me. I thought that writers never retire.

"Why have you stopped writing?" I asked him.

"Well, I'm not going to get any better," he said. It was a reply that brought me face to face with the fact of mortality, and the realization that even a writer as driven as Roth would one day have to stop. And now he is gone, but his fantasies and facts will live on.  Read More 
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How Emily Dickinson Got Her Inspiration

What is it about writing and gardening? The way they go together for writing gardeners and gardening writers? One of the latter myself, I believe they complement each other because of the way one works the brain and the other the body.

When writing my gardening memoir, Four Tenths of An Acre, I discovered intriguing information about poet Emily Dickinson's fascination with flowers. Her large family garden in Amherst, Massachusetts was where she trained her eye, experiences the vicissitudes of nature, and found eloquent metaphors for her poems.

She described her imagination "the garden within," and began a poem with the words: "This is a Blossom of the Brain." She gave specific flowers human qualities, like humility in the little wild yellow buttercup.

A facsimile edition of her gorgeous girlhood scrapbook of carefully identified and pressed plants is testament to her early love and knowledge of the flowers that would inspire her poems. Find it in a library to page through and enjoy! Read More 
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When It's Called Fake, Watch Out!

Calling factual information "fake" is very dangerous. It's a way of undercutting what is real with what is not. It's a way of discrediting and dismissing opinions we disagree with. It's even been called a new global evil by the Pope.

The fact is that some things are true and some are false. If they are confused, our democracy will become more and more paralyzed because lawmakers will be unable to agree enough to pass legislation. And news stories in the national press will not be believed.

"When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn't suit him 'fake news,' it is the person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press," Jeff Flake, Republican Senator from Arizona, stated recently, obviously about Trump.

Whether it's the president, Russian trolls, or friends and other people posting or tweeting unreliable information, it's our responsibility to find out whether it's true or fake. It's a matter of reading further than a headline, and clicking away to investigate the reliability of the author or news source. Let's try!  Read More 
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Biographers Who Tell Tales

Just because I've given up writing biography doesn't mean I don't like to listen to biographers, so last week I went to hear three of them--Judith Thurman, Edmund White, and James Atlas--on a panel called "Biographers' Tales" in New York.

One observation about their subjects that stayed in my mind is that a writer's fiction is often more truthfully autobiographical than a memoir. Since I have written biographies of artists, this was a new thought for me.

The other is that the laborious work of biography only eases up by the last draft, after a biographer has gotten to know his or her subject so well that it's possible to write off the top of one's head. I agreed with that.

Judith Thurman has written lively, lengthy biographies of Isak Dinesen, best known for Out of Africa, and French novelist Colette titled Secrets of the Flesh. James Atlas's The Shadow in the Garden is an account of being a biographer, and Edmund White is known as the prize-winning biographer of French writer Jean Genet.  Read More 
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A Love Letter to Libraries

A few decades ago, when I was wondering how to support my writing habit, I thought about becoming a librarian. It seemed a perfect solution, certainly better than being a waitress.

If I was a librarian, when I wasn't writing I would be in a quiet place with books, helping readers and researchers find the right ones. Being a librarian would leave me at the end of a day relishing the importance of books and the reasons to write them.

Although I never mailed my application to librarian school, I continued to love libraries. It began early when, oddly enough, both libraries I went to in elementary and high school were once churches, maybe making me believe there was something reverent about reading.

As I look for books in Manhattan these days, I gravitate between the main branch of the New York Public Library, a grand temple of a library on Fifth Avenue, and the New York Society Library, a little uptown private library, which offers open stacks to roam around in, leading another user, Phyllis Rose, to write about reading an entire fiction shelf in The Shelf: From LEQ to LES.

So as a writer who has researched all her books in libraries large and small, my recommendation to writers and readers is to get to libraries to revive your love of written words.  Read More 
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How's My Blogging Going?

It's time for reflection at the end of the year, just past the solstice, when every day will be a little lighter. The nights are still long, but it's now easier to regard darkness as a time for the germination of ideas.

Looking back over a year's Jottings, I see that they reflect the news, the seasons, and my writing. In January I was worried if the press would remain free.

In the spring, I inevitably blogged about the reciprocal relationship between writing and gardening, which I know so well.

Two blogs were about Georgia O'Keeffe: one inspired by an exhibition about her way of dressing, and another by a new book about the nature of her feminism.

And, of course, there were a few blogs about the writing of memoir, since it's what I'm doing, in which I raised a few questions about the nature of memory.

What will 2018 bring, I wonder?  Read More 
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Was Georgia O'Keeffe a Feminist?

As O'Keeffe's first biographer and the author of Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, it's been fascinating me to read the latest biographies and other books about this legendary American artist published during the past four decades.

The latest is Linda Grasso's Equal Under the Sky: Georgia O'Keeffe and 20th Century Feminism. Our challenges could not be more different. Forty years ago, I had to rely on my abilities as a journalist, and knowledge of libel law, because ninety-year-old O'Keeffe wasn't about to encourage a young girl she hadn't anointed to tell her life story.

I was able to interview those who knew O'Keeffe--fellow artists, friends, in-laws, sisters, and students--before their deaths. It was exciting to be the first to find revealing letters, early photographs, and tell her story. But in retrospect, I was handicapped by working at a time before email and the internet on a clunky old Royal manual typewriter.

Professor Grasso's challenge has been to synthesize and interpret the voluminous amount of material, including the two-volume catalog raisonne and thousand of letters, published since I wrote my biography.

She has focused on one of the most interesting aspects of the artist's life: her feminism. She analyzes its influence on the youthful O'Keeffe and the older O'Keeffe's rejection of it, while giving readers an impressive study.  Read More 
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