Laurie Lisle

writing about the lives of American women, including her own

Jottings

Roth's Facts v. Roth's Fantasies

May 27, 2018

Tags: writing, memoir

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.

How Emily Dickinson Got Her Inspiration

April 26, 2018

Tags: writing, gardening

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!

When It's Called Fake, Watch Out!

March 31, 2018

Tags: journalism

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!

Biographers Who Tell Tales

February 28, 2018

Tags: biography

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.


A Love Letter to Libraries

January 30, 2018

Tags: reading

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.

How's My Blogging Going?

December 24, 2017

Tags: blogging

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?

Was Georgia O'Keeffe a Feminist?

November 15, 2017

Tags: Georgia O'Keeffe, biography

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.

What's More Truthful: Fact or Fiction?

October 4, 2017

Tags: memoir, writing

What's interesting about Richard Ford's recent memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, is the way he makes the reader aware of the unreliability of memory--his memory, that is, but also any nonfiction writer's memory.

Many times as he describes an event, he almost stops in mid-sentence to confess that he didn't entirely comprehend what was going on around him as a child. "And for me, how was it?" he asks in one way or another throughout the memoir.

In fact, a novelist's imagination can be regarded as more truthful than a memoirist's memory, as Cheryl Strayed has pointed out in a review of his book.

Reading Ford's book has made me grateful to have many journals to rely on for my memoir. Still, even though the entries were written at the time events happened, I always have to remind myself that my interpretations of them are only my own. Also, from time to time I have to re-read passages in my journals to make sure my re-writing and editing of the manuscript has not affected a passage's original meaning.

I wonder if Ford will attempt nonfiction again, or if I will ever fall with relief into fiction?

Is Writing a Memoir Bad or Good for Your Head?

July 22, 2017

Tags: memoir

A few months ago, I listened to a group of memoirists talking about, well, memoir during a panel discussion in New York. It was full of surprises, but what startled me the most was their answer to the last question asked my moderator Gail Lumet Buckley, a memoirist herself.

Did you find writing a memoir cathartic? Each one of the panelists--Bill Hayes, Sheila Kohler, and Daphne Merkin--said it was not.

This alarmed me since I am working on a memoir in the understanding that dredging up the past, thinking about it, then ordering it into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs will continue to be a clarifying and finally a liberating experience.

Certainly other memoirists say so. Writing a memoir can be "restorative, compensatory in the deepest way," writes Sven Birkerts in his fascinating The Art of Time in Memoir. Witnessing "the self's encounter with its assumptions and illusions, the private reckoning given literary form, is one of the deep rewards of writing memoir."

None of the panelists explained their answer but, I suppose, remembering can sometimes be more upsetting than settling. Whether I ultimately agree with them or not, I believe that writing a memoir can be what Birkerts calls "an act of self-completion," if not one of equanimity.

Getting Ideas in the Garden

June 24, 2017

Tags: writing, gardening

The late prize-winning poet Stanley Kunitz had a house in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the edge of the sea on the tip of Cape Cod, where he grew plants and wrote poems into his nineties.

In his wonderful little book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, he described his garden as "a work of the imagination" and his unconscious mind as "a wilderness."

What he called "the wild permissiveness of the inner life" allowed dangerous, rebellious, and even unwelcome ideas to arrive unbidden, but they were the perceptions that fed his creative imagination.

I know what he means, as I work in my garden in the inland hills of Connecticut. The memoir I'm deep into depends on vividly remembering. My hours uprooting masses of vibrant weeds these June days have a way of pulling up uninvited memories, rich and powerful messages from the past, the very ones that invigorate my writing.