Laurie Lisle

writing about the lives of American women, including her own

Jottings

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.

Gardening: A Way to Return to Words

May 12, 2017

Tags: gardening, writing

At the nearby annual spring sale of native flora of the Northwest (Connecticut) Conservation District, I noticed that the master gardeners running the sale looked as if they were thriving as much as the hundreds of lustrous perennials. The greenery was verdant and gorgeous, the offerings were incredibly tempting, but I stuck to my list with only a few lapses.

The white-haired woman who helped me was a gardener of few words but deep feeling. I got the distinct impression that most of her hours were spent wordlessly in the presents of plants because her face had the kind of beatific expression I have only seen in paintings of saints.

It made me remember that human beings are possessed of an innate "biophilia," a need for being in the world of nature that, if unfulfilled, can lead to a sense of sorrow, an inexplicable unhappiness often blamed on something else, writes Robert Pogue Harrison in his fascinating book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition.

On difficult writing or news days, all I have to do is get myself out the door and into my world of greenery behind the house and begin pulling, clipping, and watering. In minutes I feel better, buoyant and in balance again, and ready to return to working with words in the other world.

Writing and Gardening: They Go Together

April 6, 2017

Tags: writing, gardening

My shadow while photographing the crocuses
Now that spring is here again, I'm reminded of the reciprocal relationship between writing and gardening, and I hope that getting out in the garden will give me more inspiration for my memoir!

I wrote this about words and gardens in my gardening memoir, Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life:

"Waiting is important both in the garden and while writing: a gardener waits for a border to bloom, the way a writer waits for memories or images or insights to come to mind. I remember the many times I had patted wet soil around a green spring, waited a few days for it to put forth leaflets, and then watched it double and triple in size within weeks. It made me understand that the power of photosynthesis was like the probability that the psyche's creative energy will provide ideas while writing."

For more of what I have to say about gardening, and about Four Tenths of an Acre, view and listen to this video.

O'Keeffe's Style: Integral to her Aesthetic

March 15, 2017

Tags: Georgia O'Keeffe, writing

I took a drive to Brooklyn the other day to see the fascinating O'Keeffe style show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It had plenty of the artist's paintings and photographs of her, along with lots of her clothing.

As I left, the question on my mind was--did she dress for herself or for others?

I concluded that it was mainly to please herself. Long before her husband Alfred Stieglitz photographed her, and made her more aware of her image, she stitched and wore blouses, coats, and hats in an original way, with an eye to good design and for fine fabrics.

My other question was about the relationship between the aesthetics of dressing and the aesthetics when using pigment or words.

I decided that O'Keeffe's impulse to fill space in a beautiful way necessitated a simplified and handsome wardrobe. And using words with an awareness of balance and beauty demands getting dressed with the same awareness. My writing uniform consists of comfortable knits in solid colors, and when I go out adding the right necklace, a belt, or a scarf gives me the same feeling as constructing a solid paragraph or finding the perfect words.

Our Words Are Our Weapons

February 18, 2017

Tags: writing

With journalists under daily attack by the President of the United States, it's time for every writer to be alarmed. Will authors be next?

How can writers make the most impact? It's with our words. Words are our most powerful weapon. Words written for social media as well as letters to editors, especially to newspapers read by those who voted for Trump.

In a letter to the editor of the local Republican-American, I was glad to be able to report to a misinformed reader that no one paid my way to the Women's March in Washington, D. C. and, furthermore, my handmade sign with the words, "protect the First Amendment," meant his free speech as well as mine.

It's our tendency as writers to become deeply absorbed in the essays, articles, and books we are working on. And it's the requirement of our demanding profession that we meet our deadlines.

It's a time to divert some of our precious writing time and attention to keep up with issues and gather information. We must explain the value of a free press in a democracy. We need to explain the difference between factual and fake news. We need to use our words on behalf of our beloved country.

Help a Free Press Stay Strong

January 10, 2017

Tags: journalism, writing

The freedom of the press is so important in a democracy that it's mentioned in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Journalists, who gather the facts and publish what they find, keep politicians on their toes and enable whistle blowers to tell us what's going on. This will be more essential than ever during the Presidency of Donald Trump.

"We need the principled press to hold power to account," said Meryl Streep recently. No doubt her remarks were reactions to Trump's ongoing disparagement of the media, especially when it's critical of him.

Every one of us can help the press stay strong and independent by paying for online subscriptions instead of reading digital news stories for free. So subscribe soon to the best of the best, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as your local newspaper.

There's no time to waste because the digital revolution has devastated print advertising, making readers like you more important than ever to newspapers' bottom lines.

Memoir: Discovering an Important Insight

December 21, 2016

Tags: memoir

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick's wise and thoughtful meditation about her teaching of nonfiction--mostly in the form of essays and memoirs--she states that nothing is more vital in memoir than the power of an important insight.

Then "the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer's organizing principle. That principal at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament," she writes.

So how do we memoirists discover and develop our most revealing insights? I have found that, like other aspects of writing, it's a matter of patiently using our memories and refining our manuscripts until core revelations make themselves known.

As I work away on my memoir, I have come to understand that my drive has been to return to an early sense of paradise, not unlike the one I have found again as an earthly pleasure in my garden. And also experience as I enjoy a pot of red cyclamen on my desk on a December day.

The Pleasure of Other Writers' Company

November 14, 2016

Tags: writing, reading

Writers work alone but, like others, they occasionally want colleagues with whom to talk about the writing life. Luckily, we writers often end up writing about what we do, so if another writer isn't around with whom with whom have a cup of coffee, we can read each others' books about writing.

After finishing Lynn Freed's honest and insightful Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, I know what she means when she describes a distinct writerly voice developing "through a sort of slow, blind groping after something simmering along the nerves," before it becomes an author's way with words as characteristic as an artist's unique brushstroke or a musician's chord.

While searching for more books about writing, I sometimes peruse the ones that have meant a lot to me, like A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick, and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro.

As I write this, I wonder about your favorites.

Balancing Isolation and Involvement

October 22, 2016

Tags: writing, Georgia O'Keeffe

Last week I dipped into my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist, for the first time in three decades because psychoanalyst Gail Saltz asked me to talk about the painter in her "Psychobiography" series of extraordinary people at the 92 Street Y in New York.

One of Dr. Saltz's interests is the relationship between creativity and mental illness, so we talked a little about O'Keeffe's debilitating depression in her forties, when she stopped painting for two years. She wanted to paint in New Mexico during the summer months, while her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, wanted her by his side. It was this conflict between intimacy and independence that almost destroyed O'Keeffe.

Our discussion at the Y reminded me that inner conflicts can also inspire creativity, and O'Keeffe recovered to paint marvelous levitating skulls and summer flowers in Southwestern skies. And it also made me reflect about the ways writers must blend the isolation necessary for writing with involvement with others. My way is to try to balance morning writing hours with afternoon and evening hours for other kinds of living, an equilibrium that, when it works, feels just right.