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Jottings

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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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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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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What's More Meaningful? Biography or Memoir?

As my memory drives me deeper into the past, my mind circles around and into it, making discoveries and bringing insights and ideas back to the pages of my manuscript, and I experience little epiphanies. My memory seems like a bottomless well, as I again and again pull up fragments of feelings, and then the events that evoked them. Memory seems like a muscle that strengths with practice.

"The past is inside us in flickering and mysterious ways that can never be fully acknowledged nor easily represented," editors Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Ann Snitow have written in the introduction to The Feminist Memoir Project. Reading the fascinating anthology aroused many of my own memories from living in New York during the early years of the Women's Liberation Movement.

It was then when I began to write Portrait of an Artist, my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. I was in my thirties and had more questions than answers about how to live, and I learned a lot from examining her life.

Despite the demands of almost daily writing, I find in my seventies that my efforts to write an evocative memoir are more meaningful than writing another biography. As I go through my journals, the writing forces me to face the meaning of events that eluded me earlier. And if it's unsettling at times, I believe that writing a late life memoir is more rewarding.  Read More 
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Biography or Memoir? To Live or Not Live Your Own Life

In last week's Jottings post I wrote about the important of memory when writing memoir. Another way writing a biography differs from writing a memoir is vicariously living another life or vividly living his or her own.

The demand of researching and writing a biography--which goes on for years at a time--has made me feel I had abandoned by own. When working on my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, I sometimes felt envious of her adventures in the Southwest, while I sat at my desk day after day in Manhattan.

In contrast, writing a memoir is a way to live your own life again. "I suppose I write memoir because of the radiance of the past," Patricia Hampl has written in I Could Tell You Stories. "To write one's life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form."

As I read my old journals and work on my memoir, I initially experience events in the past the way I did at the time. Then on reflection I often begin to understand them as little differently, enlarging what I felt or thought then with the insights of maturity and the perspective of time. Memoir writing enlivens the present and gives it depth.

Do other memoirists experience this?  Read More 
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How to Use Memory to Enliven Memoir

People sometimes ask me about the difference between writing and memoir. The difference is the existence of memory, the possession of memory.

Remembering the emotion around an event enlivens it, illuminates it, and gives the memory its significance. The memory may be vague or even wrong, but it nevertheless possesses important power because of the way it is remembered.

"I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start," wrote Virginia Woolf, in "A Sketch of the Past."

I have never forgotten my childhood art classes given by an Italian-American artist because the bohemian atmosphere of his studio was the antithesis of my bourgeois home in Providence. In his cave-like basement, Gino Conti urged us to create anything we wished with vivid blue, green, and red watercolors, even with our fingers instead of a brush if we wanted. During those hours I expressed my desires and dreams for sunshine and flowers while sitting on a little chair in a smock while watching from the corner of my eye the rabbits, turtles, and other wild creatures roaming around the shadowy space.


Even then I was drawn to a kind of freedom, one I have searched for all my life. Read More 
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