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Jottings

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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What's More Truthful: Fact or Fiction?

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?  Read More 
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Getting Ideas in the Garden

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.  Read More 
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Gardening: A Way to Return to Words

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.  Read More 
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Writing and Gardening: They Go Together

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.

 
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O'Keeffe's Style: Integral to her Aesthetic

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.  Read More 
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Our Words Are Our Weapons

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.  Read More 
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Help a Free Press Stay Strong

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.  Read More 
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