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Jottings page
 
 

When Writing About Others

Perhaps the most problematic part about writing a memoir is writing about others, dead and alive. Especially alive.

 

What to do? You can drop names and change names. You can express yourself extremely carefully. You can be absolutely sure of your facts. You can get liability insurance.

 

The problem is usually more daunting at the beginning than at the end of writing a memoir.

What I and other memoirists often discover while working on draft after draft is that anger gradually softens through more insight and turns into something else. Like compassion.

 

With warm regards,
Laurie

                                   turtles_whatever_you_do.jpg

I spotted this cartoon -- a little yellowed and faded from being on my bulletin board -- in The New Yorker a year or so ago.  It expresses the fear that friends and family may feel when someone announces they're writing a memoir. Happily, my husband Robert was never worried.

 

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The Joy of Gardening

A view of the blossoming "Denuada" and "Leonard Messel" magnolias in my backyard.

      Now that another April has exploded in Connecticut--bursting blossoms and greening the landscape--I'm reminded again of the amazing power of nature.

      Rachel Carlson credited biophilia (loving nature) and hortophilia (tending nature) to health and healing.

      And Oliver Sachs discovered that nature had a restorative effect on the brains of his patients often "more powerful than any medication."

      When I moved to the country after a divorce and began to garden, it was so joyful and transformative that I eventually wrote Four Tenths of an Acre, a book that looks at life through the green glasses of a gardener.

      "Working the soil brings me back to my own nature, and I now understand that tending a garden is the same as taking care of myself," I wrote.

      "The rituals of gardening give a rhythm, even a rapture to living, apart from the routines of writing and the ebbs and flows of relationships."

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About Being Reviewed

Word For Word  Publication May  11,2021

     When a box of advance reading copies of Word for Word: A Writer's Life arrived recently, I felt a little trepidation about sending out the books before remembering others' attitudes toward reviews.

     Centuries ago, an English duchess, Margaret Cavendish, hoped that people would not think her "vain" for writing a memoir; it might not be important to them, she admitted, "but it is to the Authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs."

     Georgia O'Keeffe was also defiant about reviews: "I make up my own mind about it—how good or bad or how indifferent it is. After that, critics can write what they please. I have already worked it out for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free."

 

     I'm neither indifferent like the duchess nor defiant like O'Keeffe. While working on my memoir was a little like writing a long letter to myself, I hope that what I learned might be meaningful to others.

 

     Before long, there were some very nice responses, including:

 

     "Word for Word is a beautifully told story about the growth of a woman writer…whose intellectual and spiritual debts are to women writers, feminism, and, more generally, to strong women…" Carol Ascher, author of Afterimages: A Family Memoir

 .

     "In fluid, evocative prose that is at once personal and political, Laurie Lisle turns her biographer's eye on her own life with a clear-eyed, honest gaze that probes, delights, and illuminates." Jennifer Browdy, author of The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir.
 

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The Way I Wrote My Memoir

Word For Word: A Writer's Life  Publication May 11, 2021

      Writers cherish words, and I've saved my own and the words of others sent to me in letters throughout my life.

     

   When I decided to write a memoir, I went to look for my forty or so journals. 

     

      "I gathered them together, numbered them, and arranged them on a bookshelf--from the college spiral notebooks to the more recent hardback Moleskine volumes--and then opened the fragile first page of the 1963 journal," as I explained in Word for Word: A Writer's Life.  

     

     They helped me remember and then write the memoir.   

 

     The image above is a photo of the journals along with a teenage diary with a lock and a cartoon character on the cover saying "my year... and how I shot it."

 

     I took the journals with me everywhere. They're now a bit battered, and the paper is brittle and in some places torn, but the words remain legible.

 

 

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The Best Pandemic Writing

Katherine Anne Porter

While living through the past pandemic year, I reread Katherine Anne Porter's luminous autobiographical novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a youthful Denver newspaperwoman's harrowing illness during the 1918 flu epidemic. 

 

In it, she vividly evoked the wartime era, the delirium of her fever, and the rapture of a near-death experience that Christians call the "beatific vision," from which she emerged after remembering her love for a young soldier, only to learn that he had died in the epidemic. 

 

"Everything before was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready," she reflected, and she became a serious novelist.

 

The pandemic of 2020-21 has also changed many of us in various ways. I, for one, have been reminded of the privilege of living.

 

I also realized the importance of finishing the memoir, Word for Word, which I have been working on for a while. My monthly newsletter has explained how I chose its cover, and it will describe the way I wrote it and why, and make announcements about its forthcoming publication.

 

 

 

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How I Chose A Cover For My Memoir

This is the cover of my forthcoming memoir, Word for Word: A Writer's Life.

 

When perusing old black-and-white photographs for possible use in the memoir, I discovered contact sheets taken when posing for an author photo for my first book, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

I was surprised to see so many different expressions on my face in front of the camera that day. Eventually, images of that 37-year-old debut author—at a turning point in her personal and professional lives—best expressed the nature of the memoir.

 

The image on the cover is one of three contact sheets given to me by the photographer, Edward Spiro, so I could choose a headshot for the jacket cover of my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

Four decades later the designer of Word for Word, Paul Barrett, selected poses from the contact sheets to create a cover for the memoir.

 

 

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Eight Excellent Books About Memoir

When I began thinking about writing in the first person, I turned to books by memoirists to find out why and how had they written memoirs. Now that I've finished writing my own memoir, Word for Word: A Writer's Life, I want to share them with others.

 

The first book I read was William Zinsser's Inventing the Truth with essays by Annie Dillard, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, Eileen Simpson, and five other memoirists. Evidently, their experiences didn't discourage me.

 

Next was Vivian Gornick's slender little The Situation and the Story, which made it very clear that I had to discard a biographer's distance when writing a memoir. "The situation is the context or circumstance…the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer," she stated.  

 

"Memoirists step carefully from one emotionally charged fragment to another as they explore the psychic geographies of their pasts: the persecutors, the traumas, the betrayals, the secrets, and the shame, but also, thankfully, the love," wrote Janet Mason Ellerby in her fascinating Intimate Reading.

 

After meeting Tom Larson in New Mexico, where we were both teaching at a writer's conference, I read his The Memoir and the Memoirist, where he developed Virginia Woolf's concept of the "I-then and I-now," the way an older self reflects on a younger self in memoir.

 

Then there was Sven Birkerts's The Art of Time in Memoir, in which he explained that memoir is "the artistic transformation of the actual via the alchemy of psychological insight, pattern recognition, and lyrical evocation." It seeemed like the ultimate challenge to me, but one I was willing to attempt.

 

Listed alphabetically, these and other books about memoir are:

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkets (2008)

Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women's Memoir by Janet Mason Ellerby (2001)

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick (2001)

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart (2013)

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson (2007)

To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Philip Lopate (2013)

Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature edited by Meredith Maran (2016)

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser (1998)

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A Tree of Light

Writers like myself have had an easier time than many others during the pandemic because we are used to working by ourselves at home. As we have eliminated all but the most essential errands and other activities, we have more uninterrupted hours to write. It's even a little like being at an arts colony.

 

Yet it's been impossible to avoid the fear of getting the virus, great sadness about those we have lost to it, and worry about all the other anxieties engulfing that nation.

 

As the days darken at the end of a very dark year, I remember the words of writer Henry James: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art." It's a reason, I believe, for writers to keep writing.

 

I'm grateful that the tradition of placing illuminated holiday trees along main roads in nearby villages has been extended this year to my village. Now a pine sparkles in front of my house after dusk every evening, a beacon of beauty in the dark night

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Why Gardening Makes Writing Easier

Laurie among baskets and plant stakes in her garden room in the barn behind the house.

Only a white clapboard wall of my house separates the indoor and outdoor parts of my existence: the writer and the gardener. The divide is porous, as light comes in the windows, but it is also enormous because of the way it affects my emotions.

 

Whenever I walked out the basement door into the backyard, I discovered as I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life, that "whenever I was worried about anything--my writing, my love life, or the yard itself--going outside was like passing through a looking glass from a darker to a lighter state of mind." Even though it's difficult to garden in the harsh and unpredictable New England weather, gloom always dissipated when I began to deadhead and weed, even though I know that more weeds will spring up after the next rainstorm. This doesn't happen when I dust and pick up inside, even though I love all the small the rooms of the house.

 

Once I marveled about this to my mother, a gifted and passionate gardener, and asked her why it was so much more rewarding for us to turn decomposing cuttings in a compost pile than to mix together the ingredients of a chocolate cake. She thought for a moment and then offered: "because it's outside." Being outside wasn't the only reason, but it was reason enough because it explained that being absorbed by what makes everything grow--from bright air to dark porous soil--gives buoyancy to a gardener.

 

I also learned that after hours using my body in the garden, it feels good to go back inside and use my brain in my writing room.

 

 

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Georgia O'Keeffe's Shadow Self

From a 1924 Stieglitz photo of Ida (left) and Georgia O'Keeffe

 

It's disconcerting to see snapshots of Ida and Georgia O'Keeffe together in the exhibition and catalog, "Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow," now at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA for the summer.

 

The features of the sisters, born two years apart, are almost identical--heavy brows, fan-shaped eyes, chiseled lips, dark brown hair--but their expressions are not. Outgoing Ida often looks a little distracted in contrast to her older sister's intense focus. Even their hairstyles and clothing dramatically differ.

 

When this photo was taken, the sisters were in their mid-thirties. Georgia had been at Alfred Stieglitz's side for six years when he had fervently encouraged her as an artist and exhibited her work. Ida, in contrast, had worked as a nurse, turned to art later, then struggled to find time to paint and chances to exhibit. 

 

It was as if Ida was Georgia's shadow self: a sister with artistic talent but without the same opportunity. I left the exhibition feeling sad about Ida but very glad that Georgia had made the transition from Texas art teacher to prolific American painter.

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