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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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How Long Do Writers Write?

 

We now have an inkling about how long writers write, thanks to Emily Temple, a senior editor at Lit Hub, who examined the publishing histories of eighty authors.

 

Average age for initial publication was 28, with young men publishing first books four years earlier than young women. The women's average was age 31,  when Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing came out. Average age for final publication was 64, about the same for both genders.

 

Poetry books were published earliest, starting with Vladimir Nabokov at 17 and Adrienne Rich at 22. Memoirs naturally came later, like Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, published when she was 75, while Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean Rhys fiinished memoirs in their eighties. 

 

Lengths of everyone's careers averaged 34 years, with men lasting five years longer than women. Fame was often unrelated to longevity; Jane Austen's novels were published within six years, while Sylvia Plath's appeared within only two years. Others including Lessing, Rich, and Nabokov were lucky enough to publish for half a century or more.

 

Since I, like most other writers, wish I had written and published a little more, it was heartening to learn that I am doing just fine. At 37, a little late, I published my first book, but at age, well, never mind, my memoir is still to appear, so I am writing longer than many others.

 

Of course there's a big difference between writing and publishing. Writers rarely stop writing, whether it's letters or journals, essays or articles, or unfinished books. Nonetheless, the Lit Hub editor has given us a fascinating peek at how long we go on.

 

 

 

 

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Writing in Winter

In midwinter, I must confess, part of me dreads the arrival of spring. How can this be since I'm an ardent gardener? The answer is that when my backyard starts greening up, my desire to go out in the garden on sunny mornings, instead staying at my desk, becomes difficult to resist.

 

In winter I spend many short daylight hours in my writing room. "Low rays of weak sun make the shadows of bare branches dance across my hands as I work at my desk," I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life. "Even on cloudy days the watery midwinter glow on the other side of the window glass makes me feel bathed in luminescence."

 

The dark days of winter are the time for the germination of ideas as well as the time for the reading, remembering, and reflection essential to the memoir I am working on.

 

While winter gives glints of briliant light off snow, spring offers many hours of warm daylight. Every February when immersed in a manuscript, I am sure I have no time for spring and become apprehensive about what looms like a deadline.

 

I suppose this only happens to writers who garden in places like New England. Certainly the explosion of growth in April around my house in Connecticut is dramatic, as colors turn from grays and browns to greens and yellows followed by the pinks, blues, and purples during the rest of the growing season.

 

I must also confess that another part of myself can't wait.

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How to Read to Write

When I picked up a copy of The Best American Essays of 1996, it was when my third book had just been published, and I was looking for new ideas and inspiration--so it was exciting to find myself reading the richness of what I call verity.

 

Now one of my bookshelves holds 22 volumes of the series in a rainbow of colors, including a thick white one, which was guest edited by Stephen Jay Gould in 2002, and a slim orange one edited by poet Mary Oliver in 2009. Was it a matter of a poet turning up her nose at entries or a nonfiction writer throwing his arms around them?

 

Over the years I've read essays by both famous and obscure writers, which were first published in well-known magazines, like The New Yorker, and little literary magazines, like ZYZZYVA. Among the wide range of styles and subjects I discovered the writing of Patricia Hampl in the gray 1999 volume and the work of Lauren Slater in the pinkish-peach 1997 one.

 

I've found wisdom, too. In the 2004 robin egg's blue edition, Louis Menard wrote that a writer has to wait for "something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for writers, is the voice...What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking...the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice, it is your singing voice--except that it comes out as writing."

 

My love of the essay has been affirmed by series editor Robert Atwan's forewords about the genre, including in The Best American Essays of 2018. Observing the long list authors of almost included essays in the back of each edition occasionally become included authors, has allowed me to dream about sometime being among them. 

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What to Tell and What Not To Tell?

As leaves blow off branches in New England to expose views of brooks that are normally hidden, my mind returns to the fine line for an author between remembering and revealing, as I work on my memoir about the writing life, Word for Word.

 

After my earlier gardening memoir was published, a radio interviewer asked if I had any regrets about writing so personally, and I found myself saying no, I had none. Reviewers hadn't criticized what I had revealed about myself, and readers told me that the personal revelations were what they liked best about the book.

 

In that book, Four Tenths of an Acre, I used no names of living people, only identifying them by their roles in my life. In my memoir-in-progress, it is impossible not to name people, so I have changed names, hoping that real persons will not be identifiable.

 

When to cross the line and reveal details about intimates remains a question for every author writing in the first person. There are few rules, aside from legal ones. I try to temper honesty with kindness and bad memories with mature insights. What stays in the manuscript are truths essential to tell but not without apprehension and with trust in my readers.

 

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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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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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