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Writers and Their Talismans

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On Writing When Older

September is my birth month, and this year I had a big birthday. It was sobering but, happily, I was blessed with three birthday cakes. I'm well into what Francine du Plessix Gray called a woman's Third Age, a time for outspokenness and self-possession.

 

Writing a memoir was an act of enormous outspokenness. It also demanded deciding who I once was and who I am now.

 

What now?

 

At the moment reading other writers' words is more compelling than composing my own. My neglected reading list is very long and very intriguing.


A LitHub survey of the professional lives of eighty authors found that on average they published books for about three-and-a-half decades, a shorter working life than, say, many visual artists. Women writers usually started publishing in their thirties and stopped in their sixties, the survey found.

My first book was published at age 37 and my last at age 78, so I've worked a little longer than most other authors, but I have written fewer books than many because of the time it took to research my biographies and other nonfiction books. And the time it took to tend my garden and the rest of my life.

 

When Philip Roth was in his late seventies, I had a chance to ask him why he had stopped writing novels. "I wasn't going to get any better," he said, a reply I liked for its honesty. Most older writers rarely stop writing entirely, however. If their words do not appear in new books, words find their way into journals and letters, blogs and newsletters, articles and essays, as mine will, too.

 

With Warm Regards, Laurie

 

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News

 

It's now time for me to edit all the boxes of papers I've gathered and generated when researching my books, now stacked in an upstairs hallway and waiting to be opened.

 

There are also many papers in file cabinets awaiting sorting, saving, or discarding because I began writing before the beginning of the digital age.

 

I've already given a great deal of material about Georgia O'Keeffe and Louise Nevelson to the Archives of American Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

 

Hopefully, the research materials, which I used when writing my more personal books, will find a place in another archive.

 

It's been a surprise to realize that I've been writing blogs and newsletters for almost seven years. Now they will become more sporadic as I turn my attention to other matters.

 

 

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A Love Letter - Writers and Libraries

Photo credit: Stephanie Stanton

This month the Sharon Summer Book Signing, a fundraiser for the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon, was back after a two-year hiatus. When I was signing and selling copies of Word for Word: A Writer's Life among the crowd of readers and other authors under a big white tent, the event reminded me of my love of libraries.

It began early when the libraries I went to in elementary and high school were both former churches with lofty hushed spaces, making me believe there was something reverent about reading.


Once when I was wondering how to support my increasingly serious writing habit, I thought about becoming a librarian in order to spend my time in a quiet place among thousands of titles. I imagined that it would leave me at the end of a work day relishing books and desiring to write them.

 

Although I never mailed my application to librarian school, I continued to gravitate to libraries wherever I lived, borrowing books to read and for researching my own books. In Manhattan, they include large and small libraries, from the marble temple of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to the New York Society Library, a subscription library in a brownstone with open stacks to explore and rooms to write in. 

 

In Connecticut, the little town libraries are now cultural centers offering books in all formats, talks about books, and much more. Happily, the historic Sharon library, which I can walk to from my house, is undergoing a transformation. By this time next year--and the 25th anniversary of the book signing--it will be better and more beautiful than ever.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie 
 
News About Word for Word: A Writer's Life

 

A new review of Word for Word has come to my attention: "I so enjoyed Word for Word...I highlighted, wrote in the margins, and tabbed pages," wrote reviewer Regina Allen for the Story Circle Network. "Word for Word is a lovely book. Lisle writes as though she is a personal friend to the reader, sharing her deepest thoughts and secrets. Whether you are a writer or a woman who seeks a creative life in some other realm, or even a woman in search of her own true self, this book will be a comfort to you."


Click here to read the entire review.

 

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The Seismic Shift in Book Publishing

This month, on Thursday, July 21st, I'll be talking about Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe to a book group at the Newport (RI) Art Museum, which has an O'Keeffe exhibition. It makes me reflect on changes in the book business since 1980, when the biography was published.

 

First published as a handsome hardback forty-two years ago, it is still in print and selling well. It has been translated into five languages, produced as a mass market paperback, and published as another hardback for the University of New Mexico Press. It is now a trade paperback, an e-book, and an audiobook.

 

Like other authors my age, I'm grateful I began writing and publishing before the digital age transformed the book business, a change as drastic as the invention of moveable type. Far fewer books were published in 1980 than today, but they got more attention from publishers and readers.

 

What happened then, rarely happens now. Then, a junior woman editor at a New York publishing house, who was as influential as the marketing manager, gave me, an unknown young journalist, the go-ahead and a small advance against royalties to write the first biography of an art world icon.

 

Today writers are expected to bring readers (i.e. social media followers) to publishers, instead of the other way around. It makes me wonder about all the wonderful books that are either not written, or well published, or discovered and bought today because of the increasing selectivity of traditional publishers and the exploding numbers of self-publishers.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie 

 

Publishing guru Mike Shatzkin writes an insightful blog about the book business, The Shatzkin Files. In his most recent blog, he concludes: "The old procedure of 'get an agent, get an advance, let the publisher do the work' is...becoming the exception, rather than the rule..." More books are published, he writes,"but achieving sales success just keeps getting harder and harder."

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Sylvia Plath: The Personal is Poetic

I didn't know there was more to learn about Sylvia Plath until I began reading Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Life of Sylvia Plath.

I didn't know there was more to learn about Sylvia Plath until I began reading Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Life of Sylvia Plath. In more than a thousand pages, biographer Heather Clark gives us a compelling picture of a gifted young woman's struggle to write during the 1950s and early 1960s.

 

Among much else, we see the way a poet and novelist creates art from life, erasing the line between fiction and non-fiction. Her poetry evolved from formal to fierce during her twenties, when she expressed brutal truths. Did she have the right to do it?


It's a question many writers grapple with. When I write in the first person, my desire to be kind or honest often conflicts.  I either censor myself or express criticism, but usually one feels too cowardly and the other too cruel before I find the right combination of words to express myself in a genuine way.

 

A month after the publication of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, which had a satirical portrayal of her devoted mother, the author committed suicide at the age of thirty. Many stresses drove her over the edge, when she was estranged from her husband, Ted Hughes, and living alone with her small children. It was a few weeks before The Feminine Mystique was published. If she had lived a little longer, it might have saved her.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie 

 

~~~~~~~

 

News About My Books 

 

July 21st: Newport Art Museum, Newport, Rhode Island, online talk about Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe to the museum's book group in conjunction with an O'Keeffe exhibition there.

 

August 1st: A wide-ranging interview about my writing life will be aired in a podcast by Main Street Moxie. I talk about the nerve it took to write Portrait of an Artist. 

 

August 5th: 5:30 to 7:30 pm: I'll be signing copies of Word for Word: A Writer's Life at the Sharon Summer Book Signing. The gala event held under tents will be behind the Sharon Historical Society next to the library on Upper Main Street in Sharon, Connecticut.

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Writing and Taking Risks

Laurie Lisle's Writing Dest

This month of May marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of Word for Word: A Writer's Life, so it's a moment to reflect on the transformative experience of writing a memoir.

As I worked on the book, I felt many emotions--from sadness to gratitude--while deepening my understanding of the past. Looking back made me glad about taking big risks and regretful about avoiding some of them. I felt sorry about not joining the Peace Corps but pleased about writing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

Reliving the past made me sad about staying in difficult relationships too long, but enormously grateful about meeting my husband, Robert Kipniss, on another May day thirty years ago.

 

Publishing a revealing memoir last year was among my biggest gambles. I had to be ready to ignore any negative reactions to how I lived and how I wrote about it. The risk turned out to be well worth it thanks to your and others' gratifying reactions. Many thanks!

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie                                                 

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Gardening as a Kind of Playfulness

Now that April is here and the ground has thawed, growth is beginning in the garden again. As always, I'm racing to keep up by raking brown leaves off borders and exposing green sprouts. 

 

This spring my essay, "Gardening as Play," about the time I asked myself whether to give up writing for gardening, is in the wonderful literary magazine, Reinventing Home. In it, I ask how to weigh the easy pleasure of gardening against the more elusive satisfaction of writing, and how to compare the private playfulness of growing plants with the public experience of being published.

 

Only after recoiling at the prospect of tending a famous neighbor's garden did I give up the idea of abandoning writing and gardening for pay. By then I had discovered that writing as work and gardening as play beautifully balanced each other. Each has made it possible to keep doing the other for almost four decades.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie 

~~~

 

News About Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life

 

My gardening memoir was first published by Random House in 2005. Every spring since then it has found new readers. It is "an elegantly written yet also edgily realistic account of small town, small garden life," according to Kirkus Reviews.

 

Signed first-edition hardcover editions are currently for sale at The Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington, Connecticut, at Oblong Books in Millerton, New York, and at Johnnycake Books, in Salisbury, Connecticut.

 

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News About Word for Word: A Writer's Life

 

I was recently spotted also signing copies of Word for Word at the Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington, Connecticut (above).

 

A foreign rights agency, DropCap, is representing Word for Word this month at the London Book Fair: Book Exhibition 2022.

 

Now that Word for Word has left my hands and is on its own, your stars and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads help keep it aloft. Thanks!

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A Way of Living Called Childfreedom

I'd like to announce that a chapter from my book, Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness, will be published in an anthology next month by Rutgers University Press. 

The anthology, Childfree Across the Disciplines, includes what its New Zealand editor, Professor Davinia Thornley, calls "foundational pieces from established experts," as well as activist manifestoes and original scholarly work. It "unequivocally takes a stance supporting the subversive potential of the childfree choice, allowing readers to understand childfreedom as a sense of continuing potential in who—or what—a person can become." 

My contribution, "Recognizing Our Womanhood, Redefining Femininity," notes among much else that "whatever the many ways we use our bodies, it is important for those of us who have never given birth to experience them as womanly, sensual, strong, energetic, and even eloquent."

I'm gratified that Thornley writes that "Laurie Lisle's book was a lifeline for me when I first picked it up in the early 2000s and has remained so over the past two decades. (My copy of her book bristles with no fewer than twenty sticky notes!). I have frequently found myself reaching for her work when I needed to orient myself over the often-rocky terrain of pronatalism."

With warm wishes,
Laurie 

~~~

 

News About Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness

 

Click here to enter a Goodreads Giveaway next week, from March 23-31, 2022, for a free signed, first edition, hardcover edition!

 

Without Child, which was originally published in 1996 by Ballantine Books, has been translated into Chinese and acquired by more than three hundred American libraries.

 

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 This is an image of the original hardcover edition.

The book is also available as an e-book and as a paperback from booksellers.

 

~~~

 

 

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What Do You Do With Letters?

Stack of old letters tied with twine

It's a wintertime undertaking: getting rid of papers and other possessions while snow is on the ground and the garden is dormant. Lacking the instincts of a collector, I like to pare down and give away things to those who might use or enjoy them.

 

When it comes to papers, I've given research materials about Georgia O'Keeffe and Louise Nevelson to the Archives of American Art after writing their biographies. Now I'm thinking about donating some of my papers--early feminist materials and maybe my journals--to an archive interested in American women's lives.

 

 The most difficult things to give away are letters written to me. They were invaluable when writing my memoir, but now I want to return them to those who wrote them, but it is not always easy.

 

Writer friends like their letters back, but artists are more indifferent. When I told a long-ago boyfriend that I still had his letters, he turned ashen with shock. I guess I'll throw his away.

 

Giving away letters and throwing out papers is a little like eliminating extra words and paragraphs in a piece of writing. It also feels like a way to make space for new possibilities.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie

 

News About Word for Word

 

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I'm pleased to announce that Word for Word: A Writer's Life has been named a finalist for the 2021 Story Circle Network women's book award for memoir. Called the Sarton Award in recognition of memoirist, novelist, and poet May Sarton, the award is given to books that are "distinguished by the compelling ways they honor the lives of women." The winner will be announced in early April. Keep your fingers crossed.

 

 

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Was "Anonymous" a Woman?

One of the books I eagerly anticipate reading every year is the latest in The Best American Essays series. As a writer of what I like to call verity, it's exciting to sample so many subjects and styles of writing about what's literally true.

I was intrigued by the last entry in the 2020 edition, "Was Shakespeare a Woman?" by Elizabeth Winker. She writes that material in his plays was informed by the court experiences and feminist attitudes of Emilia Bassano, who was maybe a friend, lover, or even a collaborator, and the "dark lady" in his sonnets.

Emilia was a member of a musical family of "likely Jewish" Venetian immigrants in London, who published a book of poetry that advocated for women's "Libertie." Did Shakespeare draw on her words for his fictional Emilia's defense of women in "Othello?"

Winkler's theory reminds me of the debates about poetry and prose signed "Anon." over the ages: Virginia Woolf, for one, speculated that much of it was written by women not allowed to sign their names.

 

With warm wishes,
Laurie

 

 

 

The Best American Essays 2021


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The latest volume, edited by journalist Kathryn Schulz, contains twenty essays on race relations, the coronavirus, and other reflections above living through the previous difficult year. She wrote that she chose them to reflect "the vast rich realms of thought and experience both within and mercifully beyond the anguish of this past year.

    

News About Word for Word


It's nice to know that the book is for sale at bookstores around the country, including the WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City, and Eso Won Books in Los Angeles.

 

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A Note To Readers
Now that Word for Word has left my hands and is on its own, your stars and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads help keep it aloft. Thanks!

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