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A Writer's Jottings

A Writer's Jottings on Substack




Moving My Newsletter to Substack

Landscape Near Millerton - Robert Kipniss, 2007

Since writers think with words, there is enormous value to the raw and informal writing we do in journals. The ways we present short pieces of writing have evolved during the digital revolution.


As a teenager, I wrote sporadically in a diary with a tiny lock and key and a cartoon character embossed on its white faux leather cover saying "My Year and How I Shot It.

In college, I started a serious journal in a spiral notebook handwritten in a spontaneous voice that I have kept up to this day. It is about dilemmas and decisions. Events to remember. Meaningful moments. First impressions. Private perceptions. Ideas of all kinds. And for many years it was for my eyes only.


Eight years ago, I ventured into the digital sphere to share some of my personal writing. I regarded it as a place poised somewhat precariously between a private journal and published works. It was when I began a blog called Jottings that was posted from my website.


Three years ago, wanting to reach more readers via a newsletter, I moved Jottings to Mailchimp. It's the way I've been sharing it with all of you, and I've loved getting your responses to my monthly missles.


Now for the surprise mentioned in my last newsletter: I'm now moving Jottings to Substack, a rapidly growing platform that promises to be a place for writers and readers to more easily share their writing.


Along with continuing to write about the writing life on Substack, I'll now be writing about visual artists, too. I've been influenced and inspired by art and artists since childhood. After writing two biographies about artists, I married and have worked alongside another one, painter and printmaker Robert Kipniss, for more than three decades. The painting above is his "Landscape Near Millerton" of 2007.


I'm also excited that Substack will enable me to post longer essays, some written in the past and some that will be new, to share with you.

See you at Substack next month!


With warm regards,

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Telling the Truth About Oneself

As I prepare to give a talk about the genre of memoir in a few weeks, I'm again reflecting on this compelling and challenging kind of writing that so many of us are tempted to undertake, especially as we get older.


After working for twelve years as a journalist and another twelve as a biographer, I began tentatively to write from my own experience as I was nearing the age of fifty, an age when women often become more outspoken about what they know.


Eventually, I developed a desire to read all my journals and make sense of the past, which resulted in Word for Word: A Writer's Life. It was not always easy to look back and remember, but it gave me astonishing moments of clarity about what had really happened in several family relationships.


In the memoir, I felt it was important to tell the truth as I understood it.


"Remembrance, or what is not written down, can be dreamlike--infused by imagination and fallible by definition. While memory and perception can be imperfect, what is remembered is what's most meaningful in the mind of the memoirist and is as important as fabrication in novels and facts in biography," I explained in the introduction to Word for Word.


Realizing that a memoir is an expression of one's own valid point-of-view, which we are legally entitled to publish as long as it isn't libelous, frees us to be honest as we work in this demanding genre as well as to read the memoirs of others with more understanding.


With warm regards,



Life Stories With Laurie Lisle
Thursday, Nov. 16th, 5 to 6 p.m.
The Norfolk Library
9 Greenwoods Road East
Norfolk, Connecticut 06058


In the next month or so, there's a surprise coming for readers of this newsletter. I'm not going to say more at the moment, but its look and reach are about to change.



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Where We Work: Writers

Unlike artists who typically render images of their studios with paint, we writers usually use words to describe where we work. Often, as non-visual artists, we write more about the aura of a writing room than what it actually looks like.


Virginia Woolf, who famously said that a woman writer needs a room of her own, stressed the importance of simply having a private place to work. Since words make sounds in our heads, some writers mention the need for a silent space. Other writers like to face a window while some prefer a blank wall.

We all like shelf space for our own published books or wall space for their framed jacket covers to remind us that our fragmentary ideas and rough drafts will also become finished books.


Writers use all kinds of desks. Ralph Waldo Emerson worked at a large round revolving table. I once had an ingenious Scandinavian desk that when closed looked like a wooden box and when opened displayed three sets of shelves, a drawer, and a pull-out typing surface. It fit into a small bedroom.


My first writing room was a tiny maid's room in a New York apartment; it had a big closet, a window, and a door that shut. The one I have now in my house is a large downstairs room with large windows that let in morning light. Besides bookcases, it has my grandmother's chaise longue, and my mother's antique desk.


Some writers opt for sheds or cabins to work in away from where they live. Michael Pollan wrote a book about the tiny hut behind his former Connecticut home titled A Place of My Own. He explained that he helped build it in order to work with his hands instead of with words all the time.


He called it "the house for the self that stood a little apart and at an angle, the self that thought a good place to spend the day was between two walls of books in front of a big window overlooking life. The part of me that was willing to wager something worthwhile could come of being alone in the woods with one's thoughts, in a place of one's own, of one's own making." Well said, Michael.



With Warm Regards,



News and Events


Word for Word: A Writer's Life has just received a five-star review from Readers' Favorite, which called it "a poignant and in-depth look at one writer as she matures and defines herself."


Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe has been named the second-best biography of an artist in 2023 by Facts Chronicle, forty-three years after it was first published in 1980.


"Life Stories With Laurie Lisle"
Thursday, Nov. 16th, 5 to 6 p.m.
The Norfolk Library
9 Greenwoods Road East
Norfolk, Connecticut 06058



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Where We Work: Artists' Studios

Artists have long worked in their own studios, and many have portrayed them in paint in ways that give us a glimpse at their attitudes toward their work, and how they go about creating it.


In "The Red Studio", Matisse bathed his workspace in blood-red paint expressing his passionate feelings about what he did there. Likewise, Gaugain's and Bonnard's paintings of their studios are infused with brilliant colors. And Dufy's "The Artist's Studio," with a window view of Paris, is bathed in euphoric sky-blue paint.


Many paintings of studios are also self-portraits, including Anna Waser's ardent "Self-Portrait," painted in 1691 (right), and Grandma Moses's peaceful "In the Studio," a 1944 picture of herself in a beautiful room with vases of flowers, antiques, her works on the walls, and windows letting in bright daylight.


Maddeningly, in his "The Art of Painting" and only known self-portrait, Vermeer depicted himself from the back as he worked from a model, but his focus and intensity are evident.


My husband Robert, an artist, and I debate about who has more fun: artists or writers. I usually admit that an artist moving about a studio while creating shapes and colors probably enjoys him or herself more often than a writer sitting at a computer manipulating black words on a white screen for hours on end.

So what to do if you're a writer? I've discovered that going into my barn room with all my rakes, baskets, stakes, shovels, and other hand tools feels like being in an artist's studio. It's joyous. And even better when I go out to water, weed, and deadhead the flower beds full of beautiful shapes and gorgeous hues.


"This is my color, my form, my texture!" I remarked to an artist friend in my garden one day. "At that moment I understood that gardening is my substitute for making art," I reflected in Four Tenths of an Acre. "And by giving me the easy enjoyment of creativity, it readies me for the writing room."

More About Artists and Their Studios

In 2022 the Museum of Modern Art in New York City devoted an exhibition to Henri Matisse's 1911 painting, "The Red Studio," which is in their collection. It measures 5 feet 11 inches by 7 feet 3 inches.
Click here to see the extensive exhibition catalog.


Women in the Act of Painting is a pictorial blog about the artwork of many women artists at work in their studios both depicted by the artists themselves and by other artists.


"Artists Caught in the Act" by Roberta Smith, The New York Times, Jan. 5, 2007

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The Importance of Walking to Writers

Now that the garden is a little less demanding, I'm taking long walks again on dirt roads and hikes on trails in town. There are beautiful new ones on protected wooded and open acres, thanks to the efforts of the Sharon Land Trust and its volunteers.


Walking, that ancient way of getting around, is essential to the writer in me. It's been important to many other writers, too. Since writers write, there's a large and varied literature on walking from Henry David Thoreau's philosophical Walking to Cheryl Strayed's riveting Wild about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail by herself.


Walking is a wordless activity that magically generates words. Putting one foot in front of another at a good pace offsets the immobility and intensity of writing. It also encourages insights to emerge in a mind resting between attention and inattention.


Walking also stimulates joy. My memory is full of wonderful walks. A path on a Long Island peninsula through bushes full of chickadees opening onto a bright beach. A sheep's footpath descending into a New Mexico canyon. A flat sandy road under Spanish moss-draped oaks on a Georgia island. The aqueduct walkway past backyard gardens in Westchester County. The Appalachian Trail along the river where long-distance hikers head for Maine. My favorite dirt road that winds and straightens alongside a brook as it rises and falls through the woods.

I set out with bells and a whistle in case of bears, and a pad of paper and a pen in the expectation of ideas for my essays-in-progress while knowing that after moving at a steady rhythm for a couple of miles, I'll return rejuvenated. I realize I'm in trouble if dark thoughts do not depart during a long walk.


More Books About Walking

How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh
Wanderers: A History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews
Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are by John Kaag
Walking: One Step at a Time by Erling Kagge

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Giving Girls Places of Their Own

Educating girls apart from boys may seem like an anachronism these days, but there still are good reasons for it. Girls' schools are places where girls can focus on learning, enjoy gender solidarity, learn to be leaders, and so much else.


I know from experience because I lived for three high school years at a small girls' school, Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut, which is still miraculously a place only for girls.




A few weeks ago I returned for alumnae weekend because alumna Laura English has turned my history of the school's first one hundred years, Westover: Giving Girls a Place of Their Own, into an audiobook, and I wanted to celebrate with her.


Returning made me remember that female communities have old roots and are sometimes fictionalized as utopias, like in Matrix by Lauren Groff, a recent novel that describes the way a clever nun turns a poor twelfth-century convent into a prosperous one.


There's also the amusing satirical novel, Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman about a female utopia, which was written about the same time as Westover opened its doors in 1909.


Of course, no place is perfect, and when I attended Westover it was much stricter, more isolated, and less diverse than it is today. Now girls from many backgrounds, religions, and races study there from around the world. Nevertheless, it was where I was inspired to become a writer and learned to develop a daily writing rhythm. I even eventually settled into a village like Middlebury.


Laura English narrated the text of the audiobook while I narrated the preface, "My Westover," written in the first person. In it, I explained that despite thinking that I wasn't really "living" in a cloistered school, Westover was where I felt safe to experiment and intellectually stimulated. "Looking back," I wrote, "I'm grateful that my Real Life was delayed a few years so I could imagine the life I really wanted to live."



Listen to Laura English read from Westover: Giving Girls a Place of Their Own
on Audible
(Click to find the audio sample beneath the audiobook image on the Amazon page)





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Why Writer's Write

On the second anniversary of the publication of Word for Word: A Writer's Life, I'd like to reflect on why writers write.


Years ago I read the late Carolyn Heilbrun's brilliant little book, Writing A Woman's Life. In it, she mentioned the ways women's lives are written: as a memoir, as fiction, as biography, and as something else: "the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously."


By then I had written Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, a biography as well as a book about the kind of life I wanted to live.

Writing in the 1980s, Heilbrun, a literature professor at Columbia University, stated in her book that few works about women's lives dared to truthfully portray their anger and ambition.
Inspired by Professor Heilbrun's words, I drafted an essay, "Why I Write." It was for a voice, I wrote at the time, a strong written voice that, unlike a spoken one, could not be ignored, interrupted, or voiced over. There were other reasons, too, like remembering what I knew and expressing what I thought.


When I eventually wrote a memoir, my challenge was to be as brave and honest as Heilbrun had urged, and I'm glad some readers thought it was courageous. Interestingly, the professor never wrote a memoir herself but portrayed a more adventurous self via a fictional alter ago in mysteries written under a pseudonym.


No longer the youthful writer who wondered why she really wanted to write, I know now that my writing is a desire to order thoughts and express emotional truths. And it's still about the importance of voice: its volume and velocity as well as its possibilities for revelation.


With warm regards,


More By Writers on Writing:

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934)

Why I Write by George Orwell (1947)

On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion (1966) in
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (2001)



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Into The Garden Again

Every April I remember again what gardening brings to writing, and what writing gets from gardening.


In the chapter "Words" in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life, the book I wrote through green glasses, I wrote how alarmed I was after moving to the country and becoming possessed by biophilia, the state of intense pleasure in nature, as gardening felt more gratifying than writing.


Happily, my alarm didn't last longer than the growing season. I discovered that whenever I was worried about my writing, going into the garden in the afternoon was like passing through a looking glass from a darker to a lighter state of mind.


Once I was planting and watering behind the house, I would feel buoyant and in balance once again. "While writing emptied me out, it was gardening that filled me up again," I wrote, making it easier to return to writing the next morning.


Like many other writers over the years, I discovered that organizing words and planting flowers complement each other perfectly. One exercises the brain and the other the body.


And as the rhythm of weeding and deadheading put my mind in a peaceful place between the overdrive of writing and the amnesia of sleep, new words welled up, and those already written rearranged themselves in new ways.


Even better, I learned that the more I worked with elements of nature in the garden, the more I wanted to write from the root, or, to only write about what mattered most to me. And that's what I did when I wrote Word for Word.


So enough words for now...I'm going outside into the garden.


With warm regards,





For those of you who live in or near Rhode Island, check out my cousin's fabulous garden in Little Compton: Sakonnet Garden


Good gardening groups near me include Mad Gardeners, the Berkshire Botanical Garden, and my own Sharon Garden Club


Bookstores with autographed copies of Four Tenths of an Acre include:
Oblong Books, Millerton, NY
The Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT

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The Best Way to Read

We have so many choices about how to absorb words--on paper, by sound, or as digits--that it's sometimes difficult to decide how to read a book.


We can go from one to another depending on where we are or what we are doing. Instead of taking the thousand-page biography of Sylvia Plath on a train and carrying it around New York, I was glad to read it on my iPad.


I prefer to read words on paper because a bound book is so tactile and tangible, but there are even better reasons to read this way.


It's distracting when listening to an audiobook or podcast while walking or driving so the passing visual world doesn't get in the way of what the ear hears.


When I listened with my eyes shut to an interview with neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf about the "reading mind," I was not at all surprised to learn that reading motionless words on paper leads to deeper concentration and more comprehension. And better remembering, too. In Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, she points out that scanning and scrolling get in the way of what she calls deep reading.


When we read rapidly on digital devices, our brains process information differently than when reading written words more slowly. As we practice what she calls "cognitive patience," we're much more likely to gain insight into what we're learning.


Can we really show down for deep reading? I'll try. When I look at my reading list, it's tempting to want to read faster. Instead, I've resolved to browse pages of books on the shelves of libraries and bookstores, and even online, to discover the words worth hours of deep reading.



This is my favorite reading spot.


With warm regards,

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