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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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The Pleasures of Handwriting

Handwriting is the writer's craft, and I like using it much more than digital fonts that mimic script.


Good reasons exist for writers to make loops and lines and dots and dashes by hand rather than always tapping keys on a keyboard, to use cursive instead of the cursor more of the time.


I write in longhand in my journal, in penned notes, and even on manuscripts. It's like a private language in my journal that's not easily deciphered. Writing words of thanks or sympathy on monogrammed stationery or personalized note paper feels more intimate to me than sending an email through cyperspace.


There are advantages to editing a manuscript on paper rather than on a computer screen. Digital pages make a work in progress appear deceptively done, whereas messy hand-edited pages look like the rough drafts they are. The slower process of handwriting can generate more insights than faster online speed, too.


Letters written in ink on paper are important to biographers because smudges (tears?), crossed-out words (changes of heart?), and misspellings (indifference?) are clues. Georgia O'Keeffe penned the word "I" curled in on itself in a large, upright, calligraphic letter revealing her strong sense of self.



Now that schoolchildren use laptops, many are no longer able to write in longhand or even read it. Yet I may be too worried because when I saw an exhibit of Jane Austen's precise penned curlicues written with a quill pen, I struggled to decipher her words Even so, since I enjoy the tactile pleasure of using my hand to create continuous and broken lines that curl and straighten or slash, I'm going to continue writing by hand, even if my scrawled words are lost to posterity, too.



With Warm Regards, 





Monday, March 6, 2023, 3:30 pm
A presentation about family memoir by Laurie Lisle, Marnie Mueller, and Victoria Olsen
Women Writing Women's Lives Seminar
CUNY Graduate Center
365 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY


Westover: Giving Girls a Place of Their Own
An audio edition of the book is in the works! Alumna Laura English '83, a professional reader, will have it ready by Alumnae Weekend this spring. I've recorded the Preface, an essay titled "My Westover," for it.

For more information about handwriting, see The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubeck

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Writers and Their Talismans

After viewing Joan Didion's desk items to be auctioned soon at Stair & Co. in Hudson, New York, I began thinking about writers and their talismans, tokens, and the other things we need nearby as we sit at our computers arranging and re-arranging words.


It was interesting but not surprising to see pens, paperweights, boxes for paperclips, magnifying glasses, an antique inkstand with a blotter, and a music box in the shape of a typewriter that once played "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."


It made me take another look at what I have around me when I work. There is the wooden African female figure with an overly enlarged head--exactly the way I feel when I write. Then there are gifts from my husband Robert--a heartwarming red glass heart and an encouraging little jar that says "write." And there's the silver paperclip box engraved with angels and the carved black stones I use as paperweights. And the white orchid.

We writers need all the comfort and inspiration we can get during the long hours spent working away by ourselves. Looking up from a keyboard to glimpse an item of beauty, nostalgia, or amusement is a way to keep going. And to easily reach an object to fasten or hold down a piece of paper is a way to keep us in our desk chairs. Unlike the ephemeral words moving around in our heads, these tangible objects with physical presences and practical purposes are oddly important to us.



Talismans On and Around Joan Didion's Desk


Her metal music box in the shape of an old typewriter is pictured here along with framed photographs of the writer.


Among other items in the auction are blank notebooks, a leather-bound journal, a clipboard, a large unabridged Random House dictionary on a stand, artwork, and books by Didion and her favorite authors. The auction date is November 16th, 2022.

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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






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,
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,


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,




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,

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