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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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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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