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About Being Reviewed

Word For Word  Publication May  11,2021

     When a box of advance reading copies of Word for Word: A Writer's Life arrived recently, I felt a little trepidation about sending out the books before remembering others' attitudes toward reviews.

     Centuries ago, an English duchess, Margaret Cavendish, hoped that people would not think her "vain" for writing a memoir; it might not be important to them, she admitted, "but it is to the Authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs."

     Georgia O'Keeffe was also defiant about reviews: "I make up my own mind about it—how good or bad or how indifferent it is. After that, critics can write what they please. I have already worked it out for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free."

 

     I'm neither indifferent like the duchess nor defiant like O'Keeffe. While working on my memoir was a little like writing a long letter to myself, I hope that what I learned might be meaningful to others.

 

     Before long, there were some very nice responses, including:

 

     "Word for Word is a beautifully told story about the growth of a woman writer…whose intellectual and spiritual debts are to women writers, feminism, and, more generally, to strong women…" Carol Ascher, author of Afterimages: A Family Memoir

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     "In fluid, evocative prose that is at once personal and political, Laurie Lisle turns her biographer's eye on her own life with a clear-eyed, honest gaze that probes, delights, and illuminates." Jennifer Browdy, author of The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir.
 

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The Way I Wrote My Memoir

Word For Word: A Writer's Life  Publication May 11, 2021

      Writers cherish words, and I've saved my own and the words of others sent to me in letters throughout my life.

     

   When I decided to write a memoir, I went to look for my forty or so journals. 

     

      "I gathered them together, numbered them, and arranged them on a bookshelf--from the college spiral notebooks to the more recent hardback Moleskine volumes--and then opened the fragile first page of the 1963 journal," as I explained in Word for Word: A Writer's Life.  

     

     They helped me remember and then write the memoir.   

 

     The image above is a photo of the journals along with a teenage diary with a lock and a cartoon character on the cover saying "my year... and how I shot it."

 

     I took the journals with me everywhere. They're now a bit battered, and the paper is brittle and in some places torn, but the words remain legible.

 

 

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How I Chose A Cover For My Memoir

This is the cover of my forthcoming memoir, Word for Word: A Writer's Life.

 

When perusing old black-and-white photographs for possible use in the memoir, I discovered contact sheets taken when posing for an author photo for my first book, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

I was surprised to see so many different expressions on my face in front of the camera that day. Eventually, images of that 37-year-old debut author—at a turning point in her personal and professional lives—best expressed the nature of the memoir.

 

The image on the cover is one of three contact sheets given to me by the photographer, Edward Spiro, so I could choose a headshot for the jacket cover of my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

Four decades later the designer of Word for Word, Paul Barrett, selected poses from the contact sheets to create a cover for the memoir.

 

 

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Eight Excellent Books About Memoir

When I began thinking about writing in the first person, I turned to books by memoirists to find out why and how had they written memoirs. Now that I've finished writing my own memoir, Word for Word: A Writer's Life, I want to share them with others.

 

The first book I read was William Zinsser's Inventing the Truth with essays by Annie Dillard, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, Eileen Simpson, and five other memoirists. Evidently, their experiences didn't discourage me.

 

Next was Vivian Gornick's slender little The Situation and the Story, which made it very clear that I had to discard a biographer's distance when writing a memoir. "The situation is the context or circumstance…the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer," she stated.  

 

"Memoirists step carefully from one emotionally charged fragment to another as they explore the psychic geographies of their pasts: the persecutors, the traumas, the betrayals, the secrets, and the shame, but also, thankfully, the love," wrote Janet Mason Ellerby in her fascinating Intimate Reading.

 

After meeting Tom Larson in New Mexico, where we were both teaching at a writer's conference, I read his The Memoir and the Memoirist, where he developed Virginia Woolf's concept of the "I-then and I-now," the way an older self reflects on a younger self in memoir.

 

Then there was Sven Birkerts's The Art of Time in Memoir, in which he explained that memoir is "the artistic transformation of the actual via the alchemy of psychological insight, pattern recognition, and lyrical evocation." It seeemed like the ultimate challenge to me, but one I was willing to attempt.

 

Listed alphabetically, these and other books about memoir are:

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkets (2008)

Intimate Reading: The Contemporary Women's Memoir by Janet Mason Ellerby (2001)

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick (2001)

Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir by Beth Kephart (2013)

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson (2007)

To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction by Philip Lopate (2013)

Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature edited by Meredith Maran (2016)

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser (1998)

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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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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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What's More Truthful: Fact or Fiction?

What's interesting about Richard Ford's recent memoir, Between Them: Remembering My Parents, is the way he makes the reader aware of the unreliability of memory--his memory, that is, but also any nonfiction writer's memory.

Many times as he describes an event, he almost stops in mid-sentence to confess that he didn't entirely comprehend what was going on around him as a child. "And for me, how was it?" he asks in one way or another throughout the memoir.

In fact, a novelist's imagination can be regarded as more truthful than a memoirist's memory, as Cheryl Strayed has pointed out in a review of his book.

Reading Ford's book has made me grateful to have many journals to rely on for my memoir. Still, even though the entries were written at the time events happened, I always have to remind myself that my interpretations of them are only my own. Also, from time to time I have to re-read passages in my journals to make sure my re-writing and editing of the manuscript has not affected a passage's original meaning.

I wonder if Ford will attempt nonfiction again, or if I will ever fall with relief into fiction?  Read More 
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Is Writing a Memoir Bad or Good for Your Head?

A few months ago, I listened to a group of memoirists talking about, well, memoir during a panel discussion in New York. It was full of surprises, but what startled me the most was their answer to the last question asked my moderator Gail Lumet Buckley, a memoirist herself.

Did you find writing a memoir cathartic? Each one of the panelists--Bill Hayes, Sheila Kohler, and Daphne Merkin--said it was not.

This alarmed me since I am working on a memoir in the understanding that dredging up the past, thinking about it, then ordering it into phrases, sentences, and paragraphs will continue to be a clarifying and finally a liberating experience.

Certainly other memoirists say so. Writing a memoir can be "restorative, compensatory in the deepest way," writes Sven Birkerts in his fascinating The Art of Time in Memoir. Witnessing "the self's encounter with its assumptions and illusions, the private reckoning given literary form, is one of the deep rewards of writing memoir."

None of the panelists explained their answer but, I suppose, remembering can sometimes be more upsetting than settling. Whether I ultimately agree with them or not, I believe that writing a memoir can be what Birkerts calls "an act of self-completion," if not one of equanimity.  Read More 
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Memoir: Discovering an Important Insight

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick's wise and thoughtful meditation about her teaching of nonfiction--mostly in the form of essays and memoirs--she states that nothing is more vital in memoir than the power of an important insight.

Then "the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer's organizing principle. That principal at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament," she writes.

So how do we memoirists discover and develop our most revealing insights? I have found that, like other aspects of writing, it's a matter of patiently using our memories and refining our manuscripts until core revelations make themselves known.

As I work away on my memoir, I have come to understand that my drive has been to return to an early sense of paradise, not unlike the one I have found again as an earthly pleasure in my garden. And also experience as I enjoy a pot of red cyclamen on my desk on a December day.  Read More 
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