icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Jottings page
 
 

The Best Pandemic Writing

Katherine Anne Porter

While living through the past pandemic year, I reread Katherine Anne Porter's luminous autobiographical novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, about a youthful Denver newspaperwoman's harrowing illness during the 1918 flu epidemic. 

 

In it, she vividly evoked the wartime era, the delirium of her fever, and the rapture of a near-death experience that Christians call the "beatific vision," from which she emerged after remembering her love for a young soldier, only to learn that he had died in the epidemic. 

 

"Everything before was just getting ready, and after that I was in some strange way altered, ready," she reflected, and she became a serious novelist.

 

The pandemic of 2020-21 has also changed many of us in various ways. I, for one, have been reminded of the privilege of living.

 

I also realized the importance of finishing the memoir, Word for Word, which I have been working on for a while. My monthly newsletter has explained how I chose its cover, and it will describe the way I wrote it and why, and make announcements about its forthcoming publication.

 

 

 

Post a comment

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.

 

 

Post a comment

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)

Post a comment

A Tree of Light

Writers like myself have had an easier time than many others during the pandemic because we are used to working by ourselves at home. As we have eliminated all but the most essential errands and other activities, we have more uninterrupted hours to write. It's even a little like being at an arts colony.

 

Yet it's been impossible to avoid the fear of getting the virus, great sadness about those we have lost to it, and worry about all the other anxieties engulfing that nation.

 

As the days darken at the end of a very dark year, I remember the words of writer Henry James: "We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task.  The rest is the madness of art." It's a reason, I believe, for writers to keep writing.

 

I'm grateful that the tradition of placing illuminated holiday trees along main roads in nearby villages has been extended this year to my village. Now a pine sparkles in front of my house after dusk every evening, a beacon of beauty in the dark night

2 Comments
Post a comment

Why Gardening Makes Writing Easier

Laurie among baskets and plant stakes in her garden room in the barn behind the house.

Only a white clapboard wall of my house separates the indoor and outdoor parts of my existence: the writer and the gardener. The divide is porous, as light comes in the windows, but it is also enormous because of the way it affects my emotions.

 

Whenever I walked out the basement door into the backyard, I discovered as I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life, that "whenever I was worried about anything--my writing, my love life, or the yard itself--going outside was like passing through a looking glass from a darker to a lighter state of mind." Even though it's difficult to garden in the harsh and unpredictable New England weather, gloom always dissipated when I began to deadhead and weed, even though I know that more weeds will spring up after the next rainstorm. This doesn't happen when I dust and pick up inside, even though I love all the small the rooms of the house.

 

Once I marveled about this to my mother, a gifted and passionate gardener, and asked her why it was so much more rewarding for us to turn decomposing cuttings in a compost pile than to mix together the ingredients of a chocolate cake. She thought for a moment and then offered: "because it's outside." Being outside wasn't the only reason, but it was reason enough because it explained that being absorbed by what makes everything grow--from bright air to dark porous soil--gives buoyancy to a gardener.

 

I also learned that after hours using my body in the garden, it feels good to go back inside and use my brain in my writing room.

 

 

Post a comment

Georgia O'Keeffe's Shadow Self

From a 1924 Stieglitz photo of Ida (left) and Georgia O'Keeffe

 

It's disconcerting to see snapshots of Ida and Georgia O'Keeffe together in the exhibition and catalog, "Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow," now at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA for the summer.

 

The features of the sisters, born two years apart, are almost identical--heavy brows, fan-shaped eyes, chiseled lips, dark brown hair--but their expressions are not. Outgoing Ida often looks a little distracted in contrast to her older sister's intense focus. Even their hairstyles and clothing dramatically differ.

 

When this photo was taken, the sisters were in their mid-thirties. Georgia had been at Alfred Stieglitz's side for six years when he had fervently encouraged her as an artist and exhibited her work. Ida, in contrast, had worked as a nurse, turned to art later, then struggled to find time to paint and chances to exhibit. 

 

It was as if Ida was Georgia's shadow self: a sister with artistic talent but without the same opportunity. I left the exhibition feeling sad about Ida but very glad that Georgia had made the transition from Texas art teacher to prolific American painter.

Post a comment

How Long Do Writers Write?

 

We now have an inkling about how long writers write, thanks to Emily Temple, a senior editor at Lit Hub, who examined the publishing histories of eighty authors.

 

Average age for initial publication was 28, with young men publishing first books four years earlier than young women. The women's average was age 31,  when Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing came out. Average age for final publication was 64, about the same for both genders.

 

Poetry books were published earliest, starting with Vladimir Nabokov at 17 and Adrienne Rich at 22. Memoirs naturally came later, like Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, published when she was 75, while Ursula K. Le Guin and Jean Rhys fiinished memoirs in their eighties. 

 

Lengths of everyone's careers averaged 34 years, with men lasting five years longer than women. Fame was often unrelated to longevity; Jane Austen's novels were published within six years, while Sylvia Plath's appeared within only two years. Others including Lessing, Rich, and Nabokov were lucky enough to publish for half a century or more.

 

Since I, like most other writers, wish I had written and published a little more, it was heartening to learn that I am doing just fine. At 37, a little late, I published my first book, but at age, well, never mind, my memoir is still to appear, so I am writing longer than many others.

 

Of course there's a big difference between writing and publishing. Writers rarely stop writing, whether it's letters or journals, essays or articles, or unfinished books. Nonetheless, the Lit Hub editor has given us a fascinating peek at how long we go on.

 

 

 

 

Post a comment

Writing in Winter

In midwinter, I must confess, part of me dreads the arrival of spring. How can this be since I'm an ardent gardener? The answer is that when my backyard starts greening up, my desire to go out in the garden on sunny mornings, instead staying at my desk, becomes difficult to resist.

 

In winter I spend many short daylight hours in my writing room. "Low rays of weak sun make the shadows of bare branches dance across my hands as I work at my desk," I wrote in Four Tenths of an Acre: Reflections on a Gardening Life. "Even on cloudy days the watery midwinter glow on the other side of the window glass makes me feel bathed in luminescence."

 

The dark days of winter are the time for the germination of ideas as well as the time for the reading, remembering, and reflection essential to the memoir I am working on.

 

While winter gives glints of briliant light off snow, spring offers many hours of warm daylight. Every February when immersed in a manuscript, I am sure I have no time for spring and become apprehensive about what looms like a deadline.

 

I suppose this only happens to writers who garden in places like New England. Certainly the explosion of growth in April around my house in Connecticut is dramatic, as colors turn from grays and browns to greens and yellows followed by the pinks, blues, and purples during the rest of the growing season.

 

I must also confess that another part of myself can't wait.

1 Comments
Post a comment

How to Read to Write

When I picked up a copy of The Best American Essays of 1996, it was when my third book had just been published, and I was looking for new ideas and inspiration--so it was exciting to find myself reading the richness of what I call verity.

 

Now one of my bookshelves holds 22 volumes of the series in a rainbow of colors, including a thick white one, which was guest edited by Stephen Jay Gould in 2002, and a slim orange one edited by poet Mary Oliver in 2009. Was it a matter of a poet turning up her nose at entries or a nonfiction writer throwing his arms around them?

 

Over the years I've read essays by both famous and obscure writers, which were first published in well-known magazines, like The New Yorker, and little literary magazines, like ZYZZYVA. Among the wide range of styles and subjects I discovered the writing of Patricia Hampl in the gray 1999 volume and the work of Lauren Slater in the pinkish-peach 1997 one.

 

I've found wisdom, too. In the 2004 robin egg's blue edition, Louis Menard wrote that a writer has to wait for "something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for writers, is the voice...What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking...the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice, it is your singing voice--except that it comes out as writing."

 

My love of the essay has been affirmed by series editor Robert Atwan's forewords about the genre, including in The Best American Essays of 2018. Observing the long list authors of almost included essays in the back of each edition occasionally become included authors, has allowed me to dream about sometime being among them. 

3 Comments
Post a comment

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.

 

2 Comments
Post a comment