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A Writer's Jottings

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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The Pleasure of Other Writers' Company

Writers work alone but, like others, they occasionally want colleagues with whom to talk about the writing life. Luckily, we writers often end up writing about what we do, so if another writer isn't around with whom with whom have a cup of coffee, we can read each others' books about writing.

After finishing Lynn Freed's honest and insightful Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, I know what she means when she describes a distinct writerly voice developing "through a sort of slow, blind groping after something simmering along the nerves," before it becomes an author's way with words as characteristic as an artist's unique brushstroke or a musician's chord.

While searching for more books about writing, I sometimes peruse the ones that have meant a lot to me, like A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick, and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro.

As I write this, I wonder about your favorites.  Read More 
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Balancing Isolation and Involvement

Last week I dipped into my biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, Portrait of an Artist, for the first time in three decades because psychoanalyst Gail Saltz asked me to talk about the painter in her "Psychobiography" series of extraordinary people at the 92 Street Y in New York.

One of Dr. Saltz's interests is the relationship between creativity and mental illness, so we talked a little about O'Keeffe's debilitating depression in her forties, when she stopped painting for two years. She wanted to paint in New Mexico during the summer months, while her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, wanted her by his side. It was this conflict between intimacy and independence that almost destroyed O'Keeffe.

Our discussion at the Y reminded me that inner conflicts can also inspire creativity, and O'Keeffe recovered to paint marvelous levitating skulls and summer flowers in Southwestern skies. And it also made me reflect about the ways writers must blend the isolation necessary for writing with involvement with others. My way is to try to balance morning writing hours with afternoon and evening hours for other kinds of living, an equilibrium that, when it works, feels just right.  Read More 
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Returning and Remembering

Recently turning again to the beginning of my memoir, the part called "Providence," I felt a compulsion to return for a few days to the place I was born and grew up. It felt necessary once more to walk the city's old streets and to see its historic buildings. I had to be a girl reporter again, and gather more details about the place of my girlhood, in my desire to delve deeper and deeper into the past.

When I worked for The Providence Journal after college, the small New England city was struggling to get on its feet. Now there is a new vibrancy as department stores have become artists' lofts, and a bank building has turned into an art library and a dormitory for artists-to-be studying at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Much is different, but the essence of Providence is the same. As I worked at the Providence Public Library and the Rhode Island Historical Society--located in the old library where I fell in love with children's books--I did discover more and remember much more.

Now that I've returned home, I'm ready to settle down and write.  Read More 
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On writing: Beginning another draft of my memoir

Any manuscript goes through a number of revisions until it is done, when a writer has a sixth sense that it is finally finished, jelled, and that adding even another word or two to a paragraph would be perilous.

Until that moment, a writer goes through many patient steps--preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration--which are circular and overlapping, not linear at all, another writer has pointed out.

When I was a schoolgirl and the goldenrod began to bloom in August, it was always a startling reminder that the ease of summer vacation was almost over, and another school year was about to start.

The goldenrod is blossoming again in early September, and I am beginning another draft of my memoir. Most of the story is down on paper, so it's time to circle back to elaborate with more curlicues and explanation points (metaphorically speaking).

I feel as if I were a schoolgirl again, creating an intriguing challenge for myself.  Read More 
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The Way Walking Inspires Writing

One of the ways I shake words loose is to go for a walk. By myself. With a pen and pad in my pocket. Along a country road taking me under trees, around bends, beside brooks, up and down hills, and alongside green fields.

The rhythm of putting one foot in front of another has a way of loosening thoughts from the depths of the mind. It's a matter of slowing the mind down to the pace of footsteps and distracting it from a to-do list.

Now in high summer the white Queen Anne's lace and blue Bachelor buttons are abundantly blooming in patches of sun along the roads, but every month in New England brings different blossoms and foliage.

Walking and thinking is an ancient practice. It was originally noted by a Greek philosopher, then written down in Latin as solivitur ambulando,meaning "it will be solved by walking." Many American writers have walked and written about its benefits, notably Henry David Thoreau in Walking (1861).

I almost always return from a walk feeling a little lighter, mentally as well as bodily, and with a pocket full of scrawled notes.  Read More 
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Being Inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe

The Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective in London makes me reflect about my long interest in this artist's images and words. It was in 1970--forty-six years ago--when I first saw her paintings in another large show in New York. New to Manhattan, I was a young journalist trying to find my own form of self-expression.

O'Keeffe's astonishing images impressed me that afternoon. They made me want to find words she had written about how she was able to create them. I began searching for her words, and even words written about her, but there were few to be found.

A few years later, many of her images were published in a volume titled Georgia O'Keeffe, along with a few of her words describing her early experiences as an artist. The book was soon followed by another with intimate photographs taken of her by Alfred Stieglitz, along with her words in the same straightforward and evocative voice about their relationship.

Intrigued, I found more of her words in letters and exhibition catalogs in archives and museum libraries, and realized I had enough to begin to write a biography about her. Portrait of An Artist: A Biography of Georgia O'Keeffe was published a few years later.

Her words have guided and inspired me to discover my own delicate, difficult, ever changing balance of intimacy and independence in my own life, and how to find a way to write about it.

Then five years ago, hundreds of O'Keeffe's letters were published in My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz , reminding me of my excitement at her exhibit so long ago. So this week it is deeply gratifying to see the videos and read the rave reviews of her largest exhibition outside the United States.  Read More 
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Do We Really Think Through Our Mothers?

The big purple bearded iris have started their annual blooming in my backyard, the ones my mother gave me from her garden, and the same ones she dug from her own mother's garden. Their genesis reminds me of Virginia Woolf's words in A Room of One's Own about thinking back through our mothers if we are women.

My mother, Adeline, was disinclined to give advice, and I got little or none from my three Rhode Island grandmothers, Helen and Persis, and my step-grandmother, Caroline. What did my mother's mother, Persis, learn from her New Hampshire mother? I looked up in a family history the given name of this great-grandmother, whom I had only seen in old black-and-white photographs, and was reminded it was Mary Emelina.

Searching for the names of female ancestors tells me how few of their words of wisdom are passed down from generation to generation. Although we are stamped with genetic memory, it is silent memory.

While working on a memoir, I still use the dictionary that Persis gave me at the age of ten. I re-read the few letters from Adeline and Helen that I managed to save, searching between the lines to learn what they knew. When we try to think back through our mothers, it is often a halting journey, but the blooming of the dark purple iris reminds me to try.  Read More 
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How A Writer Used her Guilt About Not Writing

Four Tenths of an Acre is a book I wrote out of, well, guilt. After moving from the city to the country, I spent many afternoons gardening in the yard behind my house instead of working on the biography I was supposed to be writing.

This gardening memoir grew, ironically, out of all those afternoons of not writing.

It was a time when I saw everything through a gardener's green glasses. As I taught myself how to grow perennials, I took detailed notes in one garden notebook after another about planting, weeding, deadheading, watering, and all the rest. Before long I had filled many notebooks, and I realized I had the makings of a book.

I am gratified that more than 700 readers tossed their hats into the ring for a chance to win a copy of the book during the recent Goodreads Giveaway, and I've been busy during the past few weeks sending books out to the two dozen winners.  Read More 
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The Way I Became a Writer

Driving home yesterday from a class reunion at the girls' boarding school I described in Westover: Giving Girls A Place of Their Own, I felt a sense of gratitude. It was where, as a teenager, I was able to daydream about the life I wanted to live, and by graduation I wanted it to be a writing life.

I had taken an inspiring elective called Creative Writing during my junior year, and before long what I was writing--mostly descriptive nonfiction--was being published in the school's literary magazine, named The Lantern for the light of learning, and I was seeing my first bylines.

The heart of the school is still a large lofty room decorated in crimson called Red Hall. It looks out into a courtyard, which is enclosed by a beautiful old quadrangle, and where apple trees are hung with lanterns decorated with ribbons in the spring. Read More 
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