Pen to paper

A small group gathered to hear Laurie Lisle speak in the great hall of the Norfolk Library on Thursday, Nov. 16. 

Addressing the audience in front of the library’s grand stone fireplace, library director Ann Havemeyer introduced Lisle and welcomed her to the podium. 

Lisle read passages from her memoir “Word for Word: A Writer’s Life” (Artemis Editions, May 2021). She cited morality, liability and veracity as three major factors to consider when writing a memoir. 

“My feeling now is that it’s best to discuss your work with your subject. It can lead to new and deeper understanding,” she said. 

Lisle explained how liability is another factor and that the First Amendment gives authors latitude. But she advised caution and recounted how she had a lawyer review her first memoir. “Luckily there were no problems,” she said. 

Speaking of the importance of veracity, Lisle said, “Facts are easier than memories and perception, which is freeing.”

Sharing insight into independent publishing, Lisle described some of the challenges of working with established publishers. “They often give unwanted edits or even try to change the cover design,” she said. 

Platforms like Amazon.com have made things easier for independent authors. Lisle has used the Alliance of Independent Authors and spoke highly of the organization. 

Addressing why people write memoirs, Lisle reflected on nearing 80. 

“I began looking back at my life, and realized that memoir was a powerful form of self expression to tell my own story. I read the obituaries of friends. I started thinking about my remaining time,” she said. 

Looking inward was powerful but painful. Lisle had a violent physical reaction and ended up in Sharon Hospital, which she attributed to reliving painful memories. 

“It wasn’t always easy,” she said. “My present self saw the dark side of my past self. But it helped me gain clarity and develop deeper relationships with my father and my first husband, which gave me a sense of forgiveness and peace. Memoir writing is a kind of literary alchemy. You can’t change the past, but you can deepen your understanding of it.”

In researching herself as a subject, she read her school report cards; walked her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island; read newspapers from the early ‘70s to capture the flavor of the era; and transcribed 40 journals and digitized the data.

“I realized that my essential nature had changed little,” Lisle said. “Continuing with the memoir felt adventurous. But I didn’t want the past to ruin the present. My husband Robert encouraged me to ‘write the white flame of my heart.’ Remembering became less painful through organizing paragraphs. It was hard but deepening. I found my way back to the happiness of the early years of my life.” 

Reading passages from Word for Word, Lisle portrayed an inspirational trek along the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico overlooking the vast valley and high desert landscape  where Georgia O’Keefe painted, and spoke of how she evolved from a teller of other women’s stories to telling her own, giving up the third person for the first.

Enthralled, the audience asked questions about her process and if she would have been able to write “Word for Word” without her handwritten journals. 

“The pace is different, and there’s been a lot of research done on the benefits of hand-brain connection. I also like that no one else can read it,” she said.

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