When I Decided to Write My Own Story—And Not Someone Else’s

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Today’s post is an excerpt from the memoir Word for Word: A Writer’s Life by Laurie Lisle (@LiteraryLaurie).

The digital revolution was upending the publishing world, and I worried how authors, especially biographers like myself, would work in the future without the existence of handwritten letters, diaries, and other words on paper. Nevertheless, I pulled from the back of a file cabinet my abandoned book proposal about writers Neith Boyce and Hutchins Hapgood. As I read it again, my excitement returned about writing a literary biography; I still relished the intellectual adventure of investigating primary materials. Three decades after I wrote the proposal, the couple’s extensive papers, including their letters to each other, had been organized and indexed at the Beinecke library in New Haven.

I had been able to learn relatively little about Neith in the 1970s, before the days of personal computers and internet searches, when it would have taken years—long after a book contract was signed—to discover the details of her life. Two decades later, after digitized books and databases revolutionized research, I was able to read in a matter of months almost everything that had ever been published about the couple. Two books of excerpts of their work edited by feminist scholars had also been published. As I read, I discovered that Hutch resented Neith’s attention to writing and neglect of housework and the family. I also learned that while he had a number of affairs, when she did, too, he became tormented by the fear that they meant more to her than his flings did to him. When she fell in love, then reluctantly gave up her lover for the sake of the children, she suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never fully recovered. And in a collection of Eugene O’Neill’s letters, I was very dismayed to find a description of Neith lying on the floor in an alcoholic stupor “as always.”

After her last two books were published in 1923—the novel Proud Lady and Harry: A Portrait, a nonfiction account about her eldest son who died in the 1918 pandemic—she wrote and published very little. I was disturbed that a memoir, which she called an autobiography, was written in the third person, under a pseudonym; most appalling, it ended abruptly on her wedding day, as if she didn’t want to face what came afterward. When I was in my thirties, I had known about a few of Neith’s disappointments, but her failure to publish her autobiography and any novels after the age of fifty-one, when I had begun to write in a personally meaningful way, had not been as important to me then. I was no longer the same young woman in an unhappy marriage who had imagined that Neith and Hutch’s was a thrilling romantic relationship.

Instead of Neith’s being an inspiring life, I realized it was a cautionary tale for women writers, especially for those who want to become wives and mothers. It was the same conflict between career and children I had wrestled with, and which many young writers still valiantly struggle with today. As I learned the truth about Neith’s life, I developed the crise de confiance I had experienced in the middle of writing my biographies, when I was forced to reconsider my innocence or idealism about my subjects’ imperfections, but then I had contracts with publishers, and I was motivated to work my way through my disillusionment to degrees of understanding. It wasn’t long before I developed a sickening feeling in my stomach about the prospect of thinking about Neith’s tragic life every day for the next few years. I vacillated for a while, unwilling to undertake a pathography or give up the biography again.

When I talked about my dilemma with a friend, he remarked that at our ages we should not do anything without passion. Not just interest or pleasure, he emphasized, but passion. As my seventieth birthday approached, I found myself asking how many more writing years I had left, and I was startled to realize there were only twelve until I turned eighty. “Twelve precious, productive years, if I’m lucky. How to best spend these precious years?” I asked myself. Biology, and mortality, too, suddenly appeared as different kinds of deadlines. I remembered that Neith’s daughter, Miriam, had been in her mid-seventies when she worried aloud to me about whether she had enough time and energy remaining to publish some of her parents’ prose, and it turned out that she did not. By the time I finished writing another biography, I recognized that I would probably be her age, and there was something else I wanted to do.

Would there be enough time to write another biography and then a memoir? While a biographer’s time is finite, I knew very well that biographies often take more time than anticipated. I asked myself if I should search the forty-eight boxes of another family’s papers or read my forty handwritten journals. Spend my days researching in an archive in New Haven or working at home near my garden? One sunny spring day, while looking through a box of letters at the Beinecke library, I finally acknowledged that it wasn’t passion motivating me as much as curiosity and eagerness to get back to work. Maybe I would settle for meaningfulness, but I wasn’t finding enough of that either.

When writing my biographies of strong women while enduring the opposition of men I had married, I had kept working, in retrospect readying myself for telling my own story. I had begun, but was I ready to do more? When I asked myself if it would be presumptuous for me to write a memoir, I knew the question was an old one. In 1655 Margaret Cavendish, the English Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a prolific writer and childless wife, had hoped readers would not think her “vain” for writing about herself; her memoir might not be important to them, she admitted, “but it is to the Authoress, because I write it for my own sake, not theirs.” Her defiant words reminded me that writing for oneself was often a writer’s motivation, but I hoped what I learned might be meaningful to others, too.

Finally, on a summer day I put the book proposal about Neith and Hutch back in the file cabinet with a mixture of regret and relief and went to look for my handwritten 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. When I had read passages in the past at a crossroad or a time of confusion, it had made me feel skinless, so I had stopped. Now I vowed to ignore the feeling of vulnerability and to read every one of them, most for the first time since writing them.

As I read and remembered, searching for dialogues and descriptions, what had been lost in memory became alive again. Former emotions rushed back, and I was astonished to experience the exact same indignation or hopefulness or pain I had felt many years earlier. “How can that be?” I asked myself. “It was so long ago.” It was as if everything I had ever thought or felt remained imprinted deep in my memory. As I deciphered the handwriting on page after page during my decade in Manhattan, the erratic penmanship and outpouring of turbulent feelings enabled me to inhabit a younger self who had struggled for energy and exuberance while also looking for love and security as well as a way forward. At moments I applauded her daring or despaired at her hesitancy, gyrating from exhilaration about an insight to excruciating sadness about the loss of love. Some days I was afraid of what I would read next.

“When the fear is upon you, write for yourself,” Richard Rhodes had written, I recalled. “You and your fear, wrestling like Jacob and the angel.” I interpreted this angel—not at all like the angel of the house—to be a more honest and brave part of myself that refused to free me from its grip until I addressed it. It was the self who recognized my flaws, when I was thoughtless or insensitive or wrong. It was an especially fierce struggle when reading old letters and journal passages about boyfriends and husbands, when what they regarded as love didn’t feel like love to me at all. When reading a former husband’s letters, I felt sorry that I had met him and then sad that I had to leave him. One morning at my desk my throat tightened and I thought I was having a heart attack, but in the emergency room of Sharon Hospital a sedative dissipated my difficulty breathing. A doctor diagnosed stress, but I knew the feeling near my heart had been caused by a toxic brew of anger and grief. My violent reaction to what I was reading, I realized, meant that I was getting down to memories that mattered.

“Why am I doing this?” I asked myself some days. “Why am I remembering the past?” As I searched for answers, I recalled that even the extraordinary women I had written about had not risked remembering everything. Georgia O’Keeffe had said don’t look back. Was she right or wrong? Her few self-portraits—pinkish watercolors of female nudes with no distinguishing facial features—were evidently done because she needed a model, not because she wanted to reveal herself. Early on I had wanted to be like her, but as I got older and became more myself, I became more open. Was my urge to understand an act of recklessness or a matter of fearlessness? “Why not just try to enjoy myself like everyone else my age?” I asked myself another time. I hoped that examining my earlier years might excavate and expel something, but I wasn’t sure it would. At a panel discussion about memoir in Manhattan, none of the memoirists claimed that writing their books had given them catharsis, only a sense of creative satisfaction. At the end of captivity narratives, whether told by black slaves or white women abducted by Native Americans, there is often what is called the “telling,” a story of survival that results in recovery, so I continued, hoping for a sense of closure.

As I worked my way through fifty years of journals, trying to read a month a morning, I didn’t want the past to ruin the present. I resolved that remembering would be for weekday mornings, and afternoons and weekends would be for everything else. Remembering became less painful as I began writing and putting memories and other material into orderly sentences and paragraphs, then organized them into chapters, and the dynamism of composing took over. As this happened, it became easier to accept my mistakes, which I eventually decided were not more misguided than anyone else’s. And if I had not always acted wisely, I always had the resiliency to go on. Fortunately, there were moments of closure after all: one afternoon I removed two former wedding rings of mine from my bank safe-deposit box and took them to a jeweler, who placed them on a little gold scale and gave me a few dollars for them. While working on the memoir was depleting at moments, it was also deepening. At the fiftieth high school reunion of my day school in Providence, a childhood friend remarked on my aura of intensity; I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, but I imagined it had something to do with writing the memoir.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, check out Laurie Lisle’s memoir Word for Word: A Writer’s Life.

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