Meet Lisa Dale Norton
You open Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir with a question: "You've always wanted to write a story about your life...but you haven't done it. Why not?" And then you answer with the observation that for most aspiring writers, the block comes from "a sheer lack of know-how." Does your understanding of and ability to sympathize with what holds so many memoir-writers back come as much from what you learned writing your own acclaimed memoir, Hawk Flies Above: Journey to the Heart of the Sandhills, as from your teaching experience?
Certainly the writing of Hawk Flies Above taught me about the challenges of completing a book-length memoir. I know personally the gremlins that can climb into the balcony of the creative arena and jeer furiously as you try to coax out the stories, to write the fractured pieces that are the beginning of a memoir. I know the difficulty of seeing the complete vision when you are buried in the wealth of material a life offers. And, of course, I have taught that process and mentored enough writers over the years to recognize the classic glitches that come up for others traveling the path of book creation, specifically the creation of a work of narrative nonfiction, which does have requirements, and hence challenges, specific to the form. different from those of fiction, or poetry, drama, or screenplay for that matter.
It's an ability to sympathize born from years of watching my own process as a writer and then witnessing that same general arc of development in other writers. Everyone has his or her unique spin on how and why a book project does not come to fruition, but at root the reasons are pretty much the same. Experience allows me to see this creative process in clear relief.
Shimmering Images is written in a very direct tone, with a great deal of warmth and compassion, but without beating around the bush. It's like working with a no-nonsense teacher who gets right to the heart of the subject and conveys a clear expectation that students will pay attention and do their homework. How did you decide on this particular voice and approach?
Shimmering Images saw many forms over the course of its development. Finally, I landed on this approach because students in my UCLA classes responded so favorably to my lectures written for my on-line memoir classes. The tone in an on-line class must be punchy and light, and so, through the process of perfecting that class format, I developed a way of interacting with writers that communicated the essentials of craft, but was also playful. After I tossed the previous version of the book, which was more academic in tone and style (and plainly boring), I rewrote everything in this lighter tone. I liked it. It was kind, and direct, and clear, and really, that's who I am. It finally reflected my true voice.
Shimmering Images is divided into three main parts, The Ideas Behind the Process, The Process, and The Tools to Craft the Process, and each of those is composed of what I think of as the lessons, short chapters ranging from concepts to writing exercises. At 116 pages, the book is indeed a "little" guide in length, but it beautifully demonstrates the axiom the less said the better. After teaching writing and memoir for years, I imagine you could have said a lot more about the subject. Was it difficult to pare your ideas down to reach this compact length? How long did that process take?
I remember when I was at Reed College I was studying music and I took first-year music theory. I studied with a fine fellow newly graduated from Harvard. He was clearly brilliant, and yet I didn't understand a thing he tried to teach. When I took my Junior qualifying exam the faculty of the Music Department determined that I was weak on theory and should take another first-year theory class to beef up my abilities. The second time I studied with a wizened Princeton grad, the granddaddy of the Department, a man on the verge of retirement, a man who understood the core of music theory so clearly that he communicated its essence simply and elegantly. I soared under his tutelage. I never forgot those two different learning experiences. Like my Princeton prof, I understand the process of memoir so clearly that communicating its essence comes naturally. How long did it take? It has taken a lifetime to come to this level of understanding. Isn't that the way it is with anyone who is a specialist in a particular field? And whatever difficulties I have met in paring down my ideas have been simply part of my own process of growth and learning. I will say that the first notion I had of this book came to me about seven years ago. Honing and refining the book has taken all these years and hundreds of drafts of numerous conceptions of just what it was I was trying to say. That's just my process. It takes me awhile to get it right.
Although this is a how-to book, there's a lot of the personal in it, beginning with your declaration in the Introduction: "Why am I passionate about giving you this process?...I believe that writing memoir is the most effective way to change the world." You follow with chapters including "Honesty," "Compassion 101," and "Compassion 102," all of which lay bare some of your core beliefs in a compelling way. Why open yourself up this way for a how-to book?
Because I am passionate about the power of the personal story to change lives, and so why not take the risk to make a difference in the world? Why else are we here? If revealing myself helps others find the next right piece of their journey, it's worth the risk.
Your life has taken you from the Midwest to Cape Cod to the Pacific Coast and now, the Southwest, and from teaching in college and university settings to writing and founding your own institutes and workshops. And are you planning on sharing more of your journey as memoir?
Yes, I am now crazy about my new idea, and I just wish I could shove everything else off my desk to dive in. Alas, I also love working with my clients, so that won't be happening, but in the coming months I will be moving more and more of my energy toward the development of this new book idea. All I can say at this point is it explores a number of parallel themes of equal interest to me at this time, ranging from the power of story in our lives to the link that vivid memories may have to universal symbology. All of this is wrapped around a piece of literary travel writing.
What are you reading now?
I have been reading two texts together: The Bells in their Silence: Travels Through Germany by Michael Gorra, which explores, through the travel writing genre, the question of why there is no rich travel literature about Germany (like there is for Italy or France, for example), and The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts. Together these two books are helping me frame ideas central to my new project. And, for fun I am reading The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. I always have a novel on my night stand. I like to end the day with a story that takes me into the mysteries of the human soul.
Out of all the places you have lived, is there any one landscape that still calls you home?
Prairie. The Sandhills of Nebraska. I can think of no other place as lonesome and exotic in its spare quality. Both sensuous and challenging, it is the place where my stories most find the key to be unlocked.
And one final question, since you now call New Mexico home, I can't neglect the State question: Do you prefer red or green chile? Why?
Ha! Green chile. I'm a hot food wimp!
Susan J. Tweit is a plant ecologist who turned to writing when she realized that she loved the stories behind the data more than collecting the data itself. She has won regional and national awards for her writing on "the community of the land," most recently a Silver EDDIE award for "The Refuge," her cover feature for National Parks magazine on the crisis facing the nation's largest elk herd.
Her ten books include Seasons in the Desert, nominated for the Western States Book Award, The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, lauded as "a joy to read" by High Country News. Susan blogs at Community of the Land.