Meet Linda Wisniewski
Several years ago, Story Circle Book Reviews Assistant Editor Linda Wisniewski of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, wrote an essay called "My Body, My Self" about her battle with scoliosis. That essay was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. When noted author Maureen Murdock read the piece, she advised Linda, "You should expand this into a book." In April 2008, Pearlsong Press will debut Linda's memoir, Off Kilter: A Woman's Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage.
Interviewed by Paula Stallings Yost
Posted on 04/07/2008
When did you begin to write, and what ignited your interest in writing?
I began keeping a little blue diary with a key when I was about eleven. In eighth grade, I won a loaf of bread in an essay contest sponsored by Monk's Bread. I always read a lot, and didn't get much encouragement to speak, so I put most of my thoughts on paper.
There have been other "igniters" along the way. My favorite part of college was researching and writing papers. Many years later, I wrote articles for a trade journal about a hot new medium called The Internet.
We were struck by the honesty and directness of your writing. Obviously, writing about our own lives and relationships in such a manner takes great courage. What aspect of it was most difficult?
Actually, writing it wasn't hard... I've had lots of therapy! :) Revisiting some of the sad and scary parts was difficult, but I was ready to go there by that time. Books like Susan Albert's Writing from Life and Louise DeSalvo's Writing as a Way of Healing were very helpful.
The most difficult part was attempting to be fair in my portrayal of the other major characters, like my parents and my sister. I didn't want to come across as a cardboard heroine or victim, so I attempted very consciously to see things from their perspective.
Within your acknowledgments and toward the end of the book, you thank a number of women for their help along the way. What roles, if any, did they play in your writing of Off Kilter? In its publication? Do you think that women need a women's support network in order to tell a difficult story?
Some of the women were teachers in whose workshops I started the stories that became chapters in Off Kilter. Susan Tiberghien co-leads a nonfiction critique workshop every summer at the IWWG conference, and her feedback was helpful. I took Susan Albert's online class a few years ago. I've taken workshops with Maureen Murdock through both IWWG and SCN. A few years ago, Mary Shafer was my first writing teacher in adult evening school, and she remains my local cheerleader.
I looked to all of them as models of what I wanted to do with my writing life. They each encouraged me to tell my story. I don't know if all women need a support network for this type of writing, but it sure helped me keep going.
Has the publication of this very personal memoir changed your life (public life, private life) in any way?
I have less time to write now because I'm marketing the book. Not too happy about that, but nobody wants to hear it. (LOL)
I am probably less worried about how I appear to others, since I've put some of my personal issues in the book, for better or worse. After reading Off Kilter, though, people have shared some of their own difficult personal stories with me.
You write so beautifully about the role our senses play in our memories. Through an engaging dialogue with your mother, you take us back to your world as a Polish Catholic girl growing up in a postwar mill town in New York... "The sun is like butter," you tell her during a bus ride. Her smile and surprised response awakens your independence. "For the first time," you write, "I see myself, a separate person, apart from her." Do you think this moment stayed in your mind in such detail because it was a true turning point in your life? Have you found that such turning points often are at the heart of your writing?
I do think we remember turning points in greater detail. I always try to find the meaning in a story by doing self-reflection after I've written it down. With this book, it's about what it means to come to terms with who you are or were and readjusting when necessary. Perhaps, also, turning points have more emotion attached to them, and so they come to mind more easily when we try to visualize certain time periods or events.
We cannot imagine a more appropriate title for your book. In reading it, we were struck by your many references to seeking balance in your life between the good and the not-so-good, the old and the new, "...when to speak and when to keep silent." "...between not hurting those I love and not denying myself." Achieving such balance, you say, "is like learning to ride a bike. Pay attention and when you veer off kilter, adjust." Your use of such metaphors is masterful. Is this something that came to you naturally in your writing or through experience over the years?
Aw, you're so kind. But maybe I am naturally masterful with metaphors. Remember, I came up with "The sun is like butter" on that bus when my feet didn't reach the floor! Also, I like to read writers who use metaphors and unusual images, and I read a lot. I'm sure I've been influenced by many different authors.
In becoming "on kilter," you speak of the beauty of diversity in cultures, along with the challenges of one's heritage: "I know there will always be a Poland in me; I treasure family and special foods and holiday rituals. But I am free of the compulsion to practice what I don't believe in. I am free to see the humanity we all have in common." In achieving this balance, you seem to be simultaneously building bridges in your life and within your writing to accommodate other views and lifestyles. Would you agree that this philosophy seems appropriate in all our lives?
I am very interested in writing about ethnicity and how it shapes us. And I absolutely agree that trying to understand other people and cultures is essential if we are to survive as a people. So much of history is littered with stories of mindless, judgmental attacks. I know what it feels like, and I try hard not to perpetuate that kind of attitude.
Throughout the book, you write of the abuse inflicted upon your family by your father and of the difficulties in your relationship with your mother and occasionally with your sister. Has there been any reaction from other family members to this memoir? Did your writing at any time change your relationship with your mother or sister or others?
I haven't had much reaction as yet because they haven't read the book. Those who have read some parts have liked it. Can't say the writing changed relationships; I don't think it does. I believe I understand my mother better after writing about her, and most of the bitterness I felt towards her is gone. My sister is still quite angry, though, and we don't talk, which I've learned to accept. She knows about my book, but I don't know if she'll read it.
In the beginning, I just wrote and wrote, not censoring anything. It was painful, but I always believed it was necessary and self-healing. Then I revised and edited until I felt I was being honest and fair to my parents and to my sister, while keeping my own story and voice intact. I don't think it's helpful to hold anything back in writing until you're ready for the final revision. Women tend to worry too much about what others will think of us. In the past, I've been pleasantly surprised to find that family members were just happy to be in the story.
We were delighted by the revealing details and diversity of style within Off Kilter. Your subtle humor: "The short-sleeved sweaters she favored strained across her bosom so tightly I could see the individual threads crying out for help." The unexpected power of a remark about a haunting picture of you and your father: "In time, I grew to understand we create our own happiness and that I was the owner of the picture. On that day, I took my scissors and cut my father out." Another turning point or step toward your personal freedom?
Yes, isn't it interesting how a little private moment with a photograph can open up our minds when we are ready? I kept that picture for years, hating it, unable to throw it out because I liked the way I looked in it before I thought of using the scissors. A big turning point when I realized I could do whatever was loving to myself, that I didn't have to keep looking at my father in the picture and cringing.
The story about my piano teacher's tight sweater came from something my mother said, "Mrs. Winslow's sweater was so tight, the threads were calling for help," or something like that. (Thanks, Mom!)
"All my life, I wanted my mother to hear me. When I gave her this small and simple thing—my listening ear—I gave her what she could never give me. And in the process, freed myself from years of bitterness." Did you manage to find similar acceptance for your father at any point? Will you write more about him in the future?
I didn't feel as personally responsible for my dad's behavior. The day I confronted him and he refused to acknowledge the abuse, I was actually relieved because I saw there was nothing I could do to make him stop. I have written a little more about him, and I'm working on a novel about his great-great-great grandmother that weaves in some of his issues.
Of your last visit to your childhood home, you write, "This is what it means to set boundaries, I thought. This is what they mean by taking care of yourself. I know who I am and I don't live here anymore." The reader can almost hear the decades of pain falling away from your shoulders. Off Kilter is filled with such powerful moments and includes a great range of emotions—love, anger, resentment, fear, grief, and much more. To what extent has writing this book eased or aggravated your emotional pain? Did it have an effect on the physical pain you endure with scoliosis as well? Did it change your voice as a person? As a writer?
I wrote the book from about 2003 to 2006, so the feelings are not as fresh now. At any rate, I don't recall sitting and writing in pain and tears. It was all so long ago. I don't want to dwell on the book being about enduring and pain and aggravation...maybe I'm done telling the story. I think the publication of the book has changed the way I feel about myself as a writer. I feel I have something worthwhile to say and look forward to studying more about how to write creative nonfiction and memoir.
The only thing that really helps with the scoliosis is yoga, but maybe writing the book helped me be more active in seeking ways to be more healthy physically. I get massages regularly, go to a chiropractor for some things, and love my yoga mat.
All my life, I wanted to be heard. Writing Off Kilter was my way of telling my story, and the process allowed me to release that need. Instead of longing for attention from other people, I gave it to myself. I hope it encourages women in similar situations to speak their truth. Also, I hope all adults will work towards listening to children and protecting them from emotional as well as physical harm.
Can we look forward to enjoying more of your work soon?
The story I'm working on now is fiction based on family legends, and I find that I'm working some of these same issues into that book as well.
Can't wait! Thank you so much for visiting with us, Linda; it was great learning a bit more about you!