Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Linda Wisniewski. Most recently, she is the author of the memoir Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, & Her Polish Heritage. On her website, Wisniewski describes herself as a writer, memoir teacher, knitter, quilter, happy trail walker. I was surprised to learn she also has a piece in An Anthology of Babes, which I reviewed way back in 2013 when I started Grab the Lapels!
Grab the Lapels: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
Linda Wisniewski: That’s easy! It was an essay I wrote in primary school that won a contest sponsored by Monks’ Bread. I wrote about how important bread was to life. It still amazes me what a deep thinker I was as a kid. The prize? A coupon for a free loaf of bread made by contemplative Trappist monks in upstate New York. The company is still around; they have a great website and they now make biscotti. Excuse me while I place an order.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
LW: Like many little girls growing up in the 1950s, I wanted to be a “private secretary.” My little sister and I spent hours walking around the house with sharpened pencils and paper, taking dictation. The living room was our office where we sat on the sofa with play telephones on our laps, taking calls. I still like pencils, which I buy at museum gift shops whenever I get a chance. The dictation now comes from the stories I see all around me, my own and those of other women I’d like to lift up in my own way: the little-known women, the “secretaries” of the world who quietly serve others and are the backbones of many of our families. I wrote about some of those women in Off Kilter, and they comprise the major characters in my forthcoming novel, Where the Stork Flies.
Some of my favorite essays I’ve had published tell the stories of women who influenced, encouraged, and supported me: my grandmothers, aunts, and inspiring teachers. These strong women rarely think of themselves as important. My writing mission is to shine a light on them.
GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?
LW: Off Kilter was hard for some of my family and friends to read, because it contains some of the most difficult episodes of my childhood. I never urge them to read it and accept it when they tell me they cannot. Today, I might add a “trigger warning” for those who might be re-traumatized by revisiting family dysfunction. I have read memoirs that are much sadder and more graphic in their depiction of verbal and emotional abuse, and while I might not call them enjoyable reading, they are quite satisfying. The authors inspire me with their ability to turn a harsh reality into beautiful prose that is a work of art. Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Tara Westover’s Educated come to mind. That said, readers who stuck with Off Kilter to the end say my journey to create my own happiness inspired them.
GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?
LW: Oh, revising, for sure! That’s when the fun starts for me. My husband is a potter and I once asked him, during a difficult writing period, if he ever threw away anything he made. “All the time,” he said in a flash, as if it didn’t matter to him. That moment made me realize I didn’t have to save everything I wrote, nor did I have to make a piece work just because I’d started it once or twice. My process is now akin to his: throw the material in front of you (his on the wheel, mine on the page) and shape it. “Throwing it” for me is putting words on paper or computer screen as they come.
I like to write my fiction and creative nonfiction longhand in a notebook, then type it into a document. I often start revising as I type because that first draft is frequently a mess. I actually just finished the first draft of my second novel, and I’m eager to dig in and turn it into something I — and I hope my readers — will be happy with.
GTL: How has your writing process evolved?
LW: I started writing for publication while working in library science, and my first articles were reported pieces. When Off Kilter came out, I sent a press release to the local paper and that led to an invitation to become one of their reporters and columnists. So, I was a journalist first, putting the facts and figures on the page with no perspective of my own at all.
The creativity fairy landed on my shoulder in the early 1990s, and I enrolled in writing workshops with the International Women’s Writing Guild and the Story Circle Network. These two supportive organizations are still a part of my life today.
My journalism career has taken a backseat now to creative nonfiction, memoir, and fiction. I teach memoir at the Pearl Buck Writing Center and preparing for each class teaches me as well. Recently, I’ve been nurturing an interest in spiritual writing. Over the years, I’ve been published in a wide range of places from the Christian Science Monitor to Ruminate to bioStories and the Brevity blog, as well as the blog I maintain on my website.
GTL: What motivated you to write Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage? Did you ponder this project for a while before taking it on?
LW: I tell my students I didn’t know I was writing a book, and they don’t have to, either. Just write the stories that matter to you. That’s what I did for years, until an essay about my scoliosis was published in a small literary magazine called Mindprints. The editor nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, and one of my teacher/mentors said, “You should turn this into a book.” Hah! How would I turn that one page into a hundred or more? No idea.
I just kept on writing what was nagging at me until I had a “body of work,” a few dozen pieces, some of them published. Another wise teacher suggested I color code them by subject to find a common theme. I found three: scoliosis, my relationship with my mother, and my heritage. By that time, the book project was well under way, without my even knowing it. I wrote transitions between the pieces and added more chapters to show the steps along my journey to inner peace with all that had been troubling me along the way.
The pondering began when it was time to publish. By that time, my parents had passed, and though some characters and locations don’t come off as well as all might like, I believed I’d treated them fairly. I wanted my voice to be heard. I knew I wasn’t the only woman to struggle with emotional neglect, punitive religion, and a complicated nationality. When Pearlsong Pressoffered me a contract, I knew my story would reach my intended audience.
Authors often say that messages from readers make the work worthwhile, and I’ve found that to be true. I still hear from people who have found my memoir and been touched by it. So, even though I’m a different woman from the one who wrote Off Kilter, I have no regrets about sending it out into the world. The rewards keep coming back to me.