Meet the Writer: Linda Wisniewski

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.

25 comments

  1. I think that’s an interesting point, how writers keep returning to the same subjects and how that meant she was already writing her memoir before she knew she’d started.

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  2. I like the potter’s wheel image of writing. But. I could point out that the clay that is discarded from the current pot goes into the next pot. Don’t throw out your old writing, Melanie. By all means classify your writing as usable or not usable for your next project, but keep it somewhere – to use later or just to look back on your progress.

    Meanwhile, I’ll think about where this metaphor takes us with all the junked, broken pots behind the shed.

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  3. Despite a difficult childhood, this gal sounds like a hoot to be around. I can tell how funny she is, even through this short interview! I love how sending a press released landed her a job as a journalist too-I bet many a journalism student today would drop their jaw at that one!

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  4. I love that potter’s wheel metaphor – we do get better as we go! The other day I was doing a bit of housekeeping looking through all my various half-written work to see what I want to work on/abandon, and it is very freeing to decide there is stuff there that will never see the light of day (but even so there are good parts that can be cannibalised for later work).

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  5. A great interview and I love how Linda both fell into her memoir writing by accident and then got the fiction bug. I also like the detail about the colour-coding. I also appreciate her care over people who read her memoir, especially those who knew her when she was younger. And I can’t help but love the developing discussion about pots and clay in the comments!

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    • I love asking writers about their opinion on personal writing and what the people in the book felt about it. Many wait until everyone in the book has passed away, but other writers, like Samantha Irby, has a lawyer read her work. She explained once that basically if you’re telling your story and it includes other people, you’re still telling your truth. If you try to make it more about the other person, you can slip into illegal territory.

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  6. Linda, have just spoken to our mutual friend, Kathy Pooler, on the phone and she reminded me of your wonderful writing.

    From the interview, I can tell we have mutual interests, including a career that included education.

    I too have written memoir with some difficult passages of abuse within my immediate family. By the time I got the book written, the principal characters were all deceased. Still, some friends of my family objected to my revealing family secrets. I don’t regret my choice to share my path toward forgiveness, knowing I did my best to paint these beloved “characters” as three-dimensional, their strong points as well as their flaws.

    Thank you, Linda, and to your host for this insightful interview.

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    • I wish such family members understood that secrecy not only allows abuse to continue, but it is a form of complicity. I’ve lived in Indiana for 13 years now, and since I moved here the laws changed such that if you even suspect child abuse, you have to report it or face similar consequences to the abuser. This after a child was beaten to death by his father and the grandmother knew what was going on.

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  7. Ah, I really like the idea of writing like a potter, throwing whatever you have at it and seeing what sticks, shaping it as you go. I’m also a big fan of throwing away anything that doesn’t work as the story comes together as a whole- so many writers complain about killing their darlings but I think if you love a sentence that much you can keep it in a just-for-me file and rather look at the whole project as the darling. Seeing that come together and finding the clarity to cull what isn’t working truly is the beauty of the revision process, imo.

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