Leslie Lawrence is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a committed teacher of writing. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Prairie Schooner, Witness, Solstice, The Forward, and The Boston Globe Magazine. Now, Lawrence has published her first collection of essays, The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines. Written with warmth and remarkable openness, these essays explore the complexities of family life, identity, community, love, loss, grief, and art. Literary Mama contributor Katherine D. Stutzman communicated with Leslie Lawrence via email about creativity, the writing process, and the various ways one can live "outside the lines."
Katherine D. Stutzman: Reading The Death of Fred Astaire, I was struck by the candid and complete portrait of you that emerges. What was it like to write so honestly about yourself?
Leslie Lawrence: Yes, many people are struck by my honesty. I recently took a walk and ran into a neighbor, someone I barely know. "I'm loving your book," she exclaimed. "Boy, you really put yourself out there!"
How did this make me feel? Pleased, of course, that she loved it. But did I like her knowing so many intimate details about me?
When I begin writing a piece, I'm writing for a very small audience—me. I'm trying to understand something that intrigues, confuses, or surprises me. There'd be no point in holding back or dissembling. (I should add that even when I'm writing fiction, writing about people who are not me, I try to do so in a way that's honest—that is, in keeping with my understanding of how the world and the psyche really operates.) So I can't imagine writing without a lot of candor, but that doesn't mean I was prepared for the kind of exposure a book creates. In fact, shortly after I signed the contract, I panicked.
Fortunately, I knew there wasn't much in the book that could hurt family and friends—and I vetted the manuscript again and asked permission where I thought it was needed—but I was terrified of the self-exposure, of feeling humiliated. I'm not sure how long this phase lasted—a long therapy session on the subject helped—but now that the book is out and people seem to be enjoying it so much, I've calmed down. That neighbor I talked to, her comment gave me pause, but I also felt oddly distant from whatever she now knows about me. That's the great thing about artistic expression. The work comes out of you but becomes a separate entity. It's something you made—not something you are. A subtle difference, I realize, but a saving grace.
Also, it helps that the writing I most admire is honest and revealing. In fact, I go to literature to feel less alone, to see that I'm not the only person in the world who's scared, neurotic, vain, petty or oh so un-Buddhist with my big ego and grasping attachments. Therefore, I can reveal these things about myself. Really, it's a kind of humility. When I was younger, I thought I was both better and worse than everyone else. Now I know I'm probably very similar to most.
KDS: The essay that I've found myself thinking about the most since reading the collection is "Wonderlust: Excursions through an Aesthetic Education." The essay is composed of many short, linked sections describing experiences with beauty, art, and creativity, especially as a student in a variety of educational contexts. Can you discuss the process of writing this piece? Was it difficult to choose what to include or how to juxtapose the sections?
LL: I worked on this essay longer than I care to admit. It was an albatross. I was travelling in the dark. There were many times when I thought I'd have to abandon the project completely. On the other hand, it was great fun—an opportunity to read scholars and practitioners, to get in touch with old teachers and friends, to review my whole life as well as to use what I was doing in the moment. That was the biggest problem: living my life I kept finding new, relevant material. I knew that at some point, I'd just have to stop.
I had dozens of computer files and versions of each section. It was a big mess. At one point, I recorded tidbits on index cards, and I even tried color-coding them according to themes. I can't say it eventually "fell into place." I've always known there were many different arrangements that could work. I was influenced by a novel I read decades ago, Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch. The title says it all. There were short numbered sections, but at the start of the book, there was a long series of numbers: 12, 3, 25, 6, 52 (I'm making these up), an alternative arrangement for a suggested second reading. I, too, would love people to read "Wonderlust" more than once, and maybe even in a different order. The sections connect in so many different ways. In the end, I settled on a largely chronological structure, but other arrangements might have been just as interesting.
KDS: One of the primary themes of the collection—it's right there in the subtitle—is living outside the lines, breaking free from the constraints of societal expectation and your 1960s upbringing. How do you think the concept of living outside the lines has changed for people coming of age today? Are the lines looser now or just different?
LL: First, I want to say that the subtitle has two related meanings. It's originally taken from that adult dance class I describe in "Wonderlust," a class where we were encouraged to toss aside all the codified steps we might have learned from past classes. Our goal was to improvise, i.e., find movements that felt interesting and authentic to us in the moment. I found this exhilarating. And as I read through my essays, I realized that many of them show me improvising in my search for an interesting, authentic life. Of course, in some sense, we're all improvising our way through life. And parents, especially, have to cultivate the improvisational art of surrendering their agendas in order to be present for a child. But raising a child with another woman when there were so few role models, I realized I had to improvise more than most. And because I tend to court new experiences, the same was true for me in many of the adventures I describe in the book.
So that's how I originally conceived of the title, but, as you say, "outside the lines" also refers to breaking free of societal constraints. Do those coming of age today have fewer constraints? Certainly, around gender and sexuality there's a lot more freedom. In fact, compared to some of the domestic arrangements I've heard about lately (especially those including polyamory), my arrangement with my partner seems positively quaint—even square. Still, I worry that with so-called greater sexual liberation, there are new norms that may serve men better than women. I've read essays by college women in which they reveal that their hook-ups left them feeling lousy. And, yet, maybe because casual sex is the new norm or because their ridiculously busy lives make them feel that they don't have enough time to cultivate deeper relationships, they repeat their unsatisfying behavior. I've also heard from students who don't want to get crazy drunk every weekend but see few other options. As for constraints around other life choices, I'm concerned about the erosion of support for the liberal arts on campuses, and I see how students are encouraged to make early and conventional career decisions. And then, of course, there are young people who can't afford college and don't see many choices at all.
KDS: The idea of lines also seems relevant to the many different roles you occupy. In these essays, you write about yourself as a teacher, learner, mother, partner, writer, and daughter. In what ways do you feel it's important to maintain lines between these roles? Do you prefer to blur the lines or break them down as completely as possible?
LL: I like to bring my whole self to every situation, but I certainly believe in some boundaries. I guess there's not a whole lot in the book about friendship, but, in my life, friendship is right up there among life's greatest joys. I've cautiously befriended some of my adult students and a few of my college students—but only after they've graduated. Now that my son is a young man, I find it tempting to be his friend as well as his mother, but still I draw lines. As a daughter, well, sadly, my father died shortly before my book came out, but I'm enjoying a new closeness with my mother these days; even so, I'm aware that we both draw lines. Maybe I write because that's where I feel most integrated, where all the roles blur and it's just me.
KDS: There's another way the concept of "lines" weaves through your book. I'm talking about borderlines that separate people by genders, culture, class, and race. Can you say any more about this?
LL: Absolutely. I'm glad you picked up on that theme. I wasn't originally aware of it, but as I looked over the essays, I saw how my hunger for connecting with what is different and maybe strange permeates the collection. In writing, I delve inwards, but in living, my ultimate goal is to connect outwards, especially with those who at once felt foreign or merely unapproachable. I see that in the grandmother piece, the travel pieces, the teaching one, the one about yards sales, and the Tupperware essay about the communities that form when someone is ill. In "What Can You Do?" I connect with the dry cleaner, and I hunger for communion with my dead partner. And much of the art I discuss in "Wonderlust"— the art that most interests me these days—is about widening the pool of people with whom we might "break bread," so to speak—feel fellowship. The danger with the nuclear family is that it can become insular. On the other hand, I'm wondering if mothers might be particularly well-suited to understanding the complexity of human emotions and the importance of reaching out, as well as of accepting gestures of comfort and friendship.
KDS: The essays in this book were originally published over a period of approximately 20 years. What was it like to bring together work from such a long span of time? What did you learn about how your writing has changed over time?
LL: I was surprised to find so many common themes—themes that weren't conscious at the time of writing, themes that were reflected in the title, and other ones too, e.g., What gets passed on? What gets left behind? How do I reconcile my fearful and daring parts? My love of family and tradition with my desire to be true to myself? And I was surprised by how feminist the book is. I didn't think I was writing a feminist book, but I now see how influenced I was by feminism, how much I struggled against what society expected of girls and women. I was surprised, too, by how much my Jewishness came up. That's a bigger part of my identity than perhaps I'd realized.
As for the writing, well, I was happy to see that I'd learned a little through the years. I found a lot to edit throughout but especially on the earlier pieces. And I had a few more tools at my disposal when I saw a need to expand. I was willing to use more of my imaginative life. Still, overall, I noticed that my voice hadn't changed that much, and I was pleased with the degree to which the earlier pieces held up.
KDS: You write frequently about your engagement with art forms other than writing, particularly with dance. How do these other forms of creative expression influence or relate to your writing practice?
LL: I find dancing to be a marvelous, maybe even a necessary complement to writing. It gets me out of my linguistic head, connects me with other bodies, and leaves me feeling refreshed. As I mention in the book, my forays into the visual arts have helped my dancing, my awareness of shape and space (though they didn't help my descriptive writing as much as I hoped they would). One of the more revelatory things I learned through dance is Labanotation—a system for putting movement on the page. Before film and video, it was a way of recording choreography for posterity. I know only a little about this visual language, but it helped me think more about the quality of energy that a movement has. Is it jerky? Fluid? Taut? Loose? Heavy? Light? This language is applicable to all the arts—to sentences and plots, to movement and music.
In truth, I think it's music that has most informed my writing. I went to Oberlin College, and although I was in the liberal arts college and not the conservatory, I received a great education in music there. When I first started writing, I wrote poetry—and I recommend that for everyone. Now, when I write prose, I think about the sound of individual words, and the rhythm of sentences, paragraphs, works—long or short. I think about pace, tension, crescendos, surprises, echoes, inversions, silences. I probably also feel these things in my body, though I'm not always conscious of that.
KDS: What can we look forward to from you in the future?
LL: I've been working on two long collage-like essays on the order of "Fits and Starts" and "Wonderlust." I don't want to give away the subject matter, but each examines a very elastic subject from many different angles. The process is very time-consuming, requiring a lot of faith. I never know if I'm going to end up with anything at all. But because there are so many unknowns—particularly about structure—it's also very exciting. And someday, I'd like to return to fiction. In fact, recently I found myself revising an old story, and it made me excited to start a new one.