author of The Death of Fred Astaire: And Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines
Interviewed by Amy Grier
All-Interview Issue Editor and Solstice Managing Editor
Amy: Several times in your collection of essays, The Death of Fred Astaire, you describe your dreams. In the essay “Fits and Starts, for example, you describe a dream in which a woman gives birth “to a baby whose head is severed from the body,” then the “two parts meet and join like beads of mercury.” It was after this dream, you write, that you began your “career as a client in therapy.”
Why do you choose to describe dreams in your writing? What do you believe they can communicate to the reader that wouldn’t be as effective another way? Do your dreams fuel your writing in any way?
Leslie: As a young fiction writer, I was warned about the hazards of relaying dreams, especially recounting them in detail as if they were really happening, only to later say, “And then she woke up”—a tired, cheap trick. Decades later, there’s another reason to be wary of using dreams: the notion that they’re “sacred messages from the divine” has taken quite a hit. What dreams are exactly, we still don’t know, but I’m convinced that the meaning dreamers themselves make of their dreams is a kind of Rorschach test. Like the stories we write, they reveal what we didn’t know that we knew. When I use a dream in memoir, I don’t explicitly give the reader my interpretation, but it’s usually clear from the context. E.g. The night before I put my dog down, I tell the reader I dreamt of a “rowboat gliding away from shore.” The image was gentle and peaceful and to me it signaled my readiness to let go.
In the example you give—the dream of giving birth to a baby whose head is separated from her body—by the time the reader comes to that dream, he or she already knows I’d been questioning the way I’d long privileged the traditionally male virtues of logic and control over the messier female virtue of feeling and self-expression. The dream is so horrific (the head rolls around the floor like a bowling ball) and so distressing to me that it forced me to act—and that action, going into therapy, was an important step in my journey to be a writer—a woman writer willing to tell her truths.
As for whether dreams fuel my writing… Not exactly. That therapist I started seeing back in my twenties, she was a Jungian who suggested I write down my dreams. As many of you know, once you start writing down dreams you remember them more, and it seems as if you actually have more. The dreams I had during that period were so juicy, so bizarre or delightful that they made think I just might be strange and imaginative enough to become a writer.
These days I privilege sleep over recording my dreams, so I don’t remember many of them. It feels like a loss, but I find that these things go in cycles, so who knows.
Amy: You’ve studied a wide range of subjects: dance, watercolor, drawing, martial arts, yoga, and much more. You write that when you were young you believed that “to be a writer, you had to give up everything else,” but clearly that’s not the case for you. Do you think of yourself as a “Renaissance woman?” How does studying such a wide variety of topics feed your creative life?
Leslie: It’s true that in my twenties and thirties when I first started writing seriously, I did it almost full time. Or rather, I did it along with waitressing, a job that felt like the perfect complement, providing exercise, social contact, a meal, and enough money to live on. In those years, knowing I had so much to learn about the craft of writing, I felt I couldn’t afford to spend time on much else. I saw other activities as time not writing. Eventually, however, I came to a point where, although I wouldn’t say I “mastered” the craft of writing, I sensed that my growing edge was elsewhere. I wanted to do things that expanded my world, opened my heart, and gave me more access to the best of me. And as I did so, I quickly learned that other practices spoke to my writing in many different ways.
A “Renaissance woman?” Hardly. I’m not knowledgeable or skilled enough to claim that, but I am curious and adventurous, and happily, I’m now humble enough to enjoy being a novice in many areas.
Amy: I have to ask you about the word “jazz.” You use this word, in a variety of forms, many times in your book—the noun as a type of music, the adjective to describe “jazzy poems” or a “jazzy dress,” and even the adverb to write about “the flies dancing jazzily.”
What do you love about this word? What does it mean to you when something is “jazzy” or is done “jazzily?” Are there any other words you find you’re using a lot in your writing, or that you particularly love?
Leslie: I love this question! Of course, I hadn’t realized I used that word a lot, but I do love the word—what it suggests as well as how it’s made. “J” and “Z”—two high-powered letters. (I’m a Scrabble maven). And not just “Z” but a double “Z”—how cool is that. The buzz veritably vibrates on the eyes as well as in the ears. And then there’s the short little “a” and the way we linger on it. I think of jazz, the music, as Z-heavy, zigzagging, jagged and angular (think Dixieland, think be-bop) like the letter itself. But sometimes it’s languid, elastic, (think “Summertime,”) It’s sly and slippery (think Miles Davis) with its subtle, unexpected blue notes and key changes and daring forays miles away from the melody. Is it fair to say the word is onomatopoetic, capturing both these poles—the energetic, surprising and bubbly, along with the languid and mournful? Or am I just getting carried away here?
Apparently (I’ve just discovered this from my Wiki research) jazz “is one of the most sought after word origins in the American English.” Best guess is it comes from jasm, a slang word for spirit, energy and vigor—and also sexual intercourse. In any case, the word speaks to the very essence of my book.
In fact, originally, the book’s subtitle was “And Other Essays From an Improvised Life.” What most defines jazz is its improvisatory element—and in the book’s title essay, I set the stage for subsequent ones that deal with ways in which my life has gone “off-course,” you could say, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. But in any case, after saying good-bye to the known, the expected, the choreographed, I embrace a life I’ll have to improvise. Of course good improvising is hard. It demands alertness, quick thinking, courage, and authenticity. But the freedom it affords is exciting and rewarding. In “Wonderlust” I talk directly about why I love improvisational dance, but the concept of “making [life] up as you go along” permeates the book.
Amy: Place and setting—the “mowing” where you rented your summer cabin, the Provincetown art colony—are a strong factor in your narrative. In particular, you describe natural settings and how they affect you, both in the moment and over time.
You are originally from Queens, and now live in Cambridge. Do you find you write differently in a natural setting compared to writing in a suburban or urban setting? What do you gain from a natural environment that you can’t get anywhere else?
Leslie: The truth is, I don’t think it’s that I write “differently” when in nature, it’s simply that that’s where I do most of my writing. Many more disciplined teachers and mothers, manage to write during the school year, but I’ve done most of my writing over summers—and it always seemed like a no-brainer to me that if one has the freedom, one writes away from it all, away from one’s normal, overly-busy, constantly honking life, and one finds a small, simple dwelling—in the country. Which is exactly what I was fortunate enough to do.
But a postscript here, over the years as I’ve become friends with more people in my summer community and the community itself has become more vibrant, I find it’s not quite as conducive to writing as it once was!
Amy: As a memoirist, I know the challenge of writing about painful, personal thoughts and experiences. For me, it’s important to get myself into the emotional world of a past event to be as honest and accurate as I can. It can be difficult to do.
When you write about something personal and painful, like the loss of your spouse to cancer, how do you approach the writing process? Is there anything you do in particular to help you write those hard-to-tell stories? When the story is written and on the page, how does it change your experience of the event?
Leslie: For whatever reason, I’ve always been someone who believes in going into the belly of my pain. (That said, my partner was more of a denier and when she had cancer, I gained a lot of respect for the virtues of denial.) I’m absolutely driven to write about what’s disturbing in my life, so it doesn’t seem that hard—though I do like to have long stretches of very private time in which to do it. Sometimes I cry when I do it—or get moody, so maybe that’s part of the reason I don’t write much during the school year when more is demanded of me.
The second part of your question intrigues me the most. While I don’t like to think of writing as therapy, I do find it therapeutic. Making something, preferably something that is artful, requiring skill and discipline, does “get it out.” And with its expulsion I gain distance. The experience no longer has me in its grip in quite the same way, at least for a while. That’s all good, but there’s a down side too. Even when I’m trying to be absolutely honest and faithful (which is always my goal) my selection of details, my structure, my tone create a particular version of the story and that version hardens over time—becoming THE truth—as opposed to just one truth. It would be interesting to revisit some of these stories at a later date. No doubt, I’d discover very different truths.
A veteran writer and teacher and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, LESLIE LAWRENCE was most recently published in Cognoscenti. Lawrence would love to come to your book group or library to discuss her book and the writing process. She is currently working on essays about Janis Joplin and about what it’s been like to publish a first book after a certain age, and she’s looking for ways to combine her love of the arts with political action.
Her first book is The Death of Fred Astaire and Other Essays From a Life Outside the Lines (SUNY Press). Finding the DNE community has been one of the great blessings of her life. http://leslielawrencewriter.com/