Two Writers on Writing

Lisa Hoffman & Charles Atkins

Published 12/9/04

"Did you ever get your Chef Bruno article in? I ask Lisa, as we settle into her living room for whatís become our Saturday morning writing routine. I lean back in the bentwood rocker with my laptop and she sits perched on her Hawaiian Sand upholstered riser chair, around which have sprouted precarious stacks of recently purchased books, catalogues and newspaper clippings.

"No, believe it or not I havenít had the time," she says. "Plus sheóreferring to our editor--hasnít run the last article yet."

"So, why do you write?" I ask, steering toward a topic thatís near and dear.

"Why? I really donít know. Iíve written all of my life, even when I was a child and Iíd write school plays. I guess it runs in the family. My father used to write poems in all of my childrenís books. And writing I think is company. You donít need other people; itís like talking to someone else. And when you do share what youíve written with others you can make them curious or happy or whatever other emotion you might evoke. Itís also a challenge; it doesnít come easily at times. Iíve known moments where Iíve stared at a blank page for hours and nothing happened. I know you donít agree with that. Youíre so disciplined; you write no matter what."

"I do. Iím not one who gets writerís block. If Iím looking at a blank page, I ask myself, Ďwhat am I avoiding? What do I fear?í and thatís what I write about; it never fails. Itís one of the many intersections between being a psychiatrist and a writer. I find that in both, if I head into areas that Iíd rather avoid, powerful things emerge."

"For me," she says, "I write because I want to say something. And unlike you, Iím not someone who will go back and correct things. Thatís why a computer doesnít hold much fascination for me; I like to get it right the first time. Even when I knit and drop a stitch I wonít go back and undo all of those rows; itís not in my nature."

"Do you ever write just for yourself, stuff that no one else will ever see?"

"I used to write poetry, when I had more timeÖor when I was in love. Fred Werleóthe former dean of Mannes School of Music, turned some of my poems into songs. And in the past I would occasionally write for amusement, if something struck me as interesting. But normally, I write for a purpose; itís how Iíve made my living. And what I most enjoy, and have done for many years, is writing about people and finding out what makes them tick."

"Thatís why I chose psychiatry," I offer. "I found that while I considered surgery, what really fascinated me were people, and their stories, and why they do the things they do. When I write fiction itís very similar. So whatís been your favorite or most interesting interview?"

"Itís one that was never published; it was with FranÁoise GilotóPicassoís companion who bore him Claude and Paloma. It was right after sheíd published her book My Life with Picasso. It was so long ago, and I remember it because she was so liberated, womenís lib before womenís lib. She believed in not being dependent on a man and in making her own way. Plus, the fact that she was with this famous artist for so many years, and she was very honest about her life. Sometimes, when you interview people they camouflage their answers or arenít straight forward with their feelings, but she was."

"Do you have pictures from that interview?"

"No, and what I most regret is a small watercolor sheíd painted and given to me thatís vanished." Lisa pauses, "She was also married to Jonas Salk the inventor of the polio vaccine, but I canít remember if that was before or after Picasso."

"So what are some of the more important things for a writer to keep in mind?"

"As a journalist," she says, "You owe it to your subject and the public not to deviate from the facts."

"I think the sameóin a senseóis true for fiction. That youíre trying to show something about human nature, without having it turn into a textbook. Itís the old chestnut of "show donít tell." In reporting youíre talking about an event or a person, in fiction youíre trying to display it."

"There are other rules in journalism," she adds. "Or decisions each writer has to make. I honor a personís wishes; if someone tells me something confidentially and says Ďitís off the recordí. Iíll never use it, even if it would make a fantastic headline. And in my whole long career as a writer Iíve never had a problem. I also always tape my interviews, so I wonít misquote, plus it protects me if someone should later say, ĎI didnít say that.í"

"Itís a funny business being a writer," I add, "very solitaryóeach day alone at the computer or with your writing pad and typewriter. Most people donít have a clue what goes into it."

"I know," she says, "but it seems that every other person is writing a book.

"People often ask me how to get published. I think itís different for everyone."

"Most of it is luck," she states.

"I disagree. I think itís mostly perseverance. Occasionally, someone gets lucky and gets a book published the first time out. But mostly it takes determination, discipline, a willingness to take criticism, and a very thick skin. Iíve known some wonderful writers who will never be published, because they canít take the harshness of trying to bring their work to the marketplace."

"You do have to take a lot of rejection," she agrees. "At one point I could have wallpapered a room with rejection slips. I was actually considering using them in a collage or something."

"I used to keep all of mine; I eventually threw them out. But occasionally Iíd get one that wasnít a form letter that had some helpful suggestions. Like the first time Iíd written a book. I got a rejection letter saying that the manuscript was not professionally formatted. So I went out, bought a book on manuscript formatting and never made that mistake again. Another time I went to a book fair and met the owner of a publishing house, whoíd rejected one of my manuscripts. He told me that while his company would read manuscripts from authors without agents, in his twenty years in the business, heíd never once published one. I took that to heart, stopped sending manuscripts and query letters to publishers, and hunted down an agent. Within a year of signing, Iíd had my first book accepted.

"We also do very different types of writing, you and me," she says. "So this has been an interesting collaboration. Itís kind of exciting to think that at 85 I can still get involved in new creative projects. There are no age limits on being a writer, and itís good exercise for the mind. But getting back to your first question about Ďwhy do I write?í Thereís the thrill of seeing your name in print for the first time. And I love the feedback and letters from readers, and a certain kind of celebrity when I would walk into a restaurant and someone would ask, Ďarenít youÖ? And before they could finish their sentence Iíd say, "I am." And I guess too, itís like being a painter, where you create something that might possibly go on after youíre gone.

"A stab at immortality?"

"No, just knowing the difference between write and wrong."

I groan, "Thatís enough" and turn off the computer.