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6527212 July 21, 2010

The Only Way Out is Through: Linda Wisniewski

"As a memoirist, I learned to understand and accept that some people prefer not to look at painful things, but I'm a firm believer that "the only way out is through." 

If you've visited Aberration Nation lately, you've seen BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES splashed everywhere. Boundaries is a novel I wrote during my twenties--my first attempt as a novelist. I worked on it for five years, telling only a handful of people that I was writing a book.

I feared that most people would roll their eyes and snicker ... or ask me what the book was about. I couldn't bear to be grouped together with the millions of people who say they're going to write a book someday. I knew I was born to be a writer and that the time had come to follow my destiny. I was still young, bruised, and bleeding. I couldn't bear to not be taken seriously. (I'm still like this in many ways.)

Boundaries is based on my own story--a life I'd spent 25 years trying to hide. After I thought I'd finished the book, I spent a year looking for a literary agent. After finally signing with an agent, the book was read by quite a few major publishers. The general sentiment was that the book wasn't finished in some way, and that I still needed to grow as a writer. Aside from that, one editor said, "This stuff just doesn't happen to people."

Yes, it does.

Although I had lots of friends, I grew up emotionally isolated. Each child is different; my unique disposition and personality played a role in how my environment affected me. But like many children living in dysfunctional homes, I didn't want my friends to know there was anything different, odd, demonic, or unusual about my family.

Demonic? Yes, things were that weird ...

I spent a tremendous amount of emotional energy trying to block out anything abnormal and focus on the normal. It was a coping mechanism and it was tough!

At 25, I never considered writing a memoir. I wanted to take what had happened to me and make some sense out of it. Even at 25, admitting certain truths about myself and my family was simply too painful. Writing a novel based on the truth was much more palatable. Like Pat Conroy, it seemed to work well for me  ... and still does.

My guest today, author Linda Wisniewski, says that the great solace of being a writer is that we can "make lemonade," i.e., a piece of art from our sorrow. I was squeezing lemon after lemon during the years I spent writing Boundaries. I squeezed until my hands ached.  I started the novel wanting to write about an intense, destructive relationship I had during college. I needed to understand how and why it happened. I was haunted by the experience and writing about it seemed the best way to finally find some peace.

As I wrote the story I realized that the events, or aberrations, that struck me during those years--when I was finally on my own, finally away from all the dysfunction I'd tried to ignore--were inevitable; it was an outpouring of all the suppressed emotion that came before. Although sometimes dark and disturbing, Boundaries, is my overflowing pitcher of sparkling lemonade. In the end, it defines who I am and where I'm still headed today. As Linda put it, the novel demonstrates that sometimes "the only way out is through:"

I share Linda's desire to relay to children, especially girls, that other people don't make us happy.  We must choose for ourselves. It's not easy and that's why sometimes we have to wade, break or crash through a lot of crap to come out on the other side. Whether you're a young girl, a 25-year-old woman writing her first novel, or a 50-year-old man, it takes a lot of courage and tenacity.  

Here on Aberration Nation, WE DO NOT GIVE UP. Hope is our weapon, creativity can be our guide, reality is our kingdom, and love of self is our reward.

People like Linda are our champions.   

What's your story? Are you surprised by where you are today or did you always see it coming?

The blurb on the back of Off Kilter says it well: "Even before she was diagnosed with scoliosis at thirteen, Linda Wisniewski felt off kilter. Born to a cruel father and a long-suffering mother in the insulated Polish Catholic community of upstate New York, she learned martyrdom as a way of life. Off Kilter shows her learning to stretch her Self as well as her spine as she comes to terms with her mentally deteriorating, widowed mother and her culture. Only by accepting her physical deformity, her emotionally unavailable mother, and her Polish American heritage does she finally find balance and a life that fits."

I'm not surprised at where I am today, but the twenty-year-old Linda would be. She liked to write but didn't see it as the key to happiness and fulfillment as the sixty-year-old Linda does.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Currently, I'm writing a novel about a female ancestor who time travels into the present day. I want to explore her reaction to women's lives in the twenty-first century. The "aha!" came in my cousin's kitchen near Amsterdam, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Her niece had composed a family tree that went back to a woman born in 1778. I literally felt excitement all through my body in that moment. I wanted that piece of paper, and I wanted to know that woman. There is very little information on her, so I'm making it up based on research. This summer, I'm going to walk in her footsteps in Poland, and I'm very excited about that.

Expression is my primary motivation. It's why I write even when I'm not sending much out--as I'm doing now while I work on the novel. Being heard and acknowledged is very important to me, as I suspect it is to most writers, but I want my work to be good, well thought out, artful, even innovative and unique. That's where "creation" comes in at a close second.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

My creativity has helped me deal with aberrations but a few times got me into trouble. As a highly observant person, I sometimes blurt out things I shouldn't. I tend to be direct to the point of bluntness at times. I have no patience for people making excuses for not doing what they want. This translates into no patience for myself, either. When I want something, I do my best to get it.

During challenging or difficult times in your life, how has art comforted or inspired you?

My journal and reading have always been my refuge. More than art or music, because listening and observing are comforting but also passive activities. For me, healing and solace come from actively creating something new with words, if only a very private personal insight. In recent years, I've come to realize how much nature has been a comfort and inspiration in my life, and I enjoy the nature writing of Kathleen Dean Moore. Right now, I'm enjoying her most recent book of essays, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I've been very fortunate to have the support of a community of writers in two wonderful organizations: the Story Circle Network, www.storycircle.org which promotes women's life writing, and the International Women's Writing Guild, www.iwwg.com, whose purpose is the empowerment of women through writing. The friends I've made through these groups has sustained me in times of rejection. Sometimes people don't understand why we write what we do; that was my experience when my memoir came out. A few relatives didn't approve of my sharing the negative aspects of my childhood. They felt it was disrespectful to our deceased elders. As a memoirist, I learned to understand and accept that some people prefer not to look at painful things, but I'm a firm believer that "the only way out is through." And the great solace of being a writer is that we can "make lemonade," i.e., a piece of art from our sorrow.

Can you tell us about the work you do to inspire young women through writing.

This is a new venture for me, through the YWCA of Bucks County, www.ywcabucks.org. I facilitate a journal group for young women of middle school age. My purpose is to get them to think about what is important to them, and to put it into words, to find their voices. They also use stickers, markers, and pictures to illustrate the journals, which are strictly private for now. My hope is to someday inspire them to share their writing publicly at a small open mike or coffee house type reading. And this summer, I'll be working with a wonderful local writer, Carla Merolla Odell, on a summer writing project for girls based on Sandra Cisneros' book, The House on Mango Street, also through the YWCA. I'm very excited to be working with young women, as so far I've taught memoir writing at retirement centers and adult education classes. It's a whole different milieu!

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Yes, I do think there is a big difference between the two. Writer Jessamyn West said, "Talent is helpful in writing but guts are absolutely necessary." In my opinion, too much is made of talent, some innate mysterious ability that not everyone possesses. But everyone has the potential to be creative. The great feminist author Mary Daly said that "It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God." I believe we have a responsibility to nurture that creative potential, whether in art, music, writing, child-raising, office-managing - all of life asks us for creative solutions, for new ways of doing things every day. For me, creativity is active and much more interesting and fun than "mere talent."

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

My motto is "We create our own happiness." I knew this fairly young, but only recently put it into those words. For most of my youth, I felt powerless. Then I thought love would make me happy. Or the right job, house, even reading a book. I watched my mother try and fail to change my dad, believing that other people don't make us happy. And finally, I gave myself permission to choose to be happy by following my own dreams and desires. Nobody else can give us that. I wish we could teach that to every child. Especially girls!

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