Greetings, everyone, on this day when I was born and we celebrate our Veterans and the ending of fighting in World War I. (The pacifist in me really cheers about that second one.)
I am very excited to have an interview with writer Linda C. Wisniewski to share with you today. Her book Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her mother, and Her Polish Heritage is an honest revelation about her struggles to come to acceptance with those painful parts of her life. Ms. Wisniewski’s life parallels mine in many ways – the religious upbringing, the finding a fresh spiritual path that incorporates many things, including yoga, and the desire to write to make sense out of life. I thoroughly enjoyed both the book and reading Ms. Wisniewski’s answers to my questions, so without further ado, the interview.
What brought you to writing?
I’ve been writing all my life, starting when I was a child in a little blue diary with a key. However, it wasn’t until about fifteen years ago, when I was doing market research for the pharmaceutical industry, that I was asked by the editor of a trade newsletter to write articles for publication. Seeing my words in print was such a thrill, I’ve been writing ever since. In the late 1990s I discovered two wonderful writers’ organizations: the Story Circle Network and the International Women’s Writing Guild . Both encouraged me through their workshops and conferences to grow as a writer.
What does the practice of yoga add to your writing practice? What is your yoga practice? Your writing practice?
Yoga keeps me centered and focused, in my writing as well as my daily life. I do yoga stretches and poses at home every day, and try to take a class at a nearby studio once or twice a week. A physical therapist introduced me to yoga to help with the back pain of scoliosis. Many of the exercises in the Iyengar method are especially helpful for me, because they focus on body alignment, and my body is seriously out of line! In class, we always start and end with meditation and chanting, and the teacher keeps us focused on our breath as we move from pose to pose. There’s no time or room in my head for worries about tomorrow or yesterday.
It’s amazing how this way of “being” has permeated my life. I am more present, and aware of where I am. Less anxious, nervous and worried. Yoga keeps me focused on what I can do now.
I write every day, but don’t always have a big chunk of time to devote, so the ability to turn off the outside world and focus on the page is very important to me.
The final chapter of Off Kilter begins with a description of what you get from yoga. I particularly like this passage because I feel the same way about my own yoga studio; in fact, a couple of weeks ago, when I returned after an absence, I started to cry with joy as soon as I entered. So I find these sentences particularly powerful, “Peacefulness greets me the second I walk in the door. It’s not a gym, but it’s what my body needs, what my soul craves. When I miss it, I suffer. I stiffen physically and mentally. Coming back after an absence, I rejoice at the welcoming peace, the smiles, the quiet, the softening, our barefeet on floors, soft voices, soft music.” What do you recommend for people, particularly writers, who might not practice yoga but still want to feel that softening that yoga gives you (and me) both physically and internally? Are there ways you have been able to obtain that same feeling through writing or reading? Or is yoga the only thing you know that gives you that freedom?
I think taking long walks with no iPods in your ears would help connect you to nature and inner balance. Once I heard about a ‘walking meditation’ where you don’t let your mind go to worries and anxiety, but focus on your feet, the sidewalk, the houses you pass, just letting your mind ‘be’ where you are. which covers some unhappy times in my life. A few of my relatives did not want to read about that, but it was very important to me to tell my story. The feedback I’ve received confirms it was a good decision.
What does your identity as a woman contribute to your writing and to your view of yourself as a writer?
It’s very important to me that women’s voices are heard. My mother, and several other women in my family, were verbally abused. She, in particular, shut herself down emotionally, and let her dreams die. In my reading, I’ve discovered she was not unusual. Even today, we see more books by male authors being reviewed. It’s my personal mission to tell my story, and the stories of forgotten women who did not have the support I’ve had from other women authors. I’d like to inspire other women who, like myself, grew up shy and afraid, to speak up for themselves. And my dream is for young girls to grow up feeling empowered to write and speak.
In Chapter 2 of Off Kilter, you say, “Writing out my pain had lessened it. I had found a way to heal when I found my voice.” Do you still feel that to be true? If so, how does that experience come through for you? What are your feelings about writing as therapy; do you recommend it for other people?
Yes, I do feel that once a painful experience has been written and reflected on, the energy of it is less powerful. It’s almost like we change the episode itself by writing its story. It’s important to remember to do the self-reflection at the end of writing these stories if they are to be really healing. Try to find the meaning or lesson in what you’ve written. I’m not a therapist, so I won’t recommend writing as therapy for anyone but myself. But I will recommend an excellent book, Writing As a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo.
You’ve lived with a painful and difficult condition, scoliosis, for most of your life. How has that experience affected your writing?
I’ve used the curved spine of scoliosis as a metaphor for my ‘off kilter’ life experiences. The curves and twists of my spine are like the path of my life; I chose to adjust when things got too painful, rather than continue to suffer, as my mother did.
As a person who as raised in a faith community, how does/did that community respond to your physical condition (I’m thinking here of my own childhood faith community that sometimes considered illness or physical debilitation as a punishment)? How does that community respond to your writing?
The Polish Catholic community where I was raised taught that when suffering or pain enters our lives, we should “offer it up” to atone for our sins or those of others. I haven’t believed that since my late teens and haven’t lived in that community for forty years. There are beautiful parts of this religion, but encouraging people to suffer, especially as I watched what it did to my mother, turned me against it.
My faith today is Unitarian Universalist, and the people in my church community have been very supportive. They have even had me speak at services and read from my work! This winter, I will teach a workshop at an international convocation for UU women in Houston. We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, acceptance of one another, and encouragement to spiritual growth. There is a chapter in my book about how I found this faith, and several chapters about my Catholic childhood.
What advice would you give women who want to start writing or who have started but don’t know how to make a true practice out of their writing life?
First, write a lot. The more you write, the better you get. Then, find a group to support your practice, or start one of your own.All it takes is a few women to meet regularly and write together. If you can’t get together in person, I recommend the online writing circles for members of the Story Circle Network, at www.storycircle.org. There are other writers’ groups meeting online as well; one very good website is WOW-women on writing.com.
Making writing a true practice is one of the most difficult steps we take, because there are so many distractions in modern life. So honor your writing by giving it first place. Get up before everyone else, and write for half an hour before you begin the rest of your day. Just getting yourself to the blank page is often the hardest step.
You mention feeling a surprising kinship with Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (whose work I adore, by the way). Are there other writers that you feel especially drawn to? What makes those writers so special to you?
Anything by Louise DeSalvo, because she writes about her ethnicity. Alice Munro and Carol Shields, wonderful Canadian writers whose novels and short stories convey the beauty of everyday life, relationships and inner peace. Plus they can be quite funny in a subtle and surprising way!
In the introduction to Off Kilter, you say:
Recently, I’ve begun to think of scoliosis as a metaphor for my life. I’ve struggled to please teachers, employers, parents, boyfriends, husbands, twisting myself into someone I can’t be. I hurt when I do this, because it’s not natural. And it never works.
But when I stretch my Self, instead, the results are different. When I’m reaching for my personal goalsâ€”to be a good mother, wife, friend and writerâ€”I feel my balance return. And the sense of relief, as I become more the woman I truly am, is simply grand.
Can you talk a little more about this idea of pleasing others versus pleasing yourself? This idea is something that many people, especially women, struggle with. I know I do.
Because relationships are so important to us as women, we tend to give them more time than we do ourselves, and that’s a big mistake. When we finally have enough time to look at our lives, tragically there is sometimes nobody there. We don’t know what we want, what will make us happy, who we really are. This is what happened to my mother, and it wasn’t at all unusual for her generation of women.
I get cranky when I put everyone else first, and then nobody’s happy! LOL. 😀 Further, it’s just impossible to please everyone. If I was still trying to do that, I’d never have written “Off Kilter,”
Thanks to WOW: Women on Writing for this great opportunity.
Now for the great part, I have my own copy of Off Kilter, graciously signed by Linda herself, that I’d like to share with you. So if you would enjoy reading this book, post a comment telling me why you would like to read it (be effusive here so that Linda gets all the accolades she deserves), and I”ll pick a winner randomly on Friday.