Remembering Lisa

Our writers group is missing and remembering our founder Lisa this month by . . . what else? . . . sharing stories. Rosemary, Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth and I have added our remembrances to Jean’s

Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, Jean. Rose is behind the camera.

Brenda, Jill, Elizabeth, Ellen, Lisa, Jean. Rose is behind the camera.


The stepladder teetered a little, jiggled by my efforts to scrape the excess paint from Lisa’s storm windows. The sun heated my neck but a light breeze lifted my hair and cooled my sweaty head. The day was one of those glorious September days that appear in calendars but are rare in real life. In the narrow garden behind my ladder, yellow chrysanthemums—a traditional fall flower—competed with top-heavy tomatoes—summer’s best.

About ten of Lisa’s friends were positioned around her one-story twinplex to get her windows ready for winter. In assembly-line fashion, we scraped old paint, recaulked, repainted, or razored off dried paint.

The project was classic Lisa. When her stomach cancer returned and chemo left her too weak to handle household projects, Lisa allowed her network of friends to help. She was always uncomfortable with asking for help, but recognized that it was necessary. Lisa struggled to believe our assurances that we wanted to help—but we did, because there was so little else we could do in face of her relapse.

Someone sent out an email to about 30 friends and close to a dozen people responded.  Because so many people were involved, the work went quickly and no one had to devote more than an afternoon to the effort. Many of the helpers didn’t know each other, since we were drawn from Lisa’s large network of friends—I knew Lisa from the writing group she started a dozen years ago. Several people were former coworkers, one was a former beau, two were from her QiGong class, another person knew Lisa from her church’s social justice committee, and so on.

I’ve never known anyone with such a wide circle of good friends. Long-divorced (but still friends with her former husband and his new wife), Lisa had a remarkable capacity for making and keeping friends—we became her family.

 * * *


Lisa. Writing group member. Friend.

Lisa was in the process of dying for many years. When her stomach cancer returned after a long absence I kept a short, but distinct distance, not wanting to experience another loss. But at some point during the last year or two of her life, I consciously decided to join her ever-growing group of supporters and personal pals. I was very lucky.

In doing so I gained a thoughtful, emotionally evolved companion for movie excursions, photography exhibits, group dinners, poetry readings and QiGong. I met many of her friends from other spheres and interests. We also spent some time alone together – buying and bringing to her home a bookshelf, and getting a frame for her favorite piece of art.

I was going through a tough period myself with anxiety and depression. Lisa sat with me when I could not tolerate being alone. She and I walked a small neighborhood labyrinth together one fall afternoon. I brought her into my circle of friends where for an evening or two she did not have to think about dying or be known only for that. She could escape cancer.

Lisa taught me a few things about dying.  Not one to be sentimental about it, there was mostly a calmness, a practicality in her attitude. She didn’t stop living: Qigong every Wednesday morning with a breakfast group afterwards, trips to Northern Minnesota cabins for outdoor experiences, times set aside to play with her grandchildren. Most of all, she showed me how she took care of herself.  Resting when she needed to. Talking when she could. Hauling her meds and apparatuses with her. She planned parties, decorated her house, and made a chapbook. Writing memoir, reading poetry and editing till the end.

Lisa. Friend. Writing group member. Teacher.

* * *


There are few things that I make time for outside of work and family. One of these things is my writer’s group. I have Lisa to thank for that.

Many years ago, after completing my graduate degree in writing, I was looking for a place where I could continue to nurture my love for words and improve my ability to put them together. I saw a tiny ad in the Loft Literary Center newsletter that said a nonfiction writing group was looking for members. Hoping I could become a part of a new writing community, I answered the ad. And now, eight years later, this group has become an essential part of my creative life. I have Lisa to thank for that.

Lisa was the one who started this group years before that little ad appeared. I got to know Lisa through her essays and poems. Whether penning an essay about life as a child in the ’50s or a poem about birds sweeping through the sky, Lisa showed me that words have power, that words can communicate with beauty and grace, the ephemeral experiences of our daily existence.

I loved reading Lisa’s words, but the truth is, she was always a little hard on herself about her writing. She chided herself for not writing more and more seriously, yet in her last bit of life, she documented her experience with cancer on her Caring Bridge site in posts that were honest, funny, heartfelt, self-deprecating, and totally Lisa. She published a chapbook of poems so lovely they often left me in stunned silence. She hosted her own reading to celebrate her writing and her life.

At one point, Lisa was worried about how much she could still contribute to the group, so she tried to quit. We didn’t let her. We weren’t quite ready to say goodbye and knew she wasn’t either.

By now, we have said goodbye but I still think of Lisa when we gather on Saturday mornings, talking about words, sharing our lives, and helping each other with more than just our writing. And I thank Lisa for that.

* * *


What Lisa Taught Me About Dying Living

As members of the same writing group, I knew Lisa primarily through her beautiful poems and her CaringBridge entries about her slow death from stomach cancer. We were acquaintances, not close friends.

When her cancer started to win its years-long duel, Lisa’s family and friends rallied to her aid. As part of her circle, I received the email requests to help with household projects that Lisa could no longer manage. Later, I was invited to use the online calendar another friend had created so that Lisa’s many friends could schedule their visits and not overwhelm her family.

I opened the calendar, but never put my name in one of the slots, never drove to her son’s home to see her in her final days. I felt I would be an intruder in that intimate landscape. But I also felt guilty for not joining the rest of our group in supporting Lisa and her family.

The last time I saw Lisa, she was in the hospital, a few months before she died. I visited during my lunch break from the adjoining hospital where I work. I entered the room to find her sitting in bed, smiling. I tried to apologize for not taking part in the house-repair projects, or stopping by to see her sooner. She brushed me off. “Oh, don’t worry about that. You have a busy life,” she said. “I have lots of people to help me. Tell me about your writing.”

And in that moment, I learned that it was OK to be a different kind of friend to different people. I didn’t need to run errands for Lisa, or drive her to appointments, or offer to clean her house, the way I had for my best friend years earlier as she lost her own battle with cancer. Lisa had other people in her life for that. I had done for Lisa what I was capable of doing. Hosting our writing group at my home for a marathon submission party for her work. Being in the audience at the beautiful reading she hosted as a celebration of her writing and life.

So during my last visit with Lisa, we talked about writing, the thing that connected us. She encouraged me to keep working on my novel. I told her how much her thoughtful criticism of my work had helped me over the years. But what had inspired me most, I shared, was her constant presence at our table, even when her health was at its worst.

Lisa had reserved time and energy for us. We had given back to her in our own ways. As it should be. Lisa taught me that we don’t have to be all things to all people. But we can give of ourselves what we’re capable of giving. We can come to the table with open hearts.

* * *


“Lisa’s on a trip.” When I first met Lisa, she was a palpable part of the writing group although she wasn’t physically present. The group talked about her as if they were placing pushpins on a map, keeping track of her whereabouts. At every meeting, they described another trip that Lisa was on, another location, in another part of the world.

When I finally did meet her, I took stock of her diminutive form. Wondered how so much spirit and energy could be packed into such a little person. She was not ever to be dismissed, to be gone around, or not taken into account.

And when she gave you feedback on your writing, you felt good because she had read your work and prepared a thoughtful response.

It made me feel special when she was talking to me.

Even now, I know she’s just on a trip. I feel her during our gatherings. She is still present in our thoughts and in our conversations.

She is taken into account.

Comfortable on Any Turf



More than a dozen years ago, Lisa Taylor Lake founded the writers group that eventually gave rise to WordSisters. Lisa’s original inspiration was that we could provide vital insight and feedback to each other. Over the years, the group grew to be so much more—mentors, cheerleaders, and true wordsisters. In spring 2012, Lisa died of cancer and this March, we are honoring her with two blogs—this one and one in a few weeks. Ellen & Elizabeth

I had belonged to Lisa’s creative nonfiction writers group for years before I learned she also wrote poetry. Inspired by classes she had recently taken, Lisa had created a chapbook of her poems and reserved a cozy room at her church for her first poetry reading.

When she invited our writers group to the reading, she had confessed to nerves, even though she regularly spoke in front of groups for her work in the state health department’s communications office. This was different, she said. This was her poetry. It was personal.

And it was beautiful. As she read, her audience of two dozen listened quietly—until several of us couldn’t suppress an ooh at a particularly lovely line. Silence broken now, as Lisa continued, more of us expressed mmms, oohs, and aahs, and shared appreciative nods and smiles. Our response emboldened Lisa to mention she had planned to end with the poem she had just read, but if we would like, she could read one or two more. When we applauded wildly and said yes, please, more, she stepped back, momentarily overwhelmed, and then she obliged us with pleasure.

Afterward, ever the good hostess, Lisa flitted among us, greeting people, directing us toward refreshments, accepting compliments, her eyes and feet virtually dancing.

Years later, my husband David and I sat at a lacquered pine table in a dark booth while I wondered what I had gotten myself into. An essay of mine had been accepted by a local online literary journal. A local church sponsored the journal and the editors celebrated each issue’s publication with an author reading at the Turf Club bar. Well, not in the bar itself—in the bar’s basement.

Lisa was the first of my friends to arrive, her eyes twinkling as she took in the wood-paneled walls sporting mounted fish and game. She and David ordered beers and discussed the typography of the beer signs and the design of the amateur northwoods landscape paintings that filled gaps among the taxidermy.

As I read, I remember the sensation of all eyes—those of the patrons, the bartender, and the mounted deer—fixed on me as people listened. Afterward, I felt the adrenaline rush of finishing without tripping over words or a microphone cord. Now I understood why Lisa was aflutter after her poetry reading—the lightness of heart that comes from risking and successfully entering new territory.

The last time we heard Lisa read her poetry, she looked artistic and angelic in a full-length turquoise dress that she couldn’t get over buying for herself for the occasion. The skirt flowed around her ankles so that she appeared to float rather than walk. We entered her church again. This time, many more of us filled a larger room that featured a wood-beamed vaulted ceiling and arched stained-glass windows.

Lisa’s writing group, our writing group—Ellen, Elizabeth, Rose, Jill, Brenda, and I—sat together, WordSisters well before Ellen and Elizabeth began this blog. We oohed and aahed over the dress, but moreso over the depth of meaning in her poems and her greater confidence in sharing them with us. We were not the only ones to surreptitiously wipe away tears, and not only as a reaction to her beautiful words.

Lisa could be comfortable in a vaulted spiritual space or in a basement bar decorated with dead animals. Lisa was game. (And as I write that sentence, I can hear her politely questioning whether I’m perhaps overreaching in my attempt at word play.) But she herself wrote in her essay, “Meeting with Royalty” about spending Christmas in England, “I was game for any adventure.”

Lisa took her good manners and tactfulness, her keen observation and sense of story, and her openness to new experiences with her wherever she went. Hiking and writing poetry along her beloved North Shore. Dressed like a tsarina in long underwear, a long wool coat, and a Russian-styled hat to see Britain’s royal family go to church. Tired and angry at a car and a relationship stuck in the mud. Driving with her sister to a family reunion—she wrote that they were “two gals pushing sixty in a rented red convertible that was pushing seventy.”

I hope Lisa pardons my paraphrase of that essay’s opening sentence, but it’s one of my favorite images from her stories: red-headed Lisa holding onto a broad-brimmed hat to protect her fair complexion, ever practical, yet speeding along joyfully with someone she loves, whether she was traveling on well-trod or unfamiliar turf.

How I’m Overcoming my Resistance to Social Media—One Writer’s Insights

As a writer, I am constantly torn between writing (which I actively enjoy) and marketing via social media (which inspires considerably less enthusiasm). Yet, if I want to discover more people who are interested in this blog and who might want to read my memoir one day, I need to make friends with strangers. Social media helps me do that. But what’s the right mix of social media activities? How do I keep up with my current friends while meeting new ones?

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 10.20.25 AM

By nature I’m a social person. I visit with a number of people—phone calls, lunches, dinners, book group, writers’ group. I enjoy our in-depth interactions immensely. I like the time spent on half-hour phone calls, two-hour meals, and conversations about books or writing. But the high-quality visits leave me with less time for social media.

I know I should find more time to post on Facebook, Goodreads, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, or learning some new app—but when? As a reality check, I made a list of all the stuff I try to do every week. I impressed myself. Wow! I am busy. But so are a lot of people, yet they make time for social media. Certainly I can squeeze in a few more hours per week.

Unfortunately, social media moves fast and needs daily or even hourly attention. Since I check Facebook only twice a week, Facebook assumes I don’t care enough, so these days, I only get updates about five people.

Pinterest holds no interest and I’m way behind on Goodreads.

Although I keep up with LinkedIn, until now, I’ve reserved that channel for the other side of my writing career—marketing communications.

Performance anxiety has kept me from Twitter. Even though I write for a living, headlines and short text aren’t my strong suits. I write l o o o n n g text. How will I ever manage being clever and interesting in 140 characters?!? I am somewhat encouraged to discover that Joyce Carol Oates, who’s the epitome of a busy prolific writer, was also a reluctant tweeter.

I’m glad to engage acquaintances intellectually. I’ve got a ton of opinions about politics, books, and life in general. I like learning new things and exchanging ideas—maybe that’s the key. Perhaps I need to think of Twitter as a playground of ideas, commentary, and 140-character conversations.

After reviewing this inventory, I realize that like Dan Blank (a great resource for writers) maybe I need to focus—let go of a few social media options (Facebook, Pinterest) and concentrate more on others—start Twitter, give Goodreads another try, and introduce my business friends to my blog via LinkedIn.

Please share your insights about social media—what do you like to do and why? What works for you?

Competing With Friends for Writers’ Awards

Earlier this month, I applied for an Emerging Writer’s Grant and a Loft Creative Prose Mentorship, knowing full well that I’m competing with my good friends for these honors. I really want to win. So do the women in my creative nonfiction writers group.

We’ve known each other for years. We’ve visited each other’s homes. We’ve cried together when one of our circle died. These women often know more know about the contents of my mind and heart than some of my family members do—they read my innermost thoughts firsthand when our group meets.

They are insightful critics and steadfast cheerleaders. Because we share personal essays and memoir, our subject matter is always personal. Sharing our stories requires trust, and we’ve strengthened that trust over the years. The other writers don’t judge me or my life. But they do evaluate my writing craft and urge me to do my best. We all understand that the writer is different from the writing.

Perhaps the ability to draw the distinction between the person and the craft is why we’re able to draw other distinctions and balance two seemingly conflicting ideas: we’re friends and we’re competing.

Although there have occasionally been moments of frustration or resentment among the group members, we have been able to rise above them. For me, these aspects of our group dynamic have helped keep our competition from turning into conflict—

  • All of us are accomplished writers who deserve to win a grant or a mentorship. But we know that winning these contests is a crapshoot. Once you’ve met a certain level of competence, the next round of judging is subjective—my memoir about wrestling with feminism in 1979 might not appeal to a judge as much as my friend’s essays about traveling in Cuba. Luck plays a role.
  • Over the years, we have fostered a “one for all, all for one” mentality. When illness sapped our founder’s energy, the group mounted a submissions campaign to help her get published. When members ask the group to review their grant proposals, we give them our best advice.
  • Some of us openly state that we’re going after an award; others are more circumspect—each according to her personality. Perhaps that tact and reticence is what enables us to avoid open conflict.

I don’t know for sure what the magic is. And I hope talking about it doesn’t wreck it. I’m proud to be a part of a group that has navigated these tricky waters successfully . . . so far.

I want an Emerging Writer’s Grant or a Loft Mentorship. If someone else in the group wins, I’ll be sorely disappointed for myself. But I’ll be happy for her.