An Interview With Laurie Lindeen
By Lauri Apple in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 20, 2009 5:20PM
When she was 24 years old, Laurie Lindeen was walking down a snowy Wrigleyville sidewalk en route to the Metro, getting ready to check out a show with some friends, when suddenly she couldn't move her legs anymore. Within days, doctors diagnosed her as having multiple sclerosis — an incurable autoimmune disease that robs many people of their ability to walk. Lindeen treated her illness as a permission slip to live life to the fullest, and on her own terms: She moved from Madison, Wisc. to Minneapolis, taught herself guitar, and with her best friends formed a rock band, Zuzu's Petals, that released two records and toured two continents before disbanding in 1995. Post-Zuzu's, Lindeen got married, had a child, and set about pursuing her other passion: writing. She earned her MFA and, in 2007, released Petal Pusher — a critically acclaimed memoir about being an artist, growing up, dealing with discomfort (from physical pain to sketchy hotel rooms), and learning how to stay true to one's self. Currently, she's working on two collections of essays, teaching writing in Twin Cities schools, being a rock and roll mom, and living MS symptom-free. Last year, she was a finalist for the Bush Artistic Fellowship.
Lindeen is in town today to participate in Columbia College's Nonfiction Writers Week, which runs through Oct. 23. At 3:30 p.m. she'll participate in Words + Music, a panel discussion focusing on music writing and reporting. At 6:30 p.m., she'll give a short reading from Petal Pusher and also answer questions posed by both Columbia Fiction Professor Elizabeth Yokas and the audience at large. Yesterday, she took some time from vacuuming to answer a few questions for us.
Chicagoist: You were just in Chicago over the weekend. Was your visit writing-related, or other?
Laurie Lindeen: I was in town for my dad's 70th birthday. I brought my son, and we did all the touristy things with him. I have lots of friends and family in Chicago, and have had so many other experiences there besides that big, terrible one in front of the Metro.
C: So, you don't automatically associate Chicago with illness, then?
LL: No. I do think about it every time I am in Chicago, but having written about that night second by second, I've sort of exorcised it. I have no superstitions about visiting Chicago; I don't think, "I hope I don't get sick on the sidewalk." Though it was a pretty life-changing experience for a 24-year-old. The last time I read in Chicago, I read about that night. At the end, everyone got a little bummed out, including me, so I'm not going to read that excerpt this time.
I think that when I read about situations in my life in which I was uncomfortable, it sometimes makes other people uncomfortable. At Bowling Green, I read about the boxcar scene [from Petal Pusher, in which Lindeen describes how, for a time, Zuzu's Petals held its practice sessions in an abandoned boxcar], and people got bummed out about that. Someone told me that night that I was an awkward reader but that it worked for me — it wasn't exactly what I needed to hear.
C: Last year you read part of your book at the annual convention of the National MS Society's Minnesota chapter. Do you derive support or a feeling of connectedness by attending or participating in MS-related events?
LL: I do like speaking to people with MS. But I also feel very guilty, because I've been so fortunate with it. Who am I to come tottering in in my high heels to talk to people in wheelchairs? But all I have is my story, so maybe they can take something from it.
C: You've said that you don't take medications for MS.
LL: No. I'm not going to take something that is going to damage my body more than the disease will. It doesn't make sense to me.
C: Your illness, you say, motivated you to become a musician and artist. In your experience, how does that message translate for your audiences — particularly people who are around the age you were when you developed MS?
LL: That incident in Chicago was there to tell me something, I think. Experiences like that are wake-up calls. And they come in so many different forms. For me, it came down to having this illness, and also this passion, and I said, "I'm going to go for it." Nowadays, I talk to so many kids in college, and I almost feel like a crusader. Kids are so on the track, on the treadmill: They don't get to make mistakes and goof up anymore. I think experimenting with life is an important thing that people should try and do, but they're not really able to. So many kids are like, 'How did you do it?' Well, my parents weren't supporting me, for one thing; I was making my own decisions.
I didn't have an internship to learn how to do any of this. There wasn't a Rock Camp for Girls. We chose to spend our time going to shows; it was the only thing going on at that time that was speaking to us. It was the age of Reagan and the yuppie movement, and mothers who probably had us way too young. We knew a lot of things that we didn't want to be. Through this great experience of seeing this country and this part of the world with my friends, and getting to express myself creatively, I was able to try music, and then writing. So many people don't get a chance to do that anymore. Even raising my son and the amount of homework the kids have, the sports — it's nuts what these kids have to do. And it starts so early, this process of depersonalization.
But when things get too over the top, it usually means a new movement. So, I'm excited about what might be coming next.
C: How did you get into teaching writing?
LL: I taught through grad school and realized that I loved it. (It's like an all-ages show with the lights on. I'm a performer at heart, who's passionate about writing.) I get to visit a lot of schools because I have a lot of teacher friends. I'm also part of a nonprofit organization called COMPAS/WAITS that offers writers and artists week-long residencies in the public schools; the schools get funding to bring us in. Right now I'm teaching memoir and structure to 7th to 12th graders.
C: After accumulating so many intense and memorable life experiences, what was going to grad school like?
LL: I think people should go to grad school after having lived and experienced life. In some ways, I felt like a freaking hillbilly — there were a lot of really smart, very academic, driven, competitive writing people. But I felt like I had some street cred there, which I certainly never had in rock and roll. I was in my late 30s when I went to grad school, and had a two-year-old, so just to get out of the house twice a week and talk to adults was an insanely happy time for me. I also had an opportunity to teach, so finally I was employable -- which was good for me.
C: You have spent some of the past few years working on a novel. How is that project going?
LL: I got a bunch of the fiction book done, but have ditched it — it's not something I want to talk about for two years. I found it going in some really dark places, so I'm not ready yet. Instead, I'm focusing on the essay collections. I guess in the world of publishing and marketing it's death to call your upcoming work an "essay collection," but that's what these projects are. One is titled It's a Wonder We All Survived, and it's essays about situations that would freak people out.
C: Are these incidents that happened in your youth?
LL: Yeah. Back when we didn't have helmets for anything, and every neighborhood had its weird laundromats and free-range retards, and I used to hitchhike in the fog, super fucked-up and alone. When we used to play Truth or Dare at slumber parties, and the dare would be, 'go break into a neighbor's house and eat a bowl of cereal.' It was a different place and a different time. The book is like a shout-out to all of today's 'helicopter' parents.
C: By 'helicopter' parents, you mean overprotective types?
C: You maintain a blog where you occasionally post vignettes about things that you observe in daily life. How do you decide what to post there, and what to reserve for the printed page?
LL: Sometimes something just happens, and I want to just throw it out there — like when I got super-rejected at the consignment shop. My main focus right now, though, is this manuscript for It's a Wonder that I'm struggling with — I'm making myself advance that by two pages every day, even when I'm stuck. A lot of the work involves going back and fixing crappy first drafts.
C: Are you working on a deadline?
LL: No, other than my personal deadline. I would love to have a draft of the collection done by the end of November.
C: What's the other essay collection about?
LL: It's a collection of stories about the summers I spent on Martha's Vineyard as a kid, and as a young adult.
As for the novel, I still keep going back to it. I just have to decide what to include and what not to include. It reads like it's all true, but I did take a lot of liberties.
C: A note about style: After reading your book and some of your other writings, I almost want to put your photo next to the word "modest" in the dictionary.
LL: Well, it's hard being with another artist who eclipses you. (Lindeen's husband is rock musician Paul Westerberg.) And if you can't laugh at yourself, you can't be a reliable narrator. [Making jokes at my own expense] comes painfully naturally.
I think the writing in Petal Pusher, and the stories, tell you I was depressed at the time, without me coming out and telling you I was. I didn't want to write the book with the perspective of 20/20 hindsight — I wanted to be in the voice of who I was at that time. And I was very insecure at that time — every day, I heard, 'you rock — for a girl.' Or, 'you don't deserve that good guitar.' Instead of being indignant, and screaming 'fuck you,' I would think, 'you're probably right, whatever.'
A lot of people think I am a hack at writing, just because I have a voice. But I'm realizing that the writers who are lucky enough to have a voice are the ones I'm drawn to. I'm aware of all the stylistic things people complain about when I'm writing. I try to recreate if I was sitting in the room with you, or writing you a letter, telling a story. I like it to feel more intimate.
C: Do you think you'll ever leave Minneapolis?
LL: Probably not. It's an easy place to live, a great place. There's city stuff, but with wide open spaces. Paul will never leave here.
C: You have said that you enjoy reading other artists' biographies. What are you reading right now?
LL: Right now I'm reading Gracefully Insane: Life and Death Inside America's Premier Mental Hospital by Alex Beam. I'm loving it. It's about the mental hospital in Massachusetts where everybody famous went, starting with Sylvia Plath. I just read the bio on Harper Lee, too: Mockingbird. That was pretty good. I'm also forcing myself to read fiction, and pop fiction, too.
C: You're more of a nonfiction person, you'd say?
LL: Yes. I think it's because literary nonfiction reads to me like the novels I used to like growing up. It's more intimate and relatable. I dig people's stories a lot. Real-life stories are messier, and they don't get worked out, and what do we do with that? With Petal Pusher, for instance, I had an ending that was about me melting down in the touring van; people said, 'you can't leave it like that.' So I went back to the beginning with Martha's Vineyard, and ended the book with a scene that takes place at my sister's wedding.
C: Any final words for our readers?
LL: I remember asking my editor one time, 'why did you like [Petal Pusher]?' He said it was because there are so many likable males in it. People tell me things I never think of.
Words + Music: 3:30 p.m. Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th floor. Then Laurie Lindeen in conversation with Elizabeth Yokas: 6:30 p.m. Film Row Cinema, 1104 S. Wabash, 8th floor. Columbia College