Open a Door: Nora Jamieson on the Writing Process

Writing by Heidi Sistare, Illustration by Lesley Numbers
February 17, 2014

Open a Door is the second in a series about the writing process. During each month of 2014, Freerange Nonfiction will post a new piece from this collaboration between Heidi Sistare and Lesley Numbers. You can read January’s piece, The Ecstatic World, here.

When she died, Nora’s mother left her pages of writing. Sometime during her last days her mother pulled the guts out of an old record player that once belonged to Nora, filled it with pages torn from notebooks, and wrote Nora’s name all over the outside. Nora found this—collection of words, archive of ideas, messages from the unknown—in the bottom of a closet. Nora read these pages, and then she started writing. She was 39.
Nora is a therapist who works with women. “Our voices aren’t always heard or encouraged,” she said. “Writing is an antidote to the woundedness.” She writes fiction about women who are familiar to her.
When she went to college at 28 Nora had just left a bad marriage, and other people’s writing saved her life. “Not just my physical life but my soul life,” she said. “Women’s voices and the feminism of the 1970s, reading political books, this saved me.” She’s still inspired by a long list of women writers: Deena Metzger, Terry Tempest Williams, Louise Erdrich, Linda Hogan, Mary Rose O’Reilly.
She keeps her writing room filled with the books that feel important to her. The room is an old goat barn. She described the windows first; they face west, south, and east. The walls are rough-sawn pine and Nora painted the floor green. She has an altar, a gas heater, a PC, and small things that feel important to her: bird’s nests, skulls, a sculpture of a bear.
“Writing is such a solitary act, and so magical on some level. If anything writing has confirmed my belief in other forces. It’s an alchemy,” Nora said. She lives a life that allows for magic. In the morning, whatever is left from her dreams is sticky with metaphor. Nora writes down each dream that she remembers. “I’m interested in layers of reality and what we’re not attending to,” she said, “the soulful aspects of life.” Sometimes, her dreams lead her to the next piece of writing:
I dreamed of the Turquoise Sofa last night.
Why now, after half a century, am I dreaming of the Turquoise Sofa.
I remember the night when it seemed to appear as if by an unseen hand. It was the color of the sea, fringed and tasseled, its arm nearly as tall as me. I gazed at its blue green coolness before climbing into its silky and quilted lap, so new and taut that it reflected the lamplight. Even so, I knew it was a freak in the ordered colonial room, a stranger among us. Chosen by a mother I did not recognize.
Alarming and mysterious.
But no more so than the unspoken truth of death, of illicit pasts and banished grandmothers. The unutterable and unbearable knowing that, in the next room, my father lay dying.

Mystery, understanding, grief, a way to straddle two worlds: This is what Nora explores through her writing. “I just want to write words that open a door,” she said. Like her mother’s words did for her.
She pulls out parts of her own journals, things she might want to leave for her niece—a collection of words, archive of ideas, message from the unknown. “Knowing our elders is important,” Nora said. “I want to leave a record.”
Nora Jamieson lives in Northwest Connecticut where she writes, does soul-focused work with women, offers councils and holy day gatherings, and unsuccessfully tracks coyote. She lives with her spouse, writer Allan Johnson, Roxie, her new canine companion, and with the sorrowful and joyful memory of four beloved goats and three dogs. You can read more about Nora and her work on her website.


meHeidi Sistare is a writer and community-builder who lives on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. imageLesley Numbers is an art educator, printmaker, and mom who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Lesley and Heidi met as roommates at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. There, they transformed their cinderblock and linoleum room into a magical living space, listened to lots of Townes Van Zandt, and plotted collaborative projects. They’re happy to be sharing this project with Freerange.