What Do We Do With Our Violence? Lisa Nicoll on the Writing Process

Writing by Heidi Sistare, Illustration by Lesley Numbers
March 24, 2014

What Do We Do With Our Violence is the third 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, and February’s piece, Open a Door, here.
When Lisa moved to New York City she came with $200 and a trash bag full of clothes. She’s been here twenty years. “I wanted to live where people make things; I had this one bread crumb.”
Lisa danced and choreographed. She wrote poetry and songs and prose. She acted. She called herself an actress even though it was hard for her. “I got panic attacks before each audition,” she said. She realized that more and more she was staying home to write instead of going out to audition.
“I love the process of writing,” Lisa said. “When I’m writing I shut my phone off. I block calls. I cook, eat, stretch, shower, practice piano, the simple delights of a simple life; everything else falls away.”
She writes in her home in Brooklyn, at her desk in the living room and sometimes on the couch. And she writes on the F train. “Sometimes the subway is best because I get lulled. I’m focused and other people are similarly focused. I also have a timer, a forty-five-minute ride,” Lisa said. She writes in pencil in hundreds of marble notebooks. And she writes when something worries her mind.
In 2003 Lisa’s brother was deployed to Iraq. “I stopped sleeping. I kept chewing on him, his situation, whether he’s dead. I kept thinking about what I could do with my thoughts to keep him alive. I couldn’t find a release,” Lisa said. Then, she gave up and started exploring the reality of what she thought, putting it down on paper. “I wrote a song and saw a picture around it, a scene,” she said. “Then I could sleep.”
Lisa’s current project is a musical called “The Dove;” it is rooted in that first song she wrote when her brother was deployed. The Dove follows the lives of combat soldiers after they return home. Through the story and songs Lisa is exploring a question that she thinks we all need to consider: “What do we do with our violence?”
“This question is for all of us, not only the active-duty soldiers and military veterans who shoulder it, and have shouldered it, through all the world’s wars,” Lisa wrote. Instead of working on The Dove in a traditional writing workshop, Lisa went to a five-day silent retreat for veterans and their loved ones. “I could feel them and be with them. If I’m going to dare to represent their voices then I have to go there,” she said. By going there she creates powerful characters, like Will.
Hey. I’m Will. Army. 4th ID. I just got back like two months ago. I was ordered here. Not officially, but by my grandfather, who was WWII. Yeah, I don’t know. A lot of things on my mind. I don’t call anyone back, particularly my mother or father. And I basically haven’t slept since I’ve come back. If I do doze off, the images, the nightmares, are relentless. But this is such total bullshit for me–my guys are literally there, right now, still. They are in Iraq, and I am in America, crying over scary dreams in a clean bed after a shower in my own bathroom?
Lisa said that when she’s writing she feels so vulnerable, like she doesn’t have any skin and everything in the layer below–muscles and tendons and bones–is exposed to the world. But then, the words and scenes and voices are off her mind and onto the page. She gets some singers over to her home, or meets with some actors. Even though Lisa loves the process of writing, she says “collaboration is the best feeling in the world.”


Lisa Nicoll is a Brooklyn-based writer, composer, lyricist, and actor. Her black comedy Poedunk was produced in January, 2014, in Oxford, UK, by the ART Theatre Company. Two of her plays, a farce and a one-act drama, had readings at the SUNY Playwrights Lab, as did her current project, The Dove, a musical about veterans. Her musical compositions have been performed at 54 Below, and her pop single “Bad For Me” charted at #2 on AIU Streaming Radio. She has created voices for the Sci-Fi Channel’s Seeing Ear Theater and appeared in the films of award-winning filmmakers Bruce Bennett and Cherien Dabis. Her fables and short fiction have been published by The Metropolitan Review. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild. You can learn more about Lisa and The Dove on her website and Facebook page.


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.