Leesa Lawson “came East” in the late 1980s and at the age of 28 she launched an eminently successful career as a public relations writer for a large New England advertising agency. She was part of a creative team that won a number of awards and achieved “outstanding results” for her clients. She moved to the copy-writing side of advertising and began “cobbling words together” to differentiate clients and “deliver even greater results.”
In 2007, she began to turn her attention to one might say “serious” writing, penning essays after the death of a brother, Christopher Bristol, at the age of 40. “I began writing essays as a way to feel my brother’s his presence in my life. Part essay and part blog; readers refer to them as `blessays.’ Plus, it was a lot cheaper than psychotherapy.” Hence, the name of her blog: www.cheaperthanpsycho
Her first essay appeared on the Prairie Home Companion website over a decade ago, which as she said, “is a big deal for a writer”. That encouraged her immensely to keep writing. “I was working full time as an advertising copywriter, and so I wrote at night.” Many of her essays appeared in Berkshire Homestyle and readers asked her where they could see more of her work, so she started the blog in 2016.
Lawson’s humorous essay “Forgetting,” is featured in a new book, “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Age is Just a Number.” The book is currently on sale at the Hickory Stick Book Shop in Washington Depot.
Lawson’s essay was chosen from thousands of submissions. “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books feature collections of short, inspirational essays. The series has been translated into 43 languages, and published in over 100 countries. More than 500 million copies have been sold worldwide.
Lawson “works in Litchfield and gardens in Collinsville, battling deadlines and woodchucks.”
She said, “I was honored to have one of my pieces included in it. I first heard of the ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series years ago through the magazine Greenprints. They published my essay `Mulch Madness.’ The editor of Greenprints had once been the editor of an earlier ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ series for gardeners. When I saw that ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ was soliciting essays on aging, I had plenty to pick from. I sent a humorous essay, `Forgetting,’ and it was chosen from among thousands of submissions. I was really honored. You have to be patient; it took about eight months from submitting the essay to being chosen for the collection.”
Concerning inclusion in the latest book of the popular series, Lawson said she learned quite a bit about the publishing business, “You have to submit your work to a lot of national competitions, and collections in order to reach a wider audience. I found that I like writing more than I like promoting my work. I am after all from Minnesota, where it’s practically a sin to draw attention to yourself. All those jokes from Minnesota about shy Norwegians are based on truth. They may be exaggerated, but they are true. Like the joke about the Norwegian farmer who loved his wife so much he almost told her. Not too far-fetched from what I saw between my Norwegian grandparents.”
Lawson’s essay “Forgetting,” makes fun of the fact that her husband and she share one memory, but it can be challenging some days to remember where you left your keys. “Luckily, we don’t forget to laugh about it. So far.”
Lawson explained she “comes from a long line of storytellers.” Most notably was her grandfather, who dispensed gasoline and stories for 60 years on the corner of Highway 60 in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, and still found time to “make moonshine and harass the local Mennonites.” She added, “I grew up in a small (population 500) town in Minnesota in a large family. We entertained each other with stories. I believe after the loss of many family members; writing was a way to connect with them. I have a learning difference, and in high school I was told that learning to write would be impossible. So naturally that made me want to master it. I practice every day.”
She called advertising copywriting great training for other forms of writing. “It’s a discipline that requires you to cover all the main selling messages in the fewest words. I loved writing emails for George Carlin for Book Expo America, and radio for other celebrities, because you can hear their voices while you’re writing. Plus, you have to be succinct when you have word limits and time limits. Radio is 30 or 60 seconds, and it’s even more of a visual challenge than television or video because you have to create the visual with sound only. Something that people only hear, but then create their own visual for is powerful.”
When Lawson started her blog she wanted readers to have the option to listen to her essays. “After I write an essay, I also record it. The majority of my readers are actually listeners. Many tell me that they feel I’m right their sharing a story with them. They like the intimacy of a first-person essay, and they like hearing my voice.”
Lawson studies legendary writers like Steinbeck, songwriters like Johnny Mercer, and the speeches of Martin Luther King. She even studies top comedians that she wrote for, such as Carlin and Garrison Keillor. “When I do that, I find all the inspiration I need.”
Lawson believes readers also make her a better writer. “When they tell me what they found poignant, off-putting, or funny. Last winter I wrote an essay on handkerchiefs and that stirred many memories from readers. One reader said; “that really spoke to me.” The most comments I’ve ever received on a single essay was on `Lutheran versus Catholic Gardeners’. Readers thought it was unlike anything they had ever read. I keep flexing my storytelling muscles and tightening my language. I want to move the reader along quickly. We all have plenty of distractions. I don’t know of an easy way to do that other than hours of practice. There are no shortcuts.”
Lawson also reads “everything I can get my hands on”. She said reading trains the ear. “Listening to the cadences of voices also trains you to be a better writer. I do a lot of people watching and listening. Reading poetry is the motherload of training your ear. Assonance, dissonance, alliteration, you name it, you’ve got it all in good poetry.”
As for her inspirations when writing, she has a different take on life. “It’s a different way of seeing life and the everyday and ordinary. Sometimes I write about a vanishing way of life, or the beauty around me in my backyard. I hope these essays allow readers to be present in the moment, to see, to smell, to hear, to unplug, to unwind, to laugh to cry.”
She is currently working on a book of her essays. “I think it should be an audio book. I’ve been testing these essays with focus groups, and so far, there are equal amounts of crying and laughing. They cover sorrow, eccentric behavior, but they are always about a different take or perspective on life — things no one else is writing about.”
Lawson has worked as a freelance writer nationally, internationally and for clients in Litchfield for many years. “I have clients like the Forman School and White Flower Farm, but I live and garden in the center of Collinsville. My husband and I always head to Litchfield County on weekends. We walk at Topsmead State Park, we take drives around Lake Waramaug, we love to walk Christian Lane. We also swim from May to October in West Hill Pond — one of the cleanest lakes in Connecticut right here in Litchfield County. I don’t work for the Tourism Bureau, but maybe I should. There isn’t a walk or a drive in Litchfield County that we don’t turn to each other and say; ‘there’s beauty and local wonders around every bend.’ ”
Lawson feels “grateful” that Litchfield County still has a great independent bookstore in the Hickory Stick Bookshop. “My husband and I have been going there for years. This is one of the things that makes this area remarkable. I can’t imagine life without a good bookstore. Actually, I can. It would be awful.”
The Hickory Stick Book Shop is open every day for curbside pickup and private shopping appointments. Call 860-868-0525 or visit www.hickorystickbook shop.com.