“We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your ‘limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude’ is to produce.”
—-Cheryl Strayed, Tiny, Beautiful Things
The Dear Sugar column “Write Like a Motherfucker,” quoted above, speaks to me and to many of us not just for the no-nonsense advice it gives, but for Sugar’s willingness (aka Strayed’s willingness) to reveal her own imperfect, messy, sometimes inching ahead, sometimes falling behind progress in an effort to help an emerging writer.
Fifteen years ago, I was a non-writing writer, a person who had a crazy notion that she was something she hazily thought of as a writer with not one scrap of evidence to support that claim. I lived then in a small desert town in Utah and knew no one who identified themselves as a writer, but I started down the path. I took one class and then another. The first from a poet who lived in a trailer. She possessed almost nothing but an enormous conviction that our lives are made larger by language. The next was from a poet who wrote collage essays he called triptychs. He taught me how to write one. Class by class, my work grew. It grew because of those teachers and their ability to share with me everything they knew about writing and the writing life. They were writers who possessed not only talent but generosity.
Some fifteen years later, I’ve learned we are always learning. I continue to need the help of other writers. I need inspiration. I need to remember how to take a sliver of an idea and render it into an essay or a book by watching other writers. When I picked the writers to teach at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, I thought of writers who’ve expressed something that has inspired me to express, who have followed their individual vision as writers, and who just plain know how to do stuff I can’t do.
- When I read Ariel Gore‘s book Hip Mama‘s Survival Guide in 2001, I was awed by her willingness to call out the thornier parts of motherhood and her seemingly effortless ability to twine personal narrative with advice in a casual, intimate voice. I’m thrilled that Ariel’s classes will include the topics of the use of voice in a memoir and memoir as survival guide: writing a first-person book that’s useful to readers.
- A few years later, I met E.J. Levy at the 2004 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. What I admired then and admire now about E.J. is her smartypants interest in language and story structure and her dedication to the craft of writing. But more than that, E.J’s work has an emotional rigor that reminds me of the quote from Hemingway that I’ll paraphrase as something like Good writing shows life as it is, not life as it should be. I’m excited about the ambition of the questions E.J is bringing to the Wild Mountain classes. Her class topics include:1) Memory and Imagination: How do we meaningfully and ethically use imagination and invention in memoir for inspiration on how to deepen scenes without losing integrity of our nonfiction narratives.2) Writing the Twenty-first Century Meta-memoir: Every age reinvents its literary forms, so how can we as writers update the memoir to reflect our increasingly visual-technological culture? How can we reinvent the memoir form in ways that deepen our art and expand our formal options?
- In 2008, on the verge of the publication of my first book (a memoir about divorce), I got a call from my agent saying guess what a book “exactly the same as mine” was coming out the same week as mine, only this book was not from an unknown like myself but by bestselling author Suzanne Finnamore. And this is how I “met” Suzanne. Without knowing anything about her or her upcoming book Split, I began my grudge against her, resenting her just a little more with each splash of publicity her book received (A review in People magazine! A review in O magazine!). But then, something happened: I read Split. I loved it. I loved her high-octane prose. I loved her unwillingness to back down, her fierce storytelling, her scenes so visceral you feel like you’re in the room. Aptly, Suzanne will teach at the retreat: Getting Over Yourself: How (and Why) To Overcome Writer’s Block & Begin a Memoir and How To Write A Scene: Turning Your Worst Moments Into Money.
- In 2009, I met Candace Walsh when an essay of mine was in her anthology (she dreamed it up, she edited it) Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On. Working with Candace, I was struck by her genius for not only writing her own story of transformation but possessing a literary vision expansive enough to include the vision of other writers. The next year, she blew me away again when she came up with the idea for a new anthology, which became Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women, another collection that expresses not only her own vision but her pluralist understanding that our many stories feed into our larger narrative that contributes to our self-identities. And just a few weeks ago, Candace’s first memoir Licking the Spoon hit the bookstore shelves. Candace’s class will include the topics of sex, sexuality, sexual identity and how we can parlay our obsessions into memoir.
- And yes, I’ll be teaching at Wild Mountain Memoir retreat also. My classes will be on the art of twining two or more personal narratives together to form one story and the collage-style personal essay.
Later this week, I’ll be writing more here about the retreat. Follow the blog and come back!
Theo Pauline Nestor
Retreat Host and Teacher