Five Questions for Laura Munson

Today we are so pleased to welcome Laura Munson to the blog! Laura is the author of the New York Times and international bestselling memoir This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. She’s been published in the New York Times (her Modern Love essay “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” is the #2 most read in the column’s history), O, The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, More, and many other publications. In addition to being a writer, Laura is the founder of the acclaimed Haven Writing Retreats in Montana and speaks and teaches on the subjects of empowerment, creative self-expression, and emotional freedom.  

Read on to hear about Laura’s own writing process, what it’s like to have millions of readers up in your business, and how to build a stimulating and nurturing writing community.

1. You wrote a widely read memoir (as well as an essay that went viral) about a very difficult period in your life. What is it like for you to have the public know so much about your personal life? And what advice do you offer to writers who are confronting something deeply personal or even traumatic in their own work?

With memoir, the inherent difficulty is that we’re exposing ourselves, and likely others, and it’s usually driven by a difficult time in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t have a story to tell. Here’s what we as memoir writers must hold fast to our hearts: why we’re doing it in the first place. We must be intentional about why we write. My statement of intention is: I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner, to provide relief for myself and others. And I believe that if we shine a light on ourselves in memoir, claiming responsibility for our experience and trying to parse it rather than pointing the finger, then we can pretty much write about anything. We have to write past fear of exposure, and it helps to understand that by sharing our story, we are writing out of service to ourselves and others. If, at the very least, telling our story helps people to know they’re not alone.

2. You’ve written both memoir and fiction. What are the biggest challenges of each? What is most satisfying about each?

I think the biggest challenge of memoir is crafting it into a story. The harsh reality is that just because we go through something profound for us that we want to chronicle in a memoir . . . it doesn’t mean that other people care about it like we do. Memoirists can lose sight of this. The story needs to unfold like a novel, even though it’s nonfiction. Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, however, the structure is critical, and not necessarily linear in its delivery.

I find it helps to create an outline, even if the book takes on a different form in the end. You have to know where you’re going and why, what’s at stake, and what the central conflict is and make sure there’s some sort of resolve at the end. Ultimately, though, in all forms of writing, it’s about what’s behind the words, what’s in between them, and what’s in their wake.

3. What makes a good writing environment for you? What are your writing habits, and what makes you keep coming back to the page again and again?

I have been writing for three decades every day, not because I’m highly disciplined, but because I’m obsessed. It’s not much more elegant than that. My writing is a movable feast. I’ve written on the backs of cocktail napkins when I bartended, in the margins of newspapers on commutes, in my journal, on various screens and devices. I make time to write every day no matter what, and the time frame varies. Even if it’s for a short amount of time and even if it’s for my eyes only. It’s a matter of asking myself what shall I write, what do I care about, what confuses me, what do I need to understand? And then I write my way into the answer.

4. You lead writing retreats that focus on giving writers at all stages of their practice an accepting place to do their work and connect with other writers. What do you think makes a good writing community? What can imperil one?

There are all sorts of writing communities. The main thing is that every writer finds one. I did it alone for too many years, either because I was too stubborn or too scared. Then I started Haven, and I realized what was missing in my writing life. Support! Kindreds! Willing and helpful feedback! Writing is hard work in every way. The truth is: no one asked us to be writers. It’s actually rather inconvenient for our loved ones and colleagues. And that makes it even more critical that we find our kindreds. In my work with Haven, I’ve chiseled too many people out of negative writing experiences in workshops, classes, writing groups, and even MFA programs. I believe in academia, but I don’t believe that you need academia to be a strong writer. You need awareness, stamina, and support. So be choosy when you sign up for any sort of group writing adventure. If anyone is promising you five easy steps to getting published or setting themselves up to be a guru . . . run for the hills!

5. For writers who aren’t able to come to something like a Haven retreat, what is your advice for creating a productive and supportive environment in which to pursue their writing dreams?

Let’s face it: we’re not going to do anything consistently, especially something hard, unless there’s a payoff. I treat my writing practice like I’m a little girl getting away with something, like I’ve faked sick from school and am at home in bed. In fact, I often write in bed. In other words, I make it comfortable for myself to go into subjects that are often very uncomfortable. I delight in my writing practice. I value the role it plays in my life. My best advice for writers is to find your most natural voice on the page. Don’t try to force it. Find the flow that already comes out of you, even if it’s like a tiny stream rather than a roaring river. That means you might not write every day. So what? Find a writing practice that works for you based on your true self—your habits, your personality, your responsibilities, your real life. And commit to it. Start small, like with working out. Three times a week from 10:00 a.m. to noon, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Saturday morning? Twenty minutes before you get out of bed? Make it work based on who you truly are, not who you think you should be or how other people do it. And no matter what, find delight in it. Writing has the power to transform your life. It’s something that you can control. And all it takes is a pen, a piece of paper, and an open heart.

Only a few spots left on the June 8–12 Haven Writing Retreat! Sign up here.

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