“Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.

“—is that they exist?” she finished.

“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”

Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”

photo (2)

the view of Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady Resort

The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”

***

Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it.

Steven Church, on his blog My Atomic Angst, explains his discomfort with the “memoir” label in a way that echoes my own:

I begged, in fact, during production, that [my book] not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. And I didn’t want readers to look at the cover and expect something different.

***

I am embarrassed to admit this in front of my fellow retreat-goers (and new friends) but I drove down to Leavenworth preparing myself for the possibility that I might be spending the weekend among overconfident self-promoters or–worse yet–evangelists of the upbeat anecdote and the dogma of uniqueness. Which is why I was relieved to hear organizer Theo Pauline Nester declare on the first night: “Your story is not new.”

The amazing thing about this particular retreat is that, unlike several of the reviews of Associated Writers Program conference the weekend before, every response I’ve read to Wild Mountain has been insistently, unwaveringly positive. As my friend Amy Stolls said about AWP: “Judging by the post-conference commentary, [attendees] were either quietly inspired to write more and write better, or were crushed by the sheer numbers of writers attending and vowed never to attend an AWP conference again.” (See also Steve Almond’s lukewarm “The Writing Industry is Booming, even if the Book Industry Isn’t.”)

For me, universal positivity always inspires a particular brand of knee-jerk cynicism: Students don’t complain about an assignment? It’s not challenging enough. A book is unanimously lauded? It must be shallow. A lot of people like my blog post? I’m being a crowd pleaser. I do not trust it—in the same way I don’t trust people who dress appropriately for every occasion, whose hair always stays in place. Universal positivity is just spackling over some darker truth, warns a voice in my head. A memoir retreat is popular? It must be panderingBut damn is it hard to be cynical toward a group of people who have generously and willingly opened themselves up to you within the first few hours of your acquaintance. Some things, I struggle to admit, are just good. Some compliments are well-earned.

Yes, Wild Mountain might seem like a perfect illustration of the booming writing industry Steve Almond saw at AWP: a two-day stay at a rustic-but-luxurious resort with some writing classes thrown in. But that’s a pretty narrow view of what the retreat offered to so many people: an authentication of the personal story, a reiteration of the value of human-to-human connections.

The atmosphere at Wild Mountain was probably inspired by keynote speaker Cheryl Strayed, who seemed to be admired at the retreat with, at times, fanatic devotion. Such admiration is easy to dismiss (see above), but I remember reading “The Love of my Life” my first year of graduate school and finally sensing that my decision to transfer from a fiction writing program to a creative nonfiction program was not the product of my own misery, but of some larger instinct about the kind of writer I could be. Her first sentence was a revelation to me: writing could be like that. It could be bare-bones honest without being sensational.

So I, too, am bound to my admiration. (And perhaps it is important to remember that, though it is rare, some people succeed out of sheer deservingness. And thank God the world we live in allows for that once in awhile.) In her talk, Cheryl urged us to “write with a sense of abundance. Be happy for others’ successes.” And to “surrender to mediocrity” rather than worrying about our own talents and abilities. As far as writing advice goes, this is solid stuff, advice more interested in enabling others’ success than in celebrating her own.

Wild Mountain could’ve pandered to writers who had sacrificed their time and money by simply telling them what they wanted to hear: that their stories were marketable, that their experiences were interesting just by virtue of having happened. Instead everyone—faculty and attendees alike—railed against the idea that your story is about you, or that anecdote equals art. But the most valuable thing about the retreat was that it always brought our attention back to the thing that matters most for a writer: the work itself.

Theo describes memoir as “a genre in its adolescence.” She thinks readers are increasingly interested in memoir because we’re out of touch with the stories and storytellers of the tight-knit communities of the past. She believes we’re reading memoir to learn how to live. And I love this idea. Intuitively, it sounds right to me.

Steven Church, in that same blog post, (and, I think, on a panel at AWP) agrees about memoir’s potential as a genre:

I want to believe that we can also think of the expectations of memoir more generously, more broadly than the confessional or traumatic. I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at it’s best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow. Perhaps like all literature it is aiming to capture the sublime confluence of these and other human experiences through the synchronicity of ideas and emotions.

So I’ve been thinking about what this all means for me. As a memoir writer, I’ve got to stop being defensive, to stop worrying about the larger perception of what I’m doing and focus on the work. And as a writing teacher, I’ve got to start championing—both in my classes and in the world at large—the generous possibilities of memoir. Because our stories matter.

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76 thoughts on ““Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

  1. I want to say thanks to the faculty, to friends I made at Wild Mountain, and especially to the women who reminded me that the business of living is often hard but always worthwhile, that life is rich just as it is. I am full of gratitude.

  2. Thanks for this, Mandy. After signing up for the retreat I joked to my husband that I was off to Narcissist Camp. Of course, the joke was to mostly poke fun at myself, while also worrying that that’s the type I would encounter at Sleeping Lady. I was glad to be so wrong. (As for myself, well….) 😉

    • Thank you for this Mandy – you’ve captured the richness of thought, emotion and intention of the retreat beautifully and touched on those moments in Theo’s and Cheryl’s talk that held so much energy for me. The retreat was a food for my writing self, but more importantly, I think, food for my human self – helping me to remember how much we are ALL holding in our lives and that listening to the stories of others is one of the great gifts of this “being human.” I’m looking forward to your story!

  3. Nicely said. I’d like to echo your experience of hearing exceptionally personal stories that our fellow attendees were willing to share. To know that each story is universal as well as unique and worth sharing is a mind-blowing concept.

  4. Thank you for sharing this eloquent, honest, and thoughtful post about the Wild Mountain Memoir retreat, Mandy. I felt so lucky to be a part of such a supportive environment all weekend. Really appreciated your takeaway of how we all need to learn to be more vulnerable in our living and in our writing.

  5. Loved reading your take on Wild Mountain, Mandy. I wish I would have had a chance to meet you there. I agree with you – I thought it was so cool how everyone just opened up so easily. And if we came not exactly knowing the “so what?” about our story, we certainly were able to figure it out (or at least we left with the tools we need to do just that). I had the time of my life. And realized at Wild Mountain that I’m ready to put my story out there.

    • I wish we could’ve met too! Luckily it seems we’re starting to form a small online network of writers, which is a pretty close second to meeting in person. 🙂 Looking forward to reading your work.

  6. I had read about the retreat and would have loved to have been able to be there. Thank you for writing so eloquently about it and about writing memoir. Most of all, thank you for the link to Cheryl’s 2002 story in the Sun Magazine. I hadn’t read it and had the same reaction that you did. Wow.

  7. Agreed. I really appreciate the fact that the Wild Mountain Memoir retreat was a joyful and not a cynical event. Exchanging our stories–isn’t that what we’re missing in so many parts of our lives these days? Isn’t that intimacy something we’re all longing for? And in our attempts to get our own stories down and out into the world, what’s the worst thing that might happen? We might learn a bit more about ourselves and the world we live in. We might connect with people who become our real friends, and we might–if we’re really lucky and if we work really hard–contribute something to a discussion that has been going since long before any of us were born and that has contributed greatly to all of our lives. Wherever we all end up with our writing, I don’t think there should ever be anything wrong with our pursuit, and I hope in the end we all write with a “sense of abundance” and find that the world has room for us.

    • You’re right Lisa. And amazingly, the act of blogging has really shown me that there is an audience out there, however small. Just a little bit of feedback has gone a long way toward keeping me motivated with this project. It’s amazing!

  8. Thank you so much for posting. I wasn’t able to go to the retreat (it was right before/during finals and I couldn’t afford it, and I found out about it after the scholarship deadline – which seems to be a theme in my life) so reading your post about the weekend gives me a bit of a vicarious experience of the retreat. And it definitely makes me want to go if they have it again next year.

    It sort of reminds of this retreat I went to for The Sun magazine several years ago. Sounds totally fantastic.

    Also, I’m glad I discovered your blog 🙂

    ~EJ

  9. I don’t get it–why would anyone have a problem with the genre of a memoir? A story is a story is a story. Its value lies in how it moves the individual and not everybody likes the same thing. Someone calling a memoir less than literature is the same, in my view, as calling Shakespeare great. I personally find him rather blah and I studied him extensively in college. He just doesn’t ring my bells; yet there are fan clubs all over the world dedicated to the legend of the man and his works. Some people feel the same about Danielle Steele, others worship Asimov, in my own town there are groups who get together in dark little cafes just to discuss our local Palahniuk over espressos. Who am I to argue? I read books on neuroscience and quantum physics for giggles.

    Some like milk chocolate, some like dark. That’s why there are so many choices on the shelves. If you print words on a page and tell a story, it’s literature, plain and simple. Deciding who’s words are more delicious is simply a matter of taste; telling people they should value one form over another is about as sensible as herding cats.

    • I think you’re right that, to a certain extent, there’s no accounting for taste. Different readers have different preferences, thus the proliferation of so many genres (and sub-genres) and subjects. That said, I’d actually argue that there is a distinction between a story and literature. As Cheryl Strayed said in her keynote, anecdote does not equal art. A story is a story, and often it has inherent value. But I’d suggest that literature has a component that extends beyond story, and beyond simply putting words on a page.

      That doesn’t mean the idea of literary value isn’t somewhat subjective–it has to be!–but rather that what we call literature must combine good storytelling (if it’s narrative, that is) with elements of craft and attention to language. Beyond that, I agree entirely that valuing one genre over another is truly a matter of personal preference.

      • I see what you’re saying. Only problem is, “combin[ing] good storytelling (if it’s narrative, that is) with elements of craft and attention to language” really does rum the gamut out there. I’ve seen published books with convoluted grammar, sloppy character development, and the loosest interpretation of plot but as long as somebody with a name declares it brilliant for it’s brave new form or whatever, everyone seems so willing to chuck the previous standards that would have sent that manuscript straight into the publisher’s circular file. Suddenly, the ubiquitous “bad writing” has magically transformed into the elusive “good writing” and all it took was one person’s opinion and a million lemmings’ legs. But I’ll still call it literature, I just won’t call it my favorite.

  10. Wow! You had a much better experience at your retreat than I had at one in Breckenridge several years ago. Your experience sounds like what I wished mine had been!

    The hostess at mine was too hung over to get out of bed on the first full day of the retreat. I recall that she spent a lot of time talking to anyone who would listen about her “personal grooming habits” and how many men she had slept with. Ahem. The whole experience was surreal. She rationed the food so tightly that I had to ask for a piece of bread when I was getting the shakes, and didn’t serve dinner until after 9pm. Everything was disorganized and awkward . . . and this was a highly recommended retreat!

    Looking back, I like to think of it as very expensive lesson on how alcohol affects retreat organizers. 😉 And I did make some new friends.

    Best of luck to you!

  11. I wish someone would do it for me. In the 1980’s, I was in the process of building what came to be a $350 Million/annum semiconductor IC design and mfg co with 3500 employees.

    During one particular trip ( I flew over 200K miles a year for biz), I was negotiating with people from the new coup in the Philippines, and apparently hadn’t done something right. I could tell, because one of the men, the country’s investment adviser, told me “we can have you shot before you get to the airport.”

    I would like to say, hilarity ensued, but it didn’t. On the other hand, I’m alive, so you know they didn’t kill me.

    My memoir would be livelier than some, I suspect.

  12. Memoir is frightening to produce, as readers will react not to the book (as authors might logically expect them to) but to you as a person — i.e. they like you, or they do not. Read some of the frothing at the mouth over Eat, Pray, Love. Good lord. My memoir of working retail, Malled, (which includes reported journalism, interviews with others and my own story) has provoked some quite astonishing (to me) (over) reaction. Not to the work, but to my story, which, de facto in memoir, is the work. Some readers fail to grasp that every memoirist has edited their story, has chosen a deliberate narrative voice and has produced a book for public consumption. It is not *them* in their entirety.

    Good luck with yours!

    • Yes, one problematic aspect of writing and publishing memoir is that readers tend to see the narrator as a complete person, rather than a persona of the writer. Cheryl Strayed spoke about this problem in her talk, and has addressed it elsewhere in interviews. I’m not sure there’s a good way around it, but it definitely provokes me to think two and three times about what I put out into the world.
      Malled sounds really interesting! I love the concept of combining journalism with personal experience.

  13. Thanks for an eloquent explanation of memoir writing. I have to ask you this “Matter to who?” I wrote my memoirs to leave my grandkids a history of life in my time, they weren’t excited, in fact they were not interested. We all believe our story is the best in the world and that we are the exceptions that everyone wants to read about. You were correct in stating that its been done before. Nevertheless, I had fun writing it, I learned a lot about basic grammar, sentence structure, and point of view which helped me in my creative and blog writing.
    The bottom line is that if you are having fun writing your memoirs, go for it, just don’t expect to earn a meal from it

    • You know, when I was young I was utterly uninterested in the stories my grandmother tried to share with us. They just seemed from another strange and outdated era, one I couldn’t imagine extending into my own life. But as I began writing, I found I became more and more curious about the things I’d inherited–not possessions but attitudes, assumptions, and stories. And I began asking Mamaw about her experiences. I’ve even written about a few of them here.

      So, though I obviously don’t know your grandchildren, I hope they arrive at the same discovery. One day, I suspect, they will be glad you took the time to record your stories. Mamaw turned 83 today, and all I can think about is how many stories I’ve yet to hear.

  14. I always have thought that a writers’ retreat would be a good experience for me, but I’ve always been hesitant, partly for some of the reasons you’ve mentioned. But now you’ve got me thinking that it might be worth trying out someday….

    • I’m glad I could inspire you. Obviously retreats can vary pretty significantly, but a good one is really such a valuable experience. The amazing thing to me has been that, rather indirectly, attending and writing about the retreat has suddenly brought all this traffic to my blog. And I feel so lucky to have both new friends and new readers.

  15. Fascinating read. Thank you for sharing.

    I always remind myself that everyone has stories–what can differentiate me is my ability to write them in ways other people find interesting, compelling, worthy of time.

    My own blog tends to be full of little trifles with a personal story once in a great while. I need to commit to better writing and more of it.

  16. I get where you’re coming from as I run piano camp retreats for amateur adult pianists. People come from all over the world to gather, and, well, play piano. My job is to make sure that I attend to each individual for what they have to offer as they are all so vulnerable at the piano since it’s not something that they do every day. Some leave camp telling me they’re going to quit their jobs. I strongly urge them to spend more time thinking about that plan as they are still riding the wave of having the intense experience of living and breathing 10 days of escape from Real Life for the piano.

    Thank you for your well-written piece here. I am a new blogger and am trying to find words that match the sound of my voice. Writing is new for me. Onto more learning!
    ~p

  17. ^Thanks for the encouraging post. It’s so difficult writing memoir, though it is my favorite genre to read and to write. It can feel like such a waste of time. I’m glad you found a community that could provide some solidarity. Good to hear that the leaders had good input. I’d love to go on such a retreat, but am picky about leaders and there are only a few I could spare the money on. If I could spend one weekend with Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg, I’d die a happy memoirist.
    Congrats on the FP!

  18. Pingback: “Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat | Ivy's Blog

  19. “Our stories matter.” Absolutely. Wonderful post. And thank you for putting me onto “The Love of my Life.” Can’t wait to read it. I have always wanted to write creative nonfiction. Always. Especially after living in Asia for three years. There’s so much to say. But you don’t have to go overseas to have a story to tell…

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. I’m glad I read this article.

  20. Thank you for the delightful peek into the conference. I’m just beginning the long journey of memoir writing, and your post has been inspiring and thought provoking. Beautiful writing. Your FP is well-earned!

  21. Thanks for the memoir Post…memoirs have always been one of my favorite genres to read. I Wish i could of gone to that memoir retreat,Being a new blogger/writer & Book reviewer I Am trying to connect with as many Bloggers , writers , authors , and book enthusiasts as i can. I always love it when a wordpress blogger posts something i am interested in and that i can enjoy…and when it’s something you can clearly tell they worked hard on. I Subscribed and Liked your Post….you deserve all the attention possible because this is a fantastic blog..with even better content. ~Shane

  22. Something about like minded people connecting is so appealing. I debate joining a writers’ meet-up a few times per year. My writing is so sporadic that I haven’t committed, yet. Feel like I would be letting people down – that I would be reading, without sharing so much. Thank you for sharing this – congrats on Fresh Pressed!

    • Thanks, Erin. I’m a member of an irregularly-meeting writers group and I have to say that I really recommend it. I show up even if I have little to submit, because I like being a part of the group, and I find it often inspires my writing outside of the group. But more than that, I just like knowing a small group of writers is cheering me on. Because I’ve invested myself in their work, their successes feel like my success and vice versa. It’s really an amazing thing sometimes.

    • Thanks, Andy. It’s my pleasure to have a sudden and generous audience for my writing. I can think of few better starts to a Wednesday morning than waking to so many comments and readers!

  23. ‘She thinks readers are increasingly interested in memoir because we’re out of touch with the stories and storytellers of the tight-knit communities of the past.’

    there is so much truth in this sentence (at least to me) i’m not sure where to begin. as a recent painter turned writer, it matters less what the genre is labeled than what my words reveal. as a person with social anxiety i present much better on digital paper than i will in person and somehow have no problem being disarmingly honest when i write.

    social alienation is an issue that’s not going away anytime soon, our online friends and relationships sustain many of us in ways that would be near impossible to imagine our daily life without them. storytellers and ‘our truth’ are highly valued, as they should be.

    this was a wonderfully written post with some keen insights. congratulations on being FP’ed.

    • I think often about the ways in which we are disconnected and reconnected through the internet. I love how it enables me to still feel close to my best friend who’s living in Morocco. But I’m also wary of the very superficial sense of interaction that comes with the low-cost gesture of clicking “like” on Facebook. Sometimes I feel like I am addicted to these likes, and yet they offer me nothing of reas substance. Long form reading and writing seems like one potential antidote to that feeling, but when faced with the instant payoff of the internet, it’s often hard for me to remember that antidote’s out there.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  24. Having recently begun to tell my stories, via blog, the WHY? has been coming up internally and externally. Your comment ‘…out of touch with the stories and storytellers of the tight-knit communities of the past. She believes we’re reading memoir to learn how to live….’ struck a chord with me – not that I am writing to teach others how to live, but maybe that readers will see they are not alone in their experiences, may gain insight or strength, or may simply be amused. I love ‘storytelling’ in its indigenous sense of sharing information, lessons & history…. http://janeykylescott.wordpress.com/category/celebrating-50-years-of-me/

    • Thank you, Janey. I think Theo is right in that we’re naturally curious about each other. In the age of Facebook we get these little illusory glimpses into the intimacies of other people’s lives. But they aren’t real, and research shows surfing Facebook makes many of us unhappier, as we compare our lives unfavorable to the seemingly-fantastic lives of others. But memoirs show us the un-fantastic, the awkward and lonely and genuinely-tragic parts of others’ lives, along with the good stuff. It’s really not surprising that we crave that honest, intimate connection with someone–someone real–that only very close friendships and very honest writing can provide.

  25. Oh how I relate to Steven Church’s comment “… I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements.” Yes, yes, yes — my feelings exactly. Thank you for sharing it and the insights from the retreat. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed as well.

    • Thank you, Sandra. Yes, Steven seems to hit on something important that others don’t seem to be talking about–I love thinking about memoir in terms of its potential–what all the genre can encompass–rather than a few (potentially controversial) models from the past decade.

  26. I blogged about being advised to write my memoir recently http://thestrongestsmile.wordpress.com/ I would LOVE retreat to be able to write it although sometimes I wonder if it keeps me emotionally safe to write in small chunks when I have a few minutes to myself. Maybe writing intensively on a retreat would prove too triggering for me exploring my past in depth.

    • I suspect that the ethos of this retreat (which really involved more teaching, talking, and socializing than writing) would be: emotional safety can be a barrier to honest writing. This is probably a really uncomfortable idea for most of us. I struggle with similar barriers, primarily the sense of obligation to be kind to (and liked by) the people I write about. Kindness is important, obviously, but I’m not convinced that one can always be simultaneously honest AND kind. Just as I’m not convinced that writing from a comfortable emotional position leads to the greatest insight. Still, like you, I have no good answers to these problems yet!

    • Hi Linda: I thought I replied to this message yesterday, but my comment isn’t showing up. I think the four types were: “something happened to my vagina” (about infertility/motherhood), “interesting trips I took”, loss and/or grief, and dysfunctional families. She also added that there were lots of addiction stories, which were spread throughout the other categories.

  27. I really enjoyed reading your post! I had the same trepidation about writing memoir and expressed similar feelings in an essay that I wrote several years ago, titled ‘In The Intimacy of Strangers’ (http://lifeandotherturbulence.com/about/). That first memoir writing workshop I’d attended was emotionally pivotal, and helped me to understand that whether or not I ever pursue publication, it is important for me to continue the difficult process of putting into words the experiences of my childhood that carried an ongoing and profound effect on my life. And, along the way, I’ve discovered that I truly do enjoy the process of writing, and connecting with others who have so many rich and interesting experiences to share.
    Sending you all good wishes for continued success with your writing experiences.

  28. I am in the middle stages of writing my memoir, sadly my story is not unique as many have suffered various sorts of abuse. The twist in my story I hope is unique, but everyone thinks that and needs to in order to keep writing. Thanks for this reflection,

    • Yes, Lily. I think you’re right that we all need to believe we have something to say in order to keep writing. I know my experiences are mostly mundane and far from salacious or traumatic. But I’m hoping that it’ll be good enough to answer a question in a way no one has before.

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