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Book ideas are always coming to me. I’m usually working on a few at the same time and always in different genres—different ways to find the truth. That’s what I’m after: truth. Each book begins with a central question—some quirk of humanity that gnaws away at me. Or something that fills me with righteous indignation, and I burn with it so hot that I have to stop, break it down, and look at it from the inside out. At the root of every book I write…there is the pure longing to understand this beautiful and heartbreaking thing called life. In our quick-fire, button-pushing world, these sorts of burning questions can easily inspire a rant or a manifesto or land too tidily in Ten Easy Steps or the dread red bow. To me, this approach lacks heart. It is devoid of story, which then fails to build the bridge that as a reader, and writer, I crave. Stories bring us into the collective, hold us there, make us look and feel and maybe even find answers…which of course, beget more questions.
That’s why I love the novel. Out of all genres, the novel imitates and illuminates our stories—yet relieves the burden of reality with a distilled reality. To me, fiction is realer than real. And to me, fiction then unfurls those burning questions in a way that is liberated by possibility. Namely, the possibility of finding an honest answer to the questions that work inside of us like a glass splinter.
We live our lives in questions, and we live them in scenes, with beating hearts around us, especially our own. The question that has driven my life for the last decade is one that I really didn’t think would be central to my life. At all. But my life re-wrote its script, and I’ve caught myself saying over and over again: So now what? Maybe you can relate. Once I started to tune into that question, I heard it everywhere. I heard it from friends, family, and mostly from the people who come to my Haven Writing Retreats. That central question births brawny answers and writing into the answer, whether for yourself or others, is one of the most powerful, healing, hopeful acts I know.
That’s when these characters started calling to me. Willa. Bliss. Harriet. Jane. They called from across the country and from lonely rooms with bleeding hearts. They called out of their shame and lost wonder. They called out of fear and isolation and loneliness and longing. They called to tell me that I am not alone and neither are you. We are in this together. We’ve just forgotten. And that’s why I knew I had to write this book. We need to build bridges to each other. We need to help each other answer our So now what.
I could have written this book as a memoir. I could have written it as a self-help book. But these women called, and I listened, and in giving them voice—sometimes words I didn’t want to write—I found a hole in our humanity. We have lost the gift of conversation. Long, lingering conversation. Where no one is looking at cell phones or watches or thinking about checking off the next item on their To Do list. When is the last time you sat for hours with trusted kindreds and really…I mean really…spoke your truth? Told your stories. For a week. No red bows. No easy steps. No prescriptive advice. No shame or blame. And no fixing. What would that even look like and how on earth would you keep it safe? And…what if you did it far from home…for a whole week? In a quiet, wild place like Montana, say…
That’s what these women asked me. They were relentless. It was dire. They each were staring down the barrel of something you, or someone you love, have experienced. I wrote it once the way I wanted it to go…and then they got louder, and I wrote it again the way they wanted it to go. Six years of listening to and laboring with their questions…and I have Willa’s Grove to give to you in March.
I’m going to miss them. That’s what happens when you live so honestly in the central questions of your life, and when you do it in a community of people you can trust. You relax into warm blankets and rocking chairs and cups of tea by the fire. And you feel safe enough to talk– to really share how you feel and what you fear and what you want with all your heart. These women gave me the answer to my So now what. None of them is “me.” All of them are “us.”
You could argue that in writing this book, I remained in my isolation. In my pain and questions. That I lived in imagined community for six years. But I can tell you that the work I do as a teacher, editor, retreat facilitator, mother, and liver of life was made whole by being in this circle of women. They were my teachers, and we all need our teachers. Thusly, teachers need to be willing to be the student, so the writing of this novel, then, schooled me like nothing I have ever written. (And believe me…there are a lot of books in my office closet that will never see the light of day because I wasn’t ready to be exactly this student.)
Here’s what’s possible when we write so purely from our heart: One day, I was walking in the snowy forest and I came upon a gorgeous aspen grove. As Willa tells the women, an aspen grove is one organism. And it is not lost on them that by the end of their week together, they are one such grove. Hence the title. So when I saw this grove, its black veins so defining against its alabaster trunk and branches, all set against the Montana snow…I stopped. Smiled. Thought, Oh, the women would love a photo of this aspen grove. And I took off my mitten, unzipped my parka pocket, pulled out my phone, took a few photos, and then looked for the text feed that surely must exist between the women of Willa’s Grove and me. Surely. And then I blinked and laughed out loud and said, “My god! They don’t exist!” Call me crazy. Or call the exactitude of story-telling one mighty form of self-expression. One mighty answer to one mighty question. One mighty supplicant-splay on the altar of truth.
It is my hope that people will read this book and think, “I want to host my own Grove week. I want to sit in this circle. I need to sit in this circle. I need to find my So now what. And I promise you, there are three other people out there in your world…who do too. They just might be hiding, pretending, smiling in the grocery store when their hearts are breaking. Ask them. As the book begins…You are invited to the rest of your life.
As seen on Women Writers, Women’s Books
***Now booking the February Haven Writing Retreat
…and it’s filling fast!
Come join me in Montana and find your voice! Write your book! Court your muse…all under the big sky. You do not have to be a writer to come to Haven. Just a seeker…longing for community, inspiration, support, and YOUR unique form of self-expression using your love of the written word!
Haven 2020 Schedule:
February 5-9 (filling fast!)
October 28-November 1
Go here for more info and to set up a call with Laura!