“Writing allows me the time and space to think in a deep way—or at least a deeper way. I get to explore an event or memory from a new perspective and then I get to find the right words for that perspective. It’s exciting and hard.” -Donna M. Johnson
Donna M. Johnson is the author of Holy Ghost Girl, a memoir critically acclaimed by the New York Times, O Magazine, Texas Monthly, NPR’s Interfaith Voices, People and many other publications and blogs. Donna’s work has been collected in two outstanding anthologies, Beyond Belief and Her Texas. She has written for The Rumpus, Psychology Today, The Nervous Breakdown, Shambhala Sun, Huffington Post, The Dallas Morning News and the Austin American Statesman. She is currently at work on a project that combines investigative journalism with personal narrative.
On Saturday, May 6th, Donna M. Johnson is teaching a class for the WLT called “Mining the World for Meaning: How to Move Beyond the Personal in Memoir.“ In this class, you’ll learn more about how to write a memoir with a unique and creative approach.
Here’s what Donna had to share with us:
Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?
Donna M. Johnson: I write creative nonfiction—primarily essays and memoir. In the past I’ve done some journalism, though these days I’m more likely to wrap reporting into personal narrative.
I think I was drawn to writing because as a child and young adult I had such a difficult time expressing myself. I still do! Writing allows me the time and space to think in a deep way—or at least a deeper way. I get to explore an event or memory from a new perspective and then I get to find the right words for that perspective. It’s exciting and hard.
Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?
DMJ: I’m not much of an overcomer. Often I give in to the distractions of technology—hello HBO, Hulu, Apple TV, social media, texts, etc. Lately I’ve noticed the numbness that comes with constant distraction. To write, I need to feel alive, not numb. I’ve also noticed that when I watch too many movies or must-see shows, I’m thinking about those stories rather than the one I’m trying to write.
As for writer’s block, it’s a real thing for me. I’m trying to practice patience and not give up on myself or the process. If I touch the story for an hour or so, I give myself a high five. If I do that for a few days in a row, I find the story begins to talk to me again.
Re: goals or business-related challenges, I try to remind myself of the reason why I write, why I share some of my writings publicly, and what I want to be changed in the world due to my writing’s existence. These things usually make all the other stuff seem small. If that doesn’t work, I suggest reading/listening to DEAR SENTHURAN by Akwaeke Emezi.
Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?
DMJ: I’m wary of epiphanies. Often I think I’ve had a breakthrough in terms of figuring out the story, only to discover the next day that I was delirious! It takes a long time to figure out the story in nonfiction—there’s what happened and then there’s the story, the thing you’re trying to say about what happened. I think I just plagiarized Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story.
Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?
DMJ: Look for ways to connect your experience with the larger world.
Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?
DMJ: I hope participants will leave with a few ideas for how to layer and deepen their personal narratives.
Click here to learn more about Donna M. Johnson’s upcoming class.