SWR: An Interview with Instructor Donna Johnson

“Personal narrative is an expansive, hyper creative form these days. Even if you’re writing a straight-forward story, you can borrow from more experimental narratives. The point is to find the model that works for you.” – Donna M. Johnson

This July, our month-long virtual Summer Writing Retreat features three great classes (Fiction, Memoir, Revision), plus weekly special events. The Memoir class will be taught by Donna M. Johnson, an amazing instructor who always finds a compelling and inspiring way to approach memoir that resonates with writers at all levels of experience. This year, Donna will be tackling “Memory + Form: Finding Models of Inspiration in Memoir” and we are so excited to see how the four weeks unfold.

We asked Donna to share some thoughts on the class with us – here’s what she had to say. 

Scribe: You’ve taught at the Summer Writing Retreat previously, welcome back! Can you tell us why you enjoy this event and spending time with this community of writers? 

DMJ: I love teaching at the WLT Summer Writing Retreat because it reminds me that the main reason we are on the planet is to connect with each other and share our stories. Helping students figure out how best to tell their stories is a sacred trust and one that always moves me. Plus, I learn so much from WLT participants–about writing, about life and about how to be a better instructor. Many of my students have become dear friends. 

Scribe: You’re teaching the Memoir class and are focusing on Memory+Form: Finding Models of Inspiration in Memoir- can you tell us why you wanted to approach memoir from this angle? 

DMJ: I hope the different models of memoir we study in class will broaden the definition of personal narrative for participants and free them up creatively. Personal narrative is an expansive, hyper creative form these days. Even if you’re writing a straight-forward story, you can borrow from more experimental narratives. The point is to find the model that works for you. Better yet, create your own!

Scribe: How does this topic resonate with your own work and your own development as a writer? 

DMJ: I understood very little about memoir when I wrote Holy Ghost Girl. I thought personal narrative was just like fiction–only true. Or that it was some form of journalism–with the lead buried. You can see how confused I was. I’ve learned since that memoir is a completely different form, written to different ends. My first book was written in 18 months. It was a fast write and it’s a fast read–too fast. I’m trying to learn to slow the story down and to trust the reader to pick up connections and subtleties. Not everyone is my reader. 

I’m also learning that in memoir, it’s okay to break away from the story (see Melissa Febos and Nick Flynn) and offer reflection and even outside commentary. Memoir is about making sense of what happened–not simply archiving past events. This see-sawing back and forth between the past and the present is difficult. I struggle with it in my own work, often unsuccessfully. I also struggle with trusting myself as a writer; If I think some tangent is important in my story, it’s important. Writing group be damned. My job as a writer is to figure out how to make that tangent work–and without over explaining it.

Scribe: How would you finish this sentence: If the students in my class take away one thing from the four weeks, I hope it’s: 

DMJ: You can do this! We can do this! Persist! 

Donna M. Johnson is the author of Holy Ghost Girl, a memoir critically acclaimed by the New York TimesO MagazineTexas MonthlyBeliefnet, NPR’s Interfaith VoicesPeople and many other publications and blogs. The book was named to the Oprah.com Memoirs We Love list and was chosen by Publishers Weekly as a Top 10 pick. Holy Ghost Girl took top honors in the Spirituality category at the New York Books for a Better Life Awards and won the Mayborn creative Nonfiction prize. Donna was recently awarded a three-year fellowship at the Lucas Artist Residency in Saratoga, CA. She is currently at work on a project that combines investigative journalism with personal narrative.

Thanks, Donna!

Click here to learn more about Donna M. Johnson’s memoir class at the 2022 Summer Writing Retreat.

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