Grow Girl

Judge My Book By Its Cover

Growgirl The Blossoming of an Unlikely Outlaw and/or How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot

On the left, the paperback. On the right, the hardcover.


The two covers have the same basic design elements: a naked lady with a dark blonde bob and a cannabis plant on a pale background. But (to me, anyway) they couldn’t feel more different.

My hardcover is clean. So clean. Suze Orman clean. Like those old Dove ads that featured ladies that were real. So real that Dove could not risk their sexuality. They wore big panties and you were not supposed to want to fuck them. You were supposed to respect them and think them brave just for showing you that they do have bodies that don’t look like your regular billboard bodies and they were okay with these bodies. Not fuck you exactly if you didn’t like it, but rather, hey, we’re still here anyway okay? if you didn’t like it. There is a certain kind of power in this. There is a difference between the power of fuckability and the power of respectability. The former is a harder sort of currency, but disposable.

Presenting my book in that way says, see, it’s not a gray market enterprise we’re talking about here! Come, Soccer Mom, you’re gonna love this! It’s like Kate Plus Eight! But with ganja! Don’t like pot? Okay how about joy? You like joy? Oh yeah you do. How ‘bout freedom? Everybody likes freedom! Because, I mean just look at that lady. She is joyful and free and she would be wearing one of those ASK ME HOW! Buttons that Herbalife people wear if only she had a stitch to pin it to, really she would!

My publisher and I shared the desire to reach a lot of readers. Let’s sell books! Of course. I can’t imagine being the kind of self-flagellator who wants only six people to read her book, even if it is amazing that six people would take the time. It’s even nicer when they send you emails or review it on Amazon. But why not aim high (pun sincerely not intended)? My publisher is really good at the kind of book that has it’s author on the cover. It puts a human face on the story. It makes sense. It also makes sense that Blair Witch would be on the cover. I really do get it. The thing is, nobody wants to buy the middle aged woman. The middle aged woman does not sell like hotcakes. She sells like tepidcakes. When was the last time you saw tepidcakes on a menu? Hot things burn. Tepid things go down easy. Clean and tepid are widely digestible, if not highly desirable.

This is why I thought, when I presented this: “Okay guys, how about me, naked, with a pot plant.” They were going to say, “Yeah, let’s just go with the illustration.”

I was up late a lot, as the manuscript was due in five days and the accompanying sleepless nights made it all the more surreal to find myself, a week after that email exchange, totally naked with a pot plant.

The photographer, Michele Clement did a fantastic job. Especially considering I completely fucked up her really beautiful, gorgeously sketched out plan when I showed up with short blonde hair and thirty extra pounds. A difficult commodity. To top it off, she borrowed a for reals, not-fake-silk cannabis plant; no small thing, even in San Francisco. The plant I am clutching on the cover is Blackberry Kush, a strain I grew, which made it a very happy botanical family reunion for me. Michele and her kick-ass team made a photo that I cherish.

Still, the middle of the road sterility of it, despite all of our best efforts with the semi-legal plant and the nudity, gave me the sinking feeling that people who might like the book might pass it by because of the cover, and people who liked the cover were probably not going to be into the book. As Michelle Dean and I discussed over at The Awl, the book is much rawer than the cover would suggest. Even the subtitle, “How My Life After the Blair Witch Project Went to Pot” was amusing in an old-fashioned, safe, and kind of cheesy way. It was Blair Witch that made my story interesting. It was Blair Witch (and Mollie Glick) that got me a healthy advance. The downside was that isn’t what the book is about. The story isn’t a Hollywood story. It’s the story of someone who thought she was one thing, and became something else all together. It’s about the question of whether we can change and if so, how much? Are we the products of our own creation or are we born with some indelible ways of being in the world? I think we all confront those questions at one point or another. Putting the author on the cover you say, “This is MY story, MINE!” I never really saw Growgirl that way.

My paperback represents more than it presents. It is very nearly the cover I had in my mind when I was writing the book. The illustration is an anthropomorphization of a mandrake root into a woman. It comes from a medieval alchemical manual. I shortened her hair and replaced the mandrake plant with a cannabis illustration from a old botanical manual. The mandrake woman is symbol of transition and transformation. No separation between plant and animal. They start to match. They are family now. This is what I think the best parts of Growgirl are about.

The legend of the mandrake woman has a weird sort of power, which I like. Take this from Josephus, a guy writing in Jerusalem around 50 AD:

“A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.

That’s more like it!

I don’t think Growgirl is just my story. It’s a version of a story about growing up and up and up that uses my voice and the events of my life in the telling. Everybody lives this story at some point, to varying degrees, or will. Some role got stuck to you: be it wife, father, lawyer, teacher, guy that got bitten by a shark, or girl from the Blair Witch Project. You shed it or make peace with it (or something in between) and keep on growing.

The two covers (and subtitles) are so different, that I kind of ended up with the best of both worlds. I’d love to hear which cover you prefer and why. Or perhaps you think they both suck. Let me know! Come on over to Facebook or click me up @aheatherdonahue on the twitter.

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A Growgirl Bedtime Story Just For You

The inimitable T.E. Wolfe was kind enough to invite me to read from Growgirl on his show A Word in Edgewise on community radio station KVMR. KVMR is a national treasure. The diversity of the programming will alternately tickle, inform, and astound you. Mayberry on Mushrooms, streaming live.

This is the first session of Growgirl on Edgewise. I’ll be back on the show to read from the next section in a few weeks. Since there’s no audiobook, this will have to serve as the abridged memory of what never was. Thanks to FCC regulations, it is abridged in all the right places. Oh decency, pshaw!

Seriously though, this is very nearly fun for the whole family.


Click this:

Growgirl on Edgewise edited

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Dinosaur Attack!

Video from a recent dinosaur attack at my house. Luckily, it was an adorable dinosaur.

The Newt is Cute



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I’m Teaching a Memoir Class in Nevada County. Come write with me.

What’s your story? Read More »

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Everything I Currently Know About Writing Memoir

This is a handout I gave to my new beginning memoir class at The Grotto. It’s just me feeling my way through, as usual. If you think this list is total bullshit, let me know. You can also let me know if something on it seems accurate. I’m always interested in becoming a better teacher of what is kind of a delicate subject.


Everything I Currently Know About Writing Memoir

by your friendly workshop facilitator, Heather Donahue


1. Start from the body.

My body and your body have had some similar experiences–some of our most basic, potent ones. This is a vivid palette to paint with. It unifies.


2. When in doubt, go back to the body.

A good memoir tracks the evolution of a consciousness. The body is the vehicle of consciousness. The skin is a permeable membrane. The senses mostly filter, theyʼre the doors we open or close, voluntarily and involuntarily. Consider the multiple conversations at a party that we don’t hear because our ears are built to limit our hearing to that on which we direct our attention. Our attention tracks how our consciousness expands and contracts in different situations. Well-chosen sensory details share this shifting with the reader. In this shifting is the story.


3. Anecdotes, like adverbs, are not your friend.

Well, maybe like facebook friends. Nice enough, but you really don’t have time for them. You’re busy with touchable spines.

Events and situations that don’t illuminate the evolution of our consciousness/insight as it relates to the story we are telling, qualify as anecdotes. Anecdotes donʼt belong in a good memoir. As anecdotes are to story, so adverbs are to sentences. They bring the flaccid. Keep everything tight and strong. Keep flaccid at bay. Wait, what was I talking about?


4. The selection of details reveals the consciousness of the narrator.

If you’re about to kiss someone and the crack in the wall behind their head, or the hairs on their face suddenly take on monumental significance–that says a lot. Ideally, something the narrator notices outside the body will be accompanied by something inside the body and these details will amplify each other, allowing the reader to co-experience something awesome.


5. In the beginning, expect to write about 50 pages per one shareable page.

I say this not to defeat you, but to free you up to just get on it and write as poorly and as dangerously and as embarrassingly as you will. Go for shame, go for grief, go for terror, go for bliss, go for humor, go for insight. Go for all of these things and more and miss them often. Miss them most of the time. Miss them for about 49 pages. Fail. There is no substitute for it. You’ll tune your sensor to your emotional hot spots/pink bits and this is probably where your story is. You will probably write around your story for awhile. I find that stories sometimes pop out of the negative space, squatting in what you’re not writing. This negative space can (and should) remain in your stories. But you should be aware of it. And it should vibrate. Like Ikebana.


6. The narrator and the author are two separate entities.

The narrator can lack insight, not realize what is really going on in a scene, but the author needs to know why that scene is there and what it needs to do. The narrator is a product of the author, a persona crafted to tell the story. (See also: Vivian Gornick “The Situation and the Story”)


7. You have time to write.

Try the Pomodoro technique. It helps get my ass in the chair and keep it there for at least 25 minutes. Try Freedom, a simple application that blocks email and internet. Without distraction, it’s amazing what 25 minutes can do. You can get out some kind of first draft of a scene in that time, Iʼm sure of it. You can look at the street view of the neighborhood youʼre writing about when you revise. Later. Donʼt sacrifice momentum for fact checking in first drafts. Stay in the rooms. Both the one youʼre writing in and the one your story is happening in. Unless your story is set outside. Then you should stay in the room, and outside.


8. Get into a scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can.

This tip is blatantly stolen from Syd Field. He writes screenwriting books that are really helpful with memoirs if you are someone who tends toward the nebulous and rambly. This particular tip can help you clarify the purpose of a scene within your story. It’s also helpful for pacing.


9. Be sparing with essayistic reflection.

In a memoir, I’d rather be alongside the narrator as s/he earns some insight. There are many lovely ways to say “I have become wise” but I find that they are rarely as interesting as allowing the reader to co-experience the “becoming” with you via scene. I’m of the opinion that you have write several scenes to earn your moments of reflection. Possibly this is just me. Feel free to fight me on this.


10. “Generality is the enemy of all art” –Stanislavsky

Be specific. You might think that the flavor and color of the Kool Aid powder that you shouldn’t have been eating with the neighbor boy in the back seat of his Dad’s blue Nissan doesn’t matter, but it does. Especially if it’s cherry. What might matter even more is how it stuck to your sweaty fingers and thighs because it was Independence Day and everybody else was watching fireworks and how those same sticky thighs got poked by and stuck to the torn white vinyl until you moved them closer to the boy who stayed just where he was.

Specific details, particularly those of the body, plunge the reader into the scene so that she can co-experience it. Our bodies have a shared vocabulary that words can almost magically evoke. I find it magical, at least. A bunch of letters can make your heart pound. Nice.


11. When in doubt, be more specific. 

If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in anybody else’s memoir, be suspicious. If there are sentences in your memoir that could be in everybody else’s memoir, cut them.


12. Judicious use of metaphor is your friend.

Metaphor helps dissolve and reassemble things, notions, in unexpected ways. The way you use this device will inform/develop your voice. See also: the effects of sentence length, prosody, the difference between the way words from the punchy Anglo-Saxon branch of the English family tree land versus words from the more formal Latinate side. Split things, let them dangle and run on. Then revise. (See also: #16)


13. Imitation can be a useful practice.

Imitate writers whose voices you love. Imitate writers whose voices sound absolutely nothing like yours and see how these change a scene’s effectiveness. Notice how this imitation changes your relationship to a scene.


14. Vision is the least interesting sense.

In terms of crafting richer prose, please don’t forget about tasting, touching, smelling, hearing, and any sixth sense stuff you’d like to throw in.


15. Memoir is the very subjective rendering of objectively occurring events.

Iʼm paraphrasing this from somewhere on The Rumpus and can’t find who wrote it. I agree. I think you can composite events and characters to serve the story. Some people disagree with this.


16. Scenes are the cells of a story. Verbs are the mitochondria.

Scenes, like cells, contain a world in and of themselves. Their specific accumulation makes bigger wholes. Verbs are engines, the powerhouses of your prose, much like how mitochondria function in a cell. Keep them strong (and specific).


17. Bulimia is bad for people, good for stories.

Your draft will sometimes be bloated. At this point, strip it down to the barest bones. Keep only what excites you. Then build it back up to make sense. Then blow some narration into scene and see what you come up with. Then purge again. Repeat this until your story is lean and agile.


18. It’s not about you. You’re more like a story filtering system.  

If you want to write a memoir, you will excavate your shit. It will be uncomfortable and sometime you won’t want to do it. Maybe you’ll write a lot of impressionistic stuff that’s completely disembodied instead of getting down and dirty and mining the shit for nuggets. Nuggets have value. They can be shared, exchanged. Non-nugget material is for your pals. They care about you, the reader doesn’t. The reader wants to know how youʼre answering the question of how to live. And it should be urgently. You have to go so far, so specifically, and so courageously into you that you dissolve and only the story is left. This might feel self-indulgent at first. If so, go back to the body and be specific with sensory details until what you write breaks your heart, or at the very least, makes you cringe and think your loved ones wonʼt speak to you if they read it. You’ve probably hit a story vein. Keep digging. Get out of your own way. Run on the assumption that there are Dog Star Alien Gods who need to get this story out and you are really pissing them off by being such a clumsy egoic vehicle. You have a responsibility to get out of your own way. For everybody’s benefit, including your own.


19. There can be no douche greater than “I”

Which is to say that your narrator should be the most flawed character in the story unless your narrator is a child. Don’t go tediously easy on a child narrator though, kids do some effed up stuff.


20. Sometimes it helps to work from the insight out.

Often the insight that you have gained (or tried and failed to gain) is at the heart of your story. When you know this, itʼs more straighforward to choose the events/situations that best illustrate that insight. If you are still trying to sort it, all the better. Sort it to its mythic bedrock. Story is conflict! Yay! Now all that conflict doesn’t have to go to waste!


21. Yes, you are probably drinking too much. 


22. Oh, and if you start a sentence with “I feel…” or “I felt…” you should probably revise it.

Or revise the whole scene it’s a part of, to allow the reader to experience that feeling with your narrator. This does not apply to dialogue.


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