Grow Girl

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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Sundance 2012: Pat Healy Commands Compliance

Originally posted at Los Angeles Magazine.

Sundance Star: Pat Healy Commands Compliance

Posted By: Heather Donahue · 2/2/2012 11:42:00 AM

Maybe it’s because I saw Craig Zobel’s Compliance around the same time as Eugene Jarecki’s award-winning documentary on the costs of the failed drug war, The House I Live In, that made it especially potent for me. Our acceptance of authority, of the way things are, seems to be butting right up against our desire for personal and economic agency these days. It’s difficult to sustain a sense of empowerment in an economic climate that only keeps squeezing, and that forces us to question everything that we’ve been told to respect. Compliance not only illustrates, but detonates this idea. When I saw it, the woman next to me gathered up her bags more than once, writhed in her seat, and sighed a lot, but didn’t leave. This, I think, is a testament to how well made this brutal but important film is.

In many ways, Compliance is an expansion of the famed Milgram experiment that tested people’s willingness to violate their conscience in obedience to authority. The press notes suggest, “As we watch, we ask ourselves two questions: ‘Why don’t they just say no?’ and the more troubling, ‘Am I certain I would?’” Compliance was picked up by Magnolia Pictures by the fest’s end, so you too will have the chance to feel incredibly uncomfortable in an illuminating way.

Pat Healy plays Daniels, who calls the fast food restaurant where the movie is set pretending to be a police officer. His call eventually causes Becky (Dreama Walker of Gossip Girl, in a very brave, very vulnerable performance) to be stripped down and raped by her co-workers and their friends, all on the pretense that she had stolen money from a customer’s purse. Daniels never sees what’s happening at the restaurant. He is not even in the same state. The plot is based on a true story.

Curious why Healy wanted to play this deeply unlikable man and what it was like to be at the vitriolic Q + A that followed the film’s Sundance premiere, I met up with him at the Work Hard/Play Hard lounge where he was wearing his signature black framed glasses looking excited, exhausted, and a little bit buzzed.

What was it like to be at that first Q + A? Did you expect such a strong reaction from the audience?
The woman that was very upset after the first screening, I understood where she was coming from. She said, “Rape is not entertainment, Sundance, shame on you. You should know better. This is the year of the woman. We should make films that empower women.”

Ann Dowd, our lead actress [who turns in a virtuosic performance: maternal, brutal, obedient and unsure, but always relatable], now I don’t speak for her, but to paraphrase, she said, “I think that this film shows how women’s power is taken away.” And there was a woman in the audience who has young daughters who spoke up and said she wants her young daughters to see this movie because if you see how it’s possible, the chances of you getting in that situation are less likely.

I’m not gonna get on a political soapbox saying that I’m out there trying to teach people a lesson. I’m just an actor and an artist and I’m just trying to ask the questions. But I think it can be empowering to see that this is possible, and to see how it did happen.

Compliance is based on a true story. Did you try to reach out to the man your character is based on as you were preparing for the role?

Did you want to?

But you had to have some empathy to play him, right?
 No. I think some people legitimately hate themselves. I hear actors always say you need to love the person you’re playing. Something has always struck me as off about that. This is a character who hates humanity, and those people hate themselves. Those are the people that most take it out on the rest of the world.

How did you summon up so much self-loathing?
The thing that informed the character most was a few days into it, the phone broke. And I had to go upstairs and read the lines off camera while I was looking at the other actors. And I was horrified and disgusted. I didn’t have that remove or distance that I had had on the phone. I thought, this must be the reason this guy did things the way that he did. He was on the telephone, he wasn’t watching, he was states away. And that’s the only way he could do it. If you think about it as a game or a prank with no real human consequences…

After your experience of making this film, what do you still obey? 
I’m very much a person who thinks that people should follow their dreams and their instincts, but I also believe in civilization and I believe in what we call the social contract. I think the reason certain morals and religion, which I don’t believe in, or the law, exists because there’s an assumption that without some sort of structure, people would fall apart and eat each other. These sort of experiments and these sorts of real life incidents indicate that that may be true. But you know what? It’s 65% of people in the Milgram experiment that did that. It’s shocking because it’s more than half of us. But there’s 35% that didn’t. And there was zero percent compliance when he said, ‘you have no choice.’ Then no one followed.




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Growgirl Book Trailer!

My publisher paid for the trailer. Which was very nice of them. They are good people and are just trying to put books in the world while maintaining the dignity of their venerable brand.

Perhaps that dignity/venerable part explains why there appears to be some hesitation from said publisher about posting this trailer openly on their youtube channel. Presumably because it has boobs. And pot plants. The book has all that too, and more. Be sure to enjoy that Burning Man chapter!

But I digress. I need you to help me share this. It’s fun and gives a good sense of the book’s tone. My amazing friend Kate McCabe directed and Moises Jimenez animated it like some kind of rockstar.


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The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot


This is the sweet spot. This is where I meditate. Not everyday, I’m not that disciplined, but definitely today. The San Francisco skyline makes a pretty nice altar. It’s quiet in the sweet spot, except for the constant arrythmic thrum of tires over rumble strips on the Bay Bridge. It never stops. And while I’m in the sweet spot at least, I never stop paying attention. A river of people between A and B all funnelling into the skyline. Sometimes when I sit here, I can’t help but think about all of them. They remind me how tiny we all are. This might seem like a limiting thing: I’m so tiny so what impact could I possibly have? Or: I’m so tiny, why would I not risk?

My book comes out in about a month. It’s mostly a memoir about finding my place in the world, but that happened while I was growing pot, which is federally illegal, which makes me lose sleep at night. There’s a few weeks left before it’s out. This is also the sweet spot, a tightrope time where there’s no failure or success yet, only possibility.

I’ve wanted to write books since I was a little girl. When I opened the box with my books inside and they actually smelled like books, I cried. Making long-held dreams come true is a dangerous proposition, no matter what they involve. Dreams happen in your head, and so they’re perfect and intimate and sealed up and yours, and so they are engines of faith. Out in the world, solid in the the open air, they get touched and tarnished. The shape is always a little off, not quite the dreamed ideal. Dreams are always in motion. The words in my book aren’t moving anymore and the covers are hard and it’s everything I wanted and so what next? Every interview so far closes with that. What next? Um, can I please enjoy this for a second? Wait–since when do I ask for permission? Yes, I can enjoy this. Yes, I will. Enjoy this. No shit yet on the fan. The spot is sweet for shortness.


Please join me again next week, when I’ll be feeling less pensive.


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Weed Wars: Is the Cannabiz Ready for its Close-Up?

This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.


As a former pot grower, I took a particular interest in the premier of Discovery’s new reality show, Weed Wars last week. As is typical of the pot business, when it comes to the main players, it’s a sausage fest.

There’s no central female character, except there is: The plants themselves, the ones that produce seedless and valuable sinsemilla are all female. Despite what you see, Harborside is the house the Girls built. The gents of Weed Wars serve the Girls’ evolution and dispersion, and in return their family business grossed $21 million in sales last year. That’s some good medicine in this economy.

Because the medical marijuana trade in California is obligated to be non-profit, all excess money made at Harborside goes into patient services and charitable donations, which makes it seem less like criminal enterprise and more like a model of sustainable, community-level capitalism. Putting this into greater perspective is Jon, one of the growers featured on the show, who worked for a mortgage company before he tried his hand at the ganja trade, “My real job, ” he says, “was attempting to scam people out of their life savings to get them into homes they couldn’t afford.”

Unlike the industry that exploited that avenue for accumulating wealth, the Cannabusiness is not in need of a bailout. It’s one of the few growth sectors in a still-struggling economy. Its growth was so explosive in Los Angeles, that the city council stepped in to shut down dispensaries as numbers mushroomed into the high hundreds.

Steve DeAngelo, Harborside’s CEO, who looks a bit like Willie Nelson in a Don Draper costume: suit, hat and long gray braids, says, “I was one of these lucky people who finds out at a young age what it is that’s important to them.” He’s both impish and sincere when he says, “I’m an agent of change, working to bring the truth about the cannabis plant to the rest of the world.” Like any good protagonist, I’m rooting for him to win, but what that might look like is up for grabs. Does a victory for Steve mean legalization across the board? It’s hard to imagine Harborside holding up to that, which is probably why his brother Andrew, a former theater guy and current general manager, said on Bill O’Reilly said that he doesn’t support the recreational legalization of cannabis. The premiere episode of Weed Wars does nothing if not point up the very gray area between medical and recreational that some patients occupy.

Steve explains: “Whether or not they realize it, most regular cannabis users are using cannabis for the purpose of enhancing their wellness. They may be using it to spark their creativity or their libido or to get a longer night’s sleep. All of those things are legitimate wellness uses.” I agree. My doctor’s recommendation is not for any of those things, but I’ve used the pot purchased via that recommendation for all of the above and more.

The medicinal/recreational question is interesting because it raises the question of how we define medicine. I once got a doctor’s recommendation at HempCon for $50 and a record-free claim of PMS. Is that gaming the system? Or is that providing my uninsured self some relief? Should insomnia be a qualifying condition? Anxiety? How about an acute giggle deficit? There’s a reason for the saying “laughter is the best medicine” and marijuana is indisputably a laugh-bringer. The very real danger of playing this semantic game is, of course, the potential loss of hard-won ground for patients with debilitating diseases.

Moderate recreational use shouldn’t be seen as a denigration of the medical marijuana system — nor should the millions of dollars that Harborside brings to the City of Oakland. The making of money and the provision of medicine are not mutually exclusive. They can both contribute to the well-being of the patients, the growers and the communities in which they are neighbors. Or they can cross the Rubicon and become corrupt. I look forward to this Thursday’s new episode of Weed Wars to watch which way the DeAngelo’s are headed.



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