Carolyn Miller's CAL Grant Experience
The Story You Came to Write
By M. Carolyn Miller
CI hadn’t been to a writers’ retreat in nearly 30 years, ever since those early retreats and conferences when I was starting out as a writer. But thanks to a CAL grant, which serendipitously came across my email the same day as the conference notice, I felt the cosmic urge to attend.
In those early days of writing, I wanted to be a literary fiction writer. But I didn’t know the story I’d come to tell or the life that would shape itself around that story and in the process, shape the story itself. In hindsight, I was in the first stage of a writing career—learning the craft. Knowing the story I came to tell—stage 2—had yet to surface.
Yet in the angst- and joy-filled years that followed, a body of work emerged that told my story, shaped and re-shaped by every chapter—through the me-search/research of creative projects, graduate school, day jobs that oddly fed my creative life, and the loves and losses of growing up.
My story—the one I came to write—was about story itself and personal mythology. I traveled to the interior of this mysterious terrain, mapped it, made tools, wrote my own stories and found, in that arduous process, redemption.
I also began to see the world differently, through the lens of story. And as I became facile in that interior tongue, a deeper and more intricate story web emerged in my thoughts and dreams, in what I wrote, what I wanted to say, what I tried to share, tongue-tied, at networking gatherings. In hindsight, I realize it was not time, that I myself had not traveled deep enough into the forest of the dragons.
Michael Meade, a mythologist, educator and author, says that each of us comes to this life with a unique gift to share with the world. Our life task is to unearth and live it. Personal mythology was mine. I knew that like I knew nothing else and my ego was driven to share it.
So I did. I published what I wrote. I ran workshops and gave talks. I had minor success, not much of it financial and certainly not enough to sustain me.
Eventually I stopped.
I entered the world of online learning then, not only to re-tool during a tough economic time, but also to educate myself on a potential opening in the creative wall I’d hit that had left me broke, broken and exhausted. I slept little, worked a lot, and worried incessantly about my capabilities. Depression was my constant companion. In looking back, I realize deeper work was occurring: my ego was being brought to its knees.
When I got the notice about the retreat, I was at a crossroads. Turning 60 had stunned me into creative wakefulness. I did not want to die with my story—and my myth-making skills—still in me. This time, though, the “call to adventure,” as Joseph Campbell named it, rose up from a deeper and more soulful place.
I was attracted to the retreat for the things it did not promise. It did not promise meetings with potential publishers, big networking gatherings, or presentations on the business of writing. Workshops in craft I was not looking for. (It did not promise those.) My own next chapter as a writer, I was.
The retreat host was Lisa Jones, writing teacher and author ofBroken, A Love Story. She was gathering all her seasoned writer cronies to share what they had learned on the way to becoming “famous.” I wanted to be around them. I wanted to be inspired and entertained and reminded that the dragons of art and fate and, yes, story, could be mine again. Mostly, I wanted to be reminded that living a writer’s life was still possible.
I took the long route to Colorado’s interior, and spent a night in Gunnison at a sweet B&B, Vintage Inn, owned by Beth Munroe, a multi-media artist, who shared her home, her art studio, and her friendship and reminded me, by example, what it meant to live a creative life.
I then traveled north, through Crested Butte where I was greeted with a larger-
than-life size sculpture of a knight slaying a dragon. I smiled at this physical echo of my own psychic interior writ large on a postcard canvas.
I continued my journey north, hiked at the top of Kebler Pass, and from there, drove west into the fruit-bearing country of the western slope. In Paonia, I checked into Fresh & Wyld, a rambling farmhouse turned B&B, where organic fare, long hikes and conversations about the writers’ life were promised.
My first jolt of wakefulness came when I was introduced to fellow participants. Most had never published, most were new writers, many dreamed of MFAs and fame. All of them reminded me of me 30 years ago. What ever will I learn from this group, I thought at the time? And yet I did.
I learned that there are old and new models for writers’ careers and lifestyles and traditional writers were, well, quite traditional. I was not.
I learned that staying up until all hours, drinking and sharing talks about writing that I most probably wouldn’t remember the next day, were no longer appealing.
I learned that I like, no, I love having my own room and bathroom.
I learned that writing careers are as individual as the writers themselves. Paola Bacigalupi grew up in a family of science fiction lovers and that love became his own. Craig Childs’ curiosity about “the cracks in the sidewalk” of the physical world resulted in one-of-a-kind work. Peter Heller had to get out of the way of the story that came through him, even though it took him into a new genre.
From these writers, I was reminded that my job as a writer is to write, not to censor my work before I send it out, as I’d done so often in the past. And to be honest about my intentions for writing, be it the self-discovery process, the applause, or the money.
I was re-introduced to my first love—creative nonfiction—and reminded that finding those markets is often as simple as stepping back into the traditional world of writers’ gatherings to hear an editor talk candidly about her needs, as Michelle Nijhuis ofHigh Country Newsdid.
I learned that although I don’t need exercises in craft, occasionally one will surface a story I thought I was done with or a voice from a deeper place.
Mostly, I was reminded that I am a lot more talented, knowledgeable and educated than I remembered.
Terry Tempest Williams, an environmentalist and writer, in her bookWhen Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice,writes about woman’s place in the world and that too often that place involves waiting. We are “women who wait—waiting to love, waiting to speak, waiting to act,” she writes, and “[I]n our withholding of power, we abrogate power . . . .”
So I had, by turning my back on writing about the things that were important to me in my determination to make a living at my craft. What I had forgotten was that the soul’s call is the soul’s call and it doesn’t care so much about money. Every writer, every artist, knows this deep in her bones. I had forgotten that, and in that forgetfulness, my anger at those controlling the world story, and by relationship my own, had turned inward and become that constant companion, depression.
I went to hear Ms. Williams speak when I returned from the retreat. And as I sat in the audience, her words echoed the thoughts that were increasingly finding their way to notes scrawled on flip chart paper in my office, about what I wanted to write about next. Her words have become my mantra.
“I will write,” Williams wrote. “I will take my anger and turn it into sacred rage.”
And so shall I.