A First Sentence Interview with Author Sonya Lea: “We have always had the fire and storytellers”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is essayist and memoirist Sonya Lea, who writes on memory and identity. Her memoir, Wondering Who You Are, about what happened after her husband lost the memory of their life, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Wondering has won awards and garnered praise in a number of publications including Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Rumpus and The Butter.

Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. She speaks at conferences, universities and festivals. Her short film, Every Beautiful Thing, won two awards for direction, and several awards for score. She has also written screenplays.

Originally from Kentucky, Sonya lives in Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about her work on her website.

Your memoir, Wondering Who You Are, chronicles a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, not to mention a radical reshaping of identity — both your husband’s, your own, and that of your marriage and family. How long did it take you to write this book?

If I count devoted writing time, about three years. Though I spent time thinking about what happened in our relationship, and writing essays about these events for about ten years before I wrote the memoir.

Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What keeps you going?

Silence & solitude. As anyone who has lived with me knows, I require several hours a day to be by myself, usually in the quiet. This can happen in the wilderness or the writing room. Being with people and in cities is wonderful, and I have to be alone to work. This took me until fifty to understand about myself.

What surprised you in the unfolding of this story, as you looked back and considered what to include and what to leave out? How did you make decisions?

I make choices based on what my body intends. There were pieces in the book I wrote—like my sex story and my money story—that my body was still shedding shame over, and so I wrote them and then decided at the end of the writing whether they belonged in the world.

One thing I found so extraordinary about your memoir is the amount of research behind it and how seamlessly you weave this in with your searingly personal experience. The “notes” section practically stands alone. Did any particular systems help you stay organized?

Thank you. I was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, who wrote Brain On Fire. I keep journals, and folders on the computers. I abhor book writing systems or programs because they inhibit me.

Do you believers writers are born, made, or both?

There’s no natural skill that could be said to benefit a writer. Everything necessary can be cultivated, practiced. It’s not like we need our bodies to be a certain shape. We have always had the fire and storytellers. We don’t even need eyesight or typing skills, because technology has now found a way for stories to be recorded. Though if you look at what Europeans consider literature, there’s a case to be made that being born white/male/able—from the culture of dominance would seem to be an advantage. This time that we’re living in requires us to make and read narratives we haven’t yet seen, haven’t heard.

If you could have lunch with anyone — living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?

This question fucks me up. You could ask me this question once an hour, and it would change. But here goes: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Graciela Iturbide, Brandon Teena, Frida Kahlo, Renee Stout, Valie Export, Wilma Mankiller, Emily Carr, Beyoncé, Tanya Tagaq, Hannah Arendt, Themistoclea. Mostly women. No fictional people, because they’re in my body all day as it is. No ancestors, because I also have conversations with them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a museum curator who hears an Amazon warrior woman speaking to her, and it’s also about identity, and how we aren’t who we think we are. Because I can’t stop writing that story.

Stay tuned for April’s conversation with Nancy Stearns Bercaw, author of Brain In a Jar and the forthcoming Dryland.

Too Cold for Ice Cream, Just Right for Writing

flavors

I saw this the other night while getting ice cream with Aviva, and it captures *exactly* how I feel about my website menu. Not all the groups are offered all the time!

So what IS currently on the menu?

If you’re itching to write and could use the encouragement and camaraderie of a supportive space to both hush your inner critic and keep you accountable to showing up, here are what scoops are available in the next two months. It might be getting chilly for ice cream, but it’s a perfect time of year to get your writing on.

1. Between the Sheets: Write Your Stories of Desire, Intimacy, and Pleasure
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Delicious choice.

This is a 2-week group I’m co-leading with my Inky Path partner, Cigdem Kobu. The theme has to do with stories of desire, intimacy, and pleasure — but like all prompts, they will take people in many directions. This group starts (and registration ends) TODAY! As in ALL of my groups: The writing is completely confidential, and the vibe is supportive and completely judgement-free. It’s $99.

inkypath.com/between-the-sheets-guided

2. On the Corner: Writing at the Intersection(s)
A new, experimental flavor, combining the tried-and-true tradition of writing prompts with swirls of exploring our identities, inside and out.

This group starts Monday, September 19 and ends Monday, October 10. Prompts will be 3 days/week, and all relate in some way to the many “parts” of ourselves, how the world sees us, what we’ve abandoned and what we want to reclaim or change. I’m super excited about it and would be so so thrilled for you all to join me. There are 3 payment “tiers” — $63, $126, and $189 — on a kind of honor system.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/on-the-corner-writing-at-the-intersections

4. What If You Knew?
A classic flavor that will whet your appetite for more. Writing, that is.

My next 2-week group, with the original 10 prompts I ever wrote. I’m offering this one again as a kind of 2-year anniversary of promptressing and doing this work in the world. If you’re looking to begin, deepen, or expand a writing practice, please join me October 10-21. The cost is $99, though I’m often told it’s priceless.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/2-week-writing-practice

3. Dive Into Poetry: October 1-31
If you’re like me, and want to sample everything, this might be the group for you.

A month-long poetry celebration, with 3x/week poems & images from me, to use as springboards + inspiration for your own poems! This group is straight-up great fun. No previous poetry-writing experience is required; in fact, the whole idea is to get to play. And it’s only $28.

jenaschwartz.com/writing-groups/national-poetry-month

**

Writing together and freewriting are ways to blast through the toxicity of comparing ourselves to each other. To show up to yourself, to what’s true, to back then and to right now and to someday. To practice being good to yourself. To quiet the voices telling you “too much” and “not enough.” To see what happens when you don’t have to be good.

We’re all 32 flavors and then some.

Come have a taste. 

And how could I possibly resist wrapping this up without some Ani?

Happy Half-Birthday to Me (and a Gift for You)

Lily
I could click “share” on Facebook all day long, and feel less and less connected.

Instead, I took my bike out of the garage and rode to town. I got a taco and a $2 lottery ticket. Then I rode home. Anger, envy, sadness, missing, confusion, and love — all perched on my handlebars like a motley crew of dark companions, offset by the chirping of birds and pretty houses and flowers growing around picket fences. It wasn’t until I got to my own old yellow house that I stopped and put down the kickstand. Put down my guard and my armor and opened my eyes again. These lilies, towering amidst weeds, growing by the curb in a kind of accidental garden.

Continue reading today’s newsletter, which includes other musings as well as a special gift for you: 14% off everything on the menu until midnight July 14 (my half-birthday!).

If you don’t already receive Fierce Encouragement for Writing + Lifesubscribe here and the next one will appear in your inbox.

Thank you for showing up, in all the ways.

Angel Posse Meets Story Sisterhood

typewriter

They don’t mind my writing about them and I don’t mind risking sounding like a religious fanatic or a woo-woo nut job.

I just spent the last hour writing a story about my angel posse, for one of the prompts in The Story Sisterhood. This new membership group of The Inky Path will dive deeply into a single theme every three months. For our inaugural theme “Gotta Have Faith,” already a group of really wonderful women from around the world has assembled to explore our stories, one week at a time, alone and together.

Though I’ve written about my angels many times before, today I wound up writing something brand new, something I would probably not have sat down to write had I not had some reason to do so. While this itself is a gift for me, such a huge part of the writing is also in the sharing and the connections that opens up between me and other humans.

So many factors at play. So much responsibility to bear. The whole “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” thing? I wasn’t sure I was buying it.

So when I say things like “I hope you’ll join us,” it’s not an empty sales pitch. Whether I’m referring to the writing groups I lead privately or the ones I co-create over at The Inky Path, what you’re getting is my heart, my whole self, and an expression of my deep and genuine desire to share some of my stories with you and to get the deep privilege of reading yours.

What you’re hearing is borne of awe at the alchemy of memory, writing, and witness.

And they are tough as nails, too. They never back down and they always have my back. My angels are my best friends. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I don’t know what I’d do without you, either. My writing posse. This beautiful and ever-expanding community.

If taking the time and creating the space to connect with your own stories inside of a truly supportive community of women calls to you, I hope you’ll join me and my inky partner-in-crime. Cigdem Kobu in The Story Sisterhood.

inkypath.com/story-sisterhood/

Registration is open through the weekend, then will close until late summer.

“This sisterhood is unlike anything I have experienced. It has unleashed many words that needed a meadow to romp in without fear.” – Terri Jackson