By Danielle “Danny” Bernstein
NORTH CAROLINA—Sometimes it’s what happens toward the end that is the most important.
I signed up for the Creative Nonfiction track, led by Virginia Holman, at the Network’s 2011 Squire Summer Writing Residency. I prepared by reading her memoir Rescuing Patty Hearst and fretting about which eight pages of my own to send to be workshopped. Finally I took a chance and sent in pages from a new project that I'm considering. After publishing two hiking guides, I am starting a travel adventure; I'm trying not to use the word memoir. I have 200 pages of notes and blog entries about hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail through North Carolina, but the questions I came with were “Do I have a book?” and “How do I go forward from these notes?”
I received pages from my classmates and saw how different they were from mine. Two wrote about difficult family situations, one about lessons learned over a long and successful life. The only fellow in our group had written a family history about his ancestor in the Civil War. What if they thought my writing trivial and inconsequential?
I love New Bern. I've been there twice, and I jumped at a legitimate reason for traveling 375 miles from Asheville to delve into more of its history. I came a day early because I knew that once the residency started, we would be immersed in writing: our own, and everyone else’s.
For our first evening, the Network had made arrangements for a trip to the John Wright Stanly House, close to Tryon Palace. The house was built in the early 1780s by a well-to-do shipping magnate and Revolutionary leader. Three generations of “Stanly women” told us their stories. They were terrific. I took good notes because I was sure that we'd have to write about it—we didn't.
The next morning we met in our group and Virginia started by workshopping everyone's work. Since our group was small, we each had ninety minutes. That's a lot, and I felt that my eight pages didn't deserve all that time.
But the discussion wasn't just about what was on the page, but where this was going, and how to keep writing. Virginia explained that we needed to search for our “narrative persona.” A memoir can't be just a sequence of events; it needs to be consequential. At first, this didn't mean much to me, but I wrote it down dutifully.
Faculty and student readings were scheduled in between the workshops. That opened up the residency to more than just our small group. There was a panel session on how to appeal to editors and agents—the perennial discussion on how to get published.
Once all our pieces were workshopped, Virginia gave us some exercises to jog our memories and get us to write spontaneously. We had to draw a map of a place that we knew well, label it, and write what happened there. I’m not much of an artist, but I drew a map of the entrance to the Smokies from the Cherokee Reservation. Then I wrote about meeting a Cherokee woman and her small nursery-school class on the Oconaluftee River Trail. I had forgotten about her, but with a map, I could recollect so much.
For another exercise, we had to bring a photograph that meant something to us and write about it. I had seen these exercises in books before, but I had never done them. It took a class and a workshop leader to make me see how useful these were.
On the last day, each of us met with Virginia privately. She had given me an essay by Phillip Lopate titled “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character.” We discussed the article, and it confirmed what she said in the workshop: no one can write about his or her whole self, so what will be my persona for what I’m writing?
Then came the payoff. Virginia suggested that each chapter of my adventure be turned into a series of problems and solutions as a way of creating this strong narrative persona. Then I can divide my stories under several categories such as the hike itself, historical thread, and emotional thread. She said, “Build it like a mosaic and then organize the material.”
It was a long, hot drive back to Asheville as I tried to keep my mind on the road, and not on my book.
DANIELLE "DANNY" BERNSTEIN is a hiker, hike leader, and outdoor writer. Her two guidebooks Hiking the Carolina Mountains (2007) and Hiking North Carolina's Blue Ridge Heritage (2009) were published by Milestone Press. She writes for regional magazines including Mountain Xpress and Smoky Mountain Living and blogs about the outdoors at www.hikertohiker.com.