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2020 Summer Writing Retreat - "Write What Only You Know: Constructing the Truth in Personal Narrative" with Donna M. Johnson

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8/3/2020 to 8/27/2020

Level 1 Registration (Class Only): $209 Members / $269 Non-Members

Level 2 Registration (Class + Consultation): $289 Members / $349 Non-Members

Registration for this class is now closed. 

Class Meeting Times:

"Write What Only You Know" will meet for a total of four sessions on Monday evenings in August: 8/3, 8/10, 8/17, 8/24

6:00pm to 9:00pm CDT on Zoom

Class Description: 
Writers are taught to avoid cliché, yet many of us focus our work around the depleted refrain, “write what you know.” Drilled in from early childhood, this cliché can cause us to settle for easy narratives that just skim the deeper, felt experiences of our lives. In this class we will experiment with craft elements that help move us toward Annie Dillard’s famous suggestion to “write what only you know.”

In this class, registrants will read and discuss traditional as well as more experimental published pieces with an eye toward understanding key components of memoir and personal narrative, focusing on a different topic each session (detailed below). This class is about learning new approaches or perhaps learning a new way to apply a familiar craft element—and then practicing. Students will not be required to read work aloud. Our class mantra comes from Henry James: We work in the dark. We do what we can. We give what we have. The rest is practice!

Registrants will encounter a welcoming and supportive online environment that encourages risk taking. The class will include craft talks & discussions, small group work, in-class readings, writing prompts, and take-home reading and writing assignments.

Session Descriptions: 

Session # 1 / Isn’t it all about the past? The present-day narrator and navigating time in memoir. This session will focus on craft elements that make it easier for writers to layer the past and the present to achieve more deeply textured narratives.

Session #2 / Discovering threads of meaning: Bringing the larger world into your writing. At some point, the “personal” in personal narrative can begin to wear thin. Social histories, outside authorities, imagined scenes and exploration of place and time are a few of the techniques we’ll explore as we seek to broaden private experience with context and meaning.

Session #3 / Images, metaphors and verbs—oh my! Poetic language and resonance in
memoir. We will discuss how the structure of language itself - including word choice, syntax, metaphor, and unexpected phrasing - can work to deepen a sense of meaning within your writing.

Session #4 / The story that swallowed its tail: Conventional and innovative structures in
personal narrative. The three-act structure, although useful to Aristotle and much of the Western canon, is not the only or even the best way to tell a story. In this session, we’ll explore chronological structure, as well as spiral, braided, and collage models and how to decide which one best fits your work.

This class is for writers who are working on a memoir, are ready to start work on a memoir, and/or are writing personal essays or a book-length personal narrative.

Participation: It's recommended that participants be present for scheduled class time. Sessions will be highly interactive. There will be 1-2 small group activities per session that will not be available to those who access session recordings afterwards. The instructor will be available to answer any questions in real time only.

Homework Expectations: The instructor will assign a short, published essay to be read before each class. Students will be asked to write one piece at home based on a previous class discussion. The piece may run from one brief paragraph to several pages—it’s up to you. The instructor will also ask students to bring photos, newspaper articles, or other memorabilia to serve as in-class writing prompts.

Donna M. Johnson is the author of Holy Ghost Girl, a critically acclaimed memoir deemed “enthralling” by the New York Times and “compulsively readable” by Texas Monthly. Oprah named the book to her Memoirs We Love list. Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize and took top honors at the Books for a Better Life Awards in Manhattan. Donna has written for Huffington Post, The Rumpus, Shambhala Sun, Psychology Today, and other publications. Donna is a Ragdale Fellow and was recently awarded a fellowship at the Lucas Artist’s Residency. She is currently at work on a memoir that combines investigative reporting with person narrative.


All credit card transactions will incur a 4% handling fee. To avoid the fee, you have the option of mailing a check to our office. If you choose to pay by check please fill out and submit this form. Your check must be received within 5 days of the date of the form's submission and no later than August 1, 2020.


All transactions are final and no refunds will be made, no exceptions. Registrants can transfer their registration to another person as long as advance notice is given to the WLT by 5pm on August 2, 2020. If you wish to transfer your registration, please email us at