“I don’t buy it.” That’s what Laura Munson told her husband when he said he no longer loved her. She had the emotional skill to understand that her husband was going through his own issues, and to give him space to figure things out while tending to her own emotional wellness. Who does that? Very few of us are so skilled. And while those six months of marital tension were horrible for Munson, she did get a book out of it: This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. It came out in 2009, struck millions of nerves, and became an instant best-seller. And for good reason. With clear prose and a gift for irreverence — when her husband said something particularly ugly, she simply responded “Those aren’t fighting words, dear” — Munson takes the reader through her path to inner peace. It’s a captivating, valuable read, particularly for people struggling with mental health challenges. What comes across is how much writing is essential to her. It’s her salvation really. It’s what she proselytizes during her popular writing retreats, which she holds in the woods in Montana and calls Haven. That writing is therapeutic and having a community is essential.
We spoke with Munson recently about her book, her love of words, her convictions about wellness, and what it’s like to write from a forest of gratitude.
TP: The book is at once a meditation on a couple navigating a crisis and a meditation on a person navigating a crisis. I really liked those dual perspectives, and how empowering it was when you decided not to suffer and just stay present for yourself.
LM: Well, living in the present moment is a pretty lofty goal for most people. Life serves up lots of challenges to everybody, all the time. It’s not about waiting for the floor to fall out below your feet, it’s going to. To be able to have some kind of practice, some kind of awareness, before that happens, is helpful. My husband said I don’t love you anymore, I’m not sure I ever did, and I’m moving out, and the kids will understand. Most people, especially women who consider themselves card-carrying feminists, who believe their power is in expressing their strength, which of course is often the right thing to do, had a bit of an issue with the book, because what I do is get out of the way of my husband’s rejection and his actions during that time. I felt it was a crisis of self, brought on by his career failure. I mean, I wasn’t going to just put up with it forever; I gave myself an allotment of time. But what I chose to do was really work with these ideas. What is it to choose not to suffer, especially when you’re being rejected by the person you love? You’d think that’s the time when you do fight or kick somebody to the curb or throw in the towel. But I’ve never felt more powerful in my life than in that time, especially as a feminist.
TP: The book is so skillful about identifying what’s really going on underneath the words, which is so hard to do. How did you arrive at such insights?
LM: Years of therapy! (Laughs.) Seriously. It also came from dealing with years of rejection from publishers and editors. When you get a form letter from the publishing world, it often reads like this: “This does not meet our needs at this time.” Right? It’s just the life of the writer. But I would take that personally. In two seconds you can take that form rejection letter to, I’m a bad writer, I have no talent, I’m never going to get published, I can’t believe she got published and I didn’t. All that junk. And all that does is bring one into an intense world of suffering, and I had gotten very tired of that suffering. I had to tell myself a new story. And with the help of a great therapist I learned to find a gap between the things that people say and do and my emotional reaction to it. If someone says something harmful to you, you have choices, and that is new news to a lot of people. It was to me.
TP: You write so clearly about being aware of your negative self-talk, which is a battle in and of itself, for so many of us.
LM: It is. We all have one of those negative voices and he or she is loud. By the time you become middle-aged, the voice is usually saying really mean things, things you wouldn’t say to your worst enemy. Many of us aren’t even aware of the way we speak to ourselves in our own mind. When you start tuning in, it really helps you to understand how much of a corrosive climate we have in our own minds. We walk around saying such cruel things to ourselves and it becomes our normal. Finding the awareness of what goes on in our minds and seeing how we’re suffering from depression and putting a stop to it is the practice. It’s not going to happen overnight. We have to be able to develop a payoff.
TP: What do you mean by that?
LM: Well, you’re not going to spend your whole life walking around saying, Oh I love myself! My life is great! That would be great but for most of us that’s just not going to happen. When we can start accepting our whole selves including our shadow selves with our inner critic, and realize that the shadow self is a scared creature who lives inside of us, it gets easier to look for where the positive payoff is and to cultivate that. Once we start moving into that way of thinking it can inform our way of being.
TP: And writing for you is a part of that payoff?
LM: An essential part. And I think it can be for many people. I think writing should be considered as much a preventative wellness action as diet and exercise.
TP: I like that. When did you discover this for yourself?
LM: Pretty early. I was able to find it as a young woman, and that’s something I’m very grateful for. Writing wasn’t just a passion, it was a lifeline. It was the one place where the climate was a free zone, a place where I could always fit in, a place for my inconvenient truths and dirty secrets. That was the one place where I knew I could go to whenever and have it feel safe. Little by little it felt better and better to be in that place.
TP: What a gift.
LM: I’d spend hours and hours on a summer Saturday afternoon up in a treehouse writing and writing and writing. You’re just not born this way. At some point I figured out it feels good. It’s like people who are good at exercising and learn that it feels good to do it, so they go out for a jog. I never got that. (Laughs.) Writing is one thing I’ve been able to show up for in my life no matter what, whether I had three jobs or small children or was going through some sort of a crisis. I’ve always been able to tap into my writing.
TP: How does it feel to have a book take off in the way this one did, after so many years of writing?
LM: I feel like my kids were a good age when this happened; they were in high school and middle school. So I got to model for them not just this woman who sits in this room in Montana and writes all day. (Laughs.) Now they can see that Mom sometimes speaks in front of large groups of people and has a web presence. They can now see me doing something other than just spending all those hours at the bottom of the stairs tapping away at the keyboard. And thank god I am the woman I am now, and the writer I am now, because I know myself now. If I had gotten all this in my twenties or my thirties or early forties it would have overwhelmed me. I know it wouldn’t have stopped my writing but it could have stopped my career. I’m glad for all those years of writing and sitting at that intersection of heart and craft and mind.
TP: How did you keep the faith with writing all those years, finding time to do it while holding jobs and raising children?
LM: You may not know at first why you’re doing it. It took me a long time before I sat down and wrote an author’s statement because at one point after a number of brutal rejections from books that I felt were really quite publishable I just sat myself down and said why? When I realized that this might not happen, this publishing dream of mine, I had to accept that I’m not going to stop because this is my practice, my meditation, my way of life, my way to life. So I wrote down one line that came out of my deepest well, and it said, “I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner to provide relief for myself and others.” And that’s when I realized I was writing from a place of service, both to myself and others, and that’s when I started getting published.
TP: And through your Haven writing retreats, you’re helping others integrate writing into their lives. How did you get started doing them?
LM: When I suddenly was out there on the wellness circuit talking about personal responsibility and emotional freedom and all these big things, people would come up to me and say they’d love to write but they don’t feel like they have a unique voice. Or they’d say they don’t have the time or aren’t creative. Plenty of people would come up to me and say that everyone tells them they have an incredible story they need to write but don’t know how to get started. They couldn’t give themselves permission to do it. The one that I heard most was that I wrote my way through a crisis and I’m going through a crisis right now and I need some way to get through it. And so it occurred to me one day: why don’t I develop a forum where people don’t have to do it alone? I just put it on Facebook one day. I said, Hey, anyone want to come on a writing retreat with me in Montana? Within two hours I had 24 people sign up. Quickly I figured out where to do it and what the design was going to be and the price point and I started leading retreats. That was four years ago.
TP: And it’s growing and growing.
LM: It is. I’ve now worked with over 300 people. Open Road Media named Haven one of the top five writing retreats in the country. I lead eight of them a year and we have an ongoing community of writers who continue to support one another. It’s not just a one-time deal. It’s a whole community of support and it’s designed based on what was lacking in my life.
TP: You must meet so many interesting people.
LM: I do, and many don’t even consider themselves writers at all. They’re all over the place in their creative journey and I love that. We get people who have strong writing practices, publication credits, and we get people with works in progress, and we get people who are just starting and want to write in their journal or capture their grandmother’s homesteading story, and it’s all really nice.
TP: Why is community so important?
LM: Just so you can be supported in your process. You can go to a cabin in the woods somewhere and be taken care of for food and things. Even if it’s just a small community that has meals together at the end of the day, I think that’s important. But a lot of people wouldn’t know what to do with the cabin in the words. The retreat is actually a retreat and a workshop in one. Each day you get major craft instruction through the morning class, which consists of writing prompts that I put together. But it’s very much through the back door. It’s play. We get outside of our comfort zone and people find their unique voice. And the evening class is a straight-up workshop, where writers get feedback for their work. You can consider the work that you do in the morning class compost at the end of the class.
TP: And it’s all done in a nurturing environment.
LM: It’s so important to have some kind of community, and to make sure that the people in that community know how to give good feedback. That’s rare, too, to find good readers. I’m trying to offer all of these things to people as I don’t want to perpetuate this tortured-artist paradigm. I want to empower people in their creative self-expression, wherever they are, and I know that’s possible. It doesn’t need to be a tortured way of life. And yet it’s a very rare person that wants to have writing in their life to this degree. I don’t want people walking around feeling alone and different and almost ashamed of that side of them. Haven sets you up emotionally and psychologically, whatever that means to you.
TP: You’re making me want to come to Montana.
LM: You have to come! I’m thrilled to share my Montana muse with other people. These people who come are really brave and a little scared but they’re taking a stand for their creative self-expression and it’s inspiring. Somehow they’ve gotten themselves out here to the woods of Montana to do this for five days and it’s wonderful.
TP: So do you still have time to write your own books? What’s next for you?
LM: I write several books at the same time and then I pick one to focus on. I just finished a memoir recently, and I finished a novel last winter that I have high hopes for. I’m also working on a book about the writing life and how to use writing in your life, much in the way that I’m talking about it with you. Oh, and a series of novellas. We’ll see which one gets fully birthed first. But ultimately if none of them get published, I still feel complete. Writing is how I feel OK on this planet.
— This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.