Claim Your Story

Writing Conference, Ashland, Oregon

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Meet Alissa Lukara

Q: I understand that health problems lead you to write your memoir Riding Grace:A Triumph of the Soul. If a writer is contemplating writing a memoir or stories from life, how should he or she approach such a daunting project?
A:Writers often get stuck contemplating how and where to start and end their memoirs or they feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material, not knowing what stories from their lives to include that will appeal to readers. I suggest you focus first on the transformational journey you want to convey.
You were one person when you started. Then, by the end of the life segment you want to write about, you had changed. Maybe you went from being lost to finding courage and strength. Or, like me, you faced a health challenge that had no cure and then you healed in more ways – body, mind, and spirit – than you imagined.
To begin ask yourself what are the one or two main messages you want to convey about that time? What are the one or two main lessons you learned? What life theme did you explore? Then, consider what stories from your life, relationships, conversations – both the high points and the key struggles and obstacles –show those main changes, messages and lessons. Write those stories first and you are on your way.
My memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul, covered 12 years of a healing journey.When the illness appeared, I had already been a professional writer, with a nonfiction book published by a large traditional publisher. So writing was my natural form of expressing what I was called to share about this life-changing event. At first, I started writing all the breakthrough stories of my healing experiences and ended up with 1000 pages without a viable structure. And I knew no publisher would touch it at that length.
When I asked myself those three questions, I found the core message of my book and I cut 800 pages. Some of those 800 pages included meaningful, beautiful writing and stories. But I learned to stay focused on the transformational story and message I most wanted to convey.

Q: Can you talk more about the workshop you’re teaching at Claim Your Story and your approach to teaching and mentoring other writers?
A: Most writers I know and work with face writing challenges that go beyond questions of craft while creating a book – from fear and self-doubt to lack of time and the inner critic. Yet many writers feel alone in these inner struggles. They are not.
These challenges are a natural part of the writing process. Writing challenges are like the “guardians at the gate” on the journey to completing your book. Each time you face one and pass through a gate, you build confidence and hone your writing skills. Writing challenges also hold opportunities such as teaching you to deepen your self-expression and commitment to writing.Alissa Lukara
We will be discussing three core—– of all writing challenges, the challenges themselves and offer lots of practical tips and keys to transforming them. And I share personal experiences and the experiences of other writers as well.
I’ll be sharing what worked for me and we’ll spend time on guided writings and prompts and to inspire them to find their own natural rhythm and style of writing within busy lives and work schedules.

Q: What challenges do you face when you write?
A: The shorter question would be what challenges do not still drop by from time to time. The difference now is that I have tools to use to transform them into energy for writing and to glean the messages they bring me about my writing.
I also have a knowing deep in my heart that I have gotten through them before. I can and will do it again. I have a choice. Persistence is such a key for me. I acknowledge the challenge, and I continue to show up and write. I hold my larger purpose in my heart.

Q: What is your best advice for writers in 12 words or less?
A: Show up. Write for yourself first. However you write it is right.

Q: When you are not writing how do occupy your time?
A: Going to movies, reading, hiking and exercising, spending time with family and friends, rejuvenating in nature and my garden, meditating, playing with my cat, and – let me not forget – doing all that is involved in promoting the various aspects of a writing business from social media to speaking.

Q:What books are on your night stand?
A: Proof of Heaven by Eban Alexander, Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver and A Year With Hafiz: Daily Contemplations, poems by Hafiz and Daniel Ladinsky

Q: What’s next for you?
A: I am writing a novel entitled Secrets of the Trees. Set in the aftermath of the fall of Soviet rule in Latvia in 1993, it is about fraternal twins traveling there to search for answers to an ancestral mystery that lies in secrets hidden in an ancient forest, the heart of a classical ballet dancer they are destined to meet and the massive singing revolution that brought freedom to the Baltics after 50 years of Soviet oppression.
I continue to blog on writing and support writers to write and complete their books and stories through writing coaching, editing and classes for memoir, nonfiction and fiction writing at I am also developing a series of new writing mentoring classes, including one called In the Writing Zone: A Writing Inspiration, Craft and Transformation Extravaganza, another one on Writing the Transformational Journey and a third on transforming writing challenges, which builds on the presentation I am making at Claim Your Story.

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Registration still open

LSR-May-bloom920The registration for the Claim Your Story Writing Conference is limited because of the room size at Lithia Springs. We are about half filled. If you have plans to register I would advise not waiting until the last minute. I would also suggest you  reserve a room at the resort soon. Again, the date is October 19.

Six years I began coordinating my first conference, Summer in Words which is held every June at the Oregon coast. It’s been such a thrill to meet the instructors, most of them best-selling authors like Cheryl Strayed, Jonathon Evison, and Chelsea Cain. But more fun was meeting writers who traveled from all parts of the country to participate and then stay in touch as their writing careers took off. A number of books, essays, and articles have been published as a result of that conference. It makes for a meaningful life.

Good writing and thanks for your interest.

Jessica Morrell



I understand experience as art. In other words, I see reality, identity, and experience by and through stories, films, plays, poems, paintings, music, dance. As a fiction writer I try to name precisely what’s what from my biased point of view in a way that might engage a reader. Inside that relationship–between a writer and a reader–a fiercely passionate world may yet rise. That is, if you risk letting art into your life. Writing is a metaphor for living a life. I teach writing, literature, and art as if they were urgent. ~ Lydia Yuknavitch

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“I believe in art the way other people believe in god. I say that because books and paintings and music and photography gave me an alternate world to inhabit when the one I was born into was a dead zone. I say it because if you, even inside whatever terror itches your skin, pick up a pen or a paintbrush, a camera or clay or a guitar, you already have what you are afraid to choose.”—Lidia Yuknavitch

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Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

This interview was published several years back, but I wanted to reprint it here for those conference attendees who didn’t have a chance to read it.

The Chronology of WaterAfter I finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water I felt like my heart and brain had been sandblasted. It’s not your ordinary memoir, if there is such thing as an ordinary memoir. It’s raw and sad and real and scary. And she just takes so many risks as a writer—in not only what she describes, but how she describes it. I don’t know about you, but sometimes after reading such a book I feel that the writer has granted me permission to go deeper, to take more risks in my own writing. To find out more about Lidia visit her here.

Q: Over the years of teaching and editing I’ve met writers who afraid to tell the truths of their lives in a memoir. Typically they say they’re waiting for their parents or other significant people to die. Could you talk about taking risks in writing and how a writer can toss out their concerns about the fallout, and simply write? Maybe my question is how do you write the truth without feeling too vulnerable?

A: Well I bet you’d agree with what I’m going to say…there is no way to write the truth without feeling too vulnerable. And that is because that space of vulnerability is precisely where writers have to go, you know?

But at the start of your question is the issue of the people in our lives that our stories may touch. That is a difficultly. In my own case, my parents both died. And the fact is that I would not have written the book had they still been alive. Particularly my mother. My mother was in pain all of her life, and this book would have made her sad. I would not have contributed to increasing her pain – at least not intentionally. On the other hand, she would also have supported me, she would have told me I was brave.

The other “people” in my book I took different approaches with. I called or emailed most of them. I changed the names of a few. I made at least one “composite.”

But it’s just a veil we throw up when we say we can’t write stories because of how this or that person will react. It’s a safety veil. The reason to lift the veil and move through to your story has almost nothing to do with how the people in your life will react. You can’t control that. Ever. The reason to lift the veil is to step with your full self into your own story.

If other people find difficulty with your story, hey, they can write their own stories.

But I did list some good strategies: contact people you are worried about, change names if you must, use a composite if you can skillfully render events without distorting their truth, and this: trust art.

Q: Along with writing the truth, I noticed that there were lots of places in your story where you chose not to bring the reader along. Some of your story, such as your father’s abuse, is implied, not dramatized. How did you make decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out?

A: That’s a great question for this particular book. I have been quite demoralized and pissed off about the narrow options available to writers on certain topics: incest, abuse, addiction as examples. And what I mean about the narrow options is that it seems that it is the market, and not the writer or artist – who determines what kinds of stories can be told and HOW they can be told. Put simply, when publishing houses and agents and editors get to decide there is a certain market tested way of telling a story, it means how it is told is based on how it is sold.

So one of the many formal choices I created for this book (you’ll no doubt notice quite a few formal strategies) was to concentrate on the body as a character, and on the sensory spaces we all enter in times of fear or danger. In other words, I tried to create word houses or environments where the reader can feel what it’s like to be afraid or humiliated or damaged, without actually hurting the reader with the graphic details of my particular situation.

It’s my hope that this strategy opens up spaces for the reader to plug in their own archetypal experiences and their own individual stories – the river of sadness or pain moves through us all at one time or another. It’s not important that my story be bigger than anyone else’s.

It’s just important that we understand each other through stories and art.

So I suppose you could say that I trusted art, I trusted storytelling, I trusted language and image and lyric to “carry” the reader’s body close to difficult things.

Q: How do writers find themes that resonate both for the writer and reader?

A: I’m fairly Jungian when it comes to questions like this – I believe there are resonant archetypal images and emotions and rituals and … “memories” that connect us all even through our otherness.

But it’s tricky, as your question implies, because all writers are narcissists. HA!

So one strategy to think about is to move away from “self” and toward artistic production. Instead of asking myself, well, what happened to me and how can I tell it so that the reader will feel the weight of its importance, I asked, what is the central metaphor(s) of my life experience? It was the metaphor of swimming that brought me to a place to tell my story that included the reader. It was letting go of telling the story of my mind and telling the story of my body that opened up a place for the reader to travel with me. To de-privatize the selfstory. To de-mythologize the self.

We are all born through water. We are all made of mostly water. It’s a much more resonant way to tell my story than to focus on me me me me Or I I I I or the Lidianess of my experiences. There is an I, there is a me, but there is mostly a big, huge, generative metaphor that is more important than that.

That’s why I’ve invented so many metaphor exercises for writers…

Q: In The Chronology of Water you started near the middle of the story with the birth of your stillborn daughter then you moved in and out of time. How does a memoir writer find the best chronology for storytelling?

A: Well I don’t know why ANY memoir follows a linear timeline, to be honest…And I say that because I have done such extensive research in biochemistry and neuroscience on the topic of memory. Memory doesn’t work anything like we wish it did. Sad, but true.Lida Y 3

It’s narrative that gives memory and experience its “shape.” I made a very conscious choice to de-emphasize the linear in order to, at least a little bit, emphasize what’s not only true about how memory works, but also what’s true about narrative theory.

Too, I wanted to begin with a birthdeath in order to disturb the notion that birth is the beginning and death is the end, since I no longer believe that either about life or narrative.

Q: What is the most challenging part of writing and how do you face it?

A: It’s ALL challenging, isn’t it??!!! Why do we do it, Jessica? HA!! Seriously though, the two biggest challenges for me seem to recur. The first is simply the challenge to stand up, claim the writing space, and innovate inside of it rather than mimic what’s been inherited. To say I too, am a writer, and this is what it looks like when I do it and not someone else.

The second great challenge for me is to not get lost inside making art. There is a HUGE part of me that would simply love to stay inside writing or painting. To not come out. To leave the world entirely. I am more at home inside writing than I am out in the world. It’s a great deal like being in water is for me—I’m more my self, I’m free, I’m in pure imagination and reflection and generation.

The tougher part for me is being out in the world like people are. I mean I can do it, but it never feels quite right. It’s painful and hard for me. I need LOADS of “recovery” time after being in public. I think a lot of writers, artists, introverts feel this way. So I suppose I’m saying my deeper challenges are OUTSIDE of making art. If I could get away with it, I’d stay in there and pull a few loved ones in with me. Unfortunately, that’s probably a space of psychosis so it’s good that there are loving people in my life to keep me tethered to the world.

Q: In your memoir there’s a chapter on writing fiction collaboratively in Ken Kesey’s class at the University of Oregon. Besides the lovely aspect that Kesey served as a father figure to you, I’m wondering what he taught you about writing and seeing the world as a writer.

A: He taught me it was OK to feel more passion about art and nature and animals than I do for most people. He taught me that the outsider status you need to have as a writer does not require violent alienation. He taught me that there are many ways to love, and writing is one way. He taught me that writers go down to difficult places for a culture and bring things back up to it—that we have a vital role to play in culture—and to try not to get sucked into the consumer culture definition of what and who a writer is. Which is a constant battle, you know…

Q: Can you talk about the role of your critique group in your writing process and life?

A: YES!! They are the BEST! HA…you knew I’d say that though, right? What I had no idea about is how important a writing group like this could be to someone like myself who is at heart an isolate.

This … “thing” we do every week is more than just bringing work in and getting feedback. It’s a way to feel present as a writer and artist. It’s a way to regather some of the energy you lose every day just trying to keep up with the dizzy whir of your life, not to mention your art. I think too even though this will sound a little ju ju, it’s a very important secular ritual. It recurs. It collects. It generates. It receives and gives. Every. Single. Week.

I love too that we are all very different kinds of writers. I suspect that our differences are important in terms of the ways we can help each other. We each “see” slightly differently how to write and why to write and what to write, and we bring all those differences – all of those voices – together. When you go home, those voices and emotions and ideas are still with you, swimming in your head in a comforting and reinforcing way. It’s a way to be not alone and alone as a writer.

Q: What’s your best advice for writers in 12 words or less?

A: If this is what you want, only you can invent its terms of being; write the world of your imagination.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?

A: It’s more of a giant pile that starts at the floor and teeters upward like a paper tower…and the kinds of books in the pile have almost no identifiable connection…I’m a wicked and voracious reader…

Q: What’s next?

A: Well, I just finished a novel based on the Dora/Freud relationship called Dora: A Head Case that I’ll have to find a way to get into the world, and I’m currently working on a novel based on Joan of Arc. There’s only ever the next book… Dora a Headcase

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The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.
David Foster Wallace