Laura Munson’s new book, Willa’s Grove, is much more than a novel. It’s a map, a template with the potential to show each one of us how to find a life-changing sense of community. It’s where we can start to answer the question, “So now what?” and it begins with an invitation we send to ourselves and to other women.
“You are invited to the rest of your life.”
Laura Munson, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, This is Not the Story You Think It Is, has used a brilliant premise as the seed for her new novel, Willa’s Grove. It’s a question almost everyone has asked themselves when they come to a crossroads in their life: “So now what?” While it’s a logical question it usually doesn’t result in an answer, much less a next step… until now.
In light of full disclosure, Laura Munson is my good friend, but you know I won’t introduce you to anyone who isn’t at the top of their game. Laura is loved and respected, a teacher who changes lives and brings undeniable clarity to those who attend her Haven Writing Programs. She’s an author and a woman who’s walked what she writes, and she asks the hard questions with love. I caught up with Laura during her book tour for Willa’s Grove. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Photograph from Blackstone Publishing, ©2020
LAURA: My hope is people will read Willa’s Grove and identify with the characters and be inspired by the idea of this community and say, “I want to say ‘yes’ to that invitation. I want to send that invitation because I know someone who’s at a major crossroads in their life.” In Willa’s Grove they’re all staring down the barrel of “so what’s next” and one of the characters says why don’t we have a gathering of women? You invite me, and I’ll invite a friend who will invite a friend and we all come to you in Montana. Willa says, “I couldn’t even take care of a barn cat right now,” but they show up with life not working at home. They begin by all saying how they thought their life would be, and then they tell their story of what really happened. Often these two things are very different. The women create a safe space to tell their stories, intentionally, and make it matter.
Instead of looking at these crossroad moments with gloom and doom, what if you invite yourself to the next stage of your life?
Where Laura can often be found in Montana. ©Brenda Coffee, 2020
The fact that these women aren’t raising children next door to one another, don’t bump into one another at the grocery store is the reason they vibe the way they do. I was inspired by my Haven Writing Retreats and by the power of temporary community. You’ve experienced this Brenda.
BRENDA: “So now what” is the question that always comes up, but it’s also where many people get stuck.
LAURA: All too often we become islands. We wind up isolating during times of transition because there’s a lot of shame around it. A lot of the times, when we’re at these crossroads, it has everything to do with the fact we chose that job, or that spouse or that relationship. We spent money and time becoming something and now we don’t want to, or can’t, do it anymore. I’m calling for people to come out of hiding and isolation and find a safe circle, and that doesn’t happen at the grocery store, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at church or the country club or the school drop-off line. Sometimes you have to leave home to find these bridges of community so you can bridge to yourself and back to your daily community. I want to start a movement with Willa’s Grove.
I don’t know that our society teaches us to be brave and excited about the next chapter of our life. We get locked into something and think that’s how it’s supposed to go. We get scared and shut down, but I’m calling for people to welcome the next chapter and see how it can be your teacher. So that’s how the invitation in the book was born.
You are invited to the rest of your life! Not your life that just shut down. The one that didn’t go the way you thought it would.
BRENDA: These are the things I write about on 1010ParkPlace. Whatever disappointing or devastating point you’ve reached in your life is not the end. We have to figure out how to put ourselves back together, again, because there’s a lot more life out there. I say this a lot in my blogs: What are you waiting for? Make life count.
LAURA: And why are we waiting?
BRENDA: Because we don’t know how to get to the next step. I teach survivorship, and a lot of what I write about is showing readers there are alternatives, even just confirmation that someone else has taken that next step.
Laura Munson, ©2020
LAURA: Writing a new story instead of staying in the old one.
BRENDA: Exactly, but most of us don’t know how to invite ourselves into a new story. I think your book is perfect for women over 50. I don’t want to restrict it to this demographic, but so many of us are asking the “so now what” question. We’ve been caretakers, or we’re on the other side of our own serious disease, divorce or, like Willa, the death of someone we love. I think many of us are looking for someone to give us a leg up when we get down.
LAURA: Who are we without moving forward after we get down? I’m not saying you have to go do something hard. We just need to be in conversation. We need to tell our stories and be smart about who we share our stories with. I’ve been doing this on my book tour, and I’ve had standing room only with people waiting at the door in the middle of this pandemic… I don’t believe in being cavalier… People are saying elbow bump or toe bumps, but that doesn’t have any love in it. I’ve been putting my hand on my heart.
BRENDA: I love that. Your hand on your heart.
LAURA: Yes, hand on your heart and look with love to the person. I spent a month in Morocco by myself last year. Empty nest, living alone and having ended a relationship and welcoming my own invitation to “what’s next?” In Morocco they didn’t touch a lot, but they looked at you and put their hand over their heart. From my heart to yours.
BRENDA: How can I help you make this a movement?
LAURA: I want people to read the book as a novel and enjoy being with these women and to want to be at that table, drinking tea with them. I want them to create their own space for conversations and to start thinking about how can they do this? How can they… make this a “Brenda’s Grove,” and send the same invitation and change the destination from Montana to some cool place, maybe near them, and then that friend asks another friend and so on, and then you have four friends of friends and you all have the express intention to move forward in your lives. To help each other and not to tie it up with a pink bow at the end.
Laura Munson, ©2020
It’s all about creating space to tell your stories so you can look at them and say, “Are these true? Maybe they once were true, or maybe they were never true. Maybe they were myths.” Did the stories serve you? The fact is you want to move forward with your life, but so many of us are caught in our own stories like empty nest. Who am I without my daily motherhood? Or career change. Who am I without that role in my life? That currency? Death of a spouse. Together we were golden, but who am I without that? I want people to make a commitment, to know they’re there for a reason: They want to move forward with their lives. Be scared about it, but show up and support one another and see what happens.
Something tells me the whole world could change for that person if they’re willing to be that brave.
BRENDA: I know it can. You’ve reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago called “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” and how they shape who we are. Often times we need to get to the place where we reevaluate our story and ask ourselves is it really true? Was it really true? Is it serving me well now?
LAURA: Oh, yes! That’s my language! I believe that, but so many of us aren’t even aware of the stories we tell each other in the first place.
BRENDA: Or what’s stopping us from writing a new one? Maybe we need help crafting a new story. What if we start by asking where do we see ourselves a year, five years or ten years from now, and what kind of courage or change of circumstance will it take to get there?
Perhaps the real question is how will we feel if we don’t rewrite our story?”
LAURA: There’s a line in Willa’s Grove I like. Some of these characters are resisting this. Finally when they start to vibe together, one character says, “You know, we’re all fluent in this language. This language of community, but we rarely speak it. It really is our mother tongue.” That language of community is what you’re talking about, but it begins with the self.
BRENDA: The stories we tell ourselves can be our saving grace, or like my mother, it was her own worst enemy. She painted herself as a victim. There wasn’t any part of her that wanted to rewrite her story and say, “You know, I don’t want to be that woman.” She would be shocked to learn it’s the part of her that’s been my role model. Her willingness to stay rooted in being the victim.
LAURA: Brenda, I wish you were sitting next to me right now.
BRENDA: I do, too. Vibing and speaking the same language.
LAURA: Someday we’re going to kickass, together, on something. Thank you for featuring me on your blog! I adore you. Love you!
BRENDA: I love and adore you as well. Get some rest.