Of Writing, Divorce, and A Dream
She turned her passion for writing into a business to save her Montana dream
The most powerful question I know is: What can I create?
I’ve used it all my life. It’s the question that holds my heart together. The hope. The possibility. The spaciousness of it. As a child, I used this question to process life and the safest place to do so was in a journal. Each blank page was a world of possibility, for my eyes only—usually under the covers with a diary, pen, and flashlight, when I was supposed to be sleeping. I would get in trouble for it, but I didn’t care. I was relentless. I knew sustenance when I saw it. I have every journal I’ve ever written back to the fourth grade and in them all, you see the map of a seeker-–a girl, then woman, artist, wife, mother, middle-ager who knows that this practice, passion, meditation, prayer, way of life, and sometimes way to life…is non-negotiable. Because every single time I sit down to write, it is to ask that powerful question, what can I create?, and live into the answer. To reinvent myself over and over, page by page, moment by moment.
Sometimes those reinventions are small. Nobody would notice them but me. Maybe it’s a thought pattern I’m transforming that doesn’t serve me, or maybe never did. Or maybe I’m creating a new idea altogether—a new invention. But all of it builds on the original moment when I wrote those words: what can I create? and it begat answers. Answers that work, and some that don’t. Even-so, I know that I am always better for having asked it in the first place.
It’s been a fifty-year long passion play of invention and reinvention, all rooted in that written and mused upon question, mostly for my own good use.
And then the carpet got ripped out from under me. I was glad, then, that my passions were in a row, even though my ducks weren’t.
My marriage was over, our house was in foreclosure, the savings account was drained, neither my kids nor I had health insurance, and I was looking down the barrel of losing my twenty-year old Montana dream. I’d given up a lot for that dream and I wasn’t anywhere close to having fully lived it. There were so many more moments of mothering and growing what was left of our family, on our gorgeous twenty acres, in our farmhouse we’d built and dreamed alive before my husband’s crisis hit and threatened to take it all down.
What can I create? I wrote in my journal one afternoon after a brutal divorce mediation in which the mediator and my then-husband said, point blank, “The first thing that has to go, is the house.” “You’re gonna have to move into town like all the other divorced people.”
My house and my land are my safe haven in Montana. They are why I live here and why I stay here, and leaving this place meant leaving much of who I am. It’s never healthy to have your identity so wrapped up in a place, but however it had happened, it was my terra firma, my grounding, my container. And I’d worked so hard for it for so many years. Tears broiled in my eyes and I stood up, red-faced, and pointed at them. “Just…you…watch…me!” And I marched out of there, breathlessly driving toward what had replaced my mother’s lap years ago. I needed my home. I don’t do well with assault on my security and that of my kids.
“I am not losing you!” I shouted as I crowned the hill, scattering the white-tailed deer grazing in the meadow. “I’m going to figure out a way to keep this safe haven for my kids and for me, if it’s the last thing I do!”
But I was terrified.
I paced the front porch, the pulse of so many birthday parties, so much late night star gazing, so many jam sessions, singing into the wee hours. I would keep this dream alive even as my husband was trying to pack it all up. His exit strategy was not mine. Not in the least. There’d been enough damage done to the three remaining members of this household. I would not have any more. No way! I just had to figure out how to mine my talents and passions.
At that point in my life, I was a best-selling author and a speaker with a strong empowering message that had helped many at conferences and on TV, print publications, radio, and in social media, all over the world. But just because you have those accolades, it doesn’t mean you’re rolling in the dough. And frankly, I was sick of being this messenger because the message starred me as the main character in a time of crisis. That had gotten old. How could I be of service in this world, build on my successful platform, and monetize it? What need could I fill? How could I use the way in which I was already showing up in the world to create a business that would fulfill my needs, while still being congruent with my integrity?
I brought it to the page. What can I create? And as I wrote, it occurred to me: Even though my career had been built on retraining the mind by finding self-awareness in our thought patterns…the bulk of what I’d heard on the road from my readers, audience members, and interviewers had to do with something else. What I’d heard, like a broken record, was this: “You wrote your way through a rough time. I’m going through a rough time. I’d like to write about it, as a therapeutic tool, or to help others know they’re not alone.”
And that’s when their eyes would drop to their shoes and the qualifiers would come in:
“Who do I think I am? I’m not even a writer. It’s already been done so much better than I ever could do it. It’s self-indulgent at best. I’m not creative, anyway. I don’t even have a voice to begin with.”
Over and over I had told people, “Of course you have a voice! Of course you are creative! Everyone has a voice that is unique to them. Everyone is creative. You chose the clothes you’re wearing. You choose the words that come out of your mouth and probably the furniture in your living room. You’re creative! Just ask yourself the most powerful question I know: What can I create? Put pen to paper and answer that question. Especially if you’re using writing to move you through hardship toward new self-awareness and liberation! It’s the most powerful way I know to answer that beyond-powerful question and transform your life!”
A spark would ignite. And then fade.
I could do something to change that. People simply needed to use writing the way I had all my life. I knew how to do it for myself. I could teach others, whether or not they considered themselves writers of any kind, to find their way to the essence of what they had to say, through the brilliant and transformative practice that is writing!
So I kept writing. What can I create that would help people find their voice, using what I know and who I am? What would that look like?
An hour later, I had a plan. I would lead writing retreats. I would teach people that they had a unique voice, and that they are in fact creative beyond their wildest imaginings. I would show them how to bring that practice into their lives, whether they considered themselves writers, or hadn’t written anything since school days. Whether they were a best-selling author, or just starting. Whether they had that book idea burning inside them or that one personal essay or poem, or message, or needed to find the permission to honor their original thoughts in the first place.
Only they wouldn’t get in trouble for it or need to hide it. They would learn to delight in it! They would learn what writing meant to them, in process and project, based on exactly who they were, what their responsibilities were, what their habits were and their dreams and their stuck places. I had these exact skills in spades! I would create a program that would meet them where they needed to be met. And I would teach them to hunger for their writing and to use it to help them move forward in their lives, book or no book. I had done it alone. They didn’t have to. I would create community and support and a program which would hold their heart and not let it go.
I would call it Haven.
So, with a sketch of a program, and more passion than I’d had in months…I put it on Facebook. Hey—anybody want to come on a writing retreat with me in Montana?
Mind you, at that time in my life, I had a lot of trusting fans who had written me to say that they felt like I was writing my book directly to them. That I felt like an old friend. That I’d helped them not feel alone. I suspect that it was for this very reason that within two hours, twenty-four people signed up for a retreat which had no place, price-point, design, reputation, cred. Yet I had almost booked three retreats!
That was five years ago. Haven Writing Retreat is now ranked in the top writing retreats in the country. I’ve worked with over five hundred people from all over the world, in small circles of seven to ten, who have come to Montana to do this work. I have looked into so many tearful eyes upon departure and heard these words: “This just changed my life.”
I have grown a flourishing online community by writing daily inspiration on our private Haven page. I have created advanced programs that when combined with my primary program, many have told me, are consistent with a MFA program. I do one-day private Haven Workshops in the homes of alums for their friends and communities across the country. I offer Writer-in-Residencies in Montana, and do consulting, editing, coaching, (for Haven alums only). And I see alums stay together, have reunions, and come back for more. I’ve worked with well-known best-selling authors and people who have no interest in ever publishing. I’ve worked with celebrities and with people who have saved for five years to make it possible to come to Haven. The only currency that matters at Haven is your ability to take this stand for yourself when no one else asked you to, to go outside your comfort zone, to put your heart in your hand and be kind and supportive and honest in a small group in the woods of Montana. To take a free fall into a free zone and trust that I will hold the net and never drop it. Outside of my motherhood, Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops, and now the Haven Foundation, feel like the miracle of my life.
And it all grew from a question: What can I create?
What question do you have burning inside you that could make all the difference in your life if you lived into it boldly? If you are in a place of re-invention, what is the one thing that is holding your heart together right now? What do you know how to do that could be of service to many? How are you already showing up in your life in a way that is possible to monetize, and in a way that could make all the difference for you and many others? It’s possible. Very possible. I am living proof. Because that’s what I have found at Haven. As much as mothering, and writing, and speaking are my callings…this work is the perfect confluence of who I am and how I’ve always shown up. You can find this confluence too, and it doesn’t have to be so hard.
As I tell my Haven attendees, “Notice when what flows from you comes naturally. Easily. Not necessarily because the subject is easy. Sometimes our work is centered in deep challenge. But notice where the ease is within it, the natural flow. That’s when you know…you are in your true purpose.”