Fifteen years ago, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer and came out without any memory of our life. I wrote a memoir about the experience, Wondering Who You Are, which—it seemed miraculous at the time—found some readers. The book ended up being a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, won an Artist Trust Award, and was named a top book by People, Oprah, and the BBC. Little of this could have happened without Hugo House, its education, support, and commitment to my writing.
I started writing notes in my journal at the hospital, but it wasn’t until three years after the accident, when we moved back to Seattle, that I discovered I wanted to write about it. Alongside an excruciating recovery, where my husband had to relearn how to speak and relate to people and form a new life, I made my way to the literary center on Capitol Hill and began to take classes. I wasn’t trying to write a book. In the midst of these life changes, I was trying to understand what had happened to us. I wanted to sit with people who were writers. I wanted to think, to know how to construct memory. I wanted to find a way to language the experiences I had with him in the cancer center, and tell how it is to lose one’s identity.
I couldn’t do an MFA program because I was helping my husband rehabilitate, and we didn’t have the support to send me to school. I could go to Hugo House, and learn the craft of essay-making, memoir, fiction, as well as practice professional skills, like making a writer’s resume’ and writing a query letter. I made appointments with nearly every Hugo House writer-in-residence: Ryan Boudinot, Wendy Call, Peter Mountford. I attended the Literary Series, head down, taking notes from Pam Houston, Ben Percy, Steve Almond, Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Mary Gaitskill, David Shields, Claire Dederer, Waverly Fitzgerald, and so many more. I studied for five years, until I finished the book. Along the way, I made friends with generous, smart writers who offered me their time. I supported them by coming to readings and talks, showing up for their book signings, and buying their books to give to friends and family.
One night, I came to Peter Mountford’s book launch, and he introduced me to his editor at Tin House. A month later, my book was sold to him. A few months later, Peter asked me for coffee and told me how to market my book. In Hugo House, I had allies who offered their expertise and encouraged me.
Since the publication of my book, I teach at Hugo House, focusing on personal narrative. I offer writing retreats in the USA and Canada. I mentor writers who have suffered trauma, including women veterans. Three years ago, I asked Hugo House if they’d partner with me to create a program for Veteran’s Day, one that allows our community to hear the stories of our veterans, including those often left out of the conversation. Hugo House jumped in, and now Seattle has a way to go beyond the trite “thanks for your service” in acknowledging them.
Hugo House has been the center of my literary life, and I look forward to helping other writers develop in its new home.
Sonya Lea‘s memoir, Wondering Who You Are, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and has garnered praise in Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, and more. Lea teaches writing online and in person in Canada and in the U.S. Find her at www.wonderingwhoyouare.com.