Author, actress leads fearless life
January 21, 2013
Heather Donahue once graced the cover of Newsweek and bantered with Jon Stewart.
She was arguably, for a brief time, the face of one of cinema's most groundbreaking films, putting an entirely new spin on the term "close-up."
Today, she's just as fulfilled strolling down Broad Street with her dog, Vito, and grabbing a slice of pizza at Pete's.
Most people, outside of Nevada City, know her from her hair-raising turn playing herself in " The Blair Witch Project." Others, most recently and locally, know her as the woman behind the memoir "Growgirl," the story of her departure from Hollywood and subsequent stint as a marijuana farmer in "Nuggettown," a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The paperback version was just released two weeks ago.
Donahue is cautiously guarded and evasive when describing the details of her time as a pot grower, but notes she first visited Nevada City in 2000 and completely fell in love with it.
After her film career stalled, she followed her boyfriend to Nuggettown, where she ensconced herself in "The Community," a close-knit group of growers and their "pot wives," which Donahue likens to Beverly Hills trophy wives with more body hair.
Rather than taking on the role of pot wife, Donahue apprenticed under her boyfriend and then quickly decided to get her own place and start her own medicinal crop, with her own patients in her co-op. With the help of the community, Donahue was soon up and running, but her mentor/lover relationship ended just weeks later.
"I had 27 chickens, a veggie garden and equipment in my garage, so there was no turning back, not that I really would have, but everything I had went into the new place," she said.
"I was still a part of the community. I needed to be because I had no idea what I was doing. There was a lot of technical stuff to know and be advised on. I love to grow things and have always had gardens, but this was a different level of gardening altogether."
Intentionally vague on dates and timelines, Donahue eventually left the community for a number of reasons, including falling in love with a man who was allergic to cannabis, the disillusion of the community way of life, and "chronic, low-grade anxiety."
"There's plenty to be nervous about. Especially being a woman by herself at the end of a road where no one can hear you scream," she laughs.
Once she decided to write the book, she thought it was in her best interest to put as much time between herself and the publication as possible. Donahue originally intended "Growgirl" to be a novel, rather than a memoir.
"I wasn't really going to write about this nonfiction, federally questionable activity, but you know, that's my story and I don't think there's anything wrong with cultivating marijuana," she said.
"I think it's a positive contribution to make and I felt I should have the courage of my conviction and write it for what it was."
Donahue managed to keep the book largely under wraps for a long time, realizing in the process the importance of telling her own story.
"People thought they knew my story, but it was actually a fictional story, which is disconcerting" she said, referring to The Blair Witch Project's unusual Internet marketing, which led to her mother receiving condolence cards for her disappearance and death.
"I'd rather have people know my actual story instead of making assumptions on a fictional movie that sort of seemed real. I found it interesting that people think my book is a novel, so people think the thing that's real is fiction and the thing that's fiction is real. I wanted my story back. My true story."
Donahue is putting professional writing on the backburner for now and is focusing on developing a line of herbal skin-care products and teaching others to tell their own stories. She taught at the San Francisco Writers' Grotto and led a workshop at last year's See Jane Do conference. She hopes to teach at the Center for the Arts in the near future.
"What I found most gratifying about teaching was watching people get braver every week. They shared things with you they didn't share with anyone else — spouses, best friends.
"Shame and fear vaporized when they realize they share these things, and you'd start to see lightness in people. This increased the fluidity in their voice because all of a sudden they're not afraid to just throw it down on the page without any kind of fear."
She's also effusive about her Prettywell products, which she introduced last month at the Nevada City craft fair and hopes to have in local boutiques and health stores by spring.
Even with so many creative outlets and accomplishments and so few regrets, Heather Donahue is confident about what she wants to be known for.
"Living well. I'm mostly concerned with my daily impact. Anything more than the day ahead is just too unpredictable and overwhelming. We all have so many possibilities, and they require a certain fearlessness. I find fearlessness is doable in 24-hour periods, max."
"Grow Girl" can be found locally at Harmony Books in Nevada City. For more information about Donahue's upcoming writing classes, email email@example.com.
Katrina Paz is a freelance writer in Nevada City.