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When You’re the Passive Protagonist of Your Own Writing Life


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TORLEY.jpg?resize=525%2C315&ssl=1A while back I wrote three novels in eight years, all of them published to some recognition—one was an IndieNext pick, one was a Target Emerging Author pick, one was a finalist for a literary award…you get the idea. Since then, I’ve written many other things (poems, essays, magazine and newspaper articles), but I haven’t written a novel.

I have wrestled with this—why have I started and stopped two novels? Why don’t I have that thing, that idea/passion/story I have to tell? For a long time, I thought it was because I wasn’t devoting enough time and energy to my writing, or because I wasn’t working hard enough on my craft through taking classes and reading books and going on retreats, or because I simply lacked the creativity to fuel another novel. And then a few weeks ago, a close friend commented, “You stopped writing novels when your mother moved to town.”

This stopped me cold. And I realized that just as the protagonists in our fiction are “active” or “passive” (as Donald Maass and Kelsey Allagood have discussed brilliantly in recent WU columns), so are writers. Sometimes we drive our futures forward, writing the stories we want and need to tell and tackling obstacles with courage and hard, hard work. But other times we’re the victim of circumstances, trying to pursue our visions and write our stories but caught up in the reality of mortgages, marriages, ailing parents, young children, health set-backs, and, once a century or so, global pandemics.

My mother, who died last December, was a smart, thoughtful, caring woman with an unforgettable laugh and a great sense of humor. She was the most well-read person I’ve ever known. She taught me to read when I was four, from an old McGuffy’s reader. I attribute my own love of reading and words, my appreciation for nature and for art and a million other things, to her influence. She fully supported my writing, was proud of me, and loved my work. It would have appalled and upset her to think I had stopped writing fiction because I was caring for her.

Caring for my mother for ten years was hard, but it wasn’t all-consuming. In the decade she lived here I also kept up a steady freelance writing and teaching career and did many other things. I can’t claim I didn’t have the time to write, or that I lacked the financial resources to spend time writing. But what I didn’t have was the emotional energy to write, the sense of agency and purpose that had propelled me through those first three novels.

As Donald Maass put it, “Passive protagonists aren’t stuck in suffering.  They move forward, seeking.” If you’ve become a passive protagonist in your own writing life, how do you move forward?

You wait. Waiting—resting, pausing, taking a time-out—is undervalued in our culture, and is particularly undervalued in writing culture. We are the ones who get up early to write before work, who write in mini-vans in parking lots at our children’s soccer practices, who write on trains during commutes, who write on vacation, who forget to eat because we’re writing. If inspiration is flowing through you and your brain is on fire, write away. But if it’s not, if you’re stalled or exhausted, it’s okay to simply rest and wait and (this is important) be okay with resting and waiting.

You indulge your muse in whatever form it takes. In the ten years since my mother moved to town, I’ve taken art classes and learned to paint with pastels, and taken several online poetry-writing courses and written dozens and dozens of poems. I’ve done this because I feel like doing it and it makes me happy. If your fiction isn’t flowing, try writing haiku or learning to tango or bake a coconut cake. Creativity comes in many shapes and sizes, and they’re all opportunities for the creative force within you to express itself out in the world.

You journal. Let me say upfront I hate journaling. I feel no need to document my thoughts and feelings and activities because my brain overthinks all those things as it is. But this last year I started doing “morning pages” per Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and it’s been great. For me, the key thing is that I don’t ever have to look at what I’ve written—indeed, she suggests NOT rereading what you’ve written. So my subconscious gets to run a little wild and it is freeing.

You immerse yourself in art. Go hear live music. Listen to music while you cook dinner. Read a poem a day. Watch a movie. Go to an art museum, or a fantastic garden, or a fashion show. Read about a mind-blowing scientific breakthrough. Surround yourself with creativity. It will seep through your pores. It will whisper to the slumbering creative force within you. It will keep you whole.

Have you ever been the “passive protagonist” in your writing life? Why? How did you handle it? How do you feel about it now?

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About Kathleen McCleary

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.

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