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Getting Unstuck: Walking the Camino as a Creative Reset

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I can’t tell you how stuck I was at the beginning of May. Some of it was the pandemic—certainly we’ve all had the feeling over the last two-plus years that we’re living our lives on repeat. Some of it was my age (late-middle) and life stage (children launched, parents gone, contemplating my next steps). Some of it was my creative life; after writing three novels, I started painting then writing poetry, all while toying with writing another novel but I kept getting stuck. So last month I went to Spain and walked 110 miles of the Camino de Santiago, from the small town of A Guarda on the Portuguese border to Santiago.

Walking the Camino jolted me out of my stuck-ness and helped me reset, in ways I’m still figuring out. The things I took away from that experience apply to writing as well as to life. So if you’re feeling stuck in your current WIP or stuck in another area of your life (and those two are often related, aren’t they?), here’s what I can tell you:

Sometimes it’s good to figure things out as you go along. I did almost no preparation for this trip. I didn’t read about the Camino or study the route or research where to eat dinner or what to see. I got up every day and packed my bag and ate breakfast and walked, with no idea what might lay ahead—completely the opposite of my usual, thoroughly-prepared approach to life. And it was fantastic. From windswept paths along boulder-strewn beaches to ancient cobblestone roads to painted yellow lanes on the sides of busy asphalt roads—it was all new, and all fresh and interesting. Even if you’re a plotter, this can work well in your writing, too. Get up one day and see where your writing takes you, without a plan.

It’s OK to get lost. Yes, I got lost several times, once going a mile the wrong way along a busy road, another time taking a wrong turn in the woods. Sometimes it was hard and frustrating but sometimes getting lost led to unexpected discoveries, like the elderly man out walking his dog who wanted to lead us back to the Camino himself, or the sun-dappled grove of eucalyptus trees we would have missed if we’d stuck to the main trail. The detours you take in your writing may be lost pages, or they may lead you to exactly the place you need to get to. Time lost is not necessarily time wasted.

You know more than you think you do. I don’t speak a second language, but I did spend six months learning Spanish with the Duolingo app before I went to Spain. I didn’t expect my limited Spanish to carry me far, but it got me through checking in and out of hotels, ordering meals, and most importantly, asking for directions and understanding the answers. It certainly stretched me. If there’s something with your writing—a new POV, a different structure—you’ve been studying or contemplating, dive in and try it. Think of it as the metaphorical equivalent of speaking a language you barely know in a new country.

Have a destination. Having a goal, a point to the journey, made every step of my walk more meaningful. I met people who were walking for religious or spiritual reasons, people who were on journeys of self-discovery, people who were simply on a rollicking good vacation. But the end point—the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela—gave us all a sense of purpose, not to mention a great feeling of accomplishment when we reached that goal. When writing all three of my novels I had to know where I’d end up even if I wasn’t always sure how to get there.

Be willing to give up your ideas of how things should be and go with how they are. This is the point of travel, after all: To get us out of our routines and ruts and into a different way of being. In Spain I ate dinner at 10 p.m. every night, drank lots of wine, consumed plenty of cappuccino, lingered over meals for hours, listened to strangers pour out their souls, shrugged over delays in planes and trains, and stayed up until ungodly hours. That’s not how I usually operate at home, and I loved it. Sometimes in writing we get so wed to how a certain character should behave or how a story should unfold that we forget that one of the primary delights of fiction is its ability to surprise, to lead us down unexpected paths or into uncharted territory.

When I got home from Spain I found a list I’d made seven years ago, of things I wanted to do. To my surprise, “Hike the Camino?” was on the list, something I’d forgotten. And this is how you get unstuck: Dig out those forgotten dreams and ideas, try them on, and see how they fit, where they may take you. When I finally stepped into the giant square in front of the Cathedral de Santiago, I turned to Anne, a young woman I met early on in my trip who’d walked with me most of the way. “We did it,” I said to her. “We walked every step.” And we both choked up. Who knew?

How do you get unstuck? What experiences have helped you move forward in your fiction?


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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