Why Are You Here?

Mass4It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks.  Two weeks.  Yep, my kid’s private school takes off not one but two weeks.  Did I mention it was two weeks?  In March?  When public schools aren’t out?  When there’s only one week of sports camp offered?  When babysitters–such as but not limited to my wife–are themselves in school or otherwise unavailable?

So, last week I spent five mornings with my kid.  He’s six, an only child and easily bored.  It was a challenge but I decided to make it fun.  We had adventures.  One of them took us to the Liberty Science Center, a museum for kids in Jersey City.  He loves science.  Perfect, I thought.

It was the best of spring breaks, it was the worst of spring breaks.  The LSC was mobbed with school groups, loud, raucous and restless.  My kid, who is adopted, suffers from PTSD.  The noise and milling children at the museum took him instantly back to his orphanage.  The effect was familiar: He mentally and emotionally detached from me.  He ran from exhibit to exhibit, frantic and unfocused.  He could not hear my voice.  If I glanced away I lost sight of him.

I asked myself, why am I here?  What was I thinking?  Trapped in Jersey City.  Only a few map miles from home in Brooklyn, true, but in traffic miles an epic journey away.  I felt lost, helpless and responsible for a kid who was himself lost and helpless.   How could I reach him?  He was only a few feet away but might as well have been on the Moon.

Then I remembered why I was there.  I love my kid.  I love him more powerfully than I’ve ever loved anyone or anything.  Why is it that?  He’s my kid, sure, but it’s more than that.  This particular kid owns my heart because he’s so much like me.  That’s odd to say since we’re different races and he’s good at math, but it’s true.

He’s a kid who is dislocated.  So was I as a kid.  It was in ways milder than he’s experienced but the effect was similar.  I never felt like I belonged where I was.

I took my kid away from the noisy exhibits and to the cafeteria.  We got food.  We sat in a quiet corner far away from the school groups.  We goofed around.  I suggested we go to a movie in the Imax theatre.  We saw a movie about the Ice Age, wooly mammoths and their extinction.  He was rapt.  Afterwards he asked a hundred questions.  He’s seen death, this kid, and the movie stirred him in deep ways.  He feels like a saber toothed tiger, sometimes, ferociously alive yet like he’s being sucked into a tar pit.  I get it.  We talked.

My kid and I are the same.

So are you and your protagonist.

Why is your main character here, in this story that you’re writing?  Your character is here for the same reason that you are.  Answer the question for yourself and you’ll answer it for your character.  You will also discover your character’s deepest inner need, which in turn points to what must happen in order to know, thwart and finally fulfill that need.

Why are you writing this story?  How does it connect to you?  What in your protagonist’s experience parallels your own?  What need is most like yours?  What fear is closest to your own darkest dread?  What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself?  When in the story could you be sitting in your protagonist’s place?  Why there and then?

Write all of that down.  (No, I mean write it down right now.)  Look not for generalized empathy but for specific ways in which your own life and your protagonist’s life are in parallel.  Find the moments of strongest connection.  Now make them stronger.  Remove the distance between you and your character.  When you feel the most for what your character is going through, let your feelings flow from inside you onto the page.  How do you get it?  What can you say?  What do you want your character, and us, to know?  How can you convey that you understand?  What can you show your character to do?

What you’re writing down is the key to your main character’s most fundamental conflict—and its solution.  From here you can build backwards and pour that conflict into the very foundation of your character’s life at the story’s start.  You can construct the story events to draw your protagonist both toward and away from what he or she needs to resolve that conflict.  The inner yearning and outward journey will feel real because they are: They are yours.

What, ultimately, is the purpose of your story?  It might be a story of extinction but probably it is a story of survival, if not growth.  It is a grappling with life and death, actual or spiritual or both.  It’s that big.  It is.  You know that because you’ve lived it.  Now write it.



About Donald Maass

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist, The Fire in Fiction, Writing the Breakout Novel and The Career Novelist.


    • says

      As parents we bear our children’s pain, as writers we transform our pain into story which is the family table around which we share, talk and are heard.

      What I’m saying is, that’s the job. To feel the pain. Then do something with it.

  1. says

    One of the most precious accounts of a father’s true love for his child. Moving, Don. Thanks for sharing. I would say this kid will grow up with a powerful sense of what it is to be loved unconditionally. And yes, there is a piece of me in each of my protagonists. Sometimes the piece is bigger than in others, but it’s there. Most of the time they figure things out before I do.

  2. says

    Don – You have a special way of taking us on a journey. It’s so concise, always packed with powerful phrasing. The stories that lead to the lessons are lessons themselves. Trapped in Jersey City sounds like a song title. I think I can write it just from what you’ve said here, and I’m not even a songwriter.

    Regarding my story, sometimes I worry. Not that there is so much of me in there, but more that I was so blind to so much for so long. I know I should never compare myself to others, but it’s hard not to notice the rate at which writers crank out stories. And here I am, years on, discovering coal-smeared facets I should’ve long ago shaped and polished. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes my journey uniquely mine.

    Thanks for prompting me to pick up a pencil and notebook on the spot. I think I see the glint of another unrevealed surface in my notes. And thanks for prompting me to keep digging, as well as polishing.

    • says


      The first book takes the longest. Don’t fret. The process gets easier.

      Let me add this, too: For series writers the process can get too easy, fooling them into thinking they’re answering the question posed in my title today, when they’re not.

      • Chris says

        Such a powerful article. Thank you. I wondered if you could elaborate on the following:

        “Let me add this, too: For series writers the process can get too easy, fooling them into thinking they’re answering the question posed in my title today, when they’re not.”

  3. says

    Working parents have it tough, but you’re a better man for having your son in your life. Your love is beautiful and fierce. It is what I have for my protagonist. Today, I will sit down and answer your questions, not just for my MC, but also for the antagonists and other major players, for a piece of me is in each of them.

    We also have a longish spring break beginning Maundy Thu :) and I doubt anybody will want to return to school after that … it is much too beautiful outside.

  4. says

    What an inspiration to write the story festering in me!

    My story wasn’t too pleasant for me, so why would it be interesting to anybody else?

    That’s the voice in my head. But the voice in my heart says (just as you say) “… it is a story of survival, if not growth.”

    It’s a blockbuster and it’s all mine!

    You are a gem of a writer and writing coach, Donald. Thanks for this post today.

  5. says

    Fierce. I love that word, esp. with regard to the love you feel for a child.. I had one of those hard talks about the past with my 6 mo. pregnant daughter (her 2 year old in the back seat) in a car where there’s nowhere to run. Talk about crucibles. But as we dredged up old hurts, I kept thinking about how the emotional buck gets passed between generations, and how deep these things run. I thought about my protagonist. And yes, she’s me. I gave her longer legs, though. Thanks you, Don.

  6. Deb says

    Hi Don:
    Your kid is so lucky to have you for a dad, because you really do “get it.” And because he fascinates you, and will continue to fascinate you. This unique human puzzle who is your son, and which somehow became yours to solve.

    Human puzzles and writing puzzles have a lot in common, it seems!

    Thanks for making me think, as always.


    • says

      My son seemed a puzzle to me for a long time, until I realized that everything he does on every day in some way expresses the profound inner conflict (question, really) at the center of his life: Why was I abandoned?

  7. says

    I like your advice on this process Don. “From here you can build backwards and pour that conflict into the very foundation of your character’s life at the story’s start.” That’s so interesting to hear you say, “building backwards.” I’m working on a ghost story right now: a story between a live person and a dead person. My mom is 94 years old and close to death. I have unresolved issues with my mom and I’m beginning to see unresolved issues in the characters in my ghost story. “Look for the parallel” you say, “let your feelings flow from inside.” It’s not so easy, though, is it? The personal part and finding the courage to explore those deep feelings inside; this first step is quite scary, that is, grappling with the truth. As Alicia says “it hurts.” That is essentially what you’re saying to do? Go into the pain?

  8. Carmel says

    Two weeks ago, I killed my laptop with a cup of tea. Yesterday, after the process of buying and setting up a desktop (a keyboard will be cheaper to replace than a laptop the next time I’m clumsy), I agonized over restoring my data from a backup server. After some God-sent and oh-so competent help from the right support person (because it was going badly), my research and novel suddenly appeared on my screen. The feeling was kin to the relief of finding a child who had disappeared in a crowd.

    I often get writers block when it comes to having to re-feel what the character is going through but, after losing that character for two weeks, I realize what a privilege it is to be writing her story.

    • says

      Ah, I love that. Thanks for sharing it.

      Tech is the great Sword of Damocles hanging over my days. I hate it when the thread snaps, but you remind me that every setback has a silver lining.

  9. says

    We adopted too, only, we adopted our dad. There’s a 100% chance he won’t see this, so it’s all good.
    He was born in a war zone, we both know what that does to a person, and we’ll leave it at that.

    My books will all be anchored in Navajo history, specifically The Long Walk, and their captivity of the Navajo Nation from 1864 to 1868, in New Mexico.

    Near extinction, survival, brokenness, freedom, and the cost of freedom, even for those who weren’t held captive and escaped the horrors.
    As just about any student of history knows, a survivor is only so physically, for no one survives emotionally and psychologically. All who endure are damaged, some beyond repair, some just this side of whole, and some make it out and rise above the barrage of memories.

    What is left when one’s world is destroyed? How does one rebuild? What tools does a survivor use? And how does Heaven heal those who beg for mercy?

    As Tolkien said, “not all who wander are lost”.

    Not all who walked 900 miles, there and back again, came home.

  10. says

    Don, I’ve always enjoyed your writing advice, which I try to follow and frequently quote when I teach. But this opportunity to see you in a different setting and learn a bit more about the human behind the literary figure was priceless. Thanks so much for sharing.

  11. Denise Willson says

    Don, my dear Yoda, oh how I love how you take my hand and walk me through your world. I feel a personal kinship; not because we’re both writers and parents of young minds, but because you openly SHARE your life with me. Thank you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth, and (coming soon) GOT

  12. says

    For the first time, a character came to me asking me to give him what he needs – not what he wants. It was a different writing experience, but I think what I liked best about it was that it showed me there is more than one path if we keep trying. When we reach a locked door, find a window. If you can’t open the window, break it. This is need, and it is more powerful than want. I totally feel this in my own life, as I find that precious time to write in among all the other duties as a working mom. I need to write.

    • says

      Yes you do. Same for me. It’s amazing how characters talk with us, isn’t it? They have much to tell us…and we have much to give them.

  13. says

    Oh, Don, I owe you another beer. How many is that now? Seriously. Was on the cusp of knowing a truth about a relationship in my WIP but this allowed the synapses to connect. The result? A twist which, in hindsight, feels inevitable.

    On a personal note, your son is a lucky young man. (Yes, I know you’ve gained as much or more from parenting him, but it’s still true.)

  14. says

    There’s a little of me in every book yet the one I just finished is based on my family life (though certain changes have been made to protect the innocent). Writing that novel helped me get my thinking straight about my life and I believe it’s my best work yet because the characters really are “real” and I think the emotion came through in the dialogue.
    I love the way you describe a day with your son. It brought out a more personal side of Donald Maass that I’ve not seen before.
    Thank you.

  15. says


    I strongly relate to your story. When my oldest child was four she came into the living room while my husband and I watched a survival show. When the host accidentally sliced his hand, she clutched her own to her chest and screamed. Now twelve, she still feels physical pain when she sees anyone hurt, even in animated films. While a far cry from PTSD, this condition (likely mirror-touch synesthesia) led to many “why am I here” moments as a parent. What helps is that I am also hyper-empathetic. If seeing something will make me flinch, I know it will deeply disturb her. I’m no longer embarrassed to walk out of a movie or exhibit. I don’t hesitate to tell her teachers that she’d prefer to read a book on the Alamo than stare at her desk and cover her ears for two days while her classmates watch a film on the subject.

    I applaud you for being such a sensitive father. So many aren’t.

    Thank you for inspiring me to look at my MC in this light.

    • says

      I never walked out before, either, but now I do. Stereotypes about adopted kids abound. They offend me.

      Which makes me realize maybe we should all walk out when we encounter stereotypes in stories, because those easy choices are, for someone, an offense.

  16. says

    Thank you for the authenticity you bring to parenting and
    writing. This post is a reminder of why you are a really good
    influence to so many writers. Persevere with your straight-up,
    put-it-out-there style. Long ago, I subbed a novel to you. You
    said, “No,” but did it with such clear reasons that I respect you
    and thank you. Not to worry. I’m still writing. And so are you,

  17. says

    Beautiful post Donald Maass. So glad I took the time to read it. I started my book writing process with the pain of my own dilemma. I couldn’t seem to solve my problem, but by God my protagonist could.

    Since then I’ve been focused on the nitty-gritty of writing. The turns of phrase, the beautiful metaphor, the description of the room my MA is in when she reaches the turning point. So focused I forgot who she was and why the story was important.

    Thanks for the reminder. I will write fresh today!

  18. Marcy McKay says

    I love your connection between our protagonists and our children. They truly all are our babies, whether they live on or off the page. You’ve give me much to consider for my next novel. Thanks, Donald!

  19. says

    As always, bravo. I keep trying to absorb all your advice, to look with new eyes, to see more deeply into my world and into my story world. It’s a process, isn’t it?

    Blessings to you and that precious boy.

  20. says

    Wow, what a powerful piece. It speaks to me philosophically and practically. From a philosophical standpoint, relating to our kids, to our protagonists, to our parents, to our neighbors, to strangers, is what it’s all about. Writing is about connecting and listening and finding common ground and also, that which isn’t common. Really connecting. Practically, getting to that understanding with our characters will add true stakes to the story, making it matter. If we’re successful, the characters will ring true to the reader, and that means everything.

    Thank you!

  21. says

    Don, What your son has is courage and he has it in
    abundance. When our children will follow us even when they’re
    afraid, how much love does that take? It shows they’re willing to
    go the distance. Stephen King talked about this when he urged
    writers to have the courage to go to the dark places we don’t like
    to think about. Challenge our feelings, our fears, and unearth are
    darkest secrets. When do we really know ourselves? When we’re in
    crisis. That’s when our true character appears. The same for our
    protagonist. So what scares the bejesus out of us? Why do we shy
    away from it because it makes us uncomfortable. How deep are we
    willing to go? We need the courage of our children. Sure, they
    think they’re bulletproof when they’re young. Didn’t we when we
    were that age? Brushes with death? I’ll bet many who replied to
    this post have had them. It’s immediate, powerful, and you never
    forget. And when you survive, you realize you believe in luck. Oh
    yes. We need courage . . . every bit of it.

  22. says

    My son is 18 now, but I remember watching him play little league. He was awful, just like his old-man. I felt the pain of every strike-out, every missed “easy” catch, and the loneliness of right-field. He survived, as I did. Though, in what I thought was heroically brave, he did try out for a traveling team. I knew he’d get clobbered. He did. But he got past it, too.

    I never considered how my association with my son could tie in to my association with my protagonist. But it’s true. We have adult problems now, both my protag and I. I’m disillusioned with a government that has put their self-interests over my own. So is my protag. Together, I’d say, we’re discovering a truth buried in a noisy political system. Of course, in his world, it all collapses. Hopefully it won’t in mine, but the same truth exists in both worlds, that it is our faith in God an love for one another that builds freedom, not the efforts of a government.

    Great post, Don. And I’m jealous of all the things you can do with your son within a ten-mile radius, though the actual journey may be epic.

    • says


      My son and I practice throwing in the hallways of our apartment building. He’s got a wicked throwing arm. He’s pinpoint accurate.

      But catching–? Mmm, not so much. I remind myself to have patience. He’s only six. Luckily, he’s got big ice hockey skills. Doesn’t completely understand the game, but man can he skate!

      I do hope the world will not end before he hits the NHL, or at least nabs a college scholarship.

      • says

        If he can skate well at 6, then he’s already ahead of 90% of his peers. Get him learning how to skate backwards, and doing cross-overs. If he shows an interest in hockey, and can do those things, all he needs to learn is how to read the on ice play. Sign him up for beginner’s hockey in the fall, or a ball hockey league this summer.

        Signed, Hockey Mom of 3.

  23. says


    Thank you for reminding us how the parent gets hammered (into gold?) by dealing with his child’s nature.

    Your insistence for us to “get the protagonist’s journey” was in my ear throughout my recent draft. I knew I was on to something when I kept finding myself trying every technique to protect him—and readers—from certain experiences.

    Because it was MY fear, writing became a cocktail of passion and dread, resolved by having the protagonist give the author no other choice. And after each tour into the abyss, I knew, as in parenting, THAT was the act of love.

    Finished, I’m breathing again.

  24. says

    Your tale was a moving one because it was your tale to tell. When first I started writing I tried to write as someone else, to make my protagonists unlike me so I could escape my life. Always, though, the character’s true self bled through because the truth of who I am bled through. Over time those characters taught me about me and it was then that my writing because honest and my protagonists became real. Thank you.

  25. says

    Thank you for this–perfect timing I was sitting here
    across the table from my main character while she slowly shut down
    in front of my eyes. I felt I was losing the thread that held us so
    tightly together, the thread that always unravels in the MIDDLE of
    the story. Now I’m gonna get her to look me in the eye because I
    know things she doesn’t–so yeah, thanks for this. Your kid is

  26. says

    Funny thing. Sometimes it takes a post like this — or an outside reader, to realize the connection between protagonist and author. My novel coming out next year is about a 39 year old divorced mom. Totally different from me. She moves back to her childhood home, has one young son, moonlights as a dating blogger, her ex is part of her world. I’m divorced but I’m 50, my ex is deceased. My kids are in college. I’m an editor and author.

    One day I was telling a friend about the story and how, unlike with the last book, this book wasn’t seeded in reality. Then this happened:

    “How old is your main character?”
    “How long has she been divorced?”
    “Six months?”
    “How old were you when you got divorced?”
    “39.” Author epiphany. “Shut up.”

    I didn’t realize the connection, the shared experiences, the truth in the fiction until that moment.

    Maybe I’m dense or naive or was keeping that secret from myself, but I was certainly able to go in and revisit certain scenes with a newfound insight after that “revelation.”

    New novel is about an empty-nester mom who runs away from home. I totally know where that idea came from.

  27. says

    Excellent post, Donald, and your spot-improvisation probably made your child’s day. And yours. Plus, great protagonist advice, too. Thanks!

  28. says

    Thank you for sharing, and for bringing up this subject.

    It made me think of why some writing and writers touch me, and others fail to impress me: some sort of truthfulness that has nothing to do with whether a story is fiction or non-fiction, but with a writer’s honesty. For example, I recently read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and was blown away by his honesty. I don’t know how much he used his own childhood memories in the story, but that doesn’t matter. What I mean is that Neil Gaiman showed me a bit of himself. When a writer writes with such (apparent) honesty, conveyed by the characters, I don’t really care about writing style or even plot. Another example is Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series. Such good characters, they could be drinking tea all the time and I’d still finish the book, because I’d be sure something interesting would happen.

    My own characters… When I told a friend I’d not spoken to for a while about my fantasy novel, she said that the main character sounded very much like me. That really surprised me, but when I started thinking about it, I realized she was right. It was never my intention. I’ve sworn never to write anything remotely autobiographic because I’d bore readers to death, but somehow all I couldn’t help it.
    And the ultimate purpose of my story: to show the power of compassion, and how life is about choices that you have to make for yourself instead of letting other people decide for you, and in spite of everything that has happened in the past. Taking responsibility, dealing with pain, and standing up for what you believe in.

    I could go on… This is the very reason I write.

  29. says

    Thanks! Your post was just what I needed to read. I’m working on the second book in my series and wondering what’s missing. Now I know–heart.

  30. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I agree with the comment about the pain. The other side of the coin I have come to believe is an unspeakable joy. My protagonists go out there and do things I could never do in real life to discover the meaning of it all for me. We haven’t found an answer yet, but I think we’re getting closer. The horizon is there in the near-distance.

    Just like the future and the past of ourselves is always tied up in our children, so they are tied up in our characters. It’s the reason we take the journeys we do with them. Thank you for making me see that so clearly today.

    • says

      Ah, joy! Now there’s an idea. I know story is conflict, but it’s true that there’s a joy deficit in manuscripts. Thanks for the reminder. A subject for a future post?

  31. says

    I absolutely loved this post on so many levels, even before I got to the very helpful writing tips!

    The love for a child (no matter if same gene pool or not) is like no other love, the I’d-do-anything-for-you kind, the kind that helps us be “in” our characters when they are experiencing something similar.

    There’s no doubt part of my first book’s MC was me, and in my second book, I can see “me” popping up again.

    Now I just need to take your tips and “be” that person, feel what she’s feeling, understand why she’s acting the way she is.

    Very helpful! Thanks!

  32. says

    I hope everyone pays attention to this post, because this advice can save a writer a lot of time. If you don’t know the answers to the questions right away, that’s okay — good even. Stop. Go for a long walk or drive, over a day or seven. Then go back to the manuscript knowing what your goal is. I have made the mistake of pressing forward when I should have pressed inward.

    Great post, Don. Thank you for sharing such an intimate, authentic portrait with us. Your ability to go deep will make all the difference to your little guy, I’m sure of it.

  33. says

    Don– I loved hearing how you and your son spent your day.
    It reminded me of when my daughter was little. Our best times were
    not the structured Mommy and Me classes and museum tours. Instead,
    they were the moments when we sang songs and made up our own words
    as we went, or checked out the vegetables at the grocery store. To
    me, that’s the meaning of that elusive thing — “quality time.”
    It’s those quiet moments when something special floats to the
    surface and you catch it because you just happen to be there at the
    right time. And maybe because you’re both open to it. It can’t be
    scheduled or anticipated. You and your son are lucky to have had
    that week together. My daughter’s twenty now, and we still have so
    much fun together. You and your son will too, when he’s that age.
    It’s the greatest feeling there is.

  34. says

    After participating in five Intensives with you, it shouldn’t surprise me that you can slice yourself open in front of us and make US feel every emotion you experience. It shouldn’t surprise me that you can sew yourself–and US–back together with the threads of “here’s how you write/here’s how to connect with your characters–and your readers.” It’s shouldn’t surprise me that I react as if I’ve been presented with a map to the treasures of the human soul. But I forget. Between meetings, or reading your books (and a few others), or reading your blogs, i forget how powerful really good writing can be. So, thanks for the reminder, Don. And thanks for your steadfast goal–which I know is genuine–to help us be the best writers we can be.
    Your son is a very fortunate little boy.

  35. CK Wallis says

    This is a bit off the subject, but I just want to take a minute to compliment WU and all its’ wonderful writers. I’ve been following WU for only a few weeks, but it has become a valuable resource for me, for both the practical and inspirational elements of writing. Not only have the questions at the end each post become my daily writing prompt, but I am delighted with the quality and quantity of truly useful information, and Don’s post today is no exception. Thank you, Don.

    The wealth of writing knowledge packed into these posts and so generously shared has already helped me become a more productive writer, and, I hope, a better storyteller. One post from about a month ago (Julia Munroe Martin’s “Writing the Rails”) even inspired a new project, when, remembering the summers I spent in the 1950s and 60s traveling by train with my grandmother, I suddenly saw there were stories and characters in my own life that I could be writing. While my new story is still (mostly) fiction, the MC is not: she is my grandmother, resurrected. (And, she would be thrilled with her new life.)

    Even though I’m not inclined to comment on every post, please know I am reading, and appreciating, them every day. I hope that someday I will have something as valuable to share with all of you.

  36. says

    Wow – what a beautiful story and tremendous lesson. I’ve been so stuck on my story and now maybe I see why. Thank you so much! Your relationship with your son sounds amazing. It seems you are both very lucky to have found each other. Thank you again!

  37. says

    Great article, Don. So touching.

    My 16-year old protagonist is my 19-year old son who in my darkest moments I know I’ve messed up with my parenting. My story is the story of him showing me that he might not be perfect, that my parenting may (or may not?) be to blame, but that things will still work out okay. That he will survive childhood and the more dangerous aftermath, young adulthood. That he’ll be okay. Maybe even more than okay. Maybe great. And I’ll be okay too. :)

    Hugs to you and yours, and thank you for the great articles!

    • says


      I have no doubt whatsoever that you have done far, far, far more right than wrong in your parenting. Dark moments are just passing clouds.

      That said, it’s in the shadow of those clouds that great stories happen!

  38. says

    I’m grateful you are on this planet. Your authenticity and generosity fill me (and clearly others) with hope and courage. Thank you.

    I also now know what my protag’s big hairy issue is. It was right there in the mirror, just like you said it would be! I guess we fiction writers are, in some ways, reluctant writers of mem-wah.

    Maybe this . . . Fiction = Memoir + Fantasy + Obsessive Curiosity

    Muchisimas gracias for making me look in the mirror this morning. It ain’t pretty, but it sure is necessary.

    • says

      I am always struck by this: The more we expose ourselves, the more our audience opens their hearts.

      Conversely, the more we veil ourselves and hide behind easy and obvious story choices (including emotions), the more readers close off their hearts.

      Opening ourselves also facilitates flow. It’s why I tell personal stories in workshops and here in my posts on WU. When a story, however small, connects emotionally…bing, bing, bing…the creative lightbulbs go on.

      You can see that effect here today. Everyone here can achieve that effect in their pages, too.

  39. Priya Gill says

    Thanks for the lovely article. I enjoyed it on multiple fronts.

    As a mother of a 4 yr old, I know how best laid plans go awry and your story about the time with your son reminded me to be patient and to remember why I am here (in addition to bringing a few tears, your story is very beautifully written, you definitely have a gift). I am sure your son will grow up to be a self-assured and resilient young man (which to me are the sure signs of great parenting) in addition to an NHL player :-)

    My story is nothing like my life. It’s the story of a man from 1860 who accidentally falls through a time portal to 2009 while simultaneously losing his memory. And as a very private person I understand completely why it would be so. So I write about worlds so different from mine since I am so uncomfortable sharing a world (mundane though it might be) that is mine. And that maybe is my answer. My MP is much stronger and resilient as a person than I am. So I create people that I wish I were. And maybe that is my answer too.

  40. says

    If there’s one thing I appreciate the most about your books, Don, it’s the message that stories get powerful when they get personal. Seeing yourself as one with your protagonist…I like that.

    I’ve heard some actors or actresses, to get into their roles, will go all out, wearing what their character wears, talking like their character, even acting like them, and your post makes me think as writers we ought to do the same. I find my best writing sessions are the ones where I’m on the edge of my seat, tense as a bowstring. The story lives, the story breathes, and for a moment I forget that I’m just some guy hunched before a keyboard.

    • says

      “Stories get powerful when they get personal.” Yes, that’s it in a nutshell. Thanks!

      The analogy to method acting is accurate, BTW. Sense memory and their other tools allow actors to access authentic feelings to fire their performances–and the authenticity arrives because they’re accessing themselves.

  41. says

    I rarely comment on Writer Unboxed posts because I fear I have nothing intelligent to say, but today, I would like to join the chorus of thank-yous. This gave me a lot to think about as I struggle to map out my character’s emotional arc in my novel. You always hit the nail right on the head in your posts and I am extremely grateful for your insight. I will definitely be putting this to use like I do the rest of your advice.
    I also hope you had a fun time with your son during spring break!

  42. says

    Don, I, too, have always felt like an “other.” Thanks for sharing this and the insight–as it turns out, otherness and isolation from the “norm” are themes in a couple of my novels. Best, Ray

  43. says

    An inspirational post on many levels. Ever since I sat in
    your workshop years ago I have loved your books and posts. My own
    youngest son is also adopted, and from a very different culture.
    Now he is “all growed up” and the most loved and loving man it is
    possible to imagine. Perhaps I will write that close-to-the-heart
    novel that features a happy, successful adult who reluctantly
    returns to the third-world country from where she was adopted.

    • says


      That story idea has occurred to me too. Perhaps we can create a sub-genre?

      More seriously, have you been following the many stories of the “Lost Boys”, orphans from Sudan who were displaced during a civil war? Some grew up here. Some returned. There are similar stories from other countries and they are all amazing and resonant for adoptive parents like us.

      • says

        Thanks Don, That story idea must have a kernel of possibility if you too have thought of it. The trick will be making it different. My son came from Sri Lanka, and I ( a New Zealander) spent some weeks over there adopting him, which was quite a journey. The first big question I was asked during the court hearing where the adoption was taking place was “How old do you want him to be; we need a birth date?” (In Sinhalese and translated for my benefit). “One year ago today,” I said, because he was so tiny but from his fontanelle I knew he was at least a year old. And so my new son decided I was not going to abandon him, stopped toddling as if he’d decided to return to babyhood, and for the next month I could literally not put him down, day or night, without him screaming (a bit difficult when I got back home where his new father and three siblings awaited him!) Then off he went, like an energetic rocket, through all the developmental stages, until he was, by the end of a year, so secure he could be left for hours in preschool with his sister, two years older. The physical problems of malnutrition etc also dissolved and 17 he was a NZ champion weightlifter!

        i have read a number of adoption stories but not the “Lost Boys” stories, so thank you, and Hi Five your son from us in Aotearoa New Zealand!

  44. says

    My heart broke as I read this. I suffered from PTSD, but
    not until I was in college, so I can’t imagine a child dealing with
    this. I did recover with the help of a psychologist. He used eye
    movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), which led me to
    discover the specific images that were affecting me the most. It
    was frightening at first, because my mind travelled through
    nightmarish landscapes with metaphorical images that represented my
    traumatic experiences until I broke into the depths of my mind and
    discovered the root of the problem, so I could then work on
    desensitizing myself to it. So, it is something I suggest,
    depending on the severity of the trauma and how vivid the
    imagination, because it can be intense. For me, there is one
    lingering side effect, which is the way in which I dream, and I
    recently started blogging about them. I think creative expression
    helps to soothe the wounds of the past and releases bottled-up
    emotions, so when those triggers appear (like the experience you
    described above), it effects are weakened. From your comments, it
    sounds like he enjoys sports, which is great for channeling those
    emotions. When I dealt with PTSD, it was really hard, because I was
    far from home. And because I was playing college basketball, I
    tried to ignore it, but emotional and mental pain is worse than
    physical pain and not many people understand that. It sounds like
    you get it and your son is lucky to have you. There is a silver
    lining. My mind opened up to see things differently. I remember my
    dreams in detail, and even though I get overwhelmed with them, I
    write them down and use them in my writing. The one drawback is
    that as a result I’ve started dozens of stories, and haven’t really
    finished any of them, because I wake up every morning with new
    ideas. But, I’d rather see the world as I do now. So, I think your
    son will grow up with a unique perspective about the world and
    though it can be disabling at times, it can also ignite great
    passion for life. Everything he has gone through is I’m sure
    horrifying and I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone, but having a
    wonderful father to help him recover, he’ll value things others
    take for granted.

    • says


      Thank you so much for sharing your experience with PTSD. It is indeed hard. We’ve heard about EMDR, of course, and may work with it in the future if needed.

      Your relationship to your dreams is fascinating. Sounds like a trove of story ideas. Now to develop a practice that will allow you to select and finish the best of them! A new level of challenge.

      • says

        In my pre-author career, I used EMDR with wonderful results. It can work for all sorts of problems and for all ages of people. There is a special group of EMDR therapists who go to underdeveloped countries after such things as natural disasters to work with the children who have lost homes and family members. I used to think EMDR was so hokey and a fad that I resisted learning about it for years. But I kept hearing about the positive results clinicians were receiving with their clients and thought, if this is something that can help the people I work with and I refuse to check it out, I’m doing my clients a disservice. So I learned about the process and how it works. I learned about the positive changes that go on physically in the brain and decided to get trained. And then I went on for advanced training. One of the trainers was an FBI person. (EMDR is used by some fire departments and police forces in addition to the FBI.) I believe Keiser Permanente requires their therapists to be trained in EMDR because they found it to be more effective in a much shorter treatment time–so it saves them money. Since all EMDR therapists have to be trained clinicians, for a child, it would be important to find a therapist who specializes in working with children. I realize this post isn’t about writing and I apologize. But if anyone is out there suffering, you just might want to give this modality a try. Why wait? What do you have to lose? Just you fears, anxieties, traumas, insecurities, yadda yadda. Just my two sense . . .

      • says

        I’ve set aside the dreams I think have potential and started stories with them, but you are right, I should try to whittle those down and pick the best ones to focus on.

        Good luck with your son. It sounds like you are very patient and that plus your love for him and ability to empathize says a lot about your character, and I think that will help him more than anything.

  45. says

    After reading this, I had an epiphany about my WIP. I thought the protag’s problem was trust…but it felt wrong somehow. I dug deeper, and now know it’s about respect (and she doesn’t know it at the beginning, but it’s about self-respect).

    Thank you!!!

  46. claudine says

    This is just what I needed. On my third attempt at writing a novel and feeling my enthusiasm fizzle. And even feeling the fizzle fade. This helped me to reconnect with what I love best about my protagonist. It makes me want to spend time with him. I’d kind of forgotten that I loved him.
    Such a great post. Thank you for sharing your day with your son with us.
    All the best.

  47. says

    Hi Don,

    What an amazing place – that you and your son occupied this week, filled with compassion and empathy how to navigate the noise and confusion. What healing, it sounds like, for you both.

    You make it easy to share such personal things, and distill them, craft from them — though its much more than that — what it is that universally touches all of us.

    I felt I was back in Hood River and you were filling us with HOPE, yes, hope that all of our messy & painfully human trials can be rendered on the page, (if you can find a page that doesn’t need to be wrung out) and just freaking – do it.

    Growing up adopted, that room of the outsider – the shag carpet, the lava lamp, and the curtains lifting in the breeze was home like no other. But really, a Pagoda on the hill?

    My protagonist opens that door. Walks beyond the insecurity of what, what happened? She sets out daring to ask, petrified to learn, but must. Afraid to be seen, and yet equally afraid not to be. She meets the world; learns the hard way that she can’t and isn’t supposed to please everyone. Some can’t hear her, but she speaks to them anyway. Some will still leave, and she will leave some, too. But through it all, she finds she is already home.

    Thanks for the lamp, and the light – and being the Don!

  48. Regina Sokas says

    I used this blog post as a writing prompt in a therapy session today with a legally-blind 12-year-old girl in foster care. I’d just given her a blank comic book and told her to make me a graphic novel. She became very animated hearing about the tar pit. “I know what my story is now.” I’m really looking forward to hearing what she does — and hoping it leads to a breakthrough on these tremendously damaging awake-night terrors that she goes through every night. A multipurpose blog post. Thanks.

    • says

      Again, I’m speechless. Legally blind? What an amazing graphic novel that will be. What an amazing therapist. Thanks to *you*. I know of night terrors.

      • Regina Sokas says

        Well, I didn’t get a graphic novel today — but I did get two poems and a drawing of a dog plus a report from Grandma that they had a better week! The down side is that the client confided that she is doing better because “when I want to scream I bite my pillow.” The upside is, well, everything else. It gets better. (It does. It does. It does.)

  49. says

    Thanks for the great post, especially the prompt to “write it down now.”

    The light bulb for me has been realizing my protagonist’s deepest struggle was not simply trust, or the lack of it, but a hidden wish to have no man ever disappoint her. We want the impossible in our deepest relationships. Yet, mature love won’t begin until we let go and see what could happen…and accept the good with the bad.

    Having to stop and write messy words down -the why and the what- put a gorilla on my chest. I’m happy to say a few more words lightened the load.

    Now, to transfer this to my writing…

  50. says

    As an adoptive mother I am also amazed by how much my daughter is like me. Stubborn, defended, smiling yet cautious with her self. Maybe there’s some kind of karmic distribution in adoption, Don:-) We spoke about these issues, separation anxiety, Stockholm Syndrome, etc. during your Sunnyvale RWA workshop. Just re-read my notes today, finishing “Fire.” Good stuff!!