Please welcome Kathleen McCleary to Writer Unboxed as a new regular columnist! Kathleen 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). You can learn more about Kathleen in her bio box at the end of this post.
Three years ago, I had one of those summers in which everything that could go wrong did—and on a colossal scale. I was under a tight deadline to finish my second novel, which had been four years in the writing. My editor wanted me to add a second point of view, which was basically like writing another novel and weaving it together with the one I’d already written. I had four months to get it done. And during those next four months, the following happened:
- My youngest daughter was bullied and refused to go back to school
- My father died suddenly
- My mother was hospitalized for a cardiac condition the week after my father died
- My father-in-law died
- My oldest daughter and I both got pneumonia and had to miss my father-in-law’s funeral
Of course my agent and editor both told me not to worry about the book and the deadline. And indeed, I wasn’t sure I could even remember what I was doing with my story in the face of so much heartache. But when I sat down to try and work on the book, I found that all those feelings—anger at the bullies who had wounded my girl, grief at losing my father and father-in-law, gratitude for the wonderful men they had been and all they had done for me—fueled my writing in a way I hadn’t anticipated.
No one in that book loses a parent or in-law, or gets sick and misses a funeral, or stands vigil at a parent’s hospital bed. But the characters do suffer losses, grieve, cherish each other, try to find solace in small moments—all the things I felt that summer, even though none of the situations in the book were based on my own life.
[pullquote]There is an immediacy and honesty to writing that comes out of adversity. That kind of immediacy and honesty connects readers to your work in a visceral way.[/pullquote]
I have found this to be true again and again in writing, that some of my deepest sorrows have led to my best writing. There is an immediacy and honesty to writing that comes out of adversity. That kind of immediacy and honesty connects readers to your work in a visceral way.
One of my favorite sayings about writing is that “all the feelings are facts, it’s the facts that are fiction.” I don’t know who said it originally, but it’s become a mantra for me. It doesn’t matter if your character is a middle-aged suburban mom, an 80-year-old botanist and world explorer, or a sensitive and charming 10-year-old boy (all characters in my book). Like every author, I have explained patiently to friends that no, that character is not really me, nor are those other characters my husband, daughter, mother, or best friend. My characters are uniquely themselves, with their own personalities, desires, and life experiences. But their feelings? Those are mine.
I’m not saying we should all spill our guts in our work. It is a delicate and difficult process to go through something like anticipating the loss of someone you love who is very ill, and translating that sense of dread and poignancy and sorrow and even eagerness and showing all that in scenes in a book. It requires introspection and being honest with yourself and yet still maintaining the distance necessary to create. Fiction is not a forum for self-confession. But it is a place to share some of our deepest human yearnings and joys and sorrows, to show that yes, this is what it’s like for all of us.
So when life hands you lemons, make art.
Can you relate? How have your deepest feelings found their way into your work? The floor is yours.