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Surviving a Drought

Flickr Creative Commons: Bert Kaufmann [1]
Flickr Creative Commons: Bert Kaufmann

I was sitting in D.C.’s Lincoln Theater about three months ago, listening to The Milk Carton Kids and Sarah Jarosz, talented folk musicians who sing some of the most gorgeous harmonies I’ve ever heard. The theater itself is a visual concert—a beautiful 1920’s-era building, with gold ceilings and crystal chandeliers and lovely arched moldings and walls covered in gold-patterned fabric. I wasn’t thinking about anything really—other than how good the music was, how lovely the theater was, how pleasant it felt to be in that particular place at that particular time.

And then I was struck by lightening.

Not literally. But the idea for a new novel came to me, all at once and fully formed, after months and months of the longest writing drought I’ve had in my life.

I’ve written before about how important it is for writers to take breaks from writing [2]. But there’s a big difference between not writing to give yourself a break and not writing because you have no ideas and nothing to say and everything you write is dry and flat and uninspired. The first feels good. The second feels awful.

After I finished my third novel, I took a break from writing. I’d published two books in two years and been under deadline pressure for a long time and I needed a rest. And after my break I came back, ready to write better than I ever had before. I read books on how to write, everything from John Truby’s Anatomy of Story to Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat and Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. I underlined and took notes and wrote Wish Lists and Premises and Outlines and Character Studies. I developed Designing Principles and Themes and Heroes and Antagonists. I bought markers and index cards and sticky notes in 12 different colors and a magnetic white board. I wrote scenes on my index cards and outlined plots on my white board.

I had never been so organized and done so much preliminary thinking. But when I sat down to write, the story came slowly and involved a lot of false starts. I liked my characters, but I didn’t really know what they were doing or why. It took forever to get the main action off the ground.

Six months later I had 100+- pages, which I sent to my agent. She felt it wasn’t quite there but agreed to show it to my editor, who said she was sorry but this was not a book she was interested in.

Boom. I put the book in a drawer and focused on teaching and consulting. I tried to think of other ideas for other novels. I brainstormed with my critique group, and with writer friends. I wrote synopses. But nothing clicked. I thought maybe I was done. Three novels, all of which mattered to me, wasn’t a bad body of work. Perhaps the novel-writing phase of my life was over.

And then I went to that concert, and I have not stopped writing since.  My agent loves the new book. I love it. And the message I’ve taken away from this all is that creativity is a mystery, and sometimes one form of creativity can unlock another. A month or two after my “aha!” moment, I ran across this comment, from Madeleine L’Engle: “Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck, if I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect.”

Similarly, Albert Einstein had a profound connection to the music of Mozart, and found in it the simple architecture and inner beauty that he sought to find in physics and theories of space and time. In a 2006 article [3]in The New Yorker, Einstein’s oldest son, Hans Albert, was quoted discussing his father’s work habits: “’Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

So if you’re stuck, make music. Listen to music. Go to the ballet. Go to a museum and wander amidst the paintings. Watch a movie.  Experiencing and attending to creativity in every form is all part of the creative process. Drink it in. Soak it up.

The drought won’t last forever. I promise.

Have you experienced and escaped from a drought in your own writing? We’d love to hear your story.

About Kathleen McCleary [4]

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.