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Passion: The Best Fuel for Your Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Bianca Moraes
Flickr Creative Commons: Bianca Moraes

This week I wrote a non-fiction essay about something I felt really strongly about. The topic isn’t important; what’s important is that I wrote the essay because I had to, because I needed to do something with all the frustration, rage, fear, grief, and other things I was feeling.

I posted it on social media, and within 30 minutes, responses started to flood in. “Powerful message,” “Wow,” “Amazing,” “Tremendous” “Powerful, raw, and true,” “Beautiful words.” It was shared over and over and over again. People posted comments and emailed me and sent me private messages. Few things I’ve written have evoked such an outpouring of response from others in such a brief time.

I’m telling you this not because I think I’m so wonderful, but because what we all need to strive to do with our fiction is exactly that—write with passion about something we care passionately about. And sometimes we get so caught up in worrying about plot and character and timelines and historical details that we forget the most important questions we should be asking ourselves: Why am I writing this story? Why does it matter to me?

I spent the first 45 years of my life wishing I could write a novel, but I never had an idea that felt interesting enough to me to write about. Then, at age 44, my husband and I decided to sell our house and move across country to pursue a better job opportunity. That house was the first house we ever owned, the house we brought our babies home to, the house we painted and hammered and plastered to make it a home we loved. For me, leaving that house felt like leaving behind one of my limbs.

We moved. And, I found that I did have an idea I could write about—a story about a woman who loves her house so much that when she has to sell it she decides to burn it down so no one else can ever have it. Crazy? Sure. Passionate? Yes. I poured all that love and longing and loss I felt about giving up my own house into my story.

My novel was imperfect, as all first novels are. But when I finished it and sent it out cold to agents, I had ten agents ask to see the entire thing, and five of them ask to represent me. It sold in a pre-empt to Hyperion.

That story had an emotional truth, something I’ve learned to dig for in every book I write. And when I get stuck, as I have been repeatedly on my fourth novel, I find out that the problem isn’t my plot or my lack of an outline or a need to “raise the stakes” or weak characters. The problem is that the emotional dilemma at the heart of the novel either is weak, lacking altogether, or something that I simply don’t feel strongly about, even if other people do.

Don’t write a novel that you believe will matter to your readers. Write a novel that matters to you.

Here are the questions I had to wrestle with in order to get through every novel:

Does passion fuel your writing? How do you make sure it does?

About Kathleen McCleary [2]

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.