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Finding Your Story, or How to Get out of the Dark Wood When You’re Lost

Flickr Creative Commons: Matthias

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was …”—Dante

Have you ever been really, truly lost? When my oldest daughter was just four weeks old, my husband and I flew across country to attend his brother’s wedding. I didn’t plan to go to the wedding—I couldn’t leave the baby for that long—but I did make it to the rehearsal dinner, then ducked out early so I could get back to nurse the baby. Only when I left the rehearsal dinner it was dark, and the roads that were barely familiar to me during the day in this town I didn’t live in weren’t recognizable at all at night. I didn’t have a cellphone or a navigation system in my car. What I did have was a hungry baby waiting for me at home, and a growing sense of desperation. I drove and drove and drove, through a rural backwoods without a gas station or store and few houses. At one point I pulled over by the side of the road and cried. I tried to turn around and retrace the route I’d driven, to get back to the rehearsal dinner, but I couldn’t find that either. Finally, after more than an hour of aimless driving, I saw a stone wall that looked familiar, then a street light, and I knew where I was. My baby was fine; I was fine. But I’ve never forgotten that sense of being utterly, hopelessly lost, without any idea where I was, where I was going, or where I had been.

This anecdote is an apt metaphor for what’s happened to me in the course of writing my fourth novel. I wrote 100 pages of a novel that neither my agent nor I liked very much, then put it away. I didn’t write for a while. Then I started a new novel, a novel I like very much, but 100 pages in I realized I was lost. My story was too complex; there were too many characters, too much drama, too many layers. I had no idea, really, where I was going—heck, I wasn’t even sure where I was.

So, as a seasoned hiker (and author), I did what you’re supposed to do when you’re lost:

How do you get your bearings again when you lose your story?


About Kathleen McCleary [1]

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.