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  • Writer's picturePatti Callahan Henry

Bestselling Author Patti Callahan Henry on Using Our Creativity as a Compass


Welcome to our weekly essay series in partnership with Friends & Fiction, an online community hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry and Mary Alice Monroe.

Every Wednesday, you’ll get a new life lessons essay from one of the writers, as well as the chance to discuss the themes of it later that night on Facebook Live!

Today, author Patti Callahan Henry talks about the inner pull of creativity and what incredible things can happen when you decide to follow it.

I kept it a secret for a long while. I wrote in the wee hours of the morning. I told a white lie to my friends about where I was going when I attended writing classes. To say, “I want to write a book” felt like saying “I want to be an astronaut.”

And then I read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I read about integrating our lives so that our creative lives weren’t separate from our real lives but actually part of it. No duplicity. We are who we are. And we are creative souls. I read it and thought it sounded good and true, but it didn’t apply to me. To admit my dream of becoming an author was a bit too scary. I kept it secret, writing and writing and watching others live my dream. Cameron calls this behavior being a ‘shadow artist’, a term that refers to those of us “afraid to step out of the dark and expose the dream to the light.”

Slowly, though, I began to learn more about the craft of writing, about the hero’s journey and the narrative arc, about characters’ desires and about editing and paying attention. And out of the fog, I began to see why the division between my creative life and my real life needed to come down: the two lives enriched and informed each other and they were always one and the same. I was the one who had separated them, thinking that I had no right to imagine myself as a writer in reality. I was losing out though because all the while, the lessons I was learning about writing could have been applied to my life.

Today, I call those lessons my “as in life” lessons. I bet you have the same kinds of lessons in your life–something you’ve learned about your job, or your creative art, or your parenting or even something as logical as a math equation–that you suddenly discover apply to your everyday reality.

For knitters, perhaps it’s bringing patience and mindfulness to the way you live your days. For painters, maybe it’s looking with clear eyes not at what you want something to be but what it actually is. For potters, it could be learning that power and control aren’t always the answer. For gardeners, is it about discovering the beauty in waiting for the fullness of time? What is it for you and your creative life?

When I started taking writing classes, one of the first lessons I learned was this: my character must want something, really want something, to make the story worth reading. Every story is driven forward by desire. As writers, we are taught to ask ourselves, “What does this character really want?” A vague want leads to a vague story.

Could this apply to my own life, too? Does a vague want lead to a vague life? I started to wonder if my characters were the only ones who were allowed to have a hero’s journey. Could I have one as well? It was a question that struck me as I dug deeper. If the writer doesn’t know about her characters’ desires, the story flounders around without forward momentum, without any resolution. Who wants to read about someone going through the motions of life, someone without purpose?

So I turned that question’s lamplight onto my own life. How many days do I plow through without purpose or desire? How many years have I blindly lived without ever looking closely at my own path and how my desires and wants shape that journey?

Why, I wondered, do only my characters get that kind of attention? And there, in a mighty crash, went the wall between my creative work and my everyday life. They were, in that moment and in many more after it, one and the same. Shouldn’t we care where our story is going? Shouldn’t we know the distant and deep longings that drive us forward, just as the author does for a character in a novel?

In this merging of what I thought were two separate acts–writing and living–I discovered that the lessons I learn in my creative work can often be a compass pointing me to a richer and deeper life. Can you knock down that brick wall between your creative work and your day-to-day life? Maybe it’s time to answer this question: What is your art or imaginative work teaching you and how can you allow those lessons to become a compass pointing you toward a fuller life?

Catch up on all our Friends & Fiction columns here!

Friends & Fiction is an online community, weekly live web show, and podcast founded and hosted by bestselling authors Mary Kay Andrews, Kristin Harmel, Kristy Woodson Harvey, Patti Callahan Henry, and Mary Alice Monroe, who have written more than 90 novels between them and are published in more than 30 languages. Catch them and their incredible author guests live every Wednesday at 7pm ET on the Friends & Fiction Facebook group page or their YouTube Channel. Follow them on Instagram and, for weekly updates, subscribe to their newsletter.

Patti Callahan Henry is the New York Times bestselling, USA Today bestselling, and Globe and Mail bestselling novelist of 15 novels, including Becoming Mrs. Lewis and Surviving Savannah out now and Once Upon a Wardrobe, out October 19th, 2021.

A recipient of the Harper Lee Distinguished Writer of the Year, the Christy Book of the Year and the Alabama Library Association Book of the Year, Patti is the co-founder and co-host of the popular web series and podcast Friends & Fiction. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and on her website

1 Comment

Unknown member
Dec 19, 2022

Took me time to read all the comments, but I really enjoyed the article. It proved to be Very helpful to me and I am sure to all the commenters here! It’s always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained!

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