Senior year in college I landed in a fiction writing course and wrote a coming-of-age story about a good Catholic girl falling for a bad boy. On a spring night toward the end of my story, the young lovers drive donuts in a field belonging, unbeknownst to them, to a wealthy pal of the girl’s father. Soybean crop ruined, relationship kiboshed. My classmates loved it; my professor held it up as an example of … who knows what? At parties that weekend, people (or maybe one person–not even in the class) complemented the story. Validation is a mighty drug — I’m a sucker for its high. My post-college path as a writer lit up.

A year later, I spent evenings driving snowy mountain roads, risking life and limb for safe delivery of pizza, late nights at bars doing the nod-and-shake dance to jam bands and still-drunk mornings riding a ski lift to my cashier job. It never occurred to me I might be rejected from the single creative writing graduate program I’d applied to. That thin letter plowed me.

So it began — the seesaw, the yoyo, the whiplash, the name-your-swing-metaphor between validation and rejection that would come to characterize my life as a writer. For most of my contemporaries, children, careers and, in a few cases, mental illness, have been the through line. Mine has been writing — perhaps a combination of the three. For nearly thirty years, I’ve been rising early and spending the quietest pocket of day putting words on a page. I don’t believe I have a “gift” — it has never felt that way. What I have is a habit-turned-discipline-turned way-of-living.

But, no published book to show for it.

What follows is a story about Ego, the needy and shallow brat who lives in the same house as Spirit, sisters who share a room — often at odds, but sisters, nonetheless.

I did enter an MFA program five years after the pizza delivery stage. In my first class, I volunteered a story for the inaugural workshop despite having nothing in the hopper. Over the weekend, I wrote a twenty-four page coming-of-age story about a good Catholic girl who falls for a Deadhead. Oh, bless my green, little heart the day my MFA classmates ate me for supper. When a story is dismissed as cliché, trite and uninteresting, it’s easy to redirect the indictment to oneself. I’m an Enneagram 3 — I take criticism hard, but I aim to please. Sorry, sorry, let me try again. Maybe you’ll like me better in the next one.

At a writing conference some years later, a revered author made a spectacle of all the failed openings of the participants’ stories. She did it lightly, and kindly, but theatrically, reading aloud, then tossing them on the floor. When she came to mine, she gripped the pages and said, “But this one, my friends, this I could stick with for four hundred pages. In fact, maybe it’s not a story. Maybe it’s chapter one.”

With that validation, I became a novelist. I floated on the encouragement for six years of early mornings. That short story bloomed into a manuscript, The Color Wheel. People who read it liked it, including the first agent I sent it to, who requested revisions. My friend, who co-owned the bookstore, liked it enough to invite me to sell it there while I navigated the process of publication. I had a local printer bind my unedited manuscript, and it sold ballpark 250 copies, mostly to people I knew, who kindly told me they liked it.

Man, all that liking. It fed the beast. I wanted that book to exist in the world, stamped with a publisher’s validation. At Southern Festival of Books, I sat in the audience, infested with want, sick to death of watching other writers talk about their books. Buddhists say desire is the root of suffering — I feel it. Hope is not a thing with feathers when it’s bloated and obese.

Over a year later, in a swift sentence or two, the agent passed. Because I’d naively self-published, or self-printed, I was told I’d killed the possibility of interest from other agents. That homemade book, chock full of typos, collects dust on some shelves and inside my computer.

So far in this tale, I’ve shared only Ego’s side of the story, a fraction of the whole. At my desk, morning after morning, year after year, I put words on the page. Spirit has never wavered, just watched on and stayed at it. The flipside of all that want is writing itself. Creation. Making something from nothing. Practicing empathy, if even for made-up people. Developing a craft. Mining the human experience. The habit of discipline. The quiet.

On a Colorado hike in 2012, I conceived a scene. A woman hiking with her dog high in the San Juan Mountains spies a mythic mountain goat, missteps and takes a near fatal fall. So began the next novel, Lady of the Lake, and the next decade of my life. There’s a novel (not an interesting one) of the book’s life and death, the dance with agents, close, so close. Kind letters of rejection (to my agent, shared in a slow-growing Word doc) from the big dogs, the top houses. I took their feedback and over three years wrote a massive revision, resulting in a Dear Jane email from my agent, and confirmation it was unlikely other agents would represent a book already shopped to the big dogs, even though revised.

You might think I am like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill on endless repeat. I’m not. Sisyphus felt no joy.

Here’s the story I want to tell. That email, like so many emails and thin letters and harsh workshops, stung. But this time, I was okay. I took a winter walk, stopped at a bookstore, got a coffee and admired all the novels stamped with publishers’ approval. If there was want, it was only to crawl inside too many pages, all at once. Spirit took her wounded sister, Ego, and held her.

This essay is a love letter to my writing life. My home desk is built into a bay window, second story, looking out onto treetops. I love the dawn light, French press coffee, the scratch and scrawl of my Pilot Precise V5 pen on the blank page, dog underfoot, setting forth the rhythm of the day. I love crawling inside a scene, and the joy of discovery when my made-up people surprise, delight and confound. I love the challenge of the craft, toying with brushstrokes, getting the color and texture right, sometimes wrestling with unwieldy sentences inside unwieldy plots. I love the monthly evenings with my writing group, the years of care and bottles of wine shared in the company of each other’s characters and words.

Of course, the desire to publish still lurks — that kind of want doesn’t wash away, and Ego still whines and whimpers. But she’s older, smile lines ever-deepening, and the blank page and pre-dawn ink of now feels true and fine.

Meet the Contributor

Katie McDougallKatie McDougall is the co-founder and co-director of The Porch, a literary arts nonprofit in Nashville. Its mission is to inspire, educate and connect writers of all ages and stages through classes and literary events. Prior to The Porch, Katie spent fifteen years as a high school English teacher in Colorado, Nashville and the Bahamas. Katie earned a BA at Colorado College and MFA at Colorado State University. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Litmosphere, Chaper16, Barcelona Review, Storyglossia and others. She divides her time between Nashville and Sewanee. When not at her desk, she can be found on the trail with her golden retriever, Homer. Learn more about Katie at

The post WRITING LIFE: Through Line by Katie McDougall first appeared on Hippocampus Magazine.

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Author: Donna Talarico

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