Catherine C. Heywood
Woman Who Has Nothing To Prove
The best advice I ever got on writing compelling characters was from Hollywood script consultant Michael Hauge. Start with your protagonist’s identity—who she believes herself to be. And as the story progresses, her character arc is the journey of discovering her essence—who she actually is. At various story points, she makes strides and reverts back, but any good character-driven story has this discovery.
Applying this guidance to my character development has been an essential tool in my writer’s toolbox for many years. But it’s only now that I’m coming to see how it applies to me as the protagonist in my own life.
For most of my life, my identity has been Woman Who Is Driven / Woman Who Proves Herself / Woman Who Meets Her Deadlines. When I was completing my master’s degree and fell catastrophically ill, I still managed to finish my thesis, even though I had to be hospitalized after I submitted it. When my cherished dad died at the start of the pandemic and my little boys were suddenly at home needing hands-on teaching, I still managed, somehow, to meet multiple deadlines so I could release not one, not two, but THREE books the following year.
Yet here I sit, a week before I was scheduled to release my next novel, and it’s still not finished. I’ve written north of 150,000 words. Humbly I think it’s the best writing I’ve ever done, the best hook I’ve ever conjured, and the best settings I’ve ever explored. Some important arcs are complete, and when I reread it, I can’t wait to share it. Yet still some essential threads are missing.
I’ve sought counsel from some author friends I admire. They were kind enough to share their processes, and I’ve dabbled in employing them. But the truth is, more than two years on from the events of Spring 2020, I finally broke down. The identity that had been guiding me for decades shattered completely. That woman, so darn capable, enduring, and resilient, needed a break.
In stories we go on a journey from want to have. Maybe that wanting is something tangible—a ring, a home, a dog. And maybe it’s something shapeless but nevertheless real—to be seen, to be validated, to be loved. Often it’s both. As a writer, what I want is to finish the next story. But my muse is shrewd. She hands me story when I’m ready and not until.
“Maybe when you discover your own essence, you’ll be able to finish the story,” my therapist said.
“Maybe,” I replied. But I know she’s right.
In the meantime, the determined woman I was—the woman who told herself, if I could just earn these degrees, marry this man, have these kids, write these books, sell this many, I will have proven myself worthy. The woman who buckled down and bent her head to life, who chased and battled and proved—has left the building. Now here I sit, strangely content.
There’s a scene in the film Under the Tuscan Sun where the character Katherine explains: “Listen, when I was a little girl I used to spend hours looking for ladybugs. Finally, I’d just give up and fall asleep in the grass. When I woke up, they were crawling all over me.”
That scene spoke deeply to me and always has, and now I know why. I’ve given up and fallen into the grass. My identity is now Woman Who Has Nothing To Prove, and it is good. Only time will tell what my essence is and whether there will be ladybugs.