Writing Your Way Out by Heidi Cullinan

Writers are often encouraged to write what they know, and this generally elicits passionate response, sometimes in defense of the maxim, sometimes against. I’ve always come down in the middle, writing from my experience most definitely, but always with a twist, because being direct too often results in something slightly misshapen, or dough too hot to touch. I’ll parse myself across seven or eight characters, giving one this memory, the other that odd tic, the next that professor from college. I always say the character most like me is a wiseass, over-sexed, reckless gambler in Las Vegas who loves the thrill of heights, and people look at me like I’m nuts. Well, I didn’t say everything about him was like me…

One thing ever-present in my work, however, despite the characters present, irrespective of the question of whether or not I set out to write what I know, is that I always seem to end up writing my way out of something. Generally it’s a state of mind, sometimes something I’m struggling with in the here and now, but sometimes it’s something deeper. This isn’t something I set out to do—absolutely I never meant my writing career to become some kind of odd self-therapy mechanism, and I’m not entirely sure that’s what it is. I think it’s more that as I create and like any good writer reach around for whatever is handy to put into the book, I come across my own struggles and feelings, and my subconscious thinks, “Yes, this will do nicely.”

In the past this has served me well enough, and though it hasn’t always been a party, it’s been fine in the end. In Dance With Me I took a sometimes grueling look at my own issues with chronic pain, writing the hardest scene I ever had to write, which was the pain goals sheet. Double Blind was also a ride, as Randy Jansen’s journey with Sam Keller-Tedsoe to therapy was also, in real time, my own. We discussed very different things, but Randy’s resistance was mine, and we groused together, let go together. I became a foster parent and used what I learned about the incredible lack of awareness and help for LGBT youth in the system (and which, I must tell you, is all about to get so, so much worse) to fuel Enjoy the Dance. That effort ended up netting Avenues for Youth several new host home contacts, so no matter what else happens, I consider that publication a resounding success.

heidi cullinan

However, the last few months for me have been a new kind of struggle to write my way out. Santa Baby had already launched me into a journey into my own past when our national conversation became all about how our potential President—and then eventual President–spoke to and treated women the way my abuser treated me, and likely abused them as well. Watching the entire country enable this was a personal hell that threw me so hard I had no idea how I was going to function on a daily basis, let alone write.

But write I did. Through the help of gay skaters (thank you forever, Yuri on Ice) and my patrons, I kept writing Shelter the Sea. The book had nothing to do with any of the political nonsense going on. It had always been about Emmet and Jeremey and Iowa’s mental health crisis, though as I wrote it became worse and worse, and I had to revise my plot because unless I wanted to create a cruel alternate reality, my story no longer worked, as Iowa has become a hellscape for the mentally ill. Once again, I wrote my way out, though this time it wasn’t subconsciously done. I got up every day, I sat down, and I said, “I’m writing because it’s better than letting this other nonsense win.” I wanted to put positive things back into the world, stories that pushed us forward, not filled us with more despair.

I will probably always write my way out of things. I will always write a little bit of what I know, and a lot of what I look up as I go. I’m hoping for a future where I feel less despair, where I don’t have to hold my heart when I get done glancing at the news, but if that’s not the future I get, I’ll continue as I do now: finding joy where I can, and contributing everything I have into putting more out there.


Heidi Cullinan head shot 150 x 150Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, playing with her cats, and watching television with her family. Find out more about Heidi at


Please note: all opinions and statements expressed are those of the author and not of Open Ink Press LLC or its affiliates. 

Like this? Share it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *