My Sabbatical with the Dolphins

One of our very own faculty spent this past semester on sabbatical, and he graciously shared with us a bit about how he spent his time:

My fall 2016 sabbatical has given me the time I needed to work on a novel, including researching, writing, and combating the personal demons that kept me from completing the book long before now. As a result, I’ve just completed an 80,000 word first draft of The Magnitude of her Fury, and plan to spend every weekend, semester break and late night of the next few months finishing it off. I’m very happy with that, but it’s only the beginning of what this sabbatical allowed me to do.

First, the novel. I began The Magnitude of her Fury – the title comes from Jackson Browne’s environmental protest song “Before the Deluge” – in the summer of 2010 in response to the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I poured out some 20,000 outraged words before I realized I had fallen into one of the most subtle writers’ traps: I was writing about something I cared so deeply about that I could not divorce my emotions from the story-telling. The result was impassioned but dogmatic, an angry shout in the darkness that made me feel better but would have bored anyone else. I eventually recognized that, and, as I have often advised my students to do, gently put the story away for another time.

That time, happily, was this summer and fall. I re-imagined the novel in a post-spill setting, moved it to the Gulf Coast of Florida I long called home, and peopled it with believable, quirky characters affected by a BP-like spill, from jobless fishermen to gleeful oil executives. The result, I hope, is a satirical, relatable novel that still carries a powerful message and a flash of anger, but one that people will enjoy and perhaps even learn from.

A crucial part of writing, I often tell my students, is finding the exact details to paint a vivid, evocative picture in the reader’s mind. In 2010, with the assistance of a generous Wittenberg research grant, I traveled the Gulf Coast surveying the damage done by Deepwater Horizon.


– image from The Star Online

I breathed in petroleum stench off the Alabama coast, walked Louisiana beaches where you couldn’t step more than a foot in any direction without landing on a clump of oil, and photographed the vacant boats and angry signs damning BP for livelihoods destroyed. Six years later, I wanted to capture the essence of what is lost in such a disaster, so I went to the Panama City, Florida area, where the novel is set. I re-acquainted myself (I lived in PC when for half a year when I was 19) with the hefty thwack! of fresh-caught grouper landing on the fish-cleaner’s table and the sudden whoosh! of dolphins rising to breathe, the zig-zag dart of ghost crabs across a moonlight beach, the weathered faces and the happily determined attitude of people making their living on and around the sea. Those details, and many more like them, allowed me to re-create a coastal world that is magnificent in life, and tragic in death. 

Now about those personal demons. I was concerned about the audience reception for Magnitude, so I started the summer working instead on a high-concept science-fiction novel similar to those lining the best-seller shelves. I was cranking out a steady word-stream for a solidly commercial novel – and was miserable. I came to the keyboard every day as if commuting to a factory job. It took a few well-placed words from my sweet wife Patti and my Witt writing colleague D’Arcy Fallon to remind me of a truth I already knew: If there is no joy in the writing, there will be no joy in the book. Just write what you love, write the book you would want to read, and the audience will find you. So I returned to Magnitude of Her Fury. The joy of writing came back to me, and sometime soon I will give my agent a novel I will be proud for her to offer to the major publishing houses. Will it sell? No telling, the novel marketplace is wildly unpredictable these days. But either way, I will be happy knowing that I followed my heart and did my best.

So. A few weeks from now I will return to teaching rested and ready to rock, excited about my own writing, energized to teach and eager to share all I know with my students. This sabbatical will have made me better at my craft, and thus a better teacher for those students. To me, that’s what the sabbatical experience is all about.


-Dr. Michael “Mac” McClelland



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