My week in Texas (at St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A & M) was full of unusual atmosphere: hospitable, colorful, and a culture imbued with high principles. The cowboy hats, boots, and trucks that are commonplace hint at a very different lifestyle and atmosphere than the northeast or Toronto. Texas is a great setting for many stories, but I simply enjoyed taking in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, most of my days in Texas were too full to even think about writing, apart from my morning walks, so I don’t know how the Texan atmosphere I experienced would imbue my writing.
I’m currently sitting in the Newark Airport, on my way home to Toronto. Traveling from Toronto to Texas and back are full travel days, and both the way there and back have been full of writing. On the last flight, I had a window overlooking the clouds, a seat to myself and some amazing inflight music from the album: John Rutter’s Requiem and Magnificat sung by the Cambridge Singers. Both the airplane seat and this lobby seat in the airport are proving ideal writing atmospheres, and it’s making me wonder why.
I wish I could “just write no matter what,” but I’ve known for a long time that I have definite needs in my environment or surroundings as a writer. I need enough silence and reflective space, as well as new ideas and openness that foster creativity. For me, there are also elements that are toxic for me as a writer, such as immense stress or personal upheaval. Perhaps Texas provided new ideas and openness, and the plane and airport offers the silence and lots of space in the moments of waiting. And just being away from the busyness of daily life offers a new perspective or a sense of distance from daily stresses.
I’ve come to believe that, while I don’t need the “perfect” environment, the atmosphere I live in is very important to my creative process. While there are lots of things in my environment I cannot control, I can do a lot to create or nurture this atmosphere for myself: an atmosphere where I am free to reflect, wonder, experiment, be exposed to new ideas and others’ perspectives, while discovering always more deeply the truth of my convictions and experiences. The atmosphere surrounding me affects my “inner atmosphere,” from which I draw the energy and inspiration to write.
I need to pay attention to my outer atmosphere because, to do my best work, I need an inner freedom and security so that I can take the risks that writing seems to require of me: revealing my interior journeys of growth, of prayer, and of who I am as a person. This may not be necessary for every writer, but it seems to be so for me, especially when I’m writing a book on spiritual topics such as prayer. Then, my prayer life becomes an even larger part of the “atmosphere” that needs to be part of the creative process…
The conditions that foster this atmosphere for me are:
The best kind of time for me is large chunks, but if I am well-prepared, even twenty minutes can be enough for a productive writing session. A book that’s helping me reclaim small chunks of time for writing is The Coffee Break Screenwriter by Pilar Alessandra. Deadlines are especially challenging for someone who is juggling many responsibilities, but I take time regularly to align my deadlines, my writing projects, and my writing progress so that I negotiate my deadlines outside of writing time. Thus, my writing time can be all about writing.
2. Inner serenity or calm
We all have daily and long-running emotional stress woven throughout our lives. I don’t need perfect peace or joy, but it is extremely difficult for me to write in the middle of huge emotional stress. Sometimes, huge events or transitions in my life prevent me from writing–and they should. At these infrequent times, my focus and energy need to be on those moments in my life, not on my writing.
But small daily stresses, such as interpersonal conflicts, can also prevent me from writing if I let them. Since stress is one of my personal pitfalls–both in the spiritual life and in the creative life–I need to pay a lot of attention to my perspective. Am I keeping the big things big, and the little things small? If I’m bothered about something, I try to think about it (sometimes journaling), pray about it, make a note of a decision or action I can take, and then I try to let it go. Prayer and my relationship with God are my bedrock, of course, and my daily prayer and meditation time is invaluable for seeing my whole life in the light of God’s love and eternity.
One stressor that I am still learning to work around is big events. If a big event is coming up such as public speaking, I tend to lose the ability to focus on anything but the event, especially if it’s something new. While I can’t write while I’m close to or in the middle of a big event, I am trying to learn to “bracket” the event into a particular window of time, so that I’m freer to write around it.
3. Sufficient Rest
If I’m exhausted, it’s really difficult to write. When the exhaustion is not just the result of a sleepless night or occasional travel, but chronic, then my focus and my writing really suffer. The creative process is just too demanding for us to approach it with anything less than our best selves.
A positive sense of self also means a positive sense of what I can contribute to the project. This is an inner “ambience” that I build in my daily life and specifically into my writing life. If doubts or a sense of my inadequacy are eating away at me, then I need to look at them head-on and address them. (One way to face doubts directly is to bring them out into the open by journaling about them, as is suggested in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron.) I’ve blogged a lot about this, but it remains essential for my writing process. And it’s deeply connected with the last point:
5. Gratitude that brings with it a sense of abundance
No matter what I’m going through, God has always blessed me with more than I needed. The problem is that I don’t always recognize God’s blessings, especially when I’m in the middle of a difficulty. I tend to focus on the headache, deadline, or challenge, instead of how God is sustaining me or how God is inviting me. Focusing on the negative is destructive to both the spiritual life and the creative process. One way to shift my perspective is in prayer, which I usually begin with a prayer of adoration and gratitude. But even when I’m sitting down to write, I often take a moment to thank God for the gift of the time to write this day. Or I’ll just run through in my mind the things that I am grateful for: from mundane blessings such as a good night’s sleep, or extraordinary blessings such as the healing of a loved one.
Out of all of the “conditions” for writing, gratitude becomes the lynchpin, as it can nurture the others. If twenty minutes of time is all I have to write today, then I can either feel stressed that I don’t have more time, or be grateful for the time I have and choose to focus and write. If I remember all the ways that God sustains me, I can let go of many of the emotional stresses in my life. Gratitude can also help me appreciate all the resources I’ve been given to write, including rest. And gratitude can transform my fears over my inadequacies into trust in God’s love and plan for me and for the people I seek to serve.