Perseverance. It’s one of the toughest things to do as a writer on a long form project that takes months or years. Countless obstacles make it hard to complete a writing project. Here’s my short list of recurring obstacles:
- Multiple creative projects
- Deadlines (for other projects)
- Fatigue (writerly fatigue if we’ve simply been pushing hard on a project for a long time; or fatigue from other stuff in our lives–both affect us)
- Creative burn out (not taking care of ourselves creatively as writers)
- The resistance of the project itself (the problems inherent in the project)
- Doubting the project’s value
I read once that there is a reason that no one has yet written the story that you want to write, and that’s because however great the story, there’s a problem inherent in it that makes it impossible to write. While I can often “size up” the challenges of a particular project early on in the planning or writing process, I find that I cannot foresee the impossibility inherent in the story. But I have run into this wall with every story that I’ve written, usually trying to write around it in my first draft without even realizing it’s there, and then, at some point in the revision, I slam into it full force and jolt to a full stop. Sometimes it takes me months to regain the perspective to write through the story’s inherent “impossibility.”
Writing nonfiction, I don’t seem to run into “the one impossibility” obstacle. Instead, I find that creating the structure of the book is often the most challenging, as it makes me delve past my own ideas into researching the needs of the readers, and then reshaping the content numerous times until I feel that I can bring together the reader’s needs with the content that I envision for the book. It’s harder for me to keep my attention focused on a nonfiction project–I’m more prone to distractions in general and concerned about deadlines for other projects. In part, this might be because I cannot rush through writing most of my nonfiction projects. My books on prayer and the spiritual life require times of reflection, prayer, and contemplation.
For both kinds of projects, though, the toughest obstacle for me is self-doubt, which often hides as doubt about the project’s value. (When doubt about a project’s value is genuine, it can be turned into an opportunity to reshape the project so that it has more value for the reader.)
These weeks, my main obstacle is worry (and distraction) about other deadlines. Just as I’m delving deep into writing a new nonfiction book, I’m preparing for talks and trips to promote the November release of my book, Soul of Christ: Meditations on a Timeless Prayer. I’m blogging about this here to help remind myself to:
- Begin each day by entrusting all I’m doing to Jesus, my Divine Master (and my writing Master). Jesus is the One who calls me to write, inspires me to write, and brings fruit from what I write. In truth, these are more his books than mine…. I simply have to show up, be open, and be willing to slog through every word or paragraph.
- Set aside time for writing even during the busiest days. During extraordinarily busy days, I try to take just 20-30 minutes to reconnect with my project. That way, my subconscious keeps working on it in the background, and, when I have a break, I can easily return to it. Sometimes this means getting up an hour earlier; other times it means pulling out my laptop on a one-hour flight or airport lobby and writing for 20 minutes.Since writing is a calming, identity-reinforcing activity for me, it has a side-benefit: I’ll bring my best self to the hectic times if I take the time to write that day. For me, that’s worth getting up an hour earlier.During the less-busy times, I set aside chunks of time: a morning a week or several evenings a week, to delve deeply into the book and move it forward. If I lose three months of writing time, there’s no way to stay on deadline with my nonfiction.Depending on how much I’m juggling, this can involve taking an hour to plan one week or several weeks. The benefits of planning my time in the midst of a time-crunch is that I make choices around priorities that I value, rather than letting the rush or urgencies of the moment distract me from my larger goals (such as writing the next book, or promoting the current one).
- Nurture my creativity. Whether it’s taking time for a walk in a park, changing my writing venue for a morning, or taking an evening off to see a good movie, we need to nurture our creativity especially when we’re going extra-strong. For me, hanging out with other writers/artists is the best way to nurture creativity in an ongoing way. Taking a break can also make a big difference in perspective. I find that just doing something outside my usual routine can inspire and renew me, especially if it involves spending time with people whose life experience is very different from mine, such as children, or someone living a great suffering.
- Focus on the writing, on my passion for the topic, and the needs or concerns of the project’s audience, not on how I feel about it. This is good advice no matter what stage I’m at. I cannot afford the luxury of allowing doubts to gain the upper hand even for a short while because that too easily becomes a downward spiral. Prayer and trust in the Lord helps; reasoning through doubts also helps; “blasting through” doubts as Julia Cameron recommends in The Artist’s Way can also clear them away. (My memory is a bit foggy, but I think how I’ve done it is by taking a timed writing session to write out all my doubts. Then I take a second writing session and go back through each doubt, showing the error or falsehood in each one, and countering with something positive. I’ve done this a number of times and always found it helpful.)
These are a few of the work-arounds that I’ve developed for my writing challenges. Have you tried any of these or found them helpful? What works for you when you’re “stuck” or feel “burned out” in your creative work?