How To Get Back into “Creative Mode”

Photo by John Sekutowski on Unsplash

The good news is that I am rewriting or editing at least a little bit on my next book just about every day. The bad news is that after just a couple of days I found myself totally stuck. What I wanted to do with the book and what the book seemed to want to do were at odds.

This book that I am revising (from rough draft to first draft) has a couple of big challenges to the material that I haven’t completely figured out yet. On top of that, some new resources have become available since I started writing, and I need to find ways to work that new content into the book, which, in its rough draft state, is already way too long.

Probably the biggest problem, though, is that I was trying too hard to get too much done too quickly. My best way of writing is to gradually immerse myself into the work itself and into my writing process. And I didn’t really take the time to do that. I’m also very out of practice doing it because the short-form, quick-turnaround, online writing that I have been doing hasn’t allowed for any kind of immersion.

Whenever I have stepped away from writing for a significant amount of time, I seem to always forget:

* Taking deadlines away and pulling the pressure off enables me to write better and faster.

* I am a slow starter when it comes to writing long projects.

So, this past week was essentially a tug-of-war between trying to write fast and on deadline, and slowing myself down to fully enter into the work. And I think that I have finally succeeded. I am not stuck, but am working on two levels: revising a short piece each day and then also stepping back and looking at the work as a whole, so that I can start figuring out how to integrate or interweave the various elements (old and new) that I want to include.

I would like to note the concrete steps I took to slow down and focus, so that next time, I can enter into a project and my writing process more smoothly, thus avoiding getting stuck, freaking out, or plain old running from the blank page. So this list here is for myself for the future. I hope you find elements on this list helpful, too. (Plus, you may have other suggestions to share with me—and please do so!) Here they are:

  • I stopped running from writing, but wrestled with what I was stuck with until I had a grasp of what was wrong (although not how to fix it)
  • I read some short writing encouragement during the week to encourage me to let go and have fun while writing.
  • I stopped worrying about how much I got done each day. (For this project, I don’t have a hard deadline, just a desire to finish. But it is still hard to let go of deadlines!)
  • I went back to my original inspiration and desire for the book, focusing on the project and its (future) readers.
  • I brought it to prayer every day, either in my meditation or in my Hour of Adoration, asking the Lord, “What do You want to say in this book?”
  • I started listening to the work itself, to become an obedient servant of the work (as Madeleine L’Engle so eloquently describes in Walking on Water.) Ultimately, I have been praying to the Blessed Mother to help me become a listening servant to the Holy Spirit to “put words to” the mystery of grace at work in our lives. 

Do you have other ideas that help you get back into creative mode?

Writerly fun & resources

One of my favorite things to do is to listen to other writers talking about writing. I believe I have highlighted this author before, but K.M. Weiland is one of my very favorite podcasting authors. I find her podcast, Helping Writers Become Authors, always enlightening and thought-provoking (plus it’s super-quick). And, she has an amazing series within the podcast on plot and character arcs that essentially teaches you how to write the life of a saint in an interesting way (because saints don’t always have character arcs!) She has oodles of materials and resources to help beginning writers at her amazing site, Helping Writers Become Authorslots of valuable resources that are free with her blog, all about writing craft. Plus you can delve into her published books for further depth.

She even wrote the notes in the Writers Digest Annotated Version of Jane Eyre, one of the best primers for writing a great novel that I’ve ever seen.

Can you tell I love her work?

She also does really, really fun book launches, and she has a new novel out today, Wayfarer, which is right up my alley: gaslamp fantasy.  This one line of her write-up got me: Think being a superhero is hard? Try being the first one.

So if you are looking for a little writing support or writing inspiration (or a lot), check out her site here. And if you want a good read for these cold winter days, check out Wayfarer. And don’t forget to enter the super-fun book launch below, which gives you a chance to win fun prizes and helps her promote her new novel. (And I’m giving her this space in a blog post not because I know K.M. Weiland personally, but because I have been impressed over the years with how generously she has helped so many writers – including me!- and I felt she deserved some recognition for her good work. Besides, it’s fun to share the work of someone you wholeheartedly enjoy.)

 


My absolute favorites of K.M. Weiland’s work:

Podcast Helping Writers Become Authors(you can subscribe in iTunes)

Jane Eyre (Annotated Version)

Invaluable Series on Character Arcs

Invaluable Series on Story Structure

This blogpost is a good place to start if you just want to get introduced to the work of K.M. Weiland.

New Year update: “Hidden in Christ”

A Happy and Holy New Year!

I love the beginning of a new year. I think it’s because, ever since I have focused on creativity and found myself enjoying the blank page when I begin writing, I have developed a special affinity for potential. There is something special and sacred about looking to the future and seeing the promise of so many possibilities. (And this is even more beautiful when I have taken the time to look back and seen how abundantly and lovingly God has been at work in my life in the previous year! And God has been so amazingly, so tangibly, present in my life in 2018.) I think that, in many ways, playing with potential is part of the divinely-given gift of creativity, (which is a tiny, limited way of sharing in the creativity of the Most Holy Trinity, who created us in God’s own image).

This year has started off uniquely. First, I caught a really bad cold just before Christmas that has turned into a bit of a time-& sleep-monster, eating up the first 10 days and nights of 2019. It is improving, but with such miniscule progress that I’m not sure when it will let up. Second, the end of 2018 brought a few surprises that have shifted somewhat my focus in our Pauline mission. This shift means I’ll be spending less time online, but perhaps more time on my next book. And of course, this happens just as I released my new book, Just A Minute Meditations To Grow in Self-Esteem, and started a new Facebook Group, where I was looking forward to offering audio meditations!  (More about that in another post.)

On top of all of this, the Holy Spirit seems to be “giving me” a new book—even before I have finished the one I’m working on. Of everything that has happened this year so far, I find this so deeply moving. What a gift! I am praying that I will be open and receptive, and somehow able to “capture” his inspirations on paper.

Praying and discerning with all of this, here are my tentative plans for 2019:

– I will try to blog weekly here, on Windows to the Soul, mostly about writing inspiration, spiritual inspiration, and my journey with my next two books, which I am going to try to focus on.

– I will also try to stay in touch online via my Facebook Author Page and Facebook Group via messages for now.

– My Twitter account and some of my other work—including on the amazing group My Sisters (on Facebook)—will be mostly, temporarily, on hold. (I miss you all on My Sisters!)  But Sr. Kathryn has great plans for My Sisters for 2019, so if you haven’t checked it out, I highly encourage you to do so. It is a great way to find resources and support for your spiritual life, and you can try it for the first month for only $1.

Above all, know that you are in my prayers daily. Here is a short Writer’s Prayer which I wrote a while ago, but have never shared. It seems to be especially appropriate for me at this time:

 

A Writer’s Prayer
“Hidden in Christ*” 

My Jesus, I adore You, I love You, I thank You!

Today, as I sit down to write in this “hidden,” unseen apostolate, I pray You: bless me—my mind, will, and heart! Bless my desires. Bless my efforts. Teach me how to work, when to push forward, when to pause to listen, and when to relinquish control. You are the Artist par excellence: in carpentry, in sand-drawing, in creating a life perfectly harmonious with the Father’s plan and the needs of humanity, in creating a new heavens and a new earth!

Make me Your artist, a writer after Your own heart. I offer You all: work, write, craft, in me as You want. May my writing and all my thoughts, words, and actions, always serve Your glory and peace to humanity.

*Col. 3:3 where Saint Paul tells us, “Your life is hidden in Christ.” 

 

Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

Angela’s Christmas: a delightful new family Christmas classic

In the bleak landscape of new Christmas films this year, a delightful new half-hour children’s Christmas special has appeared that is perhaps deserving to be called a new family Christmas classic.

It’s been more challenging for me to keep up with the latest films this year, and perhaps I found the slate of Christmas films emptier than usual because I simply scrolled through Netflix’s offerings. (I have lately grown increasingly disappointed with a large portion of Netflix’ original programming, but that is a matter for another post.) I confess I haven’t seen 2018’s Grinch nor Disney’s Nutcracker—both of which I plan to see.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I started watching Angela’s Christmas (a Netflix original), which is based on the short story written by Frank McCourt, and I continued to enjoy the entire delightful little Christmas special. (Listen to my 5-minute review on Salt + Light Radio Hour here.)

Angela’s Christmas totally deserves to be the new animated family Christmas classic. Centered around little Angela’s imaginative concern for the Baby Jesus being cold, the story has lots of moments of fun and suspense. The animation is delightful, and it has some fun moments that Catholics will appreciate—such as whether or not there was a miracle in St. Joseph’s Church that night! On top of the delightful story, layered writing, compelling characters, believable character arcs, the film is just so darling—it begs for a repeat viewing. Simple enough for young children, the story has more to it for thoughtful adults.

Rather than giving story spoilers, I’ll simply list why Angela’s Christmas is perfect to watch together as a family to “put us in the mood for Christmas.”

1) The Christ Child is the focus of the story, in a way that perfectly brings together the deeper meaning of Christmas (Christ came to save us by sharing everything with us, even our sufferings), and a story that little kids can relate to.

2) The focus on family. Not only is there a lovely plot line for Angela and her brother Pat learning to get along together, but also how their mother explains to them that the real meaning of family is to shelter and support one another. (We catch a glimpse of St. John Paul II’s reference to the family as the domestic church here.)

I also found it completely darling how one of Angela and her big brother’s main concerns was how worried the Blessed Mother would be about Baby Jesus.

3) A focus on the less fortunate. References to the less fortunate—beginning with Angela’s family and of course, with Baby Jesus—are interwoven throughout the story: Angela’s family generously shares their coats with each other just to go to Christmas midnight Mass; the children are obviously compassionate and generous with those less fortunate than themselves, the compassionate policeman who observes how tragic it is to separate a child from his or her family also highlights the plight of those who are deprived of the necessities of life. In a bold choice by the filmmakers, instead of telling the story of Jesus’ birth, Angela’s mother retells the story of Angela’s birth—a day that should have been full of joy but instead was full of suffering that was changed to joy by the love of her children. Her simple story, her gratitude to the children, her obvious courage in the face of hardship, point to the ways that the Christ Child still suffers in our midst today, needing our outstretched hands.

Even though such a delightful film, Angela’s Christmas is missing 2 important things that could have made it an even stronger movie:

1) A lovely Christmas hymn, for which there were many opportunities, and a setting and a tone that would have been perfect. Many hymns would have reinforced the themes of the story, especially a hymn like “What Child Is This.” This is a glaring omissionthe filmmakers really missed a big opportunity here to make this a “practically perfect” film.

2) A simple retelling of the Christmas story from a child’s point of view (Angela’s, or perhaps Pat’s). The filmmakers may have decided to let this go because all the characters are so immersed in what Christmas means that it might seem redundant. But by not simply retelling the story, I think some elements of this little short could be lost for those who don’t know the story well, who see Christmas primarily as a family holiday. And who doesn’t need to be reminded why Christmas is a celebration of love?

Despite these shortcomings, this little film packs more into it than the roster of Christmas “feel good” family films. Angela’s Christmas is appropriate for all ages and deserving to become part of the family’s Christmas tradition.

Also noteworthy Christmas movies:

If you haven’t seen The Star, the full-length animated Nativity story told from the point of the view of the donkey who brings Mary to Bethlehem, I highly recommend this wonderfully imaginative tale for children, both playful and respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones.  The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film. The Star is also available on Netflix. You can see my full review from last year here.

2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas is also well worth seeing as a new version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, coming especially from the perspective of the author’s struggle to write one of the best stories of all time. (I could relate!) The title is not my favorite, yet it is a worthy retelling of A Christmas Carol, with wonderful performances, some clever writing, and a lovely focus on family. Here is a review from the Director of our Pauline Media Studies Center, Sister Nancy Usselmann. 

My Inspiration for This Week: Intersections of Faith & Culture!

God surprised me last week with a wonderful, unexpected resource that explores the great connection between faith and writing, called The Festival of Faith & Writing. There are a number of these kinds of events throughout the U.S., but what makes this one special is that they podcast some of the major addresses. Here is a description in their own words:

The Festival of Faith & Writing is a biennial celebration of literature and belief, both broadly construed. Drawing more than 2,000 people from across the world to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Festival offers three days of lively lectures, readings, conversations, films, workshops, concerts, plays, and more, all fueled by coffee and good food. It’s a feast for readers, including those who also write.

Rooted in the Christian Reformed belief in common grace, the Festival of Faith & Writing creates space for meaningful discussion and shared discovery among people with different religious beliefs and practices. On the campus of Calvin College, we bring together diverse voices and perspectives in thoughtful reflection on the stories that we shape and that also shape us.

Rewrite Radio is the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing, and they seem to have included all of 2016’s lectures, as well as some older ones. This week, I was delighted to listen to two writers whose nonfiction has mentored me on my faith-writing journey: Madeleine L’Engle (from an early 1996 Festival) and Frederich Buechner (Rewind episode from 1992). And there are many more that I am looking forward to listening to. I’m hoping they will post up the 2018 Festival in the not-too-distant future!

 

A #MediaNuns Update

Last night Salt + Light TV’s Catholic Focus was on My Sisters, the Daughters of Saint Paul’s online community devoted to helping members meet Christ and experience his love in daily life. Each week, we have a Monday night “Spiritual Accompaniment” on Facebook Live, where we have a conversation about a chosen spiritual theme, and throughout the week we offer prayers, mini-conferences, and other resources to enrich members’ spiritual growth and life of faith. If you are interested in finding more support for your spiritual life from a community whose spirituality is Pauline, holistic, and communication/arts oriented, you may want to check it out! (Trial month is just $1.) Next week we start the Advent retreat, so it’s the perfect time to join! (For more information, visit https://mysisters.blog/ or to join, visit: www.pauline.org/mysisters )

 

O Glorious Night “Singing Nuns” Christmas Concert

Finally, it’s that time of year when our Daughters of Saint Paul Choir go on tour-this year to 7 cities!-for their beautiful Christmas concert. Concert locations are:

  • Staten Island, NY
  • Boston, MA
  • Lafayette, LA
  • New Orleans, LA
  • St. Louis, MO
  • Cleveland, OH
  • Los Angeles, CA

You will not regret hearing this wonderful music and witnessing their incredible joy in Christ. Check out the concert nearest you!

 

 

 

 

 

Can Catholics Have Self-Esteem? on Salt + Light TV on Friday (Nov. 16)

On Friday, November 16th, at 7 PM EST, I will be appearing on Salt + Light TV’s Perspectives, for a full-ranging discussion with host Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann about self-esteem, pride, humility…and how all of those connect with the Gospels. (You can watch the program here online: http://saltandlighttv.org/perspectives/ ) As you probably know, I have been writing and speaking about self-esteem for a number of years. Last month, Pauline Books & Media released my new book of mini-meditations on self-esteem, titled: Just A Minute: Meditations to Grow in Self-Esteem. The classic book—See Yourself Through God’s Eyes: 52 Meditations To Grow in Self-Esteem—has proved so popular that we released it as an audiobook last year (available at Audible.com, iTunes, and on CD as well).

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m going to try to be live on social media during the broadcast (Facebook Page, my Facebook Group and Twitter), in case anyone would like to chat during or follow up after the show. Come and join me!

*  *  *

Lately, I’ve discovered a few recent gems of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis about culture and faith—many of them direct addresses to writers, journalists, and artists. Here are a few of my favorite quotes that I am pondering in these days. I have included links to the full articles/texts, which are well worth reading in their entirety:

 

Trust in Christ’s truth, which sets us free!

“As Christian journalists, you are distinguished for your positive attitude towards the person and for your professional ethic. You do not merely do a job, but rather you dedicate yourselves to a task and to a commitment. How easy it is, though, to let oneself be carried along by popular opinion, by a dissatisfaction and a pessimism that paralyses and blinds! “By force of habit we no longer stand up to evil. We ‘let things be’, or as others have decided they ought to be” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, 137). Let us as for parrhesia, let us ask for the frankness that comes from the Holy Spirit and that helps us to trust in Christ’s truth, which sets us free. Let us scale the wall of sadness and resignation, and help people to open their eyes and ears, and most of all their heart, to take responsibility for each other and to be aware of being sons and daughters of the one Father.”  – To a group of German journalism students, on November 9, 2018)

“Be pioneers empowered by God!”

“Please be pioneers empowered by God (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). But do not give in to the temptation of domesticating these frontiers: it is essential to go out to the frontiers but not to bring frontiers home to touch them up with a little varnish and tame them. Today’s world, subject to rapid changes and convulsed by matters of great importance for the life of faith, calls for a courageous commitment to educate in a convinced and mature faith, to give life meaning and to offer convincing answers to all who are seeking God. It is a question of supporting the Church’s action in all the fields of her mission.” – Address of Pope Francis to the community of writers of La Civilta Cattolic, June 14, 2013 

 

Spread a Eucharistic Culture

“…Spread, through prayer and activity, a “Eucharistic culture” – in other words a way of thinking and working grounded in the Sacrament yet perceptible also beyond the limits of the Church community. In a Europe afflicted by indifference and swept by divisions and forms of rejection, Christians renew before everyone, Sunday after Sunday, the simple and powerful gesture of their faith: they gather in the Lord’s name and acknowledge that they are brothers and sisters. And the miracle is repeated: in the hearing of the word and in the sign of the broken bread, even the smallest and lowliest assembly of believers becomes the body of the Lord, his tabernacle in the world. The celebration of the Eucharist thus becomes a cradle of attitudes that generate a Eucharistic culture, for it impels us to express in our way of life and our thinking the grace of Christ who gave of himself to the full.”  – Pope Francis, to participants in Pontifical Committee for International Eucharistic Congresses, November 10, 2018

 

The Contemplation of Beauty

“To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.” – Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Message at Rimini, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty” An exquisite exploration of beauty and how it draws to truth and to the Truth, Christ himself. Essential reading for any artist today. 

 

The Way of Beauty

“One may speak of a via pulchritudinis, a path of beauty which is at the same time an artistic and aesthetic journey, a journey of faith, of theological enquiry. The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar begins his great work entitled The Glory of the Lord – a Theological Aesthetics with these telling observations: ‘Beauty is the word with which we shall begin. Beauty is the last word that the thinking intellect dares to speak, because it simply forms a halo, an untouchable crown around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.’ He then adds: ‘Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. It is no longer loved or fostered even by religion.’ And he concludes: ‘We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.’ The way of beauty leads us, then, to grasp the Whole in the fragment, the Infinite in the finite, God in the history of humanity. Simone Weil wrote in this regard: ‘In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible. For this reason all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.’ Hermann Hesse makes the point even more graphically: ‘Art means: revealing God in everything that exists.’ ”  – Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Artists in Sistine Chapel, November 21, 2009

 

Daily Routine: the Hidden Art of the Love Story of Each Person with the Living God and Their Brothers and Sisters

“…The history of the Church is also inseparably the history of culture and art. Works such as the Summa Theologiae by St Thomas Aquinas, the Divine Comedy, Chartres Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel or Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cantatas are unparalleled syntheses of Christian faith and human expression. However, if these are, so to speak, the peaks of such syntheses between faith and culture, their convergence is brought about daily in the life and work of all the baptized, in that hidden art which is the love story of each one with the living God and with his brethren, in the joy and effort of following Jesus Christ in the daily routine of life.”  – Pope Benedict XVI, 25th Anniversary Pontifical Council for Culture, June 15, 2007

Finding God in the Culture

Here a few interesting resources I’ve recently found online:

In last week’s Message to the Information Agency of the Italian Episcopal Conference of Bishops (English translation provided by Zenit.org) Pope Francs reiterates his concerns that journalists focus on the truth, quoting this year’s Message for World Communications Day. At the end of his message, Pope Francis gives a few tips on how journalists and communicators can create “bridges of understanding and dialogue” that can help the truth to emerge:

I hope you will always be ready to listen and to engage in sincere dialogue, to let the truth emerge. I encourage you to focus more and more on the fullness of quality information that can build bridges of understanding and dialogue. Walk, as you have done so far, on the beautiful and tiring paths of thought, of not compromising with anyone. Be free and keep your distance from reductive models. Help to understand the facts in their complexity and their deep meaning.

Perhaps this could become a helpful checklist for the times when we communicate in a tension-filled, potentially divisive situation?

Does my message:

__ give quality information that focuses on context, breadth, and depth (always according to the communication media being used)

__ foster dialogue, that is, build a bridge of understanding between sides, between concerns

__ tirelessly seek the truth, free of compromise

__ free of agenda

__ stay clear of “reductive models” such as taking sides, overpoliticizing, stereotypes, etc.

__ help others to understand the meaning of events, going beyond the facts by giving them a context and a sense of the human complexity of the situation

 

In his homily for the Mass at the closing of the Synod on Young People, Faith, and DIscernment, Pope Francis offers us another tip for those of us who are consciously striving to evangelize: “We are called to carry out God’s work in God’s own way: in closeness, by cleaving to him, in communion with one another, alongside our brothers and sisters. Closeness: that is the secret to communicating the heart of the faith.”

 

This is a fun and fascinating article about the journey of Tim Clemente from cop to FBI agent to Hollywood screenwriter--and how he always puts his faith and family at the heart of his life and career.

 

Paul Asay’s Watching God column on Patheos has had some excellent columns in the past which I have quoted or linked to. In this week’s column, he looks at two new network television shows that explore faith.  Although I do not currently have the opportunity to often watch network TV, I found myself intrigued by his commentaries on both shows and thought you might enjoy it.

 

Finally, in my recent article on the Pauline Media Studies Center blog, I highlight how documentaries have increasing accessibility and value today, and I recommend three good documentaries produced this year.

Photo by Sam McGhee on Unsplash