Seeds of Hope for Discouraged Writers, Part 2

One of my favorite series of moments each year is when I spot the first signs of spring. No matter how mild or exciting the winter, mid-February always finds me restless and ready for springtime. Often, I will search the grocery stores for an inexpensive miniature rose plant whose beauty offers me a daily multi-sensory reminder that spring is coming.

As I struggled last month with a very real temptation to give in to discouragement, I decided that, even though I didn’t feel like doing anything, I would counteract the temptation by immersing myself in something I loved: nature. I visited a nearby park with the sole purpose of looking for signs of spring, even though technically it was still winter. The signs that I found became metaphors for hope that questioned or replaced my discouragement. (Photos are from midMarch.)

1) Melting snow and ice

After living through ten Canadian winters, where ice didn’t melt till May and snowfall after snowfall just piled up throughout the entire winter months, the sight of snow and ice melting has become a powerful promise that the world around me will not stay frozen forever.

Discouragement can be a bit like a frozen state: so strong that it freezes out other feelings. As I walked and watched the sun melt away the frozen snow, I started to think about the causes of my discouragement. Is there something in me that I need to allow to gradually “thaw” out? Just as the gradual thaw of spring allows the ground to absorb the needed moisture, perhaps I can peacefully let the warmth in my life prepare me to face the feelings, experience, or loss that caused me to feel discouraged in the first place. Melting ice reminds me that my creative spirit will not be frozen forever.

2) Mud

Mud might seem like a strange welcome sign of spring, but I have grown to love the sight of brown ooze. Wet, messy earth might be ugly, but it is incredibly fertile, teeming with potential for new life! Planting in the moist earth of a garden is an incredible sensory experience, digging one’s hands into mud to plant seeds and young seedlings. Mud is also incredibly easy to manipulate: whether digging holes, clearing out weeds, or shaping flower beds.

Yes, mud is ugly and messy, something that most of us avoid, skirting around it when we are out walking because it leaves a trail, a residue to clean up. New life—and the fertile patches where new life can take root—can be messy, too. Spring isn’t just about beautiful flowers, but about growth and new life—and mud is an important part of that. Is there something in my life that I dismiss as “too messy” or too risky—or perhaps too insignificant—to pay attention to?

3) Flowing Water

Bodies of water, whether a gently bubbling brook, a rippling pond, or the ocean tide, have a natural rhythm to them that can soothe a restless spirit. Flowing water can encourage us to simply “be” in the moment, to “go with the flow.”

I am blessed to have always lived near a lake or river, and sometimes only an hour away from the ocean. When I need to reflect, get away, or simply don’t know what I need, I often choose to go walking near a body of water.  Allowing the movement of the waters—whether gentle or strong—to simply surround me is almost always helpful—even if it just makes me feel better. Sometimes it is in simply watching the water that I will discover whatever it is in me that is blocking my creative flow. Other times, simply enjoying the tranquility in the rhythmic motion will remind me that the “creative flow” that I seek in my writing cannot be forced but will return in its own time and way because it, like my writing, is gift.

4) Buds

This photo is an early bud of a broad-leafed lilac. The “usual suspects” that herald spring in New England are forsythia, crocuses, and the yellowing branches of willow trees. Yet, I unexpectedly found these brave lilac buds before I saw any of my “usual” markers of spring. And lilacs are one of my favorite flowers: their fragrance is an all-too-brief delight that I unabashedly seek out during the few weeks of their blooming. What an unexpected delight to discover these buds of my favorite flower!

Paying attention to the unexpected is an essential part of my creative process. Yet in the past few years, too often I have allowed this process to often be short-circuited by deadlines, by an over-emphasis on trying to do too much too fast.

Feeling discouraged and creatively blocked are also unexpected. Usually I see them as being negative, but perhaps they, too, have a message to give me about allowing myself the time to slow down, to listen, to be quiet, to anticipate or to “smell the lilacs” present in my life right now.

 

5) Song of the red-winged blackbird

The red-winged blackbird’s call can be one of the more obnoxious birdcalls, especially when an area is overtaken by them. But in early spring, their call is a welcome sign that red-winged blackbirds have returned from their winter migration! On my walk, these cacophonous birds reminded me again that even frozen winters pass, and to take advantage of whatever writerly season in which I find myself, because it too, will soon be over. Even if the season is a time to deepen rather than blossom!

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Seeds of Hope for Discouraged Writers

Discouragement has been a frequently recurring writing companion for much of 2019. Usually, finding the time to write has always been the most difficult obstacle to my writing. But this year, although writing time has certainly been elusive, discouragement has haunted the time that I have been able to dedicate.

Have you ever noticed how interconnected everything in life can be? If I am spiritually dry, it often overflows into other aspects of my life. So, I took some of the very good spiritual advice I’ve received in the past about discouragement and applied it to my writing…and it seemed to jumpstart my brain out of blank page “terrors.” These seeds of hope included:

  • The Cross.
  • Lessons of spring: Pay attention to anything that grows, especially if you envy it.
  • Companionship.
  • Choose the voices you listen to.
  • Take baby steps forward (maybe one a day), no matter how silly, worthless, or unimportant they seem.

Each week for the next couple of weeks, I’ll reflect on one of these “seeds of hope for the discouraged writer” to keep up my own writing and, perhaps, to inspire you when your writing isn’t flowing.

The Cross

“If the Lord loves us—and he does love us—he will permit that in our lives we will have to pass through difficult moments and times, and perhaps through trials. And even if temptations last for a long time, and it turns out as it did for St. Teresa [of Avila]—who remained burdened for fifteen years with temptations and aridity; if your spiritual state has to be such, then your sanctity will be reached only in this way: abandonment in God.”  – Blessed James Alberione

Everyone has bad days. But how do we follow Blessed James Alberione’s advice to abandon ourselves into God’s loving hands when we are living through a difficult season that wears us down emotionally, creatively, and spiritually (and perhaps physically)? Suffering and loss push us into the uncomfortable process of being stripped of the familiar, sometimes of what we most don’t want to let go of. Just as we are feeling the most out of control and at our weakest, when discouragement and sadness haunt our every thought and perhaps our every breath, Alberione advises us to let go but not give up. How do we do that? How can we keep going through seasons of dryness, discouragement, perhaps of temptation, suffering, or loss?

The season of Lent can offer us a very real help here, because of its focus on the cross. We may think of Lent in a very human way, rather than as the invitation it is meant to be. Lent is all about growth: in recognizing, receiving, and responding to God’s saving, life-giving love.

A) Lent is a season.

No matter how long it is, every season will pass, even a “season of darkness.” That alone gives us reason to take comfort. Knowing that this time of dryness or lack of inspiration is temporary makes it easier to accept. No matter how much we fuss, we cannot make winter (or summer) shorter. Just as Lent’s purpose—however unwelcome it may feel to our suffering-averse human nature—is to help us focus on God’s great love for us, every season has its purpose. Accepting our internal “season” is not just helpful but can become invaluable, especially as we move through it.

This doesn’t mean that we are to simply give in to discouragement! But it can be helpful to temper or adjust our expectations: in the past couple of months, I have slowly come to accept the temporary loss of enthusiasm that I usually feel when it comes to writing, and to explore the role that this natural energy has played in my life.

  

B) Lent focuses on life and growth.

Just as in the natural world, seasons are important in nurturing life and growth, Lent immerses us in the Passion and Death of Christ with the purpose of helping us to focus on God’s great, life-giving love for us.

When we are already so immersed in trials or difficulties, we may find it hard to focus on Jesus’ sacrificial love for us—because all we can see is more suffering! Our fear of suffering can blind us to the truth that Jesus’ suffering is not just a profound manifestation of God’s presence, but a promise that in all suffering—including the very real suffering of discouragement—we are never alone.

Whenever I feel tempted to give in to discouragement now, I think of Jesus falling under the weight of the Cross on his way to Calvary. What an experiences of weakness, suffering, and discouragement for the Son of God to allow himself to go through! Yet, he did so for love of me, to show me that I am never alone, even in my darkest, most desperate moments.

And just as Jesus is with me in my suffering, I can choose to deepen my union with Jesus in my suffering. A simple act of intentional love is all it takes.

C) Lent points us beyond this life to God’s eternal plan for us

Natural seasons prepare the way for the next season, but Lent also points us beyond seasons to an eternal reality: God’s great love and plan for us manifested in Christ’s Resurrection. In Lent (and in Christianity itself), Jesus’ Passion and Death are always seen in view of his Resurrection. Jesus knew that his Death on the cross was not the end.

Discouragement may feel like a “death” in our writing life. We may fear:

  • that we will never write again
  • that we will never have an original thought again
  • that we have lost our creativity forever

But no matter what we are going through, no matter how endless and/or hopeless it may feel, it is not the end. Stirring up our belief in God’s loving plan for us—and our writing is part of that plan!—enables us to find a way to continue on. Ultimately, our writing is a gift from God, and God’s fidelity is something that we can count on, trust in, and be grateful for. Whatever this season holds for us, there is a gift of God present here, although perhaps hidden by our expectations. Could God be offering us the opportunity to explore new ways to nurture our creativity? Is this is a time to receive, rather than to create? A time to listen, rather than to speak? A time to grow in honesty? to deepen our knowledge? to discover a “new way” of writing that doesn’t rely on “felt inspiration”?

If the ultimate purpose of our lives is to “fall into the hands of God,” can we not prepare to do this by learning to let the precious gift of our writing fall into his ever-faithful hands?

 

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

A Few of My Favorite Things as a Christian Writer

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash

I recently rediscovered some welcome encouragement for writers that I have found inspiring in my own intensive writing days. I think that anyone involved in any kind of creative pursuit can appreciate these inspiring words.

One of the reasons I find these kinds of reflections so encouraging is that our most important creative pursuit is, of course, co-creating with God the masterpiece of our own lives. I love how whatever advice is given for artistry or craft—whether attention, focus, discipline, gentleness, freedom, trust—becomes even truer when I apply that advice to my life.

 

A Letter to Artists

Makoto Fujimura is a prominent artist, speaker, and writer, whose art has been exhibited around the world and who seeks to uplift culture through IAMCultureCare, integrating faith, art, and beauty. His websites offer many resources to artists of today, but I’d like to highlight his A Letter to Young Artists, which is a personal favorite of mine. In this essay, Fujimura offers wonderful advice about:

  • joy in creating
  • God as the author of all creativity
  • trusting the process—even the awkward beginning stages when our creative wings are “unformed lumps” (a reference to C.S. Lewis)
  • genuine creativity is sacrificial love

The Good Book tells us that we are loved. Because of that love, which exceeds our own love, we can move out to take risks in creativity. Love is the ultimate fruit of the Spirit and our total dependence on the true source of creativity will nurture love. Art, ultimately, is expression of that love. Therefore we cannot create but by sacrificial love. We need to redefine art and its effectiveness by how it helps us to love one another sacrificially. Fear and terror, in any form, will destroy creativity and people. Fear and terror will twist our creativity to expand our “Ground Zeros.” Even when we cannot paint or write, love is available to us a creative resource to share with others. Stand on the ashes of your “Ground Zero”; look up and create in love and hope. – A Letter to Artists by Makoto Fujimura

You may wish to browse the many wonderful resources Mako Fujimura offers for the creative life, including his own writings and the IAMCultureCare website. (On a personal note, I highly recommend Mako Fujimura’s book Silence and Beauty, as well as his video reflections on Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence, which offer abundant material to deepen the themes of the film and Endo’s novel on which the film is based.)

Photo by Gerald Berliner on Unsplash

An Encouragement for Spring and the Writing Life

When I first read Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer, I found it full of practical wisdom about deeply living our vocation. (And I just discovered that he co-hosts a new podcast, The Growing Edge, which I’m going to check out.)

This 2014 short post by Parker Palmer, entitled An Encouragement for Spring and the Writing Life is fitting not just because some of us are tired of winter and ready for spring (Boston received its biggest snowfall so far this year in March!), but also because of the beautiful imagery his poem offers us to reflect on our own creative journey.

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.