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?

The Artist is an “apostle of beauty”

In the new film, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word  (directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Wim Wenders), Pope Francis calls the artist an apostle of beauty. And then he goes on to say that all of us are–or can be–apostles of simple, everyday beauty. He highlights two ways in which that is so…

…but really, you have to watch the movie to find out the rest of what he said (or you can guess in the comments below)!

I’ll be posting a full review of the film shortly, but I just wanted to get a quick word out there about two things:

  1.  Pope Francis: A Man of His Word should be seen by the whole world. It is a father’s video-letter to his children, encouraging us, challenging us, and urging us to be more. We catch a real glimpse of the heart of this Pope: personal, warm, direct, hope-filled and yet full of pathos. In the beautifully filmed segments where Pope Francis speaks directly to us, we can see the pain in his eyes–the pain of a father who sees the suffering that some of his children cause his other children.The film will be available in fewer theaters this week, but it is so worth seeing on the big screen. If, however, you miss it, we will certainly be carrying it at our Pauline Book & Media Centers!You can see the trailer here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOmY8i-uBcYz

  2. This quote from the film (and the entire film) is totally appropriate and fitting for the first-ever “National Creativity Day,” sponsored by ScreenwritingU, which I have found offers quality classes on writing great screenplays. Some great ideas for the day (and beyond), when we struggle with moving forward in our writing/artistic/creative projects!   https://www.facebook.com/NationalCreativityDay/

 

Building creative synergy

Front door of the Daughters of Saint Paul novitiate and Pauline Books & Media

One of the joys of working at the Pauline Books & Media publishing house is that I get to work on many projects and, since frequently I’m just working on one piece of a larger project, I’m often working with others–both sisters and laity. It’s wonderful to tap into the synergy of such a creative group of people.

But even working in such a great atmosphere with such wonderful people, we have to work at creating a synergy that fosters creativity for everyone. Of course, that’s because we take our Pauline mission to heart: we all take on extra responsibilities because we want to every aspect of our mission to go forward. And so we’re all too busy to get together “just” to brainstorm.

But occasionally, we manage to pull it off. How? Here are some of the things we do–whether intentionally or intuitively–that work to nurture our creative synergy:

  • We share our deeper values–sometimes as we discuss the audience or scope of a project, sometimes in our prayer together. It’s our custom to start our meetings with prayer.
  • We build up community and share information and ideas informally–over a cup of coffee, taking a brief walk, etc. Just maintaining a regular flow of communication and ideas can spark new and exciting ideas.
  • We value input from people different from us (outside of our department), and invite others to brainstorm with us: people with expertise different from our own, with other perspectives, working in other fields
  •  We occasionally change our meeting venue–especially when things feel stale or pressured. Last month, a small group of us met at a coffee shop, rather than our conference room.
  • We pay attention to atmosphere. For example, if it’s a kid project, we try to make it playful and might bring a kid’s toy or prop.
  • We try to make our audience our starting point. Often one of us will spend a couple of hours researching a particular audience’s needs and bring that research into the brainstorming.

These things seem to help us make space for the creativity of the Holy Spirit, despite the busy schedules and the juggling of many responsibilities.

Re-Telling the Story of God’s Love

Christmas Concert from the Choir Loft! (taken by novice Sr. Chelsea)

Christmas Concert from the Choir Loft! (taken by novice Sr. Chelsea)

Every Christmas, the Daughters of St. Paul Choir go on tour with a beautiful concert that is much more than just a musical experience. The photos  can’t capture what it’s like to be sung to by this group of talented women dedicated to Christ and to communicating Christ.

It’s been ten years since I’ve been to one of their concerts, and, as always, I am profoundly touched by how the sisters’ singing becomes a channel or opening for the grace of Christ. You can feel the presence of God as the sisters sing.

I know these sisters personally and have lived in community with many of them. They are wonderful, talented women truly dedicated to their vocation to living and communicating Christ. They are also really normal, human, flawed women who struggle with the same things that you and I struggle with every day. The gift that they make of themselves in these concerts allows God to bless their goodness and littleness–their letting Him in–so that He can shine His light and love through them.

Concert PhotoThis year, I was also struck by how each song is a re-telling of the story of God’s love for humanity; of God taking on human flesh and becoming a baby for love of us. Of course, the choir chooses each song carefully for its meaning and beauty, but the songs and their styles are quite diverse–from traditional hymns such as “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “O Holy Night,” to an upbeat version of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” to the “doo-wops” of “A Perfect Christmas Night.” Yet, each Christmas song is a unique re-telling of the story of God’s love for us.

The Nativity story has inspired the creativity of countless artists through the ages. This Advent and Christmas, while I enjoy the beauty of Christmas music and art that surrounds me, I’m going to deepen my joy by wearing my “writer’s hat” and observing how each Christmas expression–ornament, song, decorations, cards, and more–creatively tells a piece of the story of how God’s love touches the earth.

A Writer’s Magnificat

On this Thanksgiving Day, I want to thank God in a special way for the gift of calling me to write.

A Writer’s Magnificat

My whole being glorifies the greatness of our creative God; img_0124-2012-11-21-11-26.jpg
my spirit rejoices in the Holy One
who saves me, guides me, inspires me.
For God delights in me when I write,
and favors my creative efforts, little as they are,
so that they bear fruit.
The Almighty blesses me with the call to write,
showering me with the gifts
of inspiration, wordsmithing, imagination,
and the desire to always seek and speak the truth in love.
From now on, I will never stop praising God’s goodness
in my life and in my words.
The Almighty has surprised me by doing great things:
God invites me to share in a small way
in His own life-giving creativity
by naming, forming, and sharing insight into His creation!

The merciful Lord works in those who trust Him
even when the page is blank,
inspiration lacking,
resistance plentiful,
and every word an anxious strain.
He grants me the strength to persevere,
calls me to listen,
and admonishes me when I become puffed up with my own pride.
But when I acknowledge my insufficiency,
surrender to His inspiration,
and trust His never-failing help,
He lifts me up,
filling me with ideas, insight, compassion,
and the joy of serving God and humanity.
He fulfills His promise of faithful love,
allaying my fears,
with me always. Glory…

Gift of Beauty

I’ve been reflecting on the power of beauty for a class that I’m taking. In my life, the link between beauty and prayer feels pretty direct, like an arrow’s flight that pierces the heart. This past week in Toronto, we have had a full week of June-like weather. (March usually brings snow flurries, not 75 degree weather!) I’ve been spending as much time outdoors as possible, reveling in the unexpected warmth. Two days ago, I saw a mallard duck out on the river, and the sunlight reflected off his head in a shimmer of brilliant green. Instantly, I was pierced. Tears filled my eyes and a profound sense of gratitude filled my heart for the gift of this moment of beauty.

I hope that a few of my words will shimmer brilliantly enough to bring tears and draw a pierced heart closer to God.

Recently, I joined the Catholic Writers Guild and signed up for their Catholic Writers Conference Online, which has seven days of online courses and seven days of scheduled chats (running this week and next). I am really enjoying the several classes I’m taking–one of which is about “sprucing up” your blog, so hopefully you’ll share the benefits of the class.

 

Change of Pace

I’m doing something that I’ve found really important to do in my life as a writer and communicator and a sister: I’m taking a break. I’m currently in Chicago taking a class; next I’m traveling to Boston to work on developing our new website, and finally, I’m taking some vacation time, and making retreat. All in all, it’s going to be a real change of pace for me, as I’ve been so immersed in writing new projects the past several months.

I hope that it will be a time of renewal and refreshment, although both the class and the work/meetings will be intense, since we’re trying to accomplish a lot in a very limited time frame. Already, I miss my morning writing sessions… Although I find writing daily very important to my writing process and productivity, sometimes simply changing the pace or taking a break can be helpful. Especially when I start to feel drained. This past week, I’d started to feel that writing had become more about will power and pushing up hill than being open to the Spirit’s inspiration. Will power is essential for getting to the chair and focusing my attention. But ideally, what happens after that–is listening, surprise, or discovery. If it feels all uphill, either I’m doing too much or it’s time for a break. So, although this trip was planned months ago, the timing is just right.

One of my challenges during this time will be to really take the break. I am in the middle of two big projects, and I find myself thinking about them–or rather, worrying about them. Worry has never helped my creative process. My goal is to put them aside for now, apart from my meetings with my editor while I’m in Boston, so that I can come back to them refreshed.

Unfortunately, this change of pace also means I’ll be blogging very infrequently in the next month. I’ll try to check in occasionally, perhaps more with photos than words.

I’m curious how others get the rest or break that they need in the midst of a heavy writing or creative  schedule. What’s that like for you?

Creativity Comes in Hiccups

Today is one of those days where it’s hard to get started. I’ve been sitting at my computer for close to an hour, doing the electronic equivalent of puttering. I could pretend to myself that my subconscious needed some time to figure out how to start the next paragraph that I’ll be writing, but that would not be true.  (My “productive puttering” is usually not electronic–my preferred choices are clearing off my desk or going for a walk.)

Part of the challenge is that I’m writing and editing “flat out,” on a tight deadline that stretches over the next two months. And another part of my challenge is staying focused, as I have a multitude of non-related, smaller deadlines trying to intrude on my writing time. It’s at times like this that I probably most need to take a break and clear my head, but it’s just at times like these when it’s hardest to step away.

Is my resistance coming from fatigue, too much pressure, or simply from my renewed recognition of the impossibility of capturing in words the mystery of Christ which I am trying to write about today? I suspect a bit of all three. The fine line between daily commitment and knowing when to take a much-needed break is something I am still learning how to discern. To have the courage to write about imposing topics, it helps to feel the inner flow of creativity.  Yet, my creativity comes in hiccups. Most of the time I don’t “feel” creativity flowing. Instead, it rushes upon me once I’ve gotten started.

For example, last evening while I was praying, I received a rush of ideas about a new book I want to write, and after trying to push them aside, I finally put down my Bible and took notes. How much was inspiration? How much was my prayer “unlocking” my deeper desire to write this book? I have no idea. But, it’s all grace.

And that’s the approach I will take this morning as I turn back to the current book. This “rough draft” stage feels more like heavy lifting than inspiration. But I will trust that, as long as I am listening, God will guide my mind, heart, and tapping fingers.

I’m back

I’m back.

And sorry to have been away so long. On top of the many wonderful Christmas initiatives of our Toronto Pauline Book & Media Centre and our community, I became sick and am really just getting back on my feet. My entries for a few more weeks might be a bit sporadic as I “catch up.”

echoingsilencecover1While I was sick, I started to read a marvelous book that I may have mentioned earlier: Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton and the Vocation of Writing edited by Robert Inchausti. It’s a collection of excerpts from Merton’s articles, essays, letters, and books about writing. The selections are divided into several sections. My favorites are: Writing as a Spiritual Calling, The Christian Writer in the Modern World, On His Own Writing, and Advice to Writers. There are also sections on poetry and his comments on other writers.

From this collection, it became easy to trace the journey Merton made in relating to his writing. From the initial idea of giving up writing as a monk (I too thought I had to give up writing to become a religious sister), he joyfully obeys when his superior tells him to write, but he worries that writing may distract him from his vocation as a monk. In later years, he accepts that an essential part of his vocation as a monk is to write, although he struggles with the discipline, the unflinching honesty, and the “nakedness” before others that it requires. The last excerpts show a simple acceptance of the gift writing is as part of his sacred vocation to share what he has been given.

I found Merton’s journey amazing and inspiring, perhaps because I feel that I share many of its movements. I didn’t used to think often about how I “relate” to my writing, but lately I’ve been finding it helpful. When I only look at how much I complete, then I focus on quantity instead of the inner truth, harmony, or “resonance” of a piece, and my work loses the additional layering it needs.

As I slowly return to my writing projects, my feelings slide all over the place–guilt for neglecting them, an overeagerness to complete them, a fear that I have lost the vision for them, or that I will be unable to concentrate enough to complete them, hope that I will at some point become “creatively immersed” in a project and regain momentum and clarity. That’s why reading some of these thoughts of Merton are so helpful. To oversimplify (one must really read this book for oneself), Merton describes the vocation of the Christian artist as the service of telling the truth. To delve back in to my writing, I simply need to focus on the truth, on what needs to be said.

Looking at film “In a New Light”

In A New Light--Spirituality & the Media Arts by Ron Austin

In A New Light--Spirituality & the Media Arts by Ron Austin

Several months ago, I was thrilled to discover that Ron Austin, a veteran of the film industry and one of my favorite instructors at the Act One program, had published a book, In a New Light–Spirituality and the Media Arts. Ron’s one-day seminar had such artistic  and spiritual depth that his ideas have consistently inspired me as writer since. Needless to say, I eagerly ordered the book…and I just finished my first read.

 

In a New Light–Spirituality and the Media Arts is a profound reflection on the spiritual foundation for creative work. Ron’s writing is like the classes I took with him–so dense that it takes a long time to “unpack,” which is why it took me several months to read this little book. And I plan to go back for a re-read almost immediately.

 

“The paradigm for me as a Christian is, as always, Jesus, who ‘emptied himself’ on the Cross to reveal the ultimate truth of God’s redemptive love. This is the model for our spiritual discipline, and if we integrate it into our work, it might be called, ‘creative kenosis,’ an imitation of Jesus’ self-emptying in the context of artistic creation.” (p. 81)

 

Ron divides his book into three parts. Part One explores the spiritual foundation for the arts today. Ron himself is a Catholic Christian, but the three principles he develops are found in all the major faith traditions. Something in me deeply resonated with each of the three principles: Being in the Present Moment, Affirming the Mystery of the Other, and Transforming Conflict. Ron gives examples of how they can undergird the work of artists, but I am still working at how I  can integrate them fully into my choices as a writer.

 

Part Two is a history of the spiritual in film. Definitely a quick survey but full of insights, Ron covers the development of film as an art form by dedicating short chapters to one or two filmmakers whose bodies of work are especially significant in responding to the spiritual needs of their times –from Charlie Chaplin to Federico Fellini, to Robert Bresson, to Krzysztof Kieslowski. The end of the book includes a filmography of 100 films that reflect the spiritual concerns of the times.

 

Part Three, entitled “Spiritual Frontiers,” challenges today’s communicators and media artists to respond to the cries of humanity thirsting for meaning, for hope, for transcendence–in his own terms, a “new light” for the media today.

 

I’ll close with another favorite quotation that deeply challenges me from In a New Light–Spirituality and the Media Arts:

 

“If we are to meet the crucial needs of our times, the creative task of the contemporary filmmaker will be to develop forms that render the mysterious and healing presence of God.” (p. 72)