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

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?

For Catholic Creatives

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It has been over a year since I have been able to give any significant focus at all to writing—either for my blogs or a new book. And it has been about four years since I have been able to dedicate consistent time to writing longer projects, beyond the short pieces I write for Pauline Digital.

Last month and again today, I have been able to take a full day to really focus on getting back into writing. It has been exciting, overwhelming, and unnerving. I used to try to write daily—even if only for a short time—and now, I’m getting back to something I haven’t really done for years. In some ways, it is like I never stopped. In other ways, I feel rusty. Despite a bit of unease, I am really looking forward to writing more. I had a taste of the sheer delight of writing when working on my recent blogpost highlighting The Ten Best Animated Family Features.

Although I have a book midway, I’ve decided to dive in with a small project that I have mentioned here many times, both for myself and because I believe it is needed today more urgently than ever: a reflection guide for Pope St. John Paul II’s inspiring Letter to Artists. Much of our culture’s art now comes from a nonChristian worldview. And while great art can always offer us insight, depth, and meaning, I believe that great art rooted in faith and in the Scriptures has a special power to inspire individuals and transform culture in a way that brings humanity closer to God.

If you consider yourself a creative—whether professional or amateur: in literature (writer, novelist, poet, journalist), in the performing arts (actor, dramatist, costume or scenic design), in music (composer, performer, musician, conductor), in visual arts (graphic designer, illustrator, drawing, painting, photography, sculpting), etc.—would you take the brief survey here?

Thank you! (You can also always post in the comments below, or email me. )

Stretching as a Writer (in a St. Paul & St. Therese Style)

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One of the beauties and challenges of religious life is living our vow of obedience. That means that sometimes we get assigned to responsibilities that are new, unfamiliar, and sometimes, seemingly not suited to us. Often, it’s because the superior sees something in us that we don’t see. Once we’ve been working in this new area for a while, we may be surprised to discover that we have gifts that we didn’t suspect. At other times, the superior is willing to “take a risk” on us because she knows that the assigned task needs to go forward, and we are the only one (or the seemingly best person) available at the time.

All of this is a long introduction to saying that, during these past two and a half years, I keep finding myself stretched because of my assigned apostolate in Pauline Digital.

Most nonwriters probably think, “Writing is writing.” They may not realize that every form of writing has its own set of challenges and required skills. I’ve been writing across multiple forms since I was a postulant, starting with children’s direct-to-video programs, but until I arrived in Digital, I did not realize that I am basically a “long form” writer. The only short form of writing that I consistently did (and enjoyed) was blogging, but even a blog can be considered long-form writing when taken as a series on one topic.

It’s also very different to write short pieces on assignment that require quick turnaround. I’ve never wanted to write on assignment because I have always been sure that my mind would totally freeze up and I wouldn’t be able to write what was needed. I have suffered from “mindfreeze” ever since I can remember: if I become afraid or scared enough, my brain stops working almost completely, and originality disappears entirely!

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A possible depiction of Black Blacquer, the villain of my 1st story.

When it comes to writing, mindfreeze has been a problem for me at least since first grade when my grandfather fell asleep while I was reading him my very first completed story. (In his defense, it was after supper, he was ill and probably exhausted, my story was absolutely terrible, even for a seven-year-old’s first effort. What would you expect from a story that is less about the hero and more about the villain, who was originally named, “Black Blacquer”? His attempt to listen to my story probably bordered on heroic.)

But I digress.

I believe many writers, if not most, struggle to discover the confidence to write. And somehow, that confidence to write was tested anew when I started to write on assignment—especially with a tight deadline, in a short form that I already know I’m not very good at. It just felt too much like I’m taking a test that will stump me. But if I stop for a reality check and reflect on my actual experience, I realize I’ve experienced mindfreeze in my writing only once in the past two and half years. I asked for help and someone else was able to complete it just after the deadline.

As I’ve grown as a writer and in my relationship with God, I’ve gradually come to realize that mindfreeze—and my chronic insecurity as a writer—is actually a great gift. Starting every writing session with an act of humility and a profound act of trust in God is the best way that I could begin writing anything. It is writing in the spirit of St. Paul and St. Therese  of Lisieux, recognizing that I am an earthen vessel holding a precious treasure, that I have empty hands but that I offer the very emptiness to God so that God can fill me! Ultimately, what I write is not for me nor ultimately about me, but about communicating what God inspires to say in service of others. Every so often, I need to be reminded that it’s absolutely essential that I “reset” my motivations every day. So I’m grateful that recently, I’ve received this reminder so frequently. I see with new eyes that my struggle in the past couple of years with short forms, quick deadlines, and yes, even mindfreeze, has actually been a blessing—for me personally first of all, but ultimately, I hope, for those who listen to and read what I write.

A great read for writers: Scribbling in the Sand by Michael Card

As a writer and communications artist, I am always looking for further inspiration for creativity from a faith perspective, but only rarely do I find real resources that I want to keep going back to. There are seem to be only a handful (which you can see on last week’s post here).

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That’s why I was delighted to recently discover Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity by evangelical musician and songwriter Michael Card. Michael’s songs are based on the Word of God and his following of Christ. They draw from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, as well as his own prayerful reflection and lived experience. I have enjoyed listening to his prayerful insights into the Scripture in his exquisite lyrics for decades—since my first years in the convent when I first discovered his music.

Scribbling-in-the-Sand-PapeScribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity is a wonderful companion for anyone on a creative-faith journey. His insights and personal sharing into the artistic creative process and the closer following of Christ  inspire, provoke (in the best sense of that word—as Jesus’ parables provoke!), encourage, and set the heart aflame.

Michael’s evangelical wisdom is something I connect with deeply, perhaps because it comes from his authentic life experience.  To hear how his creative process works—which is much different from my own, but has so much in common with how I see writing as a service—was both encouraging and life-giving for my reflection on my creative process. This is especially true because at this time my creativity is “unfolding” in new ways, taking different shape and form.

Chapters 7 and 8 of Scribbling in the Sand are my favorites, although Chapter 10 is also amazing—a collection of letters from Christian artists to Christian artists. And the very short appendix, “Growing in Creativity: Some Practical Advice,” is also a rich summary of the book that is ideal for reflection and prayer on our lives as artists. In Chapter 7, with a true appreciation of the Letters of Paul which he frequently quotes, Michael invites readers to focus their creativity on the kenosis “song” of Christ in Philippians 2:6-11. He offers three “themes” of the Philippians Canticle as the “character” of creativity: Humility, servanthood, and radical obedience.

Chapter 8’s title is “A Lifestyle of Listening.” Michael’s description of the “three keys” of listening resonated for me: listening to the Word of God, listening to the silence of prayer, and listening to our own lives—as poem and parable.

If your creativity feels at a low ebb; if your faith life feels like a dry husk; or if you simply want to explore further the connection between faith and art, between our discipleship of Christ and our call to evangelize, Scribbling in the Sand is a real treasure. Michael’s other works (found on MichaelCard.com) are wonderful to explore as well.

I’ll close with a few of my favorite quotations from the book—it was hard to pick just three, there were so many beautiful ones!

“We are driven to create at this deep wordless level of the soul
because we are all fashioned
in the image of a God who is an Artist.
When we first encounter God in the Bible,
it is not as the awesome Lawgiver
or the Judge of the universe
but as the Artist.”

* * * 

“Being the Creator-Artist that he is,
the great Romancer,
the perfectly loving Father,
God calls out to us, sings to us, paints images in our minds through the prophets’ visions.
These sounds and songs, these visions,
stand at the door of our own imaginations
and knock.
Through them God opens the door of his own inner life to us….
This is the heart of prophecy:
God speaking to us
in such a way as to recapture our imaginations.”

* * *

“The greatest, most beautiful expression of our creativity is to find a way to give ourselves.”   

— Michael Card, Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creatity

Journeys of Faith Help Us To See: in Life and in Film “Risen”

Even though my blog has had new  posts, I’ve a secret. The truth is that for the past two weeks I haven’t been online much. I wrote those entries before I left on my trip to Rome and scheduled them to post. So I was deeply touched this morning, after my return, to discover how many of you are happy that I’m returning to weekly blogging, “liking” my posts and sharing them.  A huge thank you!

I prayed for you while I was in Rome, especially in three places that are more meaningful for me:

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One of the chapels at the Generalate of the Daughters of St. Paul, at the “Casa San Paolo” where we had our meetings. I prayed for you there especially upon my arrival and on World Communications Day on May 8th.

 

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At Saint Peter’s, I carried all of you in my heart through the holy door for the Jubilee of Mercy.

 

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At the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls, I prayed for you at Mass and then at the tomb of St. Paul. I feel  I received many graces.

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Praying at the tomb of St. Paul the Apostle.

I was blessed to be able to visit Saint Paul’s Basilica twice, participate at Mass there twice, and pray at St. Paul’s tomb several times. (My second visit was a half-day mini-retreat.) I suspect a few people thought I was crazy to make a retreat at Saint Paul’s Basilica when there is so much to see in Rome, and I still hadn’t done half of the things I’d like to do there, but it’s such a special place for me. I found out recently how often our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, used to go and pray there—especially when he was starting the film apostolate—and so it’s grown even more meaningful for me to pray there. Unknown to me, he and I prayed for the film apostolate in the same place, some 65-75 years apart!

My trip to Rome was a beautiful opportunity to deepen my understanding and living of the apostolic mysticism of our Pauline spirituality. It was also a wonderful opportunity to reunite and meet with many Daughters of Saint Paul who are communicating Christ in various ways throughout the world. I feel like I am overflowing with good news to share about my own journey of faith…and I’ll be blogging about that!

I wanted to add to my earlier blogpost about traveling as a writer, with pilgrim eyes of faith. Another advantage of traveling as a writer is the way the lack of familiarity puts you in touch with living in the present moment. When we are away from home—and especially if we are visiting outside of our country—we realize how very much of our lives is out of our control, and how much we depend on God and others for our daily needs. I found that when I placed my trust in God for the things that I would normally take for granted (for example, finding food that fit within my restricted diet), I received so much more than what I needed! God blessed my little acts of faith with abundance. This kind of entrusting ourselves to God’s care (usually received through others’ goodness) is an essential aspect of pilgrimage, and it also creates space in us to receive. Being more receptive to the unexpected is, of course, a wonderful way for writers in particular to relate to the world around them, as it compels us to live fully in the present moment, attentive to the “fingerprints” of God in our day. The pilgrimage journey of faith opens us up as writers to notice and live within the action of God.

RisenDigitalReleaseWhile I was on the last days of my journey of faith this week in Rome, the film Risen, which is a cinematic journey of faith, released digitally. You may have read my review of Risen when it was released in the theaters, where I talk about the film as an excellent “launching pad” for prayer, reflection, and dialogue about faith and what it means in our lives. Risen is now available digitally on iTunes, Amazon digital download, and several other places. (The full list of available sites to stream or download a digital copy is here.) In two weeks, Risen will release to DVD, and as a way to help people become more aware of the film, I’m participating in a Risen blog tour, as well as a special DVD giveaway, courtesy of Sony. (I’ll post the details soon—check back!) For the film’s release, I will make available a reflection/prayer guide for the film that you can download and use personally or with a group.

Novena to Jesus Way, Truth & Life Begins Today

Today (Oct. 17th–sorry if you read this yesterday when this post accidentally went up), we begin our Pauline novena to Jesus the Divine Master, our Way, Truth, and Life! When we consider these terms with which Jesus defines or describes himself–“Way, Truth, and Life”–we realize that we have an entire spirituality, as well as an entire methodology of communication and evangelization. The Constitutions of the Daughters of Saint Paul, which are our rule of life, call us to be “way, truth, and life” for our brothers and sisters.

Here’s one beautiful moment from the novena today (day 1):

As writers or communicators, the Feast Day of Jesus the Divine Master, which we celebrate this year on Sunday, October 26th, is our feast day. Our sisters around the world have prepared a beautiful online version of the novenacome and celebrate it with us! Celebrate how each of us are called to communicate Jesus, Way, Truth, and Life in our words, gestures, actions, writing, visuals, artistry, performances, etc.