7QT: All Kinds of Writers Block (and Saints to Help)

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Join Jennifer and all the other cool papists over at Conversion Diary for Seven Quick Takes Friday!

As often happens to me after professional conferences, I’ve started getting ideas of what kinds of topics I would like to see covered at a future conference.  My mind is already cooking up an outline for a talk on beating back writers block using the Nine Ways of Prayer of St. Dominic.  In the meantime, though, here are some quick takes that I have developed over the years for battling several different species of The Block.

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The Empty Kind: I believe it was Anne Lamott who pointed this one out in Bird by Bird.  You’re out of ideas.  You have nothing to write because your brain is just empty of anything worth writing about.  What to do?  Get out of your house.  Go experience something you’ve never done before.  Never been to a thrift store?  Go visit one.  Don’t know how to knit?  Take a class.  Read a book you’ve never read on a subject you don’t know.  Get a map and drive to some place you’ve never been and look for a rock or a flower or a strangely-shaped building–something solid.  Just pray to the Holy Spirit, then go shake up your brain by putting it in a place it’s never been.  That’ll force new ideas into it like spooning applesauce into a stubborn toddler’s mouth.

Then you go home, put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  Mary the Mother of God happens to be the Queen of receiving something from nothing.  If you’re writing for her Son, she’ll be more than happy to lend a hand.

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The Too Full Kind:  So you have an idea, and you’ve done hours and hours of thinking, hours and hours of research, and you have so much to write about that you don’t know where to begin. What if you leave out something important?  What if some researcher somewhere reads your book and wrinkles her nose, saying, “Wow, this writer sure left out all the vital information on this subject.”

Relax.  Narrow your focus.  Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests looking at children’s books on your subject to help you simplify (she suggests a bunch of other things I don’t encourage, but this one’s a good idea).  Then, you put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  St. Ignatius of Loyola is an excellent example of how our faith can be used to make insurmountable problems manageable.  If anybody has “divide and conquer” down, it’s him.

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The Fear of Failure Kind:  What if you put all this work into this book, and, GASP!  It never gets PUBLISHED!?!?!?!  What if it does get published and you get, GASP!  BAD REVIEWS?!?!

Despair.com has this awesome poster for sale:

Looking sharp is easy when you haven't done any work.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.  An old friend of mine once said, “If you don’t face your fears, you’ll fear faces.”  Indeed.  So, accept that reality.  Then, you put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:   St. John Vianney was a terrible student–terrible!  Even after he did manage to get into seminary, he still couldn’t pass the test that would permit him to hear confessions.  But when God wants somebody to do something, He doesn’t let that person’s weaknesses stand in His way.  Ask the Cure of Ars for advice on how to let God turn your foibles to His purposes.

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The Fear of More Failure Kind:  You’ve gotten your 116th rejection.  You’ve gotten bad reviews.  You overheard your own sweet, elderly aunt mocking your last book to her roommate in the nursing home–and then the roommate posted a bad review of it.  On Facebook.  And Twitter.  Really, who could go on after humiliation like this?  Maybe God is sending these trials your way to let you know that this writing thing is not really His idea , and that He thinks you’re more of a pastry school kind of person.

I won’t kid you.  That may be the message God wants you to hear.  Are you listening?  Are you spending time in prayer?  Are you meditating upon the crucifix, that concrete reminder of how Jesus suffered an excruciating death for you, GASP! not so you could be published, but so you rise again with Him?  If you’re not doing those things, start now.  Spend time with the Holy Spirit and ask for courage.  Then, if you still feel that call to write, put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys–stop complaining–and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  You think all your hard work has been destroyed by the negativity of others, and you just can’t bear to go on?  St. Louis de Montfort and his model Calvary are not impressed.

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The “This is a waste of time!” Kind:  This is closely related to Fear of Failure and Fear of More Failure.  So, let’s say you’ve been inspired to write a YA historical romance in which a moon scallop is the elusive love interest.  Some (well-meaning or not) person in your critique group says, “Come on.  Nobody cares about moon scallops.  How are you going to market this thing?”

This might be good advice.  Or it might not.  How can you know unless you try?  Are you otherwise working on improving your art and craft?  Are you reading good books for a healthy brain-diet?  Are you praying, most importantly, and keeping those lines of communication open so that, if God did want you to stop writing this now, you’d know it and you’d stop?  Did you do all those things, and you still have the itch to write, even about your handsome, manly moon scallop?  Let me tell you a quick story.

I heard a speaker at a writing conference, years ago, so I can’t remember who it was to give her credit.  Anyway, this speaker had a friend who wrote book after book and got rejection after rejection.  This friend was a mom with several children.  Then this friend got ovarian cancer and died.  Her children lost their mom… but in a way, they still had her.  They had her books.  Nobody else cared enough to publish her books… but her children cared enough to still have that piece of her, that slice of her human imagination, left in their lives to comfort them.

If you’re writing for God’s glory and not your own, then you’re not wasting your time.  So put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  Did you really think I’d get this far without a Dominican saint?  I chose St. Thomas Aquinas as my patron because he’s a big, clumsy writer who liked to eat… but then was able to look at all his work as so much straw, and then walk away from it when it was time.  Your writing is not your God.  God is your God.  Once you put that in perspective, if God really wants you to write, He’ll let you.  He did for St. Thomas, after all, and even the Protestants love them some Summa Theologica.  

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The Too Tired Kind:  Pretty soon, my friend Fr. James Tucker from Comments from the Koala and I are going to do a little blog series on how much writing moms and writing priests have in common.  This first thing we share is the main feature of The Too Tired Kind of writers block.  Our time is not our own.  Whether it’s a sick call with Oil of the Infirm to the hospital or a sick call to the top bunk with a bucket of Lysol (and then to the bottom bunk, because it’s always the kid on the top bunk who pukes first)… we are on call 24/7.  If we have a spare moment, we are often too tired to use it.

What to do?  Your primary vocation may not include the luxury of hours and hours in which you can be an artiste.  Use what snippets of time you have.  In other words, just put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was of poor health and did not do well on boats, to put it mildly.  She still worked tirelessly and sailed all over the Western Hemisphere.  She did what she could with what she got.  Go and do likewise.  Bonus saint for when you just have nothing left to give:  Bl. Pope John XXIII was known to have said, “God, it’s Your Church, not mine.  I’m tired.  I’m going to bed!”

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The Malnutrition Kind:  Did you read up there when I mentioned the member of your critique group who may or may not have been speaking out of a pure heart hoping for your mutual improvement?  Maybe you are doing all the right things:  working on the art, the craft, the business; being kind; keeping up your prayer life; fasting; practicing humility.  Maybe you’re giving and giving and just not getting fed back.  It happens.  Nobody is immune, and it’s heartbreaking.  Then your creative gift may still be inside you, but it’s starving for love, like a monkey who has just had it with its wire mother.  You may need spiritual milk with skin on, with an actual, audible voice.  Jesus isn’t stupid,  He came to us as a human because He knows we need each other.  May I suggest a vessel for nourishing your creative spirit?

Retreat

Your Word is My Delight:  A Catholic Writers’ Retreat may be just what you need.  Set the date:  October 13-17, 2013 at the gorgeous St. Francis Retreat Center in Lansing, MI.  Click the link above for more information.  This retreat may be just what you need.  Go.  Be revived.  Be strengthened.  Pick up your hammer and bash through your block.  Then put your butt in the seat, put your fingers on the keys, and write.

A Saint Who Might Help:  Bl. Margaret of Castello knows what it’s like to be rejected by those very persons who are supposed to love and nurture you.  Look to her example of simple love and faithfulness.

Did I miss anything?  What kids of blocks have you experienced in your creative life, writing or otherwise?  How have you broken through?  Or, have you not yet broken through and you’re looking for advice?

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14 comments

  1. Great post, Erin. I could easily fall into the excuses of lack of time and writers block but what keeps me going is the knowlege that if our Lord does not want me to write, He’ll let me know. God comes first, even in writing.

  2. Erin, this is wonderful. I think this is going to help me immensely with my blog. I’m not interested in writing books, but I have experienced many of these types of writer’s block in regard to my blog.

  3. Nice post Erin–Thanks.. What I will do is take all seven saints and, with Our Lady’s name first, put all their names on a list and do a community shout-out to all of them together every few days. This way I can cover all of my excuses at once. (I will never remember each of them individually). Ok–Thanks again–that was fun

  4. There is so much to like in this post! I have so much stacked up, I very rarely hit writer’s block (except on the blog, where more and more often I’m flying by the seat of my pants). But the “tired” thing rings a bell (or twelve). This whole week I’ve been pushing toward Pitch Madness, and it’s got me so worked up, I’ve been waking up at 4:30 a.m. When the kids finally quieted down yesterday I sat down at the computer and totally crashed. My brain was fuzzed over. I set the timer and took 20 minutes, and then I had a wonderful productive hour. I’m going to take that quote from John XXIII. 🙂

    1. Awesome! The timer is another great tool, both for getting the writer to sit (“It’s only 20 minutes.”) and to set boundaries with the kids (“Play by yourself for n minutes, then I’ll come play with you.”). Thanks for commenting with that!

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