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So, I was going to write this post as a debrief on the Caleb Conference I attended this weekend. It is a Christian Writers Conference organised this year by the Omega Writers group, and was great. But instead, I'm going to relay (and expand in Buffy style) to you just one of the sessions. Anne Hamilton, president of the Omega Writers, gave a talk on the spiritual obstacles to writing. Fair warning, I'm writing this aimed at Christians, and am not going to phrase it in terms of the secular worldview because I can't do justice to the topic that way. So, please don't be offended if you aren't a Christian, some of it may still be very enlightening.
(In case anyone was wondering, yes there are Australian Christian writers, and they are awesome! If you want to check some of them out, see the website of the publishing house Even Before Publishing.)
The Wonder of Writing:
Writing like all creative pursuits is an amazing insight into the nature of God. God is the Creator, his Word brings things into being. Further, he is The Storyteller. He can hold so many interweaving subplots in his hands, that range over millennium that even G.R.R.Martin would faint. For example, he took one person's pain at barrenness, and a thousand years later turned it into salvation for the whole human race. Similarly, Jesus, even just in his everyday interactions, taught all the people in stories.
God loves stories, and he has blessed us with the ability to create them as well. How amazing is this?
As such, there is something hugely satisfying to the soul about writing. You won't always feel it, but after a good writing session, where you have been able to create a new scene that never existed before, to give characters more depth, or find just the right words to describe the beauty you see, there is contentment.
However, as we all know, it is not always so perfect. Sometimes when we sit down it is like our brain has become wrapped in sandpaper. Any efforts to try and pull out a word gives us a graze. Or other points when you realise that you have been following the wrong track and have to delete (or hopefully put into a scraps folder, because you never really know when it might come in handy) thousands of words. And the thought of having to go back and start that part again seems to overwhelm you.
Then, on a larger scale, there are the years of rejection, or the periods where all you want to do is write, but life demands all of your time. The heart break as we sometimes pour good money after bad trying to get our work noticed. We might get sucked into bad contracts, be had by vanity presses, pay through the nose for different forms of advertising, and finally feel that after all this work, no one is ever going to hear its message.
At these times we all can fall into doubt. If God really wanted me to be a writer, it would be easier, he would open doors, he would make it a best seller. Doesn't he want his message out there?
The truth is that we have an opponent. We have someone that the more we are on God's path, the harder he will try to derail us.
So much I knew, though I might not always call it to mind at the necessary times. However, Anne went onto to talk about two particular obstacles that can affect writers. Identifying and then working out how to overcome these obstacles has been the most useful thing someone has taught me about writing for a long time.
Obstacle No. 1: Constriction.
We often feel that there is just so much coming against us that we can't define it easily. But stop and think. How often in your writing life do you feel a sense of panic around being constricted somehow?
On the larger scale this can be constricted in time for years. You know you want to write, but every moment just seems accounted for, and people just keep wanting more and more of you, so that there is nothing left at the end. You might try getting up earlier in the morning, but exhaustion soon overcomes you, and you feel you are living in a bleary, unfocused world until you finally collapse. Then there is also monetary constriction. The publishers demand that you pay for it to be edited first, and its going to cost hundreds of dollars. Where are you going to get that sort of money? Or even after it is published, you are hoping that it will pay off, and you watch as only a dollar here or a few dollars there come trickling in, and you feel you need to throw more money into advertising, but don't know if that will ever be repaid.
Then on the smaller scale there is constriction within your writing session. That panic that arises when you have set a word limit, or a particular speed per hour, and yet the words are so painful in coming out that you know you aren't meeting it. And you know it is a downward spiral, that once you start focusing on the lack of words, even fewer will be produced, but you can't seem to stop it. This, for me is a form of 'Constriction'. Anything that makes you feel like you are being choked, held back from what you know your writing can be because of some form of constriction.
Obstacle No. 2: Wastage.
On the other side of the spectrum, but still just as deadly to your writing, is wastage. It is any point where you use your resources and get nothing in return. You pay for a new computer, only to have it not work or do what you need it to. You spend hours formatting your work, only to have it not save and everything is lost. It can even involve being sucked into research, trying to find the one bit of information you need, but spending hours doing it and still not getting what you need.
It can be a large wastage, such as spending years working on a manuscript only to find that no one will publish it because it doesn't fit the proper categories. Or it can be a small scale wastage, having just twenty minutes to write and at the end finding out that what you've written doesn't make sense so you have to delete it.
Wastage can be just as soul sucking and destructive as constriction. It feels like no matter how much you pour into your project, nothing ever produces the results that you know it should. And this happens time, after time, after time.
With both of these it is easy to think that if God really wanted us to write, he would take away these obstacles. We have heard of and experienced in other parts of our life God just turning up the time that we need by having something cancel. Or someone comes and gives us the thing we need right when we need it, without us having to pay or ask for it. So why doesn't he do this now? The obvious answer would be that he doesn't want us to write.
That is possibly one solution, I'm not going to deny it. It could also be a 'not yet' situation, where God does want you to write, but after you have faithfully raised your children, or gained more life experience, developed your craft, whatever. That is something you need to discuss with him. However, this is not the only answer.
The second possible answer is that God definitely does want you to write, and the strength of these obstacles shows just how important it is. The devil is trying his hardest to stop you, in any way that he can, because it is important. So why is God allowing this? Possibly because he wants to use it to develop your character. The most important work of God in any life is to build a strong, faith-filled character. He wants this much more than anything else. Building up your trust and reliance on God might be worth the project being set back a few weeks or hundreds of dollars.
The third possibility, though, is one we seriously need to consider: that at some point along the way we have been faced with the obstacles of constriction and wastage, and rather than submitting to God, we have tried to appease them ourselves. Somehow we have sacrificed to them, giving up our time, money, faith in order to make them go away. And we are now reaping the harvest we have sown of further trouble. We might have started on God's path, but just took a little side track to get around a problem, and now are heading off in our own direction, which maybe parallel to God's, but on a much rockier road.
Never fear, though. God has your back, if you want him to. If you think this third option might just apply to you, it is a big step in the right direction to acknowledge that. You then need to ask God's forgiveness. Anytime we sacrifice anything to something that isn't God, we are caught in idolatry. Once we have started on that path, without asking forgiveness we can't get back.
To give you an example, I realised during the talk that one of the things I had done because of the obstacle of constriction was to give up my sabbath. Preparing for the conference I felt I was too busy, and it would just be for a few weeks, and surely God wouldn't mind since I was doing his work. After I did that, I found wastage attacking me. Days came and went where I got nothing done because nothing was working. I would spend hours at my computer, trying to work out ways around different formatting problems, downloading new programs, trying to work out how to use them, etc. And then I felt even more constricted, and searched for other things to sacrifice to make it all work. (I luckily stopped before sacrificing my daily Bible time, but it was a temptation at times).
So I had to ask forgiveness for that. And I'm sure over the next few weeks God will point out other ways that I also sacrificed to these two obstacles.
The next step is not to confront each individual case of wastage or constriction that arises, but ask God to help deal with the issues that allowed these obstacles to take root in your life in the first place. For example, I got to the stage where I felt forced to give up my sabbath, but that was after a long period of building constriction. The original problem was that I was lazy. God had told me to start working on these things months ago, and instead of just getting in and doing them, each morning I would ask 'do I really need to do it today? How about tomorrow, instead?'
I should have clued into this one earlier, because in my Bible time I kept getting God rebuking Joshua for not taking all of the promised land after many years. (I now listen to the Bible on my computer, on shuffle. Trying to work out what the context is for each chapter is a great way to reenforce the original purpose of the text.) God had told the Israelites to take the whole land, and after a generation, they had gotten distracted and settled for just having some of the land. And God didn't pressure them during this period, it was just at the end he said 'You want to know why it's all not working? Well, did you do what I said? No!'
So, for me, the issue I actually had to deal with is not doing God's will when he says. That is not going to be the same issue for you. For you it might be that you rush in to complete God's will when he wants you to wait. Or it could be something completely different. But we need to find out these underlying issues and ask God to help us sort them out if we want to get the constriction and wastage out of our lives.
I'm still praying through where I've fallen down in my writing and life, but just being able to define my fears and what is going wrong has been an immense help. So I hope it will help some of you too.