The deadline was looming: pages were due May 30, and I still had a 4 chapters to finish and the other 6 to at least somewhat edit and revise before handing them over to my editor. This was my first book, after all, and I didn’t want Ave Maria Press to regret signing me as an author and publishing the pseudo-memoir/evangelization theory of a virtual unknown Catholic speaker from a corner of Louisiana most people dont’ know about.
I was spending my spring break in Pennsylvania with Tommy and his family, and my plan was pretty simple: while Tommy and his folks were at work, I’d write. No distractions, no car, cold weather outside, and the looming deadline should be motivation enough, right?
But there I was, Tuesday of my Spring Break, with only half of the 6th chapter finished, and a lot more to do…and I was wasting my time.
I couldn’t figure out why I was stuck. It wasn’t writer’s block: I had pages of notes, a fairly well structured outline, and other chapters finished that I was pretty happy with. I knew I could do this. But for some reason, every time I sat down to churn out a few more words, I’d find myself clicking through Facebook, getting lost on Buzzfeed, and finding an excuse to text or call every person in my contact’s list.
So on Wednesday morning, with only a few days left of these precious days away from school with seemingly uninterrupted time to freely write, I decided to hit the re-set button. No more lounging on the couch with my computer close by ready for me to use. I was going to sit up straight and treat this like real work. No more “I’ll take a break every hour and watch an episode of The Office” – I was going to barrel through, no questions asked, breaks only to use the bathroom or take a walk around the yard to stretch my legs. And certainly no more Internet. Shut that baby down. Disconnect the WiFi router so I’m not even tempted to click over to the soul-sucking pages of Twitter and Facebook.
I spread all my notes and the finished chapters across the dining room table, opened my Bible to the passage I was using as a starting point, pulled up the blank word document for chapter 6 (which had a few measly thousand words finished), and sat down, ready to write.
And…nothing happened. The cursor blinked at me for literally hours as I sat there, stumped, befuddled, confused, frustrated, and just downright angry.
Nothing could get the juices flowing. There was no spark of inspiration, no desire to craft a sentence or tell a story or articulate my thoughts – thoughts that I was slowly becoming convinced were worthless anyway. So, in my frustration and anger (and immense fear that I was going to miserably fail at this endeavor) I called Tommy. He was at work, but I knew he could probably spare a few minutes on the phone, and I just needed someone to kick me in the pants and remind me that a) I could do this and b) to just do the dang thing already.
“Hey, babe. What’s up?”
“I’m stuck, Tommy. I can’t write. Nothing is happening. Nothing is working. This book is going to suck, no one is going to read it, because it’s never going to be finished, and Eileen (my editor) is going to hate me.”
“Woah woah woah, babe…slow down. Take a deep breath.”
“I don’t have time to breathe, Tommy! I’m failing over here!”
“Okay, just breathe. Hang on…just…what have you done so far today? Did you have breakfast? Did you take a shower yet?”
“No…yes…I set my stuff out on the table and I’m just staring at a screen…”
“Well, Katie, why don’t you take a short break and make yourself a cup of coffee, and then just begin again? That might help, right? You love coffee…”
I wanted to throw my phone against the wall and curse the love of my life (and now father of my child) to high heaven. Coffee!? His grand suggestion to stop the writer’s block to end all writer’s block was to have a cup of coffee?!
But…I had nothing better to do, and I was kind of thirsty…and the Kuerig was right there…
And that was it. One cup of coffee later, I had 4,000 words, a finished 6th chapter, the beginning of the 7th, and a whole new routine to begin my writing process:
- Spread out my stuff
- Open up the blank page
- Make a cup of coffee
- Take a few deep breaths
- Say a quick “Our Father”
- Put my phone and computer on “Do Not Disturb”
- And begin…
It’s almost a sacred ritual now – I won’t sit down to write anything of substance without a cup of coffee within arms reach (which made writing Follow while in my third trimester a bit tricky, because that one cup of coffee limit during pregnancy ain’t easy). It’s almost like there’s this switch that flips in my brain: coffee is poured, page is blank, fingers are ready: let’s do this.
I think most writers, whether published professionals or amateur bloggers, and everyone in between, has a routine of sorts. There’s a system – a structure – to sitting down and beginning to write. When we do something familiar, it’s almost like we trick our brains into entering into “writing mode” – now we know it’s time to get serious, articulate our thoughts, and hit that word count. Having that routine and system in place establishes that writing isn’t some casual pasttime, but is a serious endeavor. No different than the runner preparing for the marathon has his gear laid out the night before the big race, the writer has their system and routine to let ourselves know “It’s time to write and I’m going to do it.”
Everyone’s routine is a little different, unique to them and their personality, sensibilities, and style. I asked a few authors (who happen to also be dear friends, so bonus!) to share the first step in their “routine” – and all of us (who write, speak, blog, podcast, and just generally share faith) were different in our “first step” – which jsut goes to show you that there is no “correct” first step, just that there is something every writer does to “begin.” Here are their great ideas:
Of the five authors I chatted with, three all start their time of writing by first talking (and listening) to the Lord. They pray: for guidance, wisdom, clarity, and their audiences.
Lisa Hendey, founder of CatholicMom.com and the author of The Grace of Yes (and many other awesome books) says she prays in her own “Lisa” way, asking “the Holy Spirit to anoint my efforts and let my Father know that I am doing my work as a part of my own ‘yes’ to His will for my life.”
How beautiful, right? When we write, we’re crafting words, and can go to the One who speaks the Word (and inspires the Divine Word) for inspiration and guidance.
Fr. John Burns, a priest of the Diocese of Milwaukee and author of Lift Up Your Heart, shared that he first takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and offers his work to the Lord. “I invite Him to make of it whatever He wills and to use my gifts and abilities however He pleases. Then I begin.”
Our words are not our own, especially when we offer our work to Jesus. Writing is a creative experience with the Creator.
Sarah Swafford, a beautiful, lovely, talented, and oh so kind speaker and author (and one of my favorite friends) begins by praying, lays her “large and in charge” St. Benedict rosary next to her laptop, and keeps a collage of pictures close to her that help her remember all the “beautiful souls she’s writing to and for.”
What a way to start! She’s praying for inspriation and guidance so she can effectively communicate to every person who will read her words.
Set a Timer:
Writers face deadlines, we all know that. Whether it’s pages due to a publisher or a blog schedule you’ve set for yourself, we often face the clock which never stops ticking. So sometimes, authors “get in the zone” by recognizing they need to be conscious of the time limit, and let that time limit work for them.
Jared Dees, author of one of my favorite books 31 Days to Becoming a Better Religious Educator and the forthcoming Christ in the Classroom, first sets a timer, which forces him to stay focused on the task at hand in the time he’s given himself to write.
Knowing your parameters – and boundaries – often helps writers concentrate on the task at hand. If there’s only an hour to write a thousand words, you best get to typing…
Get your head straight:
Writing can be a battle. It’s you versus the blank page, usually with some sort of deadline, and often with a swirl of ideas that sometimes don’t make sense, and it can be very easy to just admit defeat before you’ve even begun. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried to write something and just convinced myself halfway through “this is crap and no one will ever read this, so I’m going to stop writing it.” We all face that resistance and hit the wall, even the most talented and successful of writers.
Jennifer Fulwiler, who just released her newest book One Beautiful Dream today prepares herself by getting in “a fighting mentality.” When you struggle with thinking that what you’re writing is worthless and no one would want to read it, you easily give up. So Jennifer always tells herself that the “self doubt, worry, and resistance” will try to hold her back, so she shows up ready to fight. Essentially, she and the page are at war: and because she knows she’s entering a battle with the words, she comes prepared to engage in the fight and (if you’ve ever read anything she’s writen) win.
These “first steps” authors take to write are just one small part of a huge process. Coffee, praying, timers, fighting mentalities…the approach to the blank page is varied and unique, but all ends in the same result: good writing (which makes for good reading for audiences who want to learn). Over the next few days, identify your routine. What do you do first? When you write well (and best), what was it that you did to get yourself into that zone? Make the necessary tweaks, list out your first steps and routine on a sheet of paper, and then stick to it.
That’s the key: once you know what works, and what gets your words out, continue to repeat that method.
It’s proven itself to work and be necessary, so it should become a sacred ritual of sorts. If this is what helps you write and communicate effectively, then make it central to what you do to write, create, dream, and build. Because when your routine works for you, and you’re able to write well…well, those are the words that can, and will, change the world.