Battling Resistance

Since I took yesterday off, I told myself I would sit down to write first thing this morning.  Before getting to my desk, though, I did the following:

  • Cleaned up the dirty dishes in the kitchen
  • Got a load of laundry started
  • Set my kids clothes out for the day
  • Made the beds
  • Scrolled through Facebook
  • Ate breakfast
  • Drank two cups of coffee, slowly
  • Put my daughter’s hair up in a ponytail
  • Went through the hall closet sorting shoes to give away or toss
  • Had my kids try on their winter boots to see if they still fit

In other words, many tasks took precedent over my daily goal to sit down and write.

During yesterday’s readathon, I finally got to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which has been on my list to read for a while.  For me, the most helpful part of Pressfield’s book was his characterization of Resistance—that which keeps us from creating, growing, learning and evolving as human beings.

Two of the most intriguing points Pressfield made about Resistance were:

  • “Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.”  (See my list above.)  “What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true.”  (The majority of tasks on my list above needed to get done.)  But, Pressfield insists, we can do what needs to be done and do our work.  Resistance just does a good job of convincing us that everything on our to-do list is more important than our creative work and therefore must come first.
  • Pressfield introduced me to the Principle of Priority, which states: “a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and b) you must do what is important first.” What’s important, Pressfield wants us to hear, is the work—the daily, creative work to which we are called that makes us and the world better.  “That’s the game we have to suit up for every day,” Pressfield writes, “that’s the field on which we need to leave everything we’ve got.”

I also appreciated Pressfield’s description of what Resistance feels like.  As a writer, he wakes up “with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.  Already, I feel fear.  Already, the loved ones around me are starting to fade.  I interact.  I’m present.  But I’m not.  I am aware of Resistance.  I feel it in my guts.  I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”

This daily battle with Resistance resonates because it has beaten me so many times, allowing me to excuse myself from my writing.  Pressfield’s clear characterization of Resistance is helpful, then, in discerning what the enemy looks and feels like, as well as the weapons Resistance uses against us.  Resistance keeps us from being the creators we were always meant to be.

 

Intentionally Blank

In an article from The Write Practice, Jeff Elkins offers tips on how to find your “Thoughtful Spot.” This is a trick, Elkins writes, that he learned from Winnie the Pooh. “His Thoughtful Spot was a log under a tree marked by a sign that read, ‘Pooh’s thotful spot.’ It was the place where Pooh did his best thinking. It was where he got his inspiration when his well ran dry.”

After reading this article, I wandered across campus to one of my Thoughtful Spots, our college’s art gallery. I love walking through this gallery—slowly, attentively—when no one else is around. As I move from piece to piece my mind clears of the to-do list that has been oppressing me. I feel myself softening and opening in that creative space as I consider and contemplate the art. How did the artist create this piece? What inspired her? What materials did he use and why did he choose this medium? What does this piece mean to the artist? What does it mean to me?

Then I came to this piece, entitled, “Training” by my artist friend Stephanie Baugh.

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I love Stephanie’s collages. She pulls together images that always give me pause. This piece, in particular, caught my attention because of the white label with the words, “Intentionally Blank” typed in bold, capital letters. This sticker placed in the sky above the contemplative figurines seemed playful and humorous. It made me smile. It also reminded me of an important lesson I have learned through my meditation and writing practices: I need to make space for new thoughts and ideas to emerge. I need to find my way to “thoughtful spots.” I need to calm and clear my frantic, monkey-mind that climbs every distraction. I need to set aside my oppressive to-do list and clear away the clutter if I want the Muse (or as I like to call her, the Holy Spirit) to move and speak. I recently heard a writer say that we have to serve the Muse, if we want the Muse to serve us. This means giving Her our time and attention, clearing space for Her, leaving a part of ourselves intentionally blank, so we can receive what She offers. Our creative well will continue to run dry if we are not intentional about this practice.

In the Valley of the Creative Process

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I am in the middle of writing my sermon for our upcoming Baccalaureate service. I have a great beginning, a muddled mess for a middle and no conclusion. Yet the day is fast approaching when I must deliver this creative work. So I am feeling anxious.

Last week I listened to a podcast on “Overcoming Creative Roadblocks” that hit home. During this podcast, Todd Henry talked about the creative process as having a U shape. Any sort of work you have to do, or project you want to complete is like a hike down into a valley. You start out on one side and looking across you can see the other side clearly. You can see your objective. Over there across the valley the sun is shining and the birds are chirping. It sure is going to be great when you get there. So you set off with all the momentum inspiration brings in the beginning.

ImageThen you get to the bottom of the valley and here your objective is obscured. Things get confusing. You can’t see as well. Maybe the trees are thicker here, the path becomes treacherous and you’re approaching the uphill climb. You start to hear scary animal noises and you wonder if you’re going to make it out of this valley alive. You start to question yourself, your sense of direction, your intuition. Should I have even started this journey to begin with? Things don’t look good right now.

According to Henry, we often tell ourselves that the most difficult part of a creative project is getting started—all I have to do is get started and then the rest will just come, we think. Or we tell ourselves that the hardest part is finishing the project, getting to that place of completion. But, Henry asserts, the truth is that the hardest part of any worthwhile endeavor is when you are right in the middle. Because here, in the middle, is where fear and self-doubt arise. You start telling yourself things like: I can’t do this. This is impossible. I suck at preaching. Things that are, in reality, only minor obstacles appear to us here, in the valley, as huge and disastrous. My outline isn’t working. I’m doomed! My printer is jammed. God has cursed me!

So what we need here is motivation to keep going, to keep pushing ourselves forward. We need narratives in our head that aren’t based in fear or self-doubt. We need a way to positively confront the hurdles we meet when we get to this place.

It is here, in this valley of the creative process, where I find myself relying most on my faith. In fact, if I did not have faith when I got to this valley, then I think I would probably quit. Instead, I have come to trust that if I give the Spirit enough space and time, if I work hard and open myself to where the Spirit is leading me, then eventually God will guide me up and out of this valley.

A friend introduced me to a poem called “The Woodcarver” written by Chuang Tzu and translated by Thomas Merton. It has become one of my favorites. I keep a few lines of it taped over my desk so I can see it whenever I find myself discouraged or in need of inspiration. The poem tells the story of a master woodcarver who was asked by a Prince to carve a bell stand. The bell stand he produced was beautiful, so beautiful that everyone who saw it said it must have been made by spirits. When the Prince asked the Woodcarver to tell him how he produced something so beautiful, this is what he said:

I am a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

Then I went to the forest
to see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
And begin.

At this point in my sermon writing process there are lots of dangerous distractions, intimidating thoughts, self-defeating messages swirling around. The Woodcarver reminds me to guard my spirit, to stay true to the task of preaching God’s Word, to open myself to the Spirit’s guidance through prayer and meditation, so I can climb out of this valley with a worthwhile, meaningful message for our graduating class. It will be two more weeks until this Baccalaureate pilgrimage comes to its conclusion. May God guide you in all the creative work to which you have been called, as I pray the Spirit guides me in mine.

 

[Feature Image:  Jeff Turner]

 

Writing to Discover

6281142155_e8a8afcddb_oIn an essay I am writing about my son I am discovering just how much I love my children. This feels odd to write because of course I already know that I love my children. But as I challenge myself to go deeper in this essay, to be more truthful, to choose words that resonate with emotions that I rarely bring to the surface, I am discovering the power of this art I have chosen (or perhaps has chosen me.)

Yesterday, I hit a raw vein of truth—namely, the fear I bury that something bad will happen to my children. I imagine all parents hold this fear and bury it deep. It’s not an emotion we can live with on the surface or else we’d never let our children out the door in the morning, let alone get on that big yellow school bus which is sure to be full of bullies. I climbed into my fear yesterday, though, as I sat at my desk with my notepad and pen and picked that fear raw to see what was living there. Why would I do this? Why subject myself to such torture? Well, I guess because I’m learning that emotions are not to be avoided. The feelings our hearts yield are signs pointing us towards truth waiting to be discovered—truth about who we are, how we are, and how we relate to the world. I learn so much when I honor my emotions enough to sit with them.

Out of the raw place of fear that I mined yesterday, the love I hold for my children overcame me like a wave grabbing and ripping me away from the safety of shore. It was a love that moved so far beyond the healthy lunches I pack every night and the grass-stained clothes I endlessly launder and the good night cuddles I linger over. It was a love that hurt—a love that physically gripped me—a love that clearly needed to be safely managed and stored back away so it wouldn’t devour and consume me. Good God, now I know what it means to call love a risk. Because to lose the source of this love—like many parents I know have—would be near impossible to survive.

Writing brought all this to the surface for me. I walked around for the rest of the day with my unsurfaced love jangling about like a bundle of unplugged chords. Then, my children came home from school and I was extra attentive. I stroked their little blond heads. I bathed them tenderly, relishing the chance to wash the day’s dirt and sweat and crumbs and routine chocolate smears off their growing-up-too-fast bodies. I kissed them and hugged them and clung to them before tucking them into their beds and thanking God that, for the moment, they were safe.

I don’t want to live in fear. Because that’s not really living. But I do want to live awakened, alive to the emotions that drive me and the truth that can be uncovered, or recovered, when I am willing to honor all that is inside. Writing is the path that takes me there. What path do you choose?

 

[Feature Image: Ramiro Ramirez]

 

My Summer Priority–write, write, write

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Photo credit Ralph

People often don’t realize how hard those of us in an academic community work during the year. The enviable focus is on our summers “off”—which assumes a career of leisure in higher education. I am actually on a twelve-month contract, though, so I will go in to the office every day this June and July. But, with the students gone, the pace is slow, the surroundings deliciously quiet, and I can focus on goals and priorities that I rarely get to August through May.

June and July equal hope in my world. I start looking forward to these summer months in December, start planning what I will do with this time in January, make my reservations and pay my deposits by February. All this planning is what gets me through the incredibly hectic winter and spring that lies ahead.

This summer writing is my priority. Here’s a glimpse of my plan-of-action:

  • Online Classes: I’ve been considering taking some online writing classes as a convenient and fairly inexpensive way to challenge myself, get feedback, and generate new work. There are lots of places to take online writing classes. I’ve explored the Gotham Writer’s Workshops, The Loft, and Creative Nonfiction’s classes. I decided to sign up for Creative Nonfiction’s Summer Bootcamp because I like how they structured the class as well as the fact that it would require me to write and submit daily assignments. I am also taking a class on blogging (The Clumsy Blogger’s Workshop) that I discovered through the RevGalBlogPals community. I hope to learn more about utilizing the blog medium through this course and instill a good habit of writing and posting weekly. Remember that quote from John McPhee? “Writing teaches writing.”
  • Writing Conference: Every summer since moving to Illinois I have enjoyed a week at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival in Iowa City. This summer, though, a new conference caught my attention and I decided to sign up for it instead. This July I’ll be attending Beyond Walls: Spiritual Writing at Kenyon. Kenyon College is known for its great writing program, which is what led me to explore what their summer institute offered. And when I found out that they were offering this week-long conference on spiritual writing with my favorite poet Marie Howe as one of the teachers—I was so there! I’m also really excited to meet Amy Frykholm from The Christian Century and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi, who will also be teaching that week.
  • Reading for Writing: I cannot wait to dive into my books! I always have lots of books I want to read, but never enough time. So I try to be strategic and read books that serve a good purpose for me. I’m interested in reading different styles of writing—styles I might want to tackle myself some day. So here’s an incomplete list of the books I hope to read this summer and why:
  • Practice saying “No”: I used to think that I had to say, “Yes!” to every opportunity or else those opportunities would no longer keep coming.  Now, I know better.  Now, I know myself and my priorities better so I can discern whether or not an opportunity is worth acting upon.  Thomas Merton once said that the imagination should be allowed a certain amount of time to browse around.  June and July is this “browsing around” time for me and I plan on protecting it by saying “No” to any opportunity that doesn’t fit with this priority.  This way, come August, I can start saying “Yes” again.

The Woodcarver

wisers-whisky-wood-carver-600-95347My friend and writing coach, Christine Hemp, introduced me to the poem, The Woodcarver.  It has led me to amazing riches.  I keep it taped above my desktop computer in my office as a reminder to “Guard my spirit, [and] not expend it on trifles that [are] not to the point.”  This poem has served as such an inspiration, that I wanted to share it with you.  May we all create our beautiful bell stand.

The Woodcarver

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand

Of precious wood.  When it was finished,

All who saw it were astounded.  They said it must be

The work of spirits.

The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:

“What is your secret?”

 

King replied: “I am only a workman:

I have no secret.  There is only this:

When I began to think about the work you commanded

I guarded my spirit, did not expend it

On trifles, that were not to the point.

I fasted in order to set

My heart at rest.

After three days fasting,

I had forgotten gain and success.

After five days

I had forgotten praise or criticism.

After seven days

I had forgotten my body

With all its limbs.

 

“By this time all thought of your Highness

And of the court had faded away.

All that might distract me from the work

Had vanished.

I was collected in the single thought

Of the bell stand.

 

“Then I went to the forest

To see the trees in their own natural state.

When the right tree appeared before my eyes,

The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.

All I had to do was to put forth my hand

and begin.

 

“If I had not met this particular tree

There would have been

No bell stand at all.

 

“What happened?

My own collected thought

Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;

From this live encounter came the work

Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

 

–Chuang Tzu

from The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton