facing the writing demons

“I hate writing; I love having written.”
Dorothy Parker

I read an essay once about the ordeal of the sermon. That word ordeal feels true: the writing of every sermon causes a crisis within me.  There’s that moment where all of the gleanings rush together and stir inside of me, and that can result either in brilliance (usually not) or, more frequently, in attempts to procrastinate. It comes when I know the passage by heart, have scanned the Greek, read the commentaries, taken some barebones notes, and am letting the sermon simmer on the back burner of my brain. I’ve reached the point where gathering more information—searching for the key to the whole thing—is nothing more than a way to put off what I really need to do.

This is a fighting moment. I have to forge ahead, resisting the absurd lure of checking in on high school friends on Facebook, balancing our checkbook, browsing recipe blogs and comparing prices on saffron, repeatedly reloading Steep and Cheap to see if the crampons that I don’t need and will never buy anyway are gone. (P. J. O’Rourke has a great essay on this ridiculous dance of stalling.) If I don’t turn off the wireless on my laptop, every corner of the internet seems more enticing than what I’m doing. To call it a battle is not an overstatement.

The only useful thing to do at that moment is to write. It’s the only thing that has any power over the distractions. But writing makes me want to cry. I’m more than happy to be in denial about the looming sermon deadline. I don’t want to face the grueling work of selecting words, saying true things, looking closely, omitting clichés, writing and rewriting until the whole thing is coherent and alive and powerful.

I think of the desert monks, who fought their demons in the wilderness. The monks left their harried city lives, populated by distractions, to confront the demons directly. A space as desolate as the desert offered no comforts to divert.

This is what writing is like: packing up and heading for the wilderness.

Writing is hard, hard as fighting demons. The demons are relentless: I overcome the initial fear, but then insecurity pops up, followed by perfectionism and the conviction that I have to say everything in this one sermon, that this is my only shot and if it’s not comprehensive, then I’ll fail everyone who hears it. I struggle to find a better way to write my sentences, meanwhile blaming my parents for not drilling me on vocabulary while I lived at home and for leaving me with such a meager selection. I get jealous. I hate my writing. I feel like a teenage girl looking at herself in the mirror, thinking she’s fat. I compare myself to all the other, skinnier writers, whose work isn’t marred by pimples and freckles, and imagine what glamourous lives they must lead.

Writing is lonely. No one else can do it for me. Other people can encourage, they can edit, they can affirm my good work, but they can do that only once I’ve begun. It’s just me and the paper. I have to look the demons in the eye and refuse to let them get the best of me.

sermon notes

The demons are legion and will probably win if I try to fight them alone.  The thing about the monks, though, and the thing about us, is that it’s not quite true that we’re on our own.

The Holy Spirit dwells even in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.

There comes a point, as I’m setting words on the page, where the writing crosses from draining to energizing. The words gather momentum, they start moving in my head and wake each other up, there are more of them and they present themselves more readily. I’m on a roll; I could stay in my room all day without lunch and be happy. I feel powerful and capable. And I think that’s the creative power of the Holy Spirit. If God is the creator, they why shouldn’t he be active in all derivative creativity? My creative work draws on his creative work. My words have life because he’s the most-alive being.

I also wonder this: if the Spirit is at work in us, fighting our demons, sanctifying us, making us more alive, is writing a spiritual activity? Is the process of writing sanctifying?

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4 thoughts on “facing the writing demons

  1. Thanks for the post, Grace. Your turn at the end reminds me a little of PB Shelley’s “In Defense of Poetry,” where creativity seems to have a life of its own. For us, that’s living into our vocation as co-creators. For Shelley, I think it became a god…

    Very helpful as I’m in the middle of PhD applications and looking ahead to writing essays in French. I hope your writing continues to move along!

    I’ll close with an Ezra Pound quote that I gleaned from Stubbs:

    O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
    Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
    or install me in any profession
    Save this damn’d profession of writing,
    where one needs one’s brains all the time.

    • Oh goodness! I can’t imagine a parallel process in another language. That’d make the crisis enormous.

      And thanks for Ezra Pound. I can’t count the number of days I wish I were a carpenter or some sort of craftsperson.

  2. Grace, I’m coming to this post two and a half years later, and it still rings just as true. Writing is terrifying. Thanks for your courage for the task and honesty about your failures. It encourages me to try again.

    Your post was written with (I’m assuming) a deadline looming for the writing project you were working on. Have you noticed any difference in your experience between the demons of deadlined writing and free time writing?

    • The demons don’t come unless I write with a deadline, but that’s because I’ll hold them at bay indefinitely by not writing. “Free time writing” doesn’t really exist for me because if I don’t give myself a deadline, the crisis will never come, and I’ll never write anything. Occasionally, I write something with no trouble at all, but it’s rare and usually still involves at least one visit to a food blog for a momentary distraction.

      Have you read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art? It addresses these relentless demons.

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