One of the struggles a writer faces (or anyone else with creative projects as part of their vocation) is the sense of futility.
It is one of those temptations that comes in a kind of inner voice. Why not be old fashioned and just call it one of our demons?
The Demon of Futility
It can come in the midst of a conversation with a stranger:
So you’re a writer! What have you written that I might have seen?
Even writers who have made best-seller lists will find that most strangers have never, ever, heard of them.
Or you sit down to write and there is:
Why bother? Nobody is going to care.
Publication can be years away. Even if you publish it yourself on your blog, getting it in front of people’s eyes is really tough.
(And by the way, if you are reading these words, please know that you rock my world — and even more so if you share the post with someone on Facebook…)
The demon of futility is uber-wily. It can remind you that you need to sit down and write something, just so it can slam you down by reminding you how useless it is.
If it reminds you that you should be writing when you are in the middle of some other necessary task (like, say, your day job) then you have the double-whammy: Guilt feelings for hours until you can sit down to write, and THEN the futility.
Antony the Great
I’ve been exploring the inner life of the writer in conversation with the monks of 4th century Egypt: the famous “Desert Fathers and Mothers,” and especially their hero and role model St. Antony the Great.
There is something important in common between a writer seeking solitude to squeeze something creative out of his soul and the thousands who hid away in huts and caves for a life of prayer. Both writers and monks fight their demons to be able to do something of deep value — possibly only to themselves.
Well, Antony faced demons very like those I’m talking about.
While we are sleeping they arouse us for prayers…
Well that sounds like an angel, not a demon. If your calling is prayer, then reminding you to wake up to pray or fast sounds pretty good.
But Antony says their motives are twisted. They keep the monk too tired to pray, too hungry to cope.
They do it all to turn the monks from their goal
…. so that they might bring the simple to despair, and declare the discipline useless, and make men sick of the solitary life as something burdensome and very oppressive…
I’ve never been to Egypt, but that is totally familiar.
The monk and the writer are both pursuing goals most don’t share. The important thing in both forms of life is what Antony calls “the discipline.”
The monk or writer has to stay true to a set of practices — neglecting things many people think are vital to gain something many people think is useless.
The demon will say it is futile. The demon will turn your attention back to a more familiar path.
Antony’s advice? Two parts.
1. Ignore the voices. It drives them crazy.
But if anyone should pay no attention to them, they cry out and lament as though vanquished.
Therefore let us also pay them no heed, treating them as strangers to us, and let us not obey them, even in the event that they arouse us for prayer, or talk to us about fasting.
But just ignoring a voice like that is only a short term solution.
You always know you are holding that kind of inner critic at bay. Drop your guard and it will pounce.
So the second part of the advice is most important:
2. Remember your calling.
Rather, let us devote ourselves to our own purpose in the discipline…
Nobody else has to take up this task. Nobody else can do the creative work you are called to do.
It is your own purpose as a writer you have to remember. Think of the insight you wanted to share, the people you wanted to help or to entertain.
Put your focus on what you are called to, and remember why you started in the first place. The discipline will get you there.
I’d love to hear how you face messages of futility. Let me know in the comments.
And if you know other people battling futility while laboring at creative projects, I hope you’ll share the posts using the buttons below!
Quotations are from the Paulist Press edition of The Life of Antony. This post contains affiliate links.