Having big chunks of time to work on a creative project is a gift. It also brings problems. How do you keep at work with no looming deadlines, no timecard to punch, and no boss?
As I move fully into writing, speaking, and other independent work, I’m facing those challenges daily. Of course I’m facing them my my own way: in conversation with wise souls from the Christian past.
Right now I’m finding wise counsel from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Back in the fourth century they chose the solitude of the Egyptian desert for the ultimate unsupervised challenge: the pursuit of God.
They had a vague goal, no deadline, and a lot of time on their hands. Perfect.
Solitude: the gift and the problem.
I keep coming back to one saying from St. Anthony the Great — he was sort of the Father of the Desert Fathers. Here’s how it goes (from Benedicta Ward’s wonderful translation of the Alphabetical Collection):
When the holy Abba Anthony lived in the desert he was beset by accidie, and attacked by many sinful thoughts. He said to God,
“Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?”
A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself
sitting at his work,
getting up from his work to pray,
then sitting down and plaiting a rope,
then getting up again to pray.
It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.”
At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.
I like this one so much that it isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about it. But now I’m reading it against a different background: I’m now working independently as a writer, speaker, and consultant.
Soon there would be thousands of monks in the desert but Anthony was ahead of the curve. He didn’t have role models to look back on. He had nobody nearby to go chat with.
(That wouldn’t always be the case. We have whole collections of their sayings because they kept hanging out with each other and asking for advice.)
He was alone. There was nothing to do but what he came to do, right? No Facebook. No Minecraft. Just Anthony himself.
Turns out being with yourself is enough to distract you from your calling.
Two problems, one solution
Anthony struggled with two problems: “accidie” and “sinful thoughts.”
- Accidie is that lethargy that hits midday when anything, even a gameshow, can distract you from the project you are truly passionate about.
- Sinful thoughts come in many shapes and colors: A classic list is pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth.
More on all these troubles another time. Let’s just say Anthony isn’t the only one troubled by them: They can all bring my writing to a standstill.
The cool thing about this story, though, is the solution: Anthony learns the power of finding his rhythm.
He can’t expect to pray intensely every waking hour. For one thing he needs to do some work to earn money for food.
The angel shows him to divide his time into shifts of praying and labor.
Find your rhythm
As a writer I need exactly what Anthony got in his vision: a rhythm.
There are lots of ways to establish that rhythm.
Many swear by the “pomodoro” technique of 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break.
Some intersperse a walk, a coffee, or another reward.
Some take turns between the creative parts of their work and the more mundane.
But everybody needs a rhythm.
I’m trying to let what I know of the monastic life structure my days.
In a monastery they have eight daily periods of prayer, alternating with other kinds of work. It may sound like too much but in my monastic retreats, projects that normally would take months got done in a week or two.
So I’m using an app of the monastic prayer cycle to structure my time. My goal is to have a life like Anthony saw in his vision.
- Do a shift of focused writing.
- Turn to a time of prayer.
- Do another shift of writing.
- Turn again to prayer.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Having a structure and a rhythm keeps me from stumbling over all the obstacles I bring along with me.
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