If you’ve been following this series, you know I’m posting on “The Writer’s Inner Life” on Mondays.
If you have a calendar, you know that today is Tuesday.
Labor Day was an interruption. It was a good one: some time hanging pictures in our new home with my wife, some time in a park with the kids, and BBQ ribs for dinner.
But my writing hours, my daily workday discipline didn’t happen. Interruptions happen.
There are other interruptions. Some of them take a while to reach me:
- Friday there was a fire on one of the gazillion bridges here in Pittsburgh.
- The Liberty Bridge is closed for repairs until next Monday.
- Some 50,000 commuters are now cramming their way through unfamiliar routes, clogging up other bridges.
- To keep kids from spending a long morning in traffic-stalled busses, the Pittsburgh Public Schools decided to open two hours late.
- Two core hours of my writing day disappeared. Poof!
Of course it is fun hanging with my kids before walking them down to their school, but it is an interruption.
Interruptions are the plague of writing. Whatever kind of focused creative work you do, I suspect you know what I mean.
In theory you can use any old snippet of time to write a sermon, or a poem, or make a drawing. But honestly, you need your full concentration, and you need it for some solid lengths of time, if you are going to make progress.
Every interruption takes you out of the project. You don’t get to jump right back where you were before. You have to find your way back from the beginning.
Wisdom from the Father of the Desert Fathers
Antony the Great, the Father of the Desert Fathers had plenty of interruptions, and he had some interesting ways of approaching them.
One was that he just kept coming back to his discipline, to his focused rhythm of prayer and work, after every interruption.
Sometimes, though, the interruptions were bigger:
- In a time of persecution he was called to leave the desert and help out in the city.
- And after he’d had such success wrestling with his demons in the desert, other monks asked him to come and guide their community.
Antony was able to take these big interruptions in stride. I suspect he was able to see them as part of his life’s larger mission. He left his cell when he was needed, and then he came back — actually moving farther into the desert afterward.
But no matter how far he fled, people wanted to be with him. That shouldn’t be surprising: When someone lives in close communion with God it brings out their best, making God’s image shine as it was intended to do.
People wanted his advice. He gave them the wisdom he had gained from intimacy with God. It is as if he knew that these interruptions were part of the reason for his life of prayer.
(That remained the case for all the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The whole reason we have collections of their sayings is that they made good use of interruptions.)
People wanted to do him a good turn. They would bring him food. And this is where Antony’s cleverness shows:
As he moved far away from other people, he asked his visitors to bring him farming supplies. That way he could grow his own food keeping his isolation.
He bartered with them, giving the baskets he crafted.
While growing his own food allowed him to live away from society, it also enabled him to be generous. He used the food he grew to welcome and refresh the visitors who would insist on trudging across the desert to meet him.
Desert wisdom for creative work
In my writer’s isolation I can use Antony’s wisdom.
I can take the inevitable interruptions as part of my life’s work. I’m not just a writer. I’m also a spouse and a parent and a member of the community. Some of the interruptions will be opportunities to serve.
If I’m growing in wisdom, I can share it. If some of my interruptions ever turn out to be requests for advice it will be part of my mission to help. (Not that this is such a big problem just now…)
I can barter my writing to improve my isolation. Antony bartered his baskets to set himself up farther from society. I need to invest in making sure my writing cell helps me be alone. (I know: that’s a bit vague. If you are interested in what I mean, just ask.)
But most of all I need to keep Antony’s dual focus:
- First, I need to keep returning to my discipline, and write.
- Second, just as Antony grew his vegetables to feed his visitors, I need to keep my writing generous — the whole point is to craft words that will help people in their own journeys.
The trick, of course is not to go looking for interruptions. That’s the “inner demons” at work.
What helps you keep creative work going in the face of interruptions? Let me know in the comments.
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