Here’s the writer’s dilemma in a quick haiku:
Sit before your screen.
An empty file. No words come.
You curse the cursor.
It is writing that makes you a writer. Having ideas only makes you want to be one.
To be a writer you have to make words come out: turn thoughts into letters, string them together in a line, make those little scribbles that move an idea from your head into someone else’s.
Between having an idea and being a writer stands an obstacle: your inner life.
You’ve experienced it. Back in school you had to write an essay. Last Saturday you wanted to work on that screenplay. Or maybe Tuesday you sat down to work on Sunday’s sermon.
The cursor just blinked at you. Relentlessly.
The problem? Your own thoughts and feelings are an inarticulate muddle.
The cure? Writing, actually — but in a counter-intuitive way.
Writing is what gets you unstuck as a writer, very much the way writing gets you unstuck in prayer when no words come.
Writing as a Puritan Spiritual Practice
If you had lived a couple or three centuries ago in England or New England, you might have found yourself a Puritan. They get a bad rap in literature — and they did enough curmudgeonly things that they sort of earned it.
But they were pretty amazing at creating spiritual practices to grow a vital joyful relationship with God.
They were particularly passionate about using diaries and journals in prayerful ways. If you are confused or stuck in your spiritual life, prayerfully writing in a journal is the best way to find clarity and get moving again.
I spend a chapter on this kind of prayer in my book Kneeling with Giants, but for today let me just mention one Puritan, John Beadle (1595-1667). In his book, The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian.
As his title tells you, he wants you to be a thankful Christian: ever more aware of God’s grace in your life, and so moved to a life of joyful gratitude.
What is the path to get there? Writing. He basically gives you exercises so you can know what to write about:
- Write about how you came to a living faith in Christ.
- Write about a teacher who shaped you.
- Write about someone who was generous and helped you.
- Write about a time when you might have died but were saved.
There are many more. Once you have one of these tasks in mind, writing something is pretty natural — at least a sentence and maybe many pages. And it does bring God’s grace to your awareness. You do become grateful.
It also brings clarity. When you just don’t know what’s going on in your life, prayerfully writing about it forces you to put your thoughts into sentences.
You can write about the same problem day after day if you need to. It can be messy and ungrammatical. Nobody is going to complain. And God wants you to pray about it rather than just worrying.
Journaling for Clarity and Action
That’s a classic approach to prayer. It is also a classic approach to writing — moving from a blank page or screen to a sense of flow by writing. Some call it “daily pages.” Some call it “free writing.”
What I do is sit with my journal and a pen, and start writing. My goal is four pages. (Some aim instead to write for a set time period.) With my handwriting and the size of page in my journal, that’s about 500 words.
I have my own little set of topics to journal on. As Beadle found, having some specific tasks makes it easy to get words flowing.
- I start by writing about whatever is on my mind — whatever is making me happy, sad, angry, or whatever. I just write about it and keep writing.
- Then I write about what I want my day to include. It is something between a narrative “to do” list and the writer’s version of calisthenics.
- Finally I jump into writing on one of my projects. This is pure “blurt draft” writing. I don’t let myself stop and edit. I just pour out my thoughts on one of the themes I blog about, or on whatever other project I’m working on at the time.
If it is a blog topic, this free writing often turns into the very rough draft of a post. The juices get rolling and suddenly I’ve written more than I can use. That’s great: Once I put it into my computer I can move immediately to editing, reshaping, trimming to size.
Free writing is also a great opportunity to chew on problems in larger projects. I might write on the same issue, on something that will become a paragraph or two, for several days.
Letting it roll out unedited helps me solve problems. My thoughts get clearer to me, the writer, and in the end the writing will be clearer to you, the reader.
Both in my relationship with God and in my work as a writer, journal keeping is a great way to clarify muddles and get moving when I’m stuck now and then — like every single day.
What helps you get unstuck when you are working on a project? Let me know in the comments.
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