Writing on Empty

Last week, I finished the fifth revision of my fifth novel, and got notice from my editor that it’s ready to go into production. I didn’t feel much like celebrating, and didn’t feel satisfaction at a job completed. Most of what I felt was relief, because this book has been something of an ordeal.

Though the book itself did present certain creative challenges, the ordeal, the battle, was not the book itself. Writing is always hard. The real issue these last two years has been creative burnout.

By the time this book comes out, I will have published five books in seven years. Before I submitted the book proposal to my publisher, I wrote in my journal (and I remember this distinctly—can still see the words on the page) that I should not take on another novel project until I got some rest. But I did. With no one twisting my arm, I submitted and sold the novel in proposal form.

It’s easy to defend myself with good and rational reasoning. Circumstances at my publisher somewhat forced the issue, and I needed money, and this is what conventional wisdom says that working writers in my field do. It was, technically, the right career decision. Yet I know it was also a decision made out of a lack of faith and a failure of imagination.

I didn’t trust that God would have another way to meet my needs.

I couldn’t imagine something different than writing a novel to keep my career on track.

During this time of creative burnout (which is ongoing), I’ve noticed that it’s an awful lot like spiritual burnout. My desire to write is about equal to my desire to pray, and not doing either thing leads to guilt and shame. Reading feels like a huge drag, as does meditating on God’s word. I don’t really want to hear what’s going on in the lives and careers of my writing peers; similarly I can take or leave church.

Numerous times over the last year or so, I’ve been absolutely convinced that I couldn’t finish my book. It felt as impossible as resurrection. I wanted to call my agent to say pull the plug and I’d figure out some way to pay my publisher back. I’ve wondered if I have anything left to say in a young adult novel, or if the whole idea of fiction is even meaningful to me anymore.

I have wondered if this is my last novel, because I’m no longer sure I understand the point of it all, if I ever did. Likewise, I’ve been certain that my pursuit of faith is pointless and impossible. Why bother? In times of doubt in God and in writing, I tell myself that there are so many other, easier paths.

And I feel repentant, creatively, the way I do when I’ve got spiritual issues to deal with. I’ve been writing my Good Letters posts at the last minute and turning them in late. I’ve been neglecting writer friends, and haven’t kept up with their work or what’s generally going on in my writing community. I keep saying no to requests to provide blurbs for debut authors, and drag my feet on replying to reader mail.

For these things, I’m sorry. I know this has been my way of surviving until a break was logistically possible, yet I recognize, too, that the situation would not have become so desperate if I’d listened to what I knew I knew that day I told myself in my journal: don’t.

In my very first Good Letters post, I wrote, “When I find myself on a death-spiral of doubt and insecurity and comparison and other soul-crushing habits of the mind, I remind myself: Just put your head down and do the work.”

Today, twenty-eight posts later, I think of a song based on Psalm 3 in which God is described as the “lifter of my head.”

My break doesn’t mean I won’t write, any more than it means I won’t pray. But I need to slow down, and make some space to let God meet me, give me joy, show me wonder.

Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, goes another song and Psalm.

I also sing: Restore unto me the joy of my vocation.

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  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Read the books – ” Art & Fear ” ;by Bayles & Orland and ” Free Play ” ; by Nacmanovitch that I’ve recommended elsewhere . They’ll both help you to understand that ;

    1) Creative Burnout /Writers block whatever is perfectly normal and part of the process of being an ‘ Artist ‘
    2) The strategy you took with this 5th novel is in fact pretty much the norm when it comes to dealing with #1 the wrong way so don’t beat yourself up about it
    3) There is NO strategy for getting yourself out of the situation – but there are quite a few for helping you deal with the situation ( Full discloser – I’m there myself right now and just re-read both books realizing I’d forgotten and /or needed to review a few things …. …. and its helped .. immensely )
    4) Sometimes the best thing to do is Something Else ! Related .. but something else . I’ve taken breaks ( does one ever truly take a break from the arts though ? ) selling bicycles ( making a few $ from a hobby ) designing Audio Systems ( making use of my minor in Sound Recording & Engineering ) as well as teaching ( which can also lead to burnout if you’re not careful ) Something else as an author can include many things IMHO
    5) As with all things this Burnout/Writers Block soon will pass . In IT’s own time unfortunately . But it’ll pass

    And yes , place your Faith in God first and foremost , realizing he created you as an artist for a purpose , warts and all and you’ll get thru it . Remembering though that a little outside ‘ Wisdom ‘ ( that General Revelation thing ) may just be the catalyst to help you over the bumps and humps that IS the artists life .

  • I pray for you to find rest, peace, and healing.

  • Susan Houg

    Thank you, Sara, for this beautiful testimony of the power of God’s word to meet us where we are!

  • Dear Precious Creator (because you ARE a creator, made in HIS image–and He is the most creative one of all, right?), You need a break. Cut yourself some slack. Get some rest. Read some good books. Indulge in another art form. Fall back in love with your husband. And when December comes (maybe even November), I’d like to offer you a writing retreat on the Outer Banks. We have a home on the beach that we rent all summer (and into October). Often, we close it up for the winter, but we have, in the past, loaned it to people like yourself who simply need renewal. It is in Nags Head, NC on the Outer Banks. We feel it is part of our tithe to offer this property to people who need it. Contact me off line if you are interested. donnakoppelman@gmail.com

  • Joseph Frost

    Thanks for being honest.

  • So thankful for your honesty, creativity, and eloquence, Sara–in this post and in all you do. May God restore you and give you rest.

  • I don’t know why I haven’t recognized the parallels between creative burnout and spiritual burnout before, but so much of what you say here resonates with me. It is something I need to think on, and so I’m grateful to you for sharing your thoughts.

    Grace to you, and peace….

  • Sara, thank you for your honesty and for the reminder to listen to that still little voice even when, logically, that still little voice seems is pushing one away from a career. I pray you find rest during this break and I pray that others who read this piece are encouraged.

  • Francie

    Sara- Not sure if this is encouraging scripture or maybe just enlightening. Just thought of it when I read your post. peace and healing to you dear one.
    Ecclesiastes 12
    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    12 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no delight in them”; 2 before the sun and the light, the moon and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain; 3 in the day that the watchmen of the house tremble, and mighty men stoop, the grinding ones stand idle because they are few, and those who look through windows grow dim; 4 and the doors on the street are shut as the sound of the grinding mill is low, and one will arise at the sound of the bird, and all the daughters of song will sing softly. 5 Furthermore, men are afraid of a high place and of terrors on the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags himself along, and the caperberry is ineffective. For man goes to his eternal home while mourners go about in the street. 6 Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; 7 then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. 8 “ Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “all is vanity!”

    9 In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. 10 The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

    11 The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.

    13 The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. 14 For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

  • Sara,
    Thanks for the honesty and grace that your writing displays… Many parallels to my own soul state of late. Praying for you and your work. Grace,

  • Thank you for this post. I really appreciate the connection you draw between art and faith–and the burnout that can come in both, even at the same time. By your example of courageous confession, you give the rest of us permission to admit these things 🙂 Thank you.

  • T.Martin Lesh.

    Might I ever so humbly suggest that the last thing someone in Ms Zarr’s current situation is in need of is the typical American Evangelical response of Platitudes & Attitudes along with alluding to/aiding and abetting the Victim factor ? Whats needed is sound advice , reasonable suggestions and when appropriate some sound , depth infused Biblical wisdom . On that final note I take my leave from this Forum .

  • This T. Martin character has a point, but since I don’t know you well enough to speak such sound advice into your situation, I can only join the chorus wishing you well.

    Take your break, rediscover your inspiration (or discover a new one) and thank you for honesty about your situation that some may learn from it and still others in the same boat can find comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

  • Thank you for this, Sara! It really resonates for me.

  • I don’t think we, as writers, realize exactly how exhausting writing can be; mentally, emotionally, spiritually, especially when our creativity is on demand, on deadline. It is so important to step back and take a break. I also JUST allowed myself to put my memoir, that I have been working on for the past 5 years (on and off between other projects) on indefinite hold. The weight lifted off me immediately. I wasn’t expecting that. But I realized it’s not fair to force something that isn’t right at this time. Sending you light and love and hoping you enjoy the beauty around you….when you are not surrounded by words 🙂