Writing on Empty

Writing on Empty June 27, 2012

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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