Spiritual Survival as a Writer

Recently a discouraged writer asked me how I cope with the depression that comes with writing. This woman, whom I’ll call Mary, wasn’t talking about dealing with rejection; she meant the endless self-doubt. She has spent probably four or five years writing and revising a middle-grade novel, and it isn’t finished yet. She feels stalemated. I won’t say that the story has lost all of its appeal for her, but she has lost her joy in writing it. This past year Mary went through deep discouragement, unconvinced that she should continue writing this novel, perhaps even unconvinced that she should be writing at all.

I know what Mary was talking about, because I spent six or seven years lugging around similar doubts. I was in the midst of long research, difficult writing, and grinding revision. I worked without confidence, and it didn’t help that I kept hearing how dim the prospects were for new writers. Was I just wasting my time? Should I quit writing? These doubts kept nagging me, but I told myself, “I have to keep going.”

But wait a minute . . . did I really have to? Would the world come to a screeching halt if I stopped writing? No. Was there a gun to my head? No. (I was writing about people who might end up with a gun to their head, but fortunately there was none to mine.) Was writing a moral imperative? No, I believe a writer who chooses to stop does no wrong. Would I be letting anyone down if I didn’t finish this novel? Not really. A few people hoped I’d finish it, but if I didn’t, they’d understand. I didn’t have to go on.

I had a choice. With this free understanding, I realized my choice all along had been yes. I had been writing because I wanted to. But there had also been a previous “yes,” although for a long time I doubted it.

I am a Christian, and early on in this process I sent up many frustrated prayers–“Why am I doing this? It’s all going to come to nothing, etc., etc.” One day these frustrations were running through my mind yet again. Then, though this hardly ever happens to me, words entered my heart, as though a divine voice had spoken them:  Will you trust Me on this?”

I stopped. I could only answer yes. I knew the words were not a promise of success; they were strength for the journey. Many times I would look back on this moment, often doubting if I’d heard right. But somehow in the many dark months, I kept writing, and the struggle taught me to write from the heart.

I have a finished, published book now (The Songs We Hide), and another novel is in process. My writing will never make me rich or famous. It won’t even make me well-known in my own community. But my work is being read, and I hope–I believe–that it is bringing a small glimmer of light into this dark world.

I wish I could say that depression is no longer an issue for me as a writer. That simply isn’t the case. But I have seen that it’s possible to write through the depression, and there is light on the other side–for the writer and, God willing, for readers as well.







What I’m Learning From My Book Events

My novel The Songs We Hide came out May 1, and since then I’ve done eleven book events. I’m using the term “events” loosely, because these gatherings have come in different sizes and taken different forms. I’ve presented at bookstores, with one gathering consisting of over 70 people and another consisting of four. I’ve spoken to a small writing group, a church women’s book club, and a whoever-wants-to-come group in a retirement facility. I’ve spoken in homes and in a business conference room. My largest number of sales was 44; my smallest, I think, was three.

Claire Gebben, a writer friend who’s been doing this longer than I have, wisely told me that book events usually aren’t money-makers, but they’re good opportunities to connect with people. That’s what I’m finding out. After these events, what I tend to remember is the dialog, the stories people tell me afterward, the questions they ask. I’ve talked with aspiring writers who feel confused and overwhelmed, and I’ve talked with Hungarians who still carry painful memories 60 years after leaving their homeland.

At times the conversation is more rushed and interrupted than I’d like: a few nights ago a man was trying to tell me about his Hungarian grandparents while someone else wanted me to sign the book she’d just bought. But I try to listen whenever I can. People need to know that their concerns matter to someone, and in situations like this, I am that someone.

Another thing Claire and other writers told me is, “People don’t just want to hear you read from your book. They want to hear your own story.” At first I didn’t know what to do with this. My story? What’s interesting about that? But I’m finding that the advice is true. People want to know what this process has been like. They want to know what has motivated and frustrated me. Recently one perceptive audience member asked how the writing process has changed me. What a question.

So I talked about learning to deal with criticism of my work. I spoke of putting myself into the mind and heart of my protagonists, which meant thinking like someone else, not just now and then but almost daily for a number of years. This has been a long season of setting myself aside–telling my ego to leave me alone so I can work, quieting my own self-talk so the voices of my characters could emerge.

This self-emptying was hard to put into words at the book event. But afterward a writer and an artist in the audience came up to me and told me they felt inspired. They wanted to go home and write or paint. My friend Claire was right: my inner story matters more than I know, not just to me, but to others as well.