I am not brilliant; not a genius.
I’ve not read all the classics of literature; not even close.
I couldn’t quote one sentence, let alone a lengthy passage from any of the ones I have read.
How can I possibly think I could be a successful writer?
I am a literary worm!
Those were my thoughts as I walked away from one of the workshops I attended last month at the Writing for Your Life Conference in Holland, Michigan.
I spent the next hour talking myself off the ledge.
Don’t get me wrong. This was an excellent conference for spiritual writers.
From the intimately sized Advanced Writers Retreat held on Monday at Western Theological Seminary to the larger conference at Hope College with a dozen or so presenters on Tuesday and Wednesday, it was equal parts empowering and challenging.
At the advanced retreat, Sarah Arthur helped me to nail down my mission and vision as a writer and gave me tools to help with setting goals toward that end. Brian Allain talked to us about of the importance of building an online platform and gave me ideas for promoting my work.
In different ways, they both spoke about the importance of knowing who we are — and who we are not — and then, following the Spirit’s lead, writing truthfully from that perspective. I resonated with Taylor’s description of her writing as being her “primary spiritual practice,” and “a sacred art — work that is aimed at giving life and more freedom” to her readers, and I liked Held’s perspective that spiritual writing is an “inherently incarnational work,” the process of putting ‘flesh on the truth.'”
Then there were the workshops led by experienced editors and writers who offered practical tools to make me a better writer and underscored that keeping one’s “butt in chair” is the only way to get the work done.
You tend to fly high after these writers’ meccas. You can’t wait to get alone with your computer and start page one of your next, or first, book.
But it seems there’s always the one workshop that makes you doubt your potential for finding an audience. You wonder why you ever thought you were qualified to sit among the few, the chosen, the published.
It was the second from the last workshop that did it for me. My choice, I know, to fall to the floor and slither out of the classroom like a worm trying to find its way back into familiar dirt, but it’s not easy to keep the critical demons at bay when you’ve just sat under the tutelage of a brilliant writer and spell-binding teacher.
His name -dropping of literary classics and essays he knew well made my own reading list seem pathetically shallow, and his ability to quote long passages of said classics while I struggled to remember what he’d said just a few minutes before, pulled me down like quicksand into a sense of inadequacy.
“If you were legit, JoAnn, you’d know who the hell Mary Karr is and why she is a must-read author,” I wrote in my journal.” You’d be able to nod in agreement about the wisdom of John Sullivan and be familiar with the work of all the great poets he named.”
As I continued to journal, I knew my near-fatal thinking was the result of comparing my average self to the presenter’s extraordinary mind. And more than that, I was forgetting that at the heart of spiritual writing is a dependence on the One who compels us to offer our take on the sacred texts and invites us to capture holy moments as we see them so that others can see them, too.
One of the hardest things about writing — besides keeping my butt in the chair — is being okay with my voice, telling my truth as honestly as I can, just like the workshop presenter did for his audience.
I may not be as well-read as a literature professor or have the memory of a genius, but I am an accomplished writer who, by God’s grace, has persisted in my craft. My pilgrimage as a writer will not look like yours, and that’s okay, because it is a God-paved road to self-discovery that each of us must make on our own.
How about you, friends? What comparisons derail you from being the unique human God made you to be? How do you pull yourself out of the muck of self-doubt? I’d love to know.