Writing as a Practice of Resilience

by Stephanie Smith


Every single month when the calendar icon on my phone resets to Day 1, it comes as a small shock (Just me? Or you too?). It feels like I’m never quite prepared for it, and this month more than most. Our unprecedented moment finds us all in different places facing particular fears and sorrows. Wherever this letter finds you, I hope you’re hanging in there, and thought that today we might talk about writing as a practice that can help (or at least is helping me). 


We’re facing an impossible amount of input right now as we contend with the news cycle, more than the human brain knows what to do with. For every new acquisition of information, we develop an emotionally charged response, yet our processing system is too overloaded to sort and synthesize all of this toward any settled destination. With nowhere else to put all of this too-muchness, it seems our bodies simply hold it all in and keep it on the spin cycle. 


That’s when we feel it, what I’ve come to call The Churn. You know what I’m talking about: that feeling in your gut, your chest, where all the nameless fears and anxious unknowns converge into a constant churn. 

But here’s what I’ve learned from a personal writing practice: giving ourselves the space to name our emotions offers us authority over The Churn.

Feelings are as expansive as the high tide and can easily overtake any of us, but framing them with words is like drawing an un-crossable line in the sand. Suddenly, The Churn is contained. It has not vanished (and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), but it is now boundaried, reassuringly so. 


Naming an emotion disarms it of some of its charge. Suddenly, the unknowable churn has borders, and we can breathe a little easier. 


Perhaps we find here a writing prompt for strange times we might all benefit from:

  • Where are you feeling The Churn right now?
  • Can you trace the feeling back to its source?
  • Can you give it a name?

I’ve yet to find a more effective, satisfying practice than writing for calming The Churn. There’s a great word for this process especially when it comes to writing.


“Catharsis” echoes its Greek origins, meaning to cleanse or purify, to get the unwanted out of one’s system. This word first entered the English language as a medical term in the 18th century to describe the purging of the body and the bowels.


So now that you’ve been subjected to that inspiring meditation, I’ll tack on my translation: catharsis is about taking out your emotional trash. It’s about releasing ourselves from toxic thoughts and unchecked emotions that keep us stuck in The Churn. 


Catharsis is the writer’s secret weapon for honestly and compassionately letting ourselves off the hook of the internal drama that’s been dragging us down. 


Whether you are cracking open a notebook, typing into the cloud, or taking three minutes to let your thumbs do the talking in an iPhone note, the page can become your practice ring for catharsis.


Instead of letting our thoughts and emotions tumble and churn inside of us without border, writing makes a space for us to hold each tangled tension up to the light, name it for what it is, and then decide where it belongs.


Instead of letting our fears ricochet endlessly inside of us on repeat, writing gives us an outlet. 


When we take the time to translate our inner state to the page, we bump into an essential truth: we have always had the power within us to give the boot to self-talk that doesn’t serve us. Ultimately, you get to make the call, and writing reminds us of this through practice.


Finally—and this is a SUPER perk and power—writing gives us the last word. We can be as brutally honest as sanity-keeping requires in the first word, the first draft in a way, of our emotional reaction. Anything goes in the first draft. Vent away; be as petty and unpolished as you like. All is allowed.


But as we keep pressing deeper and writing forward, two things happen: first, we discover The Churn isn’t nearly as daunting as we first believed, and second, we find our strength and our stride, our very voice, to stand square to the wind and shout our counter. 


The Churn is a force, it must be honestly said. But resilience can only be built through resistance, as we dare to counter the force of external realities with inner strength. And what a delicious moment that is: when resistance comes shoving, and you push back. 


It’s so easy to feel helpless right now. I feel it too, in tender places. But as you approach the page this week and in the weeks ahead, I hope you will recognize your writing for what it is: a means of practicing resilience. I will if you will. And my hope for all of us is that we will trust that with every first draft, messy middle, and last word, the muscle is being made.


Until next time,


Take heart. Write on. You got this.



Stephanie Smith is the associate publisher for Zondervan Books, where she takes great joy in supporting, stretching, and championing authors as they bring the best out of their message. Stephanie lives with her husband in Tennessee, and you can catch her pop-up email newsletter for writers looking to find your angle, write like you mean it, and do it in style at www.slantletter.com.

Revision Magnifies Inspiration

Every gorgeous sentence, every sparkling idea, is well worth loving. But stay open to the possibility that there’s even more to love on the way. Lasting relationships between yourself and your story and between your reader and the story depend on this openheartedness.

Save a copy of your first draft and nothing you write will be lost. You can always retrieve that stunning sentence. The aha! moment at the end of your rough draft can become the premise of your second draft, and perhaps another aha! will strike you before you reach the revision’s end. If a second awesome sentence comes your way, then your new draft contains two great sentences and two aha’s.  Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote,

“Believe me, in all things labor is necessary—gigantic labor. . . . You evidently confuse the inspiration, that is, the first instantaneous vision, or emotion in the artist’s soul (which is always present), with the work. I, for example, write every scene down at once, just as it first comes to me, and rejoice in it; then I work at it for months and years. I let it inspire me, in that form, more than once (for I love it thus); here I add, there I take away; believe me that the scene always gains by it.”

First drafts don’t have a monopoly on the muse. Inspiration continues through and can be magnified by revision. In fact, revision can be more fun, creative, and insightful than drafting. For me, writing a first draft feels like scraping up clay with a baby spoon. In revision I play with the lump, molding it into a beautiful and effective form.

A spiritual director once told me that the greatest obstacle to an experience of God is a previous experience of God. The trouble with mystical experiences and inspired first drafts is our strong inclination to grow attached.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House

Creativity: Raw Material

It’s such a temptation to treat creativity as something extra, isn’t it? When I’ve done all my work and taken care of my family and straightened the house or office and done my good deed for the day—then, if I have time and energy, I’ll do something creative. 

Humans are made in God’s image, and one of the ways in which we are like God is our ability to create. We take raw materials and make wonderful things: solid business plans, flower arrangements, meals for family and friends, works of art. Creativity is inherent to our daily activities. So, as you do your work today, examine it for its raw materials. Then reflect on this thought: What will this material become?

Prayer: Creative God, move through my ordinary tasks today, to make them beautiful.


from “small simple ways: an Ignatian daybook for healthy spiritual living” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

How to Tell When You’re Halfway Finished


I enter a mild depression in the middle of every book I write (or edit, for that matter). I’m in too deep to back out, yet I cannot see the end and I’m just not excited anymore. Because I know this about myself, I now take this depressive period as a good sign; it means I’m halfway finished! I don’t worry about it or try to ease it; I simply keep going, because I know that I’ll work through it in a while.


– from “The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life” by Vinita Hampton Wright Loyola Press


God Redeems Our Work 


A few years ago I realized with a thud of dread that I had about a month to come up with the songs for a new album. I had two, maybe three ready to go, which meant I needed to write at least eight more songs, preferably ten or twelve. Some people start a record with forty or fifty in the queue and it’s the producer’s job to help the writer narrow them all down to the ten or twelve that will comprise the collection. Even when I was in college, spending every spare minute writing because it helped me avoid schoolwork, I didn’t have that many songs in the queue—ever. I’m so distrustful of my own abilities, my tendency is to abandon a song (or at least shelve it) as soon as I stop believing in it. It’s possible, I suppose, that that method thwarts the output, never allowing a sloppy song the chance to grow into a good one, but after twenty years I might as well stick to what I know. So in a couple of months, six weeks, maybe, I knew I’d be in the studio with a producer, shaking hands with the drummer and bass player, teaching them the basic layout of a few songs. I should have felt some anxiety about it, but I didn’t, mainly because there’s a last-minute rush of creativity that accompanies every project, the way Jamie used to nest like a madwoman in the weeks before each of our children’s births. (Never underestimate the power of a good panic to summon a song.)

One of them appeared while I was walking our woods. It arrived in the key of G, a 4/4 ballad that felt like something by British songwriter David Gray. I sang the first few words at the piano during a rare moment when Jamie and the kids were all out somewhere. (Never underestimate, either, the power of a quiet house, a few minutes in the half-light of late afternoon, when there’s no fear of being overheard, when one can make a fool of oneself with abandon. King David may have danced through the streets of Jerusalem—but that’s something I can’t imagine doing, not for a million bucks.) I sang the first line, mumbled the rest, changed the chords underneath, and landed on a phrase that felt solid and meaningful, and at once I could imagine the dim shape of the finished work. A car pulled up the drive and the moment was gone, but I had a nibble—enough to tell me there were fish in the pond.

I walked around our home, over the stream by way of the wooden bridge that my son Asher built, up around the old dam and the empty pond, down to the pasture with the stone wall, thinking, thinking, thinking about what verse two might be. I started with the same few words of the first verse, then changed it up enough to suggest a parallel idea, and by the time I hiked past the statue of St. Francis near the bend in the trail, there was another possible verse waiting to be sung at the piano—but not until I happened upon another miraculous moment of solitude when the house was empty.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is how it works. It’s not magic. It’s work. You think, you walk, you think some more, you look for moments to hammer it out on the piano, then you think again. A few days later I thrust the unfinished song upon Skye and Jamie, apologizing in advance for the discomfort such a performance would cause. That little performance is a crucial stage in the making of a song. You hear the song’s weaknesses because you’re able to listen to it through their ears. It’s like taking your mom to a film you love, and only then realizing how offensive the language is. But it also exposes the song’s strengths, if there are any. And this one, thank God, felt in the end like a proper song. A Song. An idea was introduced, a feeling conveyed, a response evoked. Weak and wobbly as its legs were, the thing took a few steps and held its ground. When the performance was over I ducked into my bedroom with a glimmer of hope.

Eight more to go. Eight more battles with fear. Eight more leaps of faith.

Do you see how God redeemed, and continues to redeem, the broken and selfish motives that drove me here? How all those fears that bang around in my head are gathered, sifted like wheat, and then turned into something better than self- expression, self-preservation? I’ll probably always be self-conscious, so the battle to make something out of nothing at all will rage on, and I’ll have to fight it in the familiar territory of selfishness until the Spirit winnows my work into something loving and lovable. I’m no longer surprised by my capacity for self-doubt, but I’ve learned that the only way to victory is to lose myself, to surrender to sacredness—which is safer than insecurity. I have to accept the fact that I’m beloved by God. That’s it. Compared to that the songs don’t matter all that much—a realization which has the surprising consequence of making them easier to write.


from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson

Revision Is New Vision

If revision isn’t what our English teachers taught, what is it exactly? Revision is the work of seeing with new eyes. Creativity is the ability to make new things or think new ideas; it is the capacity to see or make newness. Revision is the flourishing of creativity.

A word closely related to revision is respect, whose Latin roots mean “look back at” or “regard.”  Revision is the work of respecting creation.

For our purposes here, I refer to all drafts beyond the first as revision. But in reality writers revise as soon as an idea pops into our heads. A creative concept changes how we’ve previously understood the world. An initial draft takes that concept and gives it form—revises it—by embodying it in the printed word. When we lead curious, openhearted lives, revision is a natural consequence of growth. Taking revision onto the page allows us to participate intentionally, as active authors of our lives.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, Skinner House

A Writer’s Insides

Voice grows from the nature of a writer’s talent, which stems from innate character. Just as a memoirist’s nature bestows her magic powers on the page, we also wind up seeing how selfish or mean-spirited or divisive she is or was. We don’t see events objectively; we perceive them through ourselves. And we remember through a filter of both who we are now and who we once were.


So the best voices include a writer’s insides. Watching her mind feel around to concoct or figure out events, you never lose sight of the ego’s shape, its blind spots, dislikes, wants.  The books I reread don’t seek to record as film does – a visual medium tethered to surface action (these days, in popular film, the flashier the better); nor as a history does – by weighing and measuring various sources and crafting a balanced perspective.


To tell the truth, such a memoirist can’t help but show at each bump in the road how her perceptual filter is distorting what’s being taken in. In other words, she questions her own perceptions as part of the writing process. The deeper – and, ergo, more plausible-sounding – writer inquires.


– Mary Karr – “The Art of Memoir”


It’s a miracle anyone writes anything

Our production manager Jock (yes, that was his name) worked with printers to produce our books, since, like most publishers, we didn’t have printing presses. He knew the processes intimately and was fond of telling me, “With all the things that can go wrong in printing a book, it’s amazing the ink ever hits the page.”

What’s true for printers is true in spades for writers. With so many reasons for writer’s block, it’s a miracle anyone writes anything.

Fear and perfectionism, two of the most common obstacles, are an accomplished dance pair. They reinforce one another in seamless motion. Our desire to get things just right does a do-si-do with our fear of what others will think about what we’ve written. Then our fear spins our perfectionism even faster. Dread that readers will discover what we already know—that we are ignorant and that our writing is bland, boring, and bad—keeps us refining, reediting, revising without end, until exhaustion sucks all the ink out of our pens.

Failure to get published, failure to meet one’s own standards, failure to finish, or failure to get many readers once published can, unsurprisingly, be debilitating. So can the failure we feel when criticism comes in response to what we have produced.

Success, ironically, can be failure’s evil twin. One writer I know unexpectedly received critical acclaim and a prestigious book award for his first novel. But he became paralyzed as he wondered how he could possibly meet the expectations this created for a second book. Despite a generous contract in hand for his next work along with active support and encouragement from his editor and agent, he had a terrible time getting unstuck.

Some well-known authors have suffered from such maladies. Harper Lee never wrote another book after her hugely successful To Kill a Mockingbird. Even her sequel, Go Set a Watchman, was written beforehand but sat unpublished for decades. Ralph Ellison was never able to follow up his landmark book Invisible Man, despite writing thousands of pages of notes that he could never turn into a book.


Taken from Write Better by Andrew T. LePeau. Copyright (c) 2019 by Andrew T. LePeau. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. https://www.ivpress.com/write-better

Courage: Name Your Fear

Courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to keep going despite fear. A soldier fears attack by the enemy and yet moves into battle. A young woman fears that she’s not ready to be a mom and yet welcomes the unplanned pregnancy and moves forward into the months of preparation.

Not all courage is so dramatic. There is undoubtedly a fear hiding in your daily life, one related to your job or your relationships or your physical health. Pause for a moment and try to identify what you fear. Can you also find the courage to choose to move into your day despite it, perhaps with a simple prayer for help?

Sometimes the best prayer for courage is this: Don’t let fear overwhelm me or hinder my ability to do whatever task I’m given.


from “small simple ways: an Ignatian daybook for healthy spiritual living” by Vinita Hampton Wright, Loyola Press

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