When I first started writing fiction, I had a great idea for a story, and it felt like the whole story was alive in my imagination.
Each time I tried to write the story down on paper, though, the excitement faded, and I struggled to get the words to come.
One problem was the choice of perspective—was I writing from first person, telling the story as a personal experience, or did I use a more reserved third-person narrator?
I tried both and neither quite worked.
The harder I tried, the more stuck I got.
The story gradually faded.
What I later learned was that the question of person wasn’t really the problem.
The problem was the very idea of a story, of writing something which would be read by others.
Who was this imagined, hoped-for audience?
Wasn’t it arrogant to assume anyone wanted to hear my words?
By what right did I address them?
What helped me work through these knotty questions was the chance to attend a workshop for writers where I heard similar struggles from the other writers in the room, including some published writers who seemed to be far more skilled than I.
They urged me to lay aside the idea of the audience and just write for the joy of it, and to find an ongoing writer’s group to hold me accountable for my writing goals.
Since that time, for almost thirty years, I have been in a writer’s group of one kind or another.
Some were free-form groups that pulled writing prompts out of a hat and wrote furiously for 10 minutes at a stretch, a kind of improv/free association practice.
Other groups were focused on publication, where we brought in clean copies of a work in progress and worked line by line through the text.
Though the process was different, the result in all these groups was an almost magical creative freedom.
We were not writing for an audience, not at first.
We were writing for each other, and having received the affirmation of those we trusted, we unleashed the ideas we had longed to express.
I have caught a glimpse of that same kind of magic in other groups, too: 12-step meetings, spiritual conversation groups, dream groups where we shared our nightly stories.
The magic seemed to be about what happened when people were willing to be authentic, trust the process, and believe that the common bonds of humanity we shared were more powerful than the things we feared.
When I shared this phenomenon with my co-teacher and writing pal, Beth Waltemath, she immediately recognized my struggle as her own and as common among many of the writers with whom we’ve worked with over the years.
“I’ve always heard that voice named the ‘inner critic’ but I think it’s really shame.”
She had just been reading the work of social researcher and writer, Brene Brown, who describes shame as a corrosive pattern of beliefs about our value.
Shame convinces us to move from “I made a mistake” to “I am a mistake” from “which narrator should tell the story” to “who am I to write it?”
It turns out Beth’s and my shame gremlins shared a lot of the same tropes.
When it came to creativity, our faultfinders could, well, use some infusion of originality. (Maybe an inner critic of their own?)
In her latest book, Dare to Lead, Brown posits that the opposite to shame isn’t an armor of shamelessness but a practice of empathy.
To fend off negative thoughts while writing, we don’t need to numb ourselves or put all better judgment aside, but lean into compassion for ourselves and others.
The antidote to shame is empathy.
The only way through it is to keep writing and to share our work, because both writing and community foster empathy.
Healing from shame and contributing to shared community is a powerful incentive for me to get to the page, to get to my writer’s group, and once again seek to tell the story I have it in me to share.
It helps that the company of real people writing is much better than the chatter of imaginary censors.
This spring, Beth and I want to become apart of your writing community through the CLL’s Writing Together in Creative Community Online class.
Join us as we work to help you develop as a spiritual writer while finding your unique voice. Click here to learn more.
By Melissa Tidwell and Beth Waltemath
Rev. Melissa Tidwell is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and a former writing coach in its Writing Center. She has twenty years of editorial experience at The Upper Room publishing company in Nashville, TN. She is the author of an Advent devotional, Embodied Light, and contributes to the Upper Room Disciplines and Working Preacher online. Melissa is the Pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Xenia, Ohio.
Rev. Beth Waltemath is a teaching elder in the PC(USA) with a background in publishing at Random House and Hearst magazines. In her fourteen years as a freelance writer, she has written for Seasons of the Spirit, Village Voice Media, and Humanities Tennessee and has served as editor of www.onscripture.com, an online lectionary commentary focused on current events and social justice concerns. She is a member of the program committee of the Decatur Book Festival, focusing on authors in their spirituality and religion track. She serves as the co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur, GA.