Staring Down the Blank Page

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With a new year comes new possibilities, but also, perhaps, new anxieties. 2024 is a blank slate. Will it be the year, we ask ourselves, that we finally write that novel? Will it be the year we dust off the paints and easel and bring that composition series into concrete form? Or maybe the year we commit to finally shooting that short film we’ve been dreaming of?

The turning of the year is a time for dreaming, for setting goals. But all too often, those resolutions are forgotten, left by the wayside of everyday life by springtime. How can we set ourselves up for success and make the most of our good and God-given desires to create new things?

For my part, I’ve found that nothing kills the creative spark more than self-imposed pressure, which always leads me right down through the trap door of shame: Why haven’t I accomplished this already? Why am I so slow?

When I find myself in that place, I have to remind myself of this simple truth, which applies to our spiritual lives as well as our creative lives: There is discipline, and then there is magic. We can show up every day to the blank page or the blank canvas, but inspiration, like the Holy Spirit, is a wind that blows where it wills. We never know when it’s going to show up.

This can be maddening at times, making us feel stuck — unproductive at best, unworthy at worst. But it’s no reason to quit, no reason to stop putting ourselves in a position to receive inspiration when it does appear.

A daily, or even weekly, practice keeps the wheels turning even if we feel like there’s no one in the driver’s seat. We keep tilling the creative soil, preparing it for fertile growth. We keep praying, keep reading the Gospels, keep tending to the quiet moments we’ve set aside to rest in the presence of God. We keep creating space for the mystery of God, the mystery of creativity to show up.

I am not the most patient person, and I am also not the fastest at turning out projects. Some days really do feel like a slog through mud, and I can only dream of smooth strolling through fields of wildflowers. It’s a comfort, though, that creativity tends to appear in cyclical, if not predictable, patterns. I find myself clinging to the belief that fallow periods will pass, that they are, in fact, important seasons of preparation for the work to come.

On one such frustrating day, when I found myself cowering under the shadow of the blank page, I actually wrote across my wrist, “It will come.” Making those words concrete helped me to trust that they were true.

What are we to do with the days when it feels like the blank canvas wins? I’ve found some help with that from the world of professional cycling. In post-race interviews, when a cyclist hasn’t achieved their goal, an interviewer will ask them, with what always seems to be a touch of cruelty, “What went wrong?”

It’s common for the cyclist to answer, after a grueling and hours-long ascent up the side of a mountain, “I just didn’t have the legs today.” Some days, with our creative work, we just don’t have the legs. Despite our best efforts, sometimes the energy and focus just aren’t there. It’s been freeing for me to realize that, well, we can’t win the Tour de France every day. We can’t spend every moment of prayer in mystic ecstasy. But even on days when we didn’t have the legs, it’s still worth celebrating having made it up the mountain with our regular practices.

Ignatian spirituality can lend us a hand on those days, too, since it teaches us, above all, to pay attention, to ask questions. Ignatius invites us to dig deep into our desires, tracing them all the way down to their sources like mountain springs. But we can do the same for our fears, our blocks, our hesitations. That clarity can help us get up and face the blank page again the next day.

As we head into the new year and gaze upon all its wide-open land, let’s make plans and dream dreams. But let’s remember, too, that we can’t ordain the moments when inspiration will strike. There’s discipline, and then there’s magic. A good creative life, and a good spiritual life, is made up of both.

Contributed by:

Cameron Bellm is a Seattle-based writer and retreat leader, whose work has been featured in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Red Letter Christians and Catholic Women Preach.