Writing: Writer's Block

“You probably won’t have much to say until you are forty.”

The words passed easily enough over the breakfast table into my ears. Then they went deeper. Their sanctifying force was acute and penetrating. They have haunted me, in the best possible way, for twenty years now.    

Just before I heard those words I had declared to the man across from me how I hoped to be a writer someday, even publish a book. I was not prepared to have the curtains of reality abruptly opened on my dreams. The light was blinding. One of the kindest men I have known, a dear father in the faith, a church elder, my elder, was telling me my youthfulness was not an asset. Ouch. My first day of seminary was a week away, but I was getting schooled over breakfast the old-fashioned way.

There is always more to writing than writing. A lot of living is needed too. A lot of weddings and funerals and counseling and praying and weeping and rejoicing. A lot of ordinary shocks and routine surprises. A lot of reading. A lot of pastoring. Writer’s block is not just about hours or days. Sometimes it is about years. Decades.

I suppose that is the first lesson. Be patient. Grow older. Writing is enormously helped by living. And for pastors, well, we must prioritize our callings. You do not learn to be a pastor by immersing yourself in writing, you learn to write by immersing yourself in pastoring. “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:14-15). Your best writing will come from your progress in pastoral experience and theological integrity.

Now, it is true John Calvin wrote the first edition of his Institutes at the age of 26 and the second edition three years later. But let’s not be so quick to style ourselves after John Calvin. For starters, we have wasted far more time watching television than Calvin. Because of the times, we have all been born behind. Besides, what good reason do we have for not aspiring to follow John Bunyan instead? His masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress, was birthed out of a weary soul while in prison and published when he was a spritely 50.

Maybe we should simply acknowledge that writer’s block is greatly helped by submitting to each sweet or sour providence. Early and frequent opportunities for education. A sickly wife. A unique gifting in both energy and intellect. A demanding pastorate. A network of inspiring colleagues. Seasons of fatigue or self-pity. None of these will keep you from writing nor do any insist you write now, but they each require an integrity of their own which will eventually help you write when you do.       

Now for a second lesson which addresses a species of writer’s block not measured in years and decades but in hours and weeks. Simply stated, necessity is the mother of invention. The more frequently you have necessity to write the more acquainted you become with starting.

Years ago, I began writing pastoral letters to my congregation on a weekly basis. I stole this idea from an ordinary pastor 35 years my senior. At times my letters were utterly local and homey, interesting only to our little church and perhaps my mother. On many other occasions, however, these became more theologically weighty, hitting on subjects which were ripening in my own study of God’s word. Years of this in an ecclesial setting can square the shoulders against a lot of writer’s block.

Another habit to begin early is writing out sermons as a manuscript. Even should you never become a permanent manuscript preacher this task still has benefits, especially in becoming a lifelong theological writer.

First, weekly sermon manuscripts result in 200 pages of careful theological writing every year. 400 pages if you preach twice on Sunday. Second, weekly sermon manuscripts, like all writing, take time and careful thought. You will soon train yourself to do a lot of thinking for your writing. An indispensable sequence. The life of the mind is half the work. Third, weekly sermon manuscripts create your own growing canon of written material. Here you can critique yourself and recover pockets of work to be perfected, expanded and shared. Lastly, weekly sermon manuscripts get you writing for ordinary saints. Most of us are called to serve those ordinary folks outside the academy, the church of Jesus Christ. There is nothing wrong with practicing to do it better.

I have never written that book. I think it is in my computer somewhere. I often feel, like most people, the pull to spend more time reading than writing. But if that is as common as I think, then you better get to work and give us something to read.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley