When Nothing Works

by Guest Blogger Erin McCole Cupp

The beginning of another school year approached, and I was scared.  Even with the slowed-down summer schedule, I was not making any headway with my next book. There was virtually no time in which to really write, and when I did get a moment to steal, nothing I wrote worked, because I hadn’t had any time to let the story form in my head so it could flow onto the page.  Where on earth was I going to get the time to have a chance at success?

I went to my writing network’s Facebook page and asked for advice.

“Wake up one hour earlier than your kids do.”

Silly me, already waking up two hours before they did.

“Make family creative time a habitual part of your day! Everyone is working on something.”

When the youngest family member’s idea of “creative” is either decorating her walls with nail polish or asking busy people incessant questions?

“Just do whatever works!”

I didn’t type the words, but I wanted to reply, “BUT NOTHING WORKS!”

With all of my efforts at getting reviews, keeping a blog where I could engage with readers, repeatedly volunteering with a genre writing group so I could maintain good networking contacts, trying (and usually failing) to keep up with social media trends and Amazon wizardry—you know, all the “supposedtas”—alll while trying to homeschool three kids and feed a family of five on a limited budget… nothing was working.

Nothing.

But I kept doing All The Things, because Something had to work Sometime, right? Just keep praying and working really, really, really, REALLY hard…

And then my health took a stress-related dive.

“Just do whatever works?”

What if nothing works?

So I had to give it a try, this Nothing.

I resigned from my volunteering.  I restructured my blogging schedule so that I was only trying to post once a week, using linkups almost exclusively to take the sharing pressure off of myself.  I stopped making myself respond to every email I get within the first three hours of getting it.

Most of all, I looked at all the efforts I’d put into sharing sales of my books on social media in hopes they’d get more reviews and sales, only to find myself out time (and usually money of some sort). Long story short, I noticed that the people with more sales to show for their efforts spend more time on writing than they did on marketing.  They all had backlists. I really don’t.

They are, first of all, writers.  They aren’t review-getters. They aren’t PR professionals.  They aren’t market analysts.  They aren’t consumed with the “supposedtas.” They write.

And I’d been trying to be all those other things—things God apparently didn’t call me to be.  So the time I’d been using to market and drum up reviews and read social media tips… I turned over to God. I turned it over to silence.

And I found myself listening to the early morning sounds of birds singing to each other.

Do you know why birds are loudest in the morning? They’re shouting to others of their species, asking, “Did you survive the night? Did you? You did! Fantastic! Me, too!”

Isn’t that what writing is? Sure, some of us want to change minds and/or save souls… but in the end, that’s God’s job, not mine.  It’s just my job to yell out whatever little song I’ve been given as soon as the dark is past in hopes that I’ll hear back that I’m not the only one who made it through.

There was another lesson waiting for me in the bird song.  Some birds—say, starlings—are abundant.  They’re also annoying in their abundance.  I’ve never had to run for cover from the droppings of a flock of goldfinches flying overhead, because goldfinches aren’t common enough around these parts to flock that way.  And when I do see a male goldfinch or a hummingbird at our feeder, it’s much more exciting than the mass of starlings screaming in the cornfield across the street.

Just because there’s less demand for one kind of song doesn’t detract from its beauty or its place or its need to be heard.

So that’s what Doing Nothing taught me: to make room to listen, to be still, to do my work even if it’s not popular or obviously profitable. And that’s exactly the freedom I needed that all the “supposedtas” stole from me.  The pieces of what I thought was an unsalvageable first draft are coming together with much stronger backstories.

As I was putting this post together, I even came across Exodus 14: 14:

EMCpostExodus1414

And that’s why silence and stillness are so important—not just physically but mentally and spiritually as well.  Thank you, Carolyn, for letting me share my experience here.

Readers, what are some of the “supposedtas” in your life?  Are they helping you or holding you down?  How hard is it for you to let go of them?  What’s one thing you can do today to listen for the other birds in your flock? 

Erin McCole Cupp

Erin McCole Cupp

Erin McCole Cupp is a wife, mother, and lay Dominican who lives with her family of vertebrates somewhere out in the middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania. Her short writing has appeared in Canticle Magazine, The Catholic Standard and Times, Parents, The Philadelphia City Paper, The White Shoe Irregular, Outer Darkness Magazine, and the newsletter of her children’s playgroup. She is a contributor to CatholicMom.com and has been a guest blogger for the Catholic Writers Guild, and she occasionally blogs about year-round meatless Fridays at Mrs. Mackerelsnapper, OP.  Her other professional experiences include acting, costuming, youth ministry, international scholar advising, and waiting tables.  When Erin is not writing, cooking or parenting, she can be found reading, singing a bit too loudly, sewing for people she loves, gardening in spite of herself, or dragging loved ones to visitors centers at tourist spots around the country. Erin’s books are available on Amazon. Visit her website at http://erinmccolecupp.com.

14 thoughts on “When Nothing Works

  1. Great post and lots to think about, Erin!

    My only “supposedtas” are the ones I absolutely need: that is, the 40-hour week job and the part time job. Of course, promo work is essential, but I have to remind myself that I need something to promote! And not the least is family–they are always there for me and always have been and deserve a little bit of my best, not what’s left over after everything else has drained me.

  2. This post was divinely timed just for me! Lately I’ve been feeling burned out and overwhelmed. Feeling like I’m doing too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things. And feeling like the things I’m doing are just creating more things for me to do.

    Thank you for helping me see that I need to simplify and streamline. Now to decide what to let go…

  3. I appreciate the insights in your post, Erin. And I LOVE that verse from Exodus. I need to print that off and hang it somewhere.
    As a writer and homeschooling mom of three, I often feel the same way, especially as September approaches. Our oldest has autism and I have to think extra hard when preparing his curriculum. Then I have newsletter obligations: my parish quarterly newsletter, a monthly one for my Franciscan fraternity, and a get-to-it-when-I-can author newsletter. Plus I always feel like I should be doing more to promote my books. Promoting my stuff feels so unnatural; it goes against my “nobody look at me” disposition, so I have to really force myself to do it. But maybe you are right and we writers just need to write!
    We just returned from a week in a cabin in Tennessee. It was wonderful. I devoted half of each day to writing! The boys and my husband had plenty to keep them busy, so I didn’t feel guilty about writing. But now we’re back and I’m more behind than ever. I really need to “keep still” while I take care of those things I know I need to do. And then trust that the Lord will “fight for me” too!

  4. You arrived in a much more dramatic and eloquent fashion, but I’ve been thinking the same things. That’s why I’m pushing myself to get more published and make more dedicated writing time. I really don’t mind the marketing so much, but when I see the “pay-off” for the amount of time spent, I really don’t know that it’s worth it whether I like it or not. Thanks for your post – it’s a gem for us writers who are stretched to the max with family and other obligations.

  5. My “Supposedta” is to start my day first by reading the day’s Mass readings and the meditation on one of them, I use The Word Among Us. When I take time away from my schedule to do this, I get more done. Call me stupid for not always getting to it. I get sidetracked easy. I am working on adding a Daily Rosary with my wife. I know these are the important things for me and if I do them the rest will follow. I guess I’m a slow learner.

  6. Wow, do I relate to this, Erin! I spent much of the summer discerning God’s work vs. God’s will. I realized I was busy doing good work, but it really wasn’t God’s will for me, for now. I felt a restlessness, and when I sat down to write, my mind was blank. I knew what I needed to write was in my mind and heart somewhere, but I was too preoccupied and distracted to be still and let God show me. The decision to say “no” to the “supposedtas” can be scary, because it can mean being less visible, less noticed on social media or wherever … But what I finally figured out was that my restlessness was my desire to be more noticed by God than the world and also to notice God more through prayer, my family, and my writing.

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