Learning to Build My Writing “Cathedral” Again

Last year I read Sage Cohen’s Fierce on the Page, a collection of essays that encourages writers to transform their attitudes and habits so that they can unleash their creativity, overcome fears, and define success on their own terms – all ways in which they can practice ferocity in their craft. One of my favorite essays from the book is Chapter 14, “Build a Cathedral,” which Cohen begins with this allegory:

… [A] traveler in medieval times comes upon a stonemason at work. He asks, “What are you doing?” The man looks weary and unhappy.  He responds, “Can’t you see I am cutting and laying down stone?  My back is killing me, and I can’t wait to stop.”

The traveler continues on his way and comes upon a second stonemason. “What are you doing?” he asks. “I’m building a wall,” says the stonemason. “I’m grateful to have this work so I can support my family.”

As the traveler walks on, he encounters a third stonemason who seems to be doing exactly the same work as the previous two. He asks the man, “What are you doing?” The man stands up straight. His face is radiant. He looks up at the sky and spreads his arms wide. “I am building a cathedral,” he answers.

Wow. It’s such a simple tale, but the shift it made in my perception of my writing was like feeling the earth move under my feet.

Perspective Is Just as Important as Laying Those Stones

Like a cathedral, a writing career isn’t built overnight. It has taken me years to get to where I am today, and I’ve accomplished a lot during that time. Two (unpublished) manuscripts under my belt, and a third one underway. Several poems published in print and online journals. A long-running freelancing career where I’ve been a music journalist, tea reviewer, and writing coach. I’ve even traveled regionally (within my home state of Massachusetts), nationally (NYC for the Writer’s Digest Conference), and internationally (Iceland Writers Retreat) for writing-related events.

Yet more goals still remain on the horizon. I can envision my writing life at its fullest, but it will still take time to arrive at a reality that resembles that vision. And as important as it is to know those goals and take action to achieve them, it also helps to have the right perspective.

Take the third stonemason, for example. He’s working on a project that excites him, a project he finds meaningful. He’s also patient, concentrating on the fulfillment his work offers instead of comparing himself to others, dwelling on pain and other hardships, and anything else that ciphons the joy out of his craft. Sure, he’ll experience setbacks along the way, but his determination, optimism, and gratitude will help him bounce back and maintain focus on his vision in the long run.

That, I decided, is the way I want to approach my writing career from now on. I’m erecting a big, beautiful cathedral, and every action I take to create it – every stone I lay, every inch of mortar I spread – is a moment I should relish and celebrate.

Will I experience stress, failure, or disappointment along the way? Actually, I already have. With my poetry, it took 5 years of writing, revising, submitting, and repeating the process again after every “No” until I got my first “Yes.” What kept me motivated through the long wait was my response to those rejections: “It’s OK. You’ll find a home for that poem somewhere else.” Telling myself this allowed me to acknowledge my disappointment and then move on. And because it worked, I maintained that perspective as I continued submitting my work after my first two poems were published. In those instances, I chose to be hopeful and persistent, which in turn made me more resilient in the face of rejection.

What Happened When I Switched Writing Projects and Fell Out of Practice

About 4 years ago, I switched my focus from poetry to my second attempt at novel-writing. It took three drafts to get the YA fantasy manuscript into decent-enough shape to send to beta-readers. And by this time last year, I was compiling feedback from those readers, and… well, I was a tangle of emotions. Pride and excitement, for finally reaching this stage with my manuscript and letting other people read it. Optimism, since I hoped that my beta-readers would like the story, and that the manuscript was almost ready for querying to agents. Nervousness, since I wasn’t sure what to expect regardless. And fear.

I’m not kidding. Words cannot adequately describe how fearful I was during the beta-reading stage. Part of me was dreading learning other people’s thoughts on the story – not because of how much work might still be ahead despite my hopes and plans, but because I was afraid I hadn’t done a good enough job of writing a novel, period.

That fear, unfortunately, won out in the end. It didn’t help that other parts of my life had triggered my anxiety as well. Regardless, that general sense of foreboding shaped my state of mind as beta responses trickled in, and… well, it may have warped my overall perception on things. The novel still needed work; that much was clear. But I was so overwhelmed by everything that, eventually, I couldn’t think about the manuscript without putting myself on the verge of a panic attack.

In hindsight, I wonder if I would have reacted differently had I still been working on poetry. Why didn’t I turn to the hopeful, determined perspective I’d turned to before? Maybe I was out of practice. It had been so long since I’d submitted poetry for possible publication that I’d forgotten about that mentality, much less how to draw strength from it; and like a disused muscle, it atrophied. I needed to redevelop that perspective, exercise and nurture it so it would one day act like a reflex again.

Maybe, if I’d continued submitting poetry and working with the mentality that helped me become resilient, I would have handled the beta feedback with more confidence. It’s hard to know, since I was struggling with other challenges as well. But what I do know is I’m doing my best to work with that attitude. In a way, it’s my own version of the stonemason’s “cathedral” perspective. Submitting poetry to literary journals may be different from sending a manuscript to beta-readers. But if I get back in the habit of encouraging myself every step along one part of my path, maybe it will imbue into all the others.

Icelandic Churches and Inspiration Tokens

Oddly enough, I don’t regret reading Cohen’s “Build a Cathedral” after experiencing that wavering of confidence in my writing. In fact, I didn’t start reading Fierce on the Page until after coming home from the Iceland Writers Retreat. And as soon as I read the word “cathedral,” I immediately thought of one of my favorite sights from the trip.

Hallgrímskirkja is one of Iceland’s most famous churches. Located in downtown Reykjavík, it’s the city’s tallest structure and a stunning piece of architecture that took over 40 years to complete. The concrete exterior, charcoal-gray color, and distinctive modern style remind me of cliffs of basalt columns, one of the many unique features in Iceland’s landscape. (Guðjón Samúelsson, the architect of Hallgrímskirkja, was said to have drawn much of his inspiration from Icelandic nature.)

Not everyone thinks it’s beautiful; some, in fact, have described the building as “ugly” or “crude.” But me? I couldn’t take my eyes off of Hallgrímskirkja, no matter if it was off in the distance or I was standing on the cobblestone pavilion in front of it. Something about its commanding presence, the simplicity of its design, and the deep respect it conveys for the natural world brings out a childlike sense of wonder in me. It’s so different from the churches here in the United States – and in my eyes, it’s utterly beautiful.

After I read “Build a Cathedral,” I decided to make an “inspiration token” of sorts. I printed a photo of Hallgrímskirkja from my trip, with this question typed underneath: “What steps will you take today that will help you build your cathedral?” Now, every time I sit at my writing desk, I try to remember to hold that token in both hands and answer that question. And when I make a list of writing-related tasks for the day, I now title that list “Building My Cathedral,” even if I put just one item on it.

Creating something physical to represent this “cathedral” mentality has, I think, allowed Cohen’s message to sink in deeper. It’s made the idea, and Cohen’s original message, even more personal. I can look at that photo of Hallgrímskirkja and think not only of my memories of Iceland, but also of the writing goals I still want to achieve, the qualities I want my work to exude, the lifestyle I want to live, and the mindset I’m now taking greater care to cultivate. It might not have been built from stone, but it has still become a symbol of my awareness of how I want to approach my writing career from now on, and the steps I’m taking to build that cathedral every day.

How would you describe your vision of your writing career or other meaningful pursuits? What steps have you taken today to help you make that vision a reality? Do you have any tokens of inspiration that help you keep that vision and/or your goals in mind?

9 thoughts on “Learning to Build My Writing “Cathedral” Again

  1. Thanks for this, Sara! I can identify with much of your experience, having taken many detours and zigs and zags in my writing. As for tokens of inspiration, my house has hardly a square foot of wall space not covered by book-cases or posters relevant to my WIPS. I’ve never been to Iceland, but Hallgrim’s Church certainly looks magnificent in any photo I’ve seen.

    Your post reminds me of Ken Follet’s huge 1989 novel ‘THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH’ about the building of a medieval cathedral. I saw the miniseries but never read the book. So I’ve added it to my TBR pile.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, John! And I don’t think we’re alone in experiencing those detours in our writing careers. Things happen sometimes that take us one or two steps back rather than forward. But what matters more is that after a setback, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try to get back on track, right?

      I’ve heard of Ken Follett’s Century novels, which (I think?) are also his most recent ones. Haven’t heard of The Pillars of the Earth before, though. Maybe I should look into his work at some point…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sara, this is absolutely just the thing I need to be reading right now. I feel like a lot of us are seeking perspective amid the frustrations of growing a writing career. This post really helped me. Thanks for the dose of perspective!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As ever, your article is inspiring and thought-provoking, Sara:). I love the analogy of the cathedral AND your story about the stone masons… I recall when I pulled away from my first publishing deal how heartsick and discouraged I felt – it took me a long time to recover. I never stopped writing, but I didn’t do much submitting or consider self publishing, which certainly held up my writing career.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Sarah. 🙂 And yes, isn’t the stone mason story incredible? It’s so simple, and yet it says so much about how different your pursuits can be all because of your attitude toward it.

      When did you first that first publishing deal? I don’t remember you sharing that story before… though it sounded like it was heart-wrenching, and anything that has that effect on us is hard to talk about, even long after it happens.

      Liked by 1 person

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