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 Two (unpublished) manuscripts under my belt, and a third one underway.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?

27 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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  5. Ah, I love this analogy! Anxiety, worry and self doubt certainly hold me back but I have decided that this is the year to finish my novel. I’ve been working on it for years, and keep running into stumbling blocks that just don’t seem believable.

    So, I thought I’d try a short story to help me clarify some background issues and tie into the main novel. This is turning into a full out novel on its own, and I’m actually excited about writing it! Yay! My cathedral maybe?

    Thanks for sharing, Sarah and good luck with all your writing adventures 🙂

    Jo-Ann

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Jo-Ann! And that’s great to hear how you may have found a solution to the blocks you’ve been experiencing with that first story. It might not make sense at first to turn our attention to a new project – but sometimes that’s exactly what we need.

      So yes, this might be a new set of bricks for your cathedral. Think of the “cathedral” is the big picture, the overall vision, and each individual writing project helps you build the greater whole. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

    • To mix a metaphor, the stones of a cathedral include stumbling blocks! I keep finding them in the WIP I thought I finished some time ago. I found one yesterday, repaired it, and then found a problem with my repair! But I persevere.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is a really cool mindset! I guess some things that help motivate me are songs “Go the Distance” from Hercules, “Gravity” from Wolf’s Rain, “Rainbow Connection” from the Muppet Movie, and newly added “A Million Dreams” from the Greatest Showman have lyrics that really embody how I feel about my journey, both the good and the bad and sometimes when I get down I sing them or listen to them and they help me keep going.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Tori! 🙂 Music can be an excellent means of making our mindset more positive or “constructive.” I don’t have any songs that motivate me with my writing, but Anathema’s “Lightning Song” has been instrumental in helping me adopt a more positive and grateful perspective overall to life.

      Btw I haven’t forgotten about the Iceland email you sent me a little while ago. The past several weeks have been… well, busy. In both good ways and frustrating ways. I’m hoping to get to it soon, though.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I think that’s a great analogy for how to approach writing and also other things we pursue in life. It shows that we should enjoy the journey as we progress toward our goal. It made me think of an interview I listened to on NPR this morning featuring Luis Fonsi, the artist behind the hit “Despacito.” The interviewer asked him what advice he would give his younger self who was just starting out in the biz and his response was “slow down and enjoy it.” And several authors I’ve listened to on podcasts have said something similar. Enjoy and appreciate the work you’re doing as you push on forward.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed – it’s a great analogy not just for creative endeavors, but for one’s life in general. Every step we take, every brick we lay, should be one that helps complete the foundation, walls, and so on for whatever it is we want to build on a fundamental level. And I LOVE the advice that Luis Fonsi would have given his younger self. I’d probably say something similar to younger me, even this-time-last-year me. But yes, it’s really important to not just work hard, but to also enjoy the process as it unfolds.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m now listening to the BBC World Book Club podcast featuring Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who just said he thinks of novels as “a cathedral of words,” which made me immediately think back your post here. 😸

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Look who’s finally got the time to read through her favourite blogger’s posts. 😂 This was such an inspirational read, Sara. I’m so sorry that you had to go through the brutal process of getting your beta readers’ feedback when you were not in a great place mentally. I can’t imagine how stressful that was! But from what I gather from this post, you have moved on to a place from where you can look at all the feedback objectively and take it in your stride and I’m so happy for you! 🙂
    What with my hectic job, writing has definitely taken a backseat for me. However, as you know, I still maintain my book blog. Once I started work, I realised that the passion I have for books and writing far surpasses this and if you ask me what I’m doing, my reply would be similar to the first stone mason’s. But I’m not in a position where my blogging/writing career can sustain me, so it’s been a struggle figuring out how to juggle my passion and what I need to do in order to have a comfortable life. So the kind of questions I ask myself every day is more along the veins of “What have you done today that brings you one step closer to making your passion your career?” I’ve been doing pretty well now, learning to work past my insecurities and grab opportunities to connect with different people in the community so as to form meaningful connections or promote my content. I’m amazed by the results I’ve been getting ever since I got back from my hiatus and plan to continue doing what I’m doing to see to where this renewed and focused attitude will take me. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Gosh, I thought I replied to this a while ago. But… what else can you do sometimes? (*sigh*)

      I love what you’re doing, Nandini. It’s exactly along the lines of cathedral-building: taking small steps on a daily basis to stay on track with your passion and maintain that vision of the career you desire. And IMO, the question you ask yourself every day isn’t much different from the one I ask myself. They’re just phrased differently. 😉

      Tbh, I haven’t looked at beta-reader feedback for TKC at all over the past year. It’s hard to explain why… But I’m sure part of it is because my head and heart have plunged so deep into the current manuscript that I can’t make space in either for TKC right now. (I don’t work well jumping back and forth between my own stories.) I also think I made the mistake of having too many beta readers for TKC. Between the eight who finished and submitted comments, there was a huge range of conflicting opinions (some thought the world-building was fine, others weren’t satisfied with it, etc.), and that paralyzed me. So when Storm is ready for the same stage, I think I’ll ask only a few people as opposed to a dozen.

      Liked by 2 people

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  10. I like the analogy of a writer building their own cathedral. I feel like I’m still laying out the stone foundations for mine. 🙂 But anyway, I’m glad you’ve found a way to handle your anxiety and continue writing. Poetry is one of those special things that can really clear and focus the mind, I find.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think many of us are still doing that, too. But that’s OK. We’ll build them alongside one another and support each other in the process, right? 😉

      Honestly, writing in general has been my liferaft over the past year. After a stressful day at work, it’s the one thing I look forward to most, even if it’s only for 60 or 90 minutes. It’s therapeutic, like I’m giving myself time and space to vent or let go and be… well, myself, really. And when I remember put more emotion, thought, and energy into writing than the areas of life that trigger my anxiety, the results are sometimes – dare I say it? – magical.

      Liked by 1 person

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