How do I survive the Desert of Creativity?

Recently a close friend emailed me with some deep questions about creativity, how to choose between lots of ideas, and how to deal with art of “embarrassing quality”. My response of course isn’t perfect, but I thought it may help others in their creative lives. Below is a modified version.

A Letter to an Artist

Dear _________,

In the first half of your email you mention wanting to do a lot of different things, but not knowing which one to pick. First, I think having a long list is awesome. Everything you listed off I can totally see you doing. I think the issue is trying find just one thing to do. I grew up wondering what “my calling” was, and we have a tendency to think there is one big thing that the Lord has predesigned and predestined us to do. While the Lord has designed us a specific way and has a wonderful path for us to walk, I think that approach to life is a bit off and puts a lot of pressure on us to the find the One Thing that we will do the rest of our lives.

A better way to look at it is in terms of calling and assignments. We all have one calling: Love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Whether we are writers, filmmakers, accountants, preachers, musicians, astronauts, mothers, or invalids, that is the one thing we are called to do our entire lives. But in the midst of that, the Lord gives us different assignments. When I was growing up, my assignments were going to school, playing drums at church, and being a son and member of my household. Nowadays, my assignments are managing a team of editors, being a part of a 24/7 prayer ministry, and being a good friend to people around me. In a few years, my assignments will again be totally different.

Many of us like to do a lot of different things, and they can seem at odds with one another. I like writing books—but I also like editing—but maybe I like directing too—but what about living Portland with family?—or maybe traveling and making videos of what God’s doing around the world—or whatever else might suddenly spring up when I meet my wife and our interests are joined together—or something I never knew was in me suddenly springs to life.

But when I look at life through the lens of assignments, and know that the Lord is guiding me through the seasons of life to the particular place he needs me in at that moment, and that I have fifty more years to get through all of those seasons—suddenly the pressure is lifted. I could be a novelist for ten years, then a filmmaker for ten years, then maybe a world traveler for ten years, then, uh… golly, I still have twenty left out of my fifty. So instead of worrying about which grand thing I’m called to, I can spend my energy hearing God’s voice and discovering which assignment he has for me right now, and then focus on being faithful in that.

(Side note: assignments often overlap, and you also can (and should) prepare for future assignments while you’re waiting to get there.)

– – – – –

Now, to the second half of your email.

Your first question is, “Do you often start and never finish?” Yes, all of the time. Second question: “Are your first drafts ever of almost embarrassing quality?” Absolutely. It’s the first attempt at getting what’s in my head out into the physical world, and I rarely get it right on the first try. Third question: “If so, how can you see a first draft and have hopes that it might in turn become something worthwhile? What motivates you to keep molding what you’ve already started?”

Ah, now we get to the meat of it.

I think there are three stages of the creative process. There’s The Dreaming Stage, where you have this great idea and it sends chills down your spine and you can sit for hours staring out the window imagining how great it will be to have the finished piece in front of you. What you’re dreaming of is The Finished Stage, that moment when you sit back and look proudly at the piece and can show it to the world. That part is full of pride in a job well done and congratulations and the glow of achievement. (We hope, at least.)

But then there’s the middle part. I don’t have a name for it yet, maybe because it’s so awful. Let’s call it, um, The Desert Stage. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where the mother screams on the birthing table. This is where you’re halfway up the mountain instead of looking up at its majesty or looking down from its grand heights. This is the part where you’re five minutes into your jog and your lungs burn and your legs ache and YOU JUST WANT TO BE DONE.

We try to avoid the Desert Part like the plague. Or at least I do, so I assume other people do. We look for shortcuts and we buy books like “Quick Steps to Success!” When we can’t find any, we usually quit. Personally, I’ve often sat down to write with grand passages sweeping through my mind, but when I put pen to paper the words screech out like a broken dishwasher. I read back the words with deepening despair. This isn’t how I imagined it to be. So I close the notebook and walk away.

But that moment right there is critical. That’s the moment that separates people who dream about things and people are do things. I think this is part of what God was talking about with Adam and Eve after they sinned. Though he spoke to Eve about childbirth and to Adam about farming, both were about bringing something forth and both were guaranteed pain. “In pain you shall bring forth children,” he said to Eve, and “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,” he said to Adam.

This side of eternity, hard work is part of the creative process. It seems like we should have divine inspiration from Holy Spirit—which we definitely get sometimes! But more often than not it takes dedicated, consistent work to produce something. It’s just a fact of the process, and once we accept that, we can move on to making good things.

So, we’ve accepted that part. Got it. I got my headband on, my shoes laced up tight. Now what?

You have to start making.

But don’t stop when it feels bad! It probably will, especially if it’s something you haven’t done before. Creativity in any art form, from writing to painting to dancing to singing, is a muscle and it needs exercise. It’s funny how we totally accept that a doctor has to go through years and years of training, or that a runner has to run miles upon miles in order to be good enough for the Olympics. Creativity is no different.

That’s where the embarrassing first draft comes in. Personally I think you just need to get something down first. It would take me FOR EVER to write this email to you if I wrote a line, analyzed it, rewrote it, then wrote the next one, reread it, then adjusted the first sentence to match it, then wrote another line, then reread all three…. Part of the creative process is about gaining momentum, and if you’re always stopping and going back to review you’ll never progress.

See, here's proof
See, here’s proof

Last year I started writing a book, and I decided to write at least 15 minutes a day. It didn’t sound like much, but since I hadn’t worked that muscle much I wanted to start small. And let me tell you, most times when I sat down to write it was awful. You can look through my spiral notebook and see a lot of pages where I scribble on the side things like “Ick!” or “Oh gosh this is awful”. I knew the words were wrong, there was no rhythm or poetry to the lines, and the dialogue was clunky and unnatural. But I kept going because I knew I could always do a second draft.

Don’t put the pressure on yourself to produce something awesome the first time around. The first latté you ever made wasn’t mind-blowing, was it? But you kept making them again and again, and over time you became a great barista. Creative works function the same way. Keep working at the things you love to do, and over time not only will you get better but the process will become more enjoyable and you’ll probably find you can do things faster and more easily. A runner gradually learns to love running and can run for longer distances. They still break a sweat and work hard, but they learn how to make it through the Desert.

– – – – –

Lastly, don’t forget to include Holy Spirit in this. He loves hanging out with you and working with you as you create things. He loves seeing how you think and what you come up with. So it’s not just you persevering and gritting your teeth and pushing through the hard times (as Anne Lamott proposes in her book Bird by Bird). The joy of the Lord, as he looks at you and sits beside as you create, is your strength. So don’t be afraid to invite him into the process! He is like a dad who pulls his daughter into his lap, with all her papers and markers, and looks over her shoulder as she draws, whispering in her ear how much he loves the drawing and how much he loves her.

You aren’t on this journey alone. And not only does Daddy want to create with you, he also wants to meet you in those moments of doubt or fear. When things like that come up, sit down and ask Holy Spirit what’s going on. Why are you afraid? Why does it bother you? And what is the truth? How does he see you and feel about you?

Just like how learning to walk through marriage is an opportunity to bring us closer to the Lord, learning to walk through creative works is an opportunity. The end of the story is that you come out not only having grown in skill and talent and perseverance, but you come out of the Desert walking just a little closer to Jesus and holding his hand just a little more tightly.

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