The “Creative Life” Is More Mundane Than We’d Like To Believe: Additional Thoughts On An Unfinished Coloring Book.

12042909_10153691586456450_8249815417010762711_nAs you, my friend, know. (Since you are my friend, right?) I have been working on a coloring book project. I am very excited about it but it has taken much longer than I expected. I have had to understand why it has taken so long because God is good and I have had people interested in purchasing the project even before it is complete, which is quite humbling. This process prompted me to publicly think through why the project is not yet complete. That post has since prompted some more random thoughts about creativity that I wanted to write down before I forgot. Since I was writing them down anyway, I thought I would share. Because, you know; that’s what we do, right?

Anyway, as I’ve struggled to understand my own creative process, here are some dditional thoughts. Make of them what you will. Correct what you must:

It’s OK to feel like you don’t have anything to pour out right now.Creative types love story so we tend to mythologize those we admire. For example, I love Wes Anderson’s movies. Taken as a whole, it seems like he’s been on an unbelievable creative streak. Just consider the progression of his work (and this isn’t even a complete list!):

Creatives often look at a list like this and think to themselves well crap, I’ll never live up to that, so why even try. But look again at the list: there’s typically a 2-3 year gap between the finished products that we are given. That’s a long time. I’ve never met Wes Anderson so I don’t know, but I’m willing to guess that there were plenty of days during those 2-3 year gaps during which he didn’t feel particularly creative. There were lots of tasks to be done, but even when those tasks are in the pursuit of creativity, they may not, in and of themselves feel particularly creative.

But I know many creatives who go to deeper with these gaps. There are honestly times when many of us simply feel like we don’t have anything to give. As I stated earlier, this is the time to fill up. Know yourself well enough to know what to put in to your system. Maybe you need to read some Scripture. Meditate. Watch a movie, listen to music, read a book, take a walk, sit in silence, drink a good cup of coffee or a craft beer. Get some sleep?

Creativity demands not only that you know yourself well enough to know when to fill up or pour out, it demands that you know what fills you up but it also demands that you know that this drought is but for a season because:

Creativity takes a long time and takes the long-term vision as seriously as the short-term creative bursts.

Creativity is always interested in finding its true voice, that’s why the big picture is so important. A letter is not a word and a word is not a sentence and a sentence is not a paragraph and a paragraph is not a novel and a novel is not a body of work. All of them are capturing, displaying and refining the authors’s voice but it is not until there are several novels that an author even truly knows their own voice.

Creative expression is not just pouring out, it is a visualization and projection of the self. It is sharing with others how we see and understand the world. We create things no one else could because no one else is you. I have had people who write songs I could never in a million years compose tell me that they look at some of my drawings and feel like they could never do that. And that’s a beautiful thing because:

Creativity forces us to humility, to learning and growing.

Though there are always some arrogant jagweeds in every circle of life, generally speaking, creative people are humble because they have come to the self-awareness that they are always learning and growing. And they have creative output to visualize their progression. The creative process is never static and thus it always requires the creator to understand that they are trying to get better at their craft. They are trying to write better songs, paint better paintings, write better stories, explain things more clearly. And each creative piece is a step along that journey because:

Many creative people are not satisfied with their current creative status and sometimes creative souls are quite hard on themselves.

Even though many creatives understand the beauty of telling a grand story, we get critical of the step we just took. It is quite common to notice the flaws no one else does. And not just notice them but dwell on them. In fact, they become all we can see in a piece. So much so that we are rarely satisfied with our current status. It’s almost like when Jonathan Safran Foer says in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,  laments:

“Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”

The beauty of possibly and the fallibility of our last step keep us humbled by the potential. The potential is so grand that our last step forward never gets us where we want to be. And so many creative people are their own worst critic. We measure by what could be rather than what just was because we often forget that:

Creativity sweeps itself up in itself. Like an avalanche.

You might be able to start an avalanche (take care of your soul, fill up with creativity-inspiring things, etc.) but you cannot control it. Though most are killed by avalanches, many dream of surfing one.

Creatives often love the thrill of the creative process as much as anything they actually produce. In this surge, we must remember that we will not remember everything. Some things will escape and much will be lost. And that’s OK because:

Creativity requires you listen to the whispers before you can hear the chorus.

Avalanches start small. A snowball here, a homeless boulder there. But there is no avalanche without the spark and there is no creativity without the whispers. Though creative outbursts sometimes come like the fully formed “Hallelujah Chorus” and all we have to do is record it as best we can, more often, it starts as a whisper. It becomes a conversation with the muse, hearing the whisper until it becomes louder and is coaxed along the way. For most creative people, most of the time, this requires patience and work which leads me to conclude:

The “creative life” might seem more mundane than you’d like to believe. I have friends who used to build weapons but now build robots, works with museums  and has hung out with David Byrne. We don’t all get to live that life. In fact, most of us don’t and won’t. And that’s OK.

Since the creativity is concerned with the artist’s voice as much as any particular statement, we must remember that creativity ultimately encompasses all of life. We find our creative voice as we follow the Creator God who brought order from chaos. Doing the dishes is a much less glamorous or even attractive way of doing this, but it, nonetheless, brings order from chaos. It is an expression of the self over the created order, reorganizing the universe’s molecules as only we could.

I often think of the Christian life as a continual process of undoing the effects of the Fall. When Adam and Eve chose to mistrust God, they thrust themselves, everyone and everything following them into slavery to sin, disruption, distrust, disorder and entropy. Picking up trash along the way is a way of making a difference, of reversing the Fall. Fighting for social justice, caring for the environment, loving the least of these, painting, writing, composing. All of these are ways of bringing the progress of Good News to bear on where and when we live. But we should not be so naive as to only classify some of them as creative and others as mundane.

Though creativity tends towards the extravagant, it born in the everyday.

I’d love to hear more about how you understand the creative process. I’d also love to hear which is your favorite Wes Anderson movie and why.

Why My Coloring Book Isn’t Finished

12042909_10153691586456450_8249815417010762711_nThe other day, my Dad asked me why I keep decorative skulls around the house. “That’s no thing for a preacher!” he said. It does well to remember that death is at our doorstep. We fool ourselves to believe otherwise. It shouldn’t be something to be feared and pushed aside but pondered in the everyday.

We have a set number of days upon this earth. Fewer every day. Every moment is important and any moment may be your last. What are you going to do with them?

I know it’s cliché and all the rage right now but I’ve been working on drawing a coloring book. I had hoped to have it ready for friends and family and anyone interested to purchase them by Christmas but that obviously didn’t happen. You see, like every other mortal, I have been forced to choose how to use my time.

In life you are either filling up or pour out. Exercising creativity, however you might do it, is pouring out. It takes time, energy, thought, resources. It costs something of the creator. I don’t know what it’s like for other people but I am not an endless well. I know people who seem to overflow in creativity. Every time you turn around, they have created something new and, like the Energizer Bunny, they never seem to need recharging.

But my coloring book project (which I will finish, by the way), no longer felt exciting, it felt like a chore. I wasn’t creating from an overflow of creativity, I was creating to finish a product. And every minute I spend on a project like the coloring book, I cannot spend on something else. If I am spending my time and energy pouring out, then sooner or later I will run dry. You can’t keep pouring out without filling up.

So, instead of working on the coloring book, I have been reading a lot lately. I’ve read and/or re-read some classic literature over the past month or so. Flannery O’Connor, Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few. It has been an encouraging, challenging and refreshing time for my mind and soul. I’m the 39th-best aspiring writer in my neighborhood, so I am enamored by how well some people can choose their words. It’s a gift that is made better with hard work and it is a gift greater appreciated seen in full bloom. Good writing inspires creativity.

And so my coloring book was not ready in time for Christmas. Because we are born dying and every minute we live is a minute less we have to live. We must choose how to use every day. Every minute I read is a minute I am not drawing. And vice versa. Since the coloring book project is something that I am very excited about, this reading hiatus has reminded to me redeem the time; to be mindful of how I spend my days because how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. That should be on a plaque somewhere. Actually, I think that’s where I saw it.

But not only must we fill up in order to pour out, consciously numbering our days reminds us to be mindful of what you fill up with. My family sometimes watches The Amazing Race and there’s one episode in an early season in which several of the contestants fill up their automobiles with the wrong kind of gas. Inevitably, the cars break down.

If I am going to take a break from creating to fill up on someone else’s creativity, I want something that’s going to inspire, challenge, provoke, incite or just plain make me think. I have, over the years, been accused of being a snob in music and movies because I rarely celebrate what is most popular. Now, I’m not some sort of elitist but I do find, as a general rule, the more popular something is, the more watered down it is in order to appeal to the median (lowest common denominator?). I am not as inspired by Titanic as I am by Wes Anderson.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the in and out, the filling up and pouring out of a creative life requires a certain level of self awareness. Each person must know what media (music, movies, books, etc.) is going to benefit them and what is going to drain them because it is possible to think that you are pouring in while, what you’re putting in to your system is actually having a negative impact on your creative being. You can’t expect to fill up with hours of mainstream television every day and pour out something new. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the value of the lost art of silence but that’s probably a post for another day.

It seems to me that successfully creative people have learned enough about themselves and the impulse to create that they know when to fill up and what to pour in.

What is true of the creative life is true of the spiritual life. You will exhale what you inhale. That’s why Paul tells the Philippians: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8) and the Colossians to set their minds “on things above” (Colossians 3:1-2).

I have to remind myself of this, especially during our country’s regular political rhythms. I find myself being easily distracted and discouraged when I hear some of the things our candidates are saying and how their supporters justify them. I need to tune out this noise because, even though it might be incoming information, it is not filling full/fulfilling information. It does not incite creativity or fill my soul.

Creativity requires not only self-awareness but intentionality. Towards the end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Granger tells Montag:

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”

So please have patience with me if you’re one of the three people who has asked when the coloring book will be finished. I want to be a gardener, not just someone who cuts lawns.

Art Is A (Necessary) Luxury

IMG_6362I’ve got a sketchbook that’s found itself a special place in my heart. It’s not a particularly special sketchbook except for the fact that I’ve place a stretch of weird tin-fin-foil-duct-tape that my son Danny received for his birthday across the front of it.

I know this is an odd observation. But  it’s been with me for at least several months now which has got to count for something. It’s been responsible for pieces like this and this and this and this and this . . . (you get the idea, weird doodles one guy makes so he doesn’t have a nervous breakdown.)

It’s been a great sketchbook and I’ve really appreciated it. But there are only a few pages left so I know by experience that I’ll be lucky to get one more piece (by my own subjectivity) out of this particular sketchbook.

I know that in a few days, I won’t have this sketchbook anymore, so I’m in the midst of a weird grieving process that will likely only make sense to those who weirdly attach themselves to inanimate objects.. I go through the same thing every time I finish I finish a writing journal (I prefer Moleskine Classic if you’d like to buy me one) as well (though I don’t “journal” in the traditional sense).

This has set me to thinking (as many things do).

I am under no illusions of grandeur (at least in this area of life). I am not a particularly meaningful artist in the grand scheme of the universe. But art is very meaningful to me. I understand that I have been given just enough artistic ability that I am continually frustrated by normal suburban life but not enough that I will make a living selling my art. And I am OK with that. But I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of ideas lately:

Art is a luxury (Art always costs):

For purposes of today’s conversation, we’re going to simply define art as:

the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination

I’m thinking of a broad spectrum of things. Things like dance, painting, music, poetry, drawing, Andy Kaufman, writing, knitting, sculpting, theater, and the like. I’m thinking of such a broad spectrum, 01) because they all fit the definition: the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, and, 02) because they all cost. You cannot participate in these activities without giving something in exchange. Like a sort of modern alchemy’s equivalent exchange.

I was made keenly aware of this fact the other day as someone who is currently between opportunities. As you may know, I dabble a bit in the doodlings (sample my dabbles here or here). I prefer Staedtler pigment liner markers and my 0.8mm marker went dry on me in the middle of a doodle dabbling. Ever the Proverbs 31 woman, my wife had a Michael‘s coupon. But that didn’t change the fact that I’m currently unemployed and (even more than normal) every cent counts. I had to stop and think about how we were going to pay for the marker.

Art always costs. I have a friend who sits inside a closet after his family goes to bed so he doesn’t wake them while he practices guitar or writes songs. Art is a luxury because it always requires something from the practitioner. Whether it be the cost of an item, the time taken from some other task, art costs, which means that many view it as prohibitive.

Art is necessary:

Art may be a luxury, but unlike caviar, art is necessary. I can only speak from the microcosm of my own existence but I know that, for me, practicing creativity has helped me through some of my most difficult times. There is a therapeutic (and/or cathartic) value to externally expressing one’s self in a creative venture. It forces you to either take your mind off of something that’s bothering you (hopefully then being able to return to that vexing issue later with more clarity and calmness) or to work through the issue in some sort of external manner, forcing you to consider the issue issue in different ways.

But art is not only necessary because of its internal personal benefits. Art gives us the unique opportunity to see the world the way others see it. It broadens our thinking in often challenging ways. Art can soothe or stir. Art can critique or celebrate. Art can gives us windows into complex issues and help us understand one another in deeper ways.

The Faith-Art Connection

My faith teaches me that I should be content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8) and that I should give sacrificially, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35), considering others more significant than myself (Philippians 2). In other words, sacrifice is at the center of my religion.

My faith also teaches me that I have nothing to prove. Because of Jesus, I have all of the love and acceptance I could ever hope for (and more). When God the Father looks at me, He says “this is my child in whom I am well pleased”. I am able to work from my identity rather than for my identity. My being produces my doing.

This may seem initially unrelated to topics of art, but for me, it is integrally related. I have known many artistic people over the years and many of them view their art as a way to give their lives meaning. They find their identity in their art (in their doing) and therefore, by necessity, they are also tied to the continual pursuit of approval. I don’t know about you, but when I am seeking the approval of others, I take fewer chances. I’m more likely to find a winning formula and stick to it.

It is not necessary or helpful to believe that every single piece of art we produce will be a sea change. But art is always tied to creativity and creativity naturally pursues growth. Most artists mature over the course of their careers. But this always means that there were evolutions in their style and approach. And this means that they had to be willing to change. And this means that they had to be willing to take a risk. And this means that they had to be willing to fail.

The freedom to fail does not come easily.

I have scrapped many, many pieces of art. And that’s OK. It does not mean that I’m a failure. I have also let people see pieces I probably should have kept to myself. This also does not mean that I’m a failure but it does mean that lots of people know that I’m open to failure. The freedom to fail can only come when our identity is not tied to the task at hand. If my self-worth comes from my art, I will not take chances because I can’t risk my identity. The freedom to fail only comes when our doing flows from our being and our being (our identity) is tied to something greater than ourselves. Something not shakeable by our failures or successes.

Art requires vulnerability.

Putting a piece of creativity out into any sort of public sphere (sharing it with anyone) always requires vulnerability because it always involves the possibility of exposing more than you’d wished and that it will bring criticism.

Since art is often the expression of something deep, it requires vulnerability to share it. But sharing our creative expressions also means that we are aware that others may not like it or may not “get it”. Once again, if I find my identity in my doings, in my art, then I will either not take risks with my creativity or I will now share them with anyone.

Those With the Least to Lose Have the Most to Give, or, Those With The Least to Prove Should Take More Risks

It pains my heart to know that some of the worst “art” in recent generations has been produced by Christians. This pains my heart because this has not always been the case. Some of the best art the world has ever known has been produced by Christians. I believe that Christians should be at the forefront of every artistic endeavor. We have the freedom to fail because our worth comes from Jesus! We have the security to be vulnerable because we live to give rather than to receive.

It’s time for Christians to once again value art as more than propaganda. Go, create something today and share it with others.

“I Ain’t Tryptophan” (The Making Of)

IMG_2731I’ve had several people ask regarding the process I use to create some of my art pieces. So, after a hearty time of gorging myself in the name of thankfulness, I decided to experiment with a somewhat step-by step video of the process of one of my sketches.

This was just an experiment, so I didn’t worry about lighting/framing consistency or time-lapse or anything like that. However, I did have a lot of fun documenting a process that I rarely even think about.

So, now, without further ado, is the making of a piece I am calling: “I Ain’t Tryptophan”: