A Word About Beginnings
I don’t even remember now what compelled me to hold my first creativity/spirituality workshop more than three years ago. I think I was just trying to explore it all for myself, and I wanted input from other people. My friend Lil Copan made arrangements for me to try out some material with a group of folks she knew. In the course of discussion, I said something about how we should be able to form ourselves creatively—with intention, that is—and Lil coined the term “creative formation.” And that started something. After the discussion was over and she and I were relaxing at day’s end, the creative formation topic kept pulling us forward. At some point we decided I should try to write a book.
That is all very foggy, and the story of this book wrote itself, as all stories ultimately do. What you hold in your hands is at least the third version. It was turned down by numerous publishers in its earlier forms. Even after InterVarsity Press decided to do it, there were missing pieces, which IVP’s editors and readers identified, and so I did more work. A few years from now I will likely read this and identify yet more pieces that none of us found. With this project I have had to heed my own advice to decide when a thing is finished, even though it’s not the masterpiece I once envisioned. I tell myself periodically that it’s best if I never meet my expectations; otherwise I would not stretch and learn and wonder appropriately at gifts and inspiration.
I have stayed determined to create this book mainly because workshop participants have shown me again and again that the material is helpful and pertinent. Although I don’t pretend that any of this is truly original, I know that much of it is quite important, and if I can help a few creative persons claim their gifts and live more bountifully with them, then I’m satisfied.
I have become a more spiritual person because I write. The creative process is a spiritual one, and when we receive it as such, it deepens our gifts and edifies us in general. To write true stories, I must encounter truth, and as Jesus said, the truth makes us free. It also brings healing and grace when we attend to it. If I truly open my eyes and express in words what I have seen, then I will have participated in a spiritual act. I receive the vision from beyond myself, and I express it through who I am. This is God at work. It may be divinity at its finest, because the whole point of the incarnation was that we understand finally and with clarity who we really are—made in God’s image and possessing gifts with which to express God’s very self to the world.
And so even with all the heartache of the creative life—the ups and downs, the struggle to understand, the hard work at craft, the impingement of commerce—it can be the most sublime sort of existence.
Many days my life is not so sublime, but I encounter joy more now than I ever have, and I give much of the credit to this writing life that has pursued me and that I have chosen to accept as a calling.
I offer this book in thanksgiving as much as anything else. I’m thankful for what I have learned, for what I’ve been privileged to share with others and for the potential growth of the person who interacts with these pages.
I wrote my first “book” during the summer after fourth grade. The title page began on the first sheet of paper in a bright pink spiralbound notebook, and “The End” appeared on the last sheet; evidently I had already learned something about self-editing for the purpose of page count. I have since been unable to make my literary works come out so precisely.
The title of that first book was “The Gift of the Long Journey,” and t was essentially a composite of every Wagon Train episode I’d ever watched. It was told in first person by a girl (about my age) who had traveled across the country by wagon train with her parents and her handsome, protective older brother (in real life the author was firstborn and had no older brother but wished she did). In the course of the story the heroine got lost, Indians attacked the wagon train, the handsome older brother was wounded but not fatally, and Indians kidnapped the heroine, who escaped by her own wits and bravery.
This book is still floating around the family somewhere, which is good. No matter how successful my writing career may become, some sister or nephew will be able to wave around the pink notebook and bring me back to my artistic roots.
My first real book was published when I was forty. Between the fourth grade and age forty I traveled through various jobs and two careers, but all the time I was learning to say yes to that something inside that got abnormally excited about pens and blank notebooks. I always loved office supply stores—that should have been an indication of what inevitably would come. And I read books constantly, almost as much as I watched television. My childhood was a sickly one, and this prevented the sorts of physical activity that many childhoods are made of. It’s not surprising that I turned to reading, writing and other pastimes that were physically passive.
But one year, probably during junior high, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I remember thinking, I want to write like this. I want to do to people what this writer has just done to me. That was the real beginning. That day I said yes to my gift. And I have continued to learn, over the years and season by season, what that yes means and how I live it out.
One of the most important powers we have as human beings is the ability to say yes or no. Many of life’s pivotal events happen because someone answers a summons, accepts an opportunity or follows a hunch. As a writer I know that saying yes to the next story can feel like any one of these. I also know that in order to say yes to one thing I must nearly always say no to something else. Whatever the case, adrenaline makes its rush through the body, and an otherwise ordinary day takes on the glow of transcendence.
I do believe that creativity involves transcendence. Many a philosopher and theologian has stated that we most resemble the divine when we create. Imagine, then, the power we tap into when we say yes to our creative gifts.
Imagine what you tap into when you say yes to your gifts. You do have creative gifts. They are foundational to your personality, your ability to function from day to day and your life callings. Their discovery may have been delayed by hard times or an oppressive childhood. You may have been denied the opportunity to develop your gifts. But creative gifts are resilient and quite patient. They appear when the time is right and can adapt to an ever-changing environment.
Even after being undiscovered or neglected for decades, they can walk onstage in brilliant clothes and dazzle you and those who are your witnesses.
In a general sense, every human being is creative. This trait is not always flashy. Often it’s not called by its true name. But when you take the stuff of life and rearrange it so that it matters, so that it does good things, you’re acting creatively. At those times when you are breaking a sweat to make life work better, you are most like the God who created you. You don’t have to come up with a new idea in order to be creative. All you have to do is find an old idea and apply it to a new moment or group of people, a new problem or situation.
And so creativity is at work in the parent of preschoolers who must come up with ways of occupying their exuberance for hours, even days, on end. It is also at work in the entrepreneur who can make a buck before she even has a buck. Likewise, the person at the office or the church who never misses an opportunity to make a program or system more effective is exercising creativity. And it’s alive and well in the guy who, like my late father, works at a factory job all day and then comes home to tend a garden.
According to the Jewish and Christian story, when God created the world, God made something out of nothing. God spoke the universe into existence. We humans really can’t do that. Even when we create new human beings, we start with DNA. But it requires our God-given creative abilities to discover all that has been placed in the universe.
Our very act of discovery is true creativity. So often a sculptor will say, as Michelangelo was reported to have done, “I don’t make a statue; I chip away the stone until the form inside emerges.” The writer will say, “I don’t make up characters; I discover them and then listen to their stories.” The scientist says, “It’s been under our noses for decades, and I know that if I noodle around long enough I’ll see it clearly.”
The parent recognizes suddenly, on a long afternoon, some new wonder in the four-year-old. The sales rep, on the road for the tenth day in a row, sees a connection between product and people that had not occurred until now. Our human life is full of information waiting to be understood and beauty waiting to be unveiled. When we understand and when we unveil, we are living out our creativity.
I make the point that creativity is inherent to human personality because we tend to recognize it only in certain contexts, such as the arts. And when we see it as special to only some people or personality types, it becomes to us a mystery that is often more intimidating than it has to be. The creative process does have its mysterious aspects, but overall it is natural, and we are designed to work with it joyfully and fruitfully. At a basic level, we use our creativity to live within budget or plan a garden plot. At a more specialized level we develop our gifts for mixing colors on a canvas or crafting sentences on a page.
I can’t talk with expertise about most forms of creativity. I’m not a parent, I’m really bad with numbers and technical things, I am science deficient, and I don’t have a green thumb. Neither can I paint, dance, act or build. I dabble in music. Mostly I write stories.
So I am going to form this book mainly within the context of the writing art. But I will also be drawing on what I have heard and read from people who are in what we call the fine arts—other writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, dancers and musicians. Most of these people live the creative life quite intentionally. They have tuned in more carefully than most of us to the specific characteristics and stages of creativity. So I will use primarily their terms in exploring the creative process.
I will also use my own experience and background. My faith tradition is Christian, and I will make several references to how my tradition has affected and continues to affect my creative life. I’m sure there will be certain parallels between my experience and yours, regardless of your tradition.
There are two main purposes to this book. One is to help you identify your own creative process and learn how to participate with it more fully. There is mystery, and there is practicality. There is revelation, and there is simple practice. I hope to make all of this a little easier to think about and work with.
The second purpose is to help make the connection between your spiritual life and your creative work. After years of writing, and particularly since I have written fiction on a regular basis, I’ve become convinced that creative work is spiritual at its heart. And I believe that much can be gained if we attend to spirituality along with creativity. I have asked people to consider carefully how these two aspects of life relate for them, and it’s been encouraging, and sometimes surprising, how eagerly people have discussed both of these topics in the same conversation. Many of us sense that our soul has become fragmented by the cultural (and personal) separation of creativity from spirituality, and we want to experience them in greater integration.
When we say yes to our gifts, it’s good for us to know at least some of what we’re saying yes to. Each creative life writes its unique story. But some aspects of creativity seem to be common and consistent.
This gets more artists into more trouble than any other aspect of creative work. Artists are put on earth to explore, to push the boundaries, to ask yet more questions, and sometimes to do away with—or at least challenge—traditional assumptions.
This trait can look like rebellion or simple contrariness, but it is in fact the nature of creativity. Creativity looks for a new way to say or depict something that’s been around forever. Every day we must rise and go about our life, and if creativity did not provide fresh ways in which to perceive our experiences and articulate them, we would grow dull and tired and aimless very quickly.
Each generation must learn the same truths as every generation that came before. And in order for that to happen, new incarnations must occur in every aspect of life—music, art, literature, education, religion, medicine, politics and so on. We must constantly think of new ways to embrace the world.
This exploring of the boundaries is why we can discover how to transplant hearts; it is why the theory of relativity is articulated. Exploration is how we can progress from black and white to Technicolor and the reason we finally came up with a name for postpartum depression. Life demands that we be willing to let go of one belief so that a larger, truer belief can take its place. This is frightening business, and sometimes it makes us uncomfortable or even angry.
And so, with great regularity, some artist’s vision attracts a crowd of protesters, or a movie is boycotted, or a book is banned. Galileo gets dragged to the Inquisitor; Mozart dies a pauper. All of these scenarios occur because people creatively explore the world and in so doing disturb others. They convey the old truths in new forms and languages.
They are driven to do this. Creative work actually brings on society’s growing pains. It is anything but risk free.
When you embark upon creative work, it will push your personal boundaries. It will open up parts of yourself with which you have been unfamiliar. It will cause you to ask questions of your life. It will insist that you come up with names for things that until now you haven’t examined carefully at all.
The exploratory nature of creativity makes it scary at times. But it also adds intrigue and sizzle to life and moves the mundane into a realm of wonder.
You can’t engage with a creative process and not engage other processes. When you are exploring and unveiling, your emotions get hooked, your intellect gets hooked, and your deepest beliefs about life get hooked. If creativity is nurtured well and allowed to grow, it will grab onto your life in multiple ways.
Much of the creative flatness that surrounds us exists precisely because people have been willing to nurture one part of life but not another. They may write songs that are lovely but not very original: rather than explore and find new incarnations—which involves a spiritual, philosophical risk—they stick with the proven formulas of former eras.
The financial bottom line may keep artists employing fine craft but choosing forms that have ceased to be emotionally alive; they are too pat to elicit much response. Sometimes artists avoid certain subject matters out of simple fear. For instance, writers who hail from a restrictive religious subculture may neuter their stories, excising any sexual content or energy in order to conform to boundaries set by religious peers.
The most powerful art speaks to its audience on many different levels. It engages the physical senses by providing specific, concrete information. It engages the emotions by being relevant to people’s desires. It engages our thoughtful, philosophical nature by having some form and underlying hypothesis. It engages our spiritual sensibilities because it has been formed in a person’s spiritual core, thereby touching on life’s transcendent character. It engages our sexuality because it respects our need for connection—even if the creative piece itself explores alienation.
As you get in touch with your creative gifts, you will, as a matter of course, get in touch with every facet of your being. A particular poem will call up memories of your past, or a painting will bloom once you engage a fuller range of emotions. A character in your novel or play will finally open up when you delve into that character’s sexual identity or spiritual beliefs—and in delving into those things you will touch your own sexuality and spirituality.
So prepare yourself for full-life engagement. You can embrace this work and never be bored again. Or you can resist it and suffer one of two fates: you yourself will become numb and boring, or you will exist in that nerve-jangling tension of never quite saying yes or no.
In creative work you are uncovering reality that transcends your sensibilities.
Whatever you reveal about life through your own work will by its very nature touch on the revelations of other works by other people. And so you are joining in a process that unfolds in your life but it is not confined to your experience. The most you can do is participate; you will never run the show.
Mature artists have learned that they cannot control the process by which they create. They can embrace it; they can acquiesce to it; they can marvel at it; they can enjoy the ride. Their only control lies in the mastery of their craft. For instance, it is up to me to master the intricacies of structure, style, grammar and all that goes into the writing art. But I can’t sit down and simply decide how a story is going to unfold.
I don’t yet know how the story will unfold. I very likely don’t even know how the story will end. That’s because unfold is the operative word. I can pay attention and witness the unfolding, and then, if I have mastered my craft, I can capture what unfolds and communicate it to others.
Our creative work issues from our memories and our subconscious, from stories that predate us, from matters that are so deep and so important that we cannot contain them at any one time. This work requires a process that is larger and wiser than we are. We should be very grateful that we can’t control it, because we wouldn’t be up to the job anyway.
When we see the terms artist and creative, we tend to think of the most flamboyant representatives of these two categories. A personality such as Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky or Pablo Picasso is quite publicity friendly—and also translates well into movie rights. We think of Ernest Hemingway or Andy Warhol or Martha Graham when someone says “artist.”
But some of the most creative people do not look artistic at all.
They work long hours and are quite practical and unromantic. Have you talked lately with someone who organizes relief efforts after an earthquake has ripped apart an entire region? You don’t get any more creative than that, and yet such people appear to be more pragmatic than creative.
Forget about the stereotypes. Some creative people can be recognized as such from a mile away. Others practice their creative gifts day in and day out but no one would ever think to call them artists. Maybe you have an artistic temperament, and maybe you don’t. That really doesn’t matter. What is important is that you discover your creative gifts and develop them.
Many people grow up with a good understanding of the tasks they do well. If a child is lucky, her innate gifts are nurtured from an early age. Daddy makes sure there’s always plenty of paper and colored markers for her to play with. Mom takes her outside often and just lets her explore the world. Grandma funds music lessons when the little boy begins to mimic tunes in perfect pitch. Some of us are very fortunate in this way. My family had no money to speak of during my childhood.
But Dad subscribed to a children’s book club for years so that each month we received a new book. When I began to sound out tunes on the piano at age six, my parents convinced the junior high music teacher to stop by once a week and give me lessons. If my sisters or I ever wrote a story or had a song to perform, there was an audience and much encouragement.
Not everyone has this kind of nurture. And even where creative activities are encouraged as a pastime, the vision of a creative vocation may have been missing. Though I was encouraged in my creative endeavors, no one in my family nudged me toward a writing career, because none of them knew anyone who made a living at writing. It was assumed that I would become a music teacher. I went through college as a music major, writing on the side and taking every elective writing class I could squeeze in. After nearly a decade of training to be a music teacher and holding teaching jobs, it finally occurred to me that my truest, deepest love was writing.
You may not have been nurtured toward creativity. Or you may have been nurtured in one direction but not another. You may have been pushed by peer pressure or family pressure or simple financial pressure toward a career that lay far from your creative gifts. And you may stay in that career for a lot of good reasons.
In some families, the most important thing is to have a career that will support you well financially. This is nothing to sniff at. I’m a writer now, but I paid my dues through a decade of full-time editorial work. People tend to be more creative when they are eating reasonably well and not hiding from creditors. We have to prioritize needs and tasks and make choices accordingly.
But creative gifts exist apart from jobs and careers. A lot of people have “day jobs” and still carry on with their creative work. Whether or not you make a living by using your creative gifts is beside the point. Right now, this day, you can ask yourself, Am I really developing my creative gifts? Have I identified them fully?
Even if you’ve identified a general gift such as writing, perhaps it’s time to go further. You’re comfortable writing for newspapers, but now you’re itching to try poetry or fiction. Your friend has been asking you to do some script writing; that’s not your field and so you’ve always declined the request, but perhaps you want to say yes. There is always more to know about your own gifts, more to identify and develop.
We naturally concentrate on one or two of our gifts, most likely because they come more easily or the opportunity is there. But there is likely other giftedness yet to be discovered. If you’re at all foggy about what your gifts are or which gifts are begging for attention, you can start where you are, with your present interests. What do you enjoy doing? If you have a spare hour or two, what are you inclined to do with it?
Think back a decade or two. What did you enjoy when you were in college or high school or elementary school? When you had time and not so many commitments, what did you enjoy? What classes really turned you on—woodworking? choir? foreign languages? It’s possible that important clues have gotten buried in layers of jobs, relationships, business commitments and schedules.
Think back even further to what you loved as a child. What gave you joy before anyone told you what you should be doing or liking? Just a few years ago I realized that I have been writing stories and making books since early childhood. I made scrapbooks out of pictures I cut out of magazines, and then I wrote words that went with the pictures.
See, I was an editor and writer way back when. What were you way back when?
What really gives you joy? Creative work that is fruitful is long term, exhausting and many leveled. There are easier ways to get a paycheck. So I find that people who have settled into creative work have stuck with it for one reason: it gives them joy. At the very least they experience a level of satisfaction that keeps them engaged over time. This joy occurs during the process as well as in response to the finished work. For every finished novel a writer produces, a half-dozen others remain unfinished—or finished—in a file cabinet. Most of them won’t get published because there’s some flaw or because the subject matter won’t sell. But the writer works on them anyway, because to do so satisfies something at the soul level.
So consider what gives you joy, deep dwn. Mythologist and author Joseph Campbell would ask, “What is your bliss?” Creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would ask, “Where is the flow?” We do best what we do joyfully. And when we find what we truly love, we can develop the gifts that allow us to indulge in this love more consistently.
Even the Christian Scriptures recognize the element of joy in giftedness. The Greek word charism has to do with joy, and this word is used throughout St. Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12).
The people who spend a lot of time with you, who have lived with you and dealt with you for years, know you better than you’d like to think. Ask a chosen four or five people what they think your gifts are. They probably won’t have to stand there and think; most likely they’ll respond quickly and offer examples to back up what they say.
Your gifts are sometimes more obvious to others than they are to you. And you are likely more critical of yourself than other people are of you. One of the biggest obstacles to embracing your gifts is that inner critic who has already decided that you have no talent. Your loved ones are not saddled with your inner critic. They are free to simply look at your life and report what they see.
Listen to what people say, and then take the information for what it’s worth. If you ask your mother, she may give it to you straight—or she may slant her response to suit her own dreams for you. Any person will have biases, and he will couch his response in terms that fit his concept of gifts and creativity. But there will be some evidence in what he observes about your abilities.
Pay attention to how other people respond to your creative work. A true gift gives true pleasure to others—or it truly stirs them up. When your friend’s face lights up while he’s talking about some endeavor of yours, you know that somehow that endeavor really connected to another person. When people have a strong reaction to your work, positive or negative, that tells you that you’ve hit on something that’s meaningful.
Cooking is one of my creative gifts, and I try to throw a couple of big dinner parties every year. After one of them a friend said, “I’ve never seen you so relaxed and happy as when you were in the kitchen, right in the middle of everything.” I’d never thought of myself as relaxed— putting on a multicourse dinner for fourteen people certainly has its stresses. But this friend saw evidence that I was doing what I am gifted to do.
When people are moved and helped by what you do, that means something. Don’t take compliments lightly; store them up. Review them. Really listen to what it is people are getting out of what you do.
This information is important to you.
For years I regretted my tendency to be an outsider. I never felt comfortable in crowds or at parties, and I didn’t naturally build large networks of friends. An introvert always has to work harder to connect with others than more outgoing folks do. And as a writer, I was nearly always the observer, the person who attended the party but simply watched everyone else there.
Then I published two novels, and I began to hear from people. And I realized that people perceived my love through my storytelling. People connected with the stories and felt loved or understood or encouraged through them. So maybe I’m more of an observer than a party animal, but that doesn’t mean that I am uninvolved with people. I’ve stopped feeling guilty about my introversion, because I know that it’s part of my writing gift, necessary to it in fact. And the writing gift that I indulged on the sly for years has become one of my best means for loving others.
What do you offer to people that makes them feel loved or encouraged or hopeful? What do people look forward to receiving from you? What are the best gifts you bring to a gathering of friends? In the Christian tradition, gifts are considered to be equipment God has given us in order to build up and help others. Pay attention to how others pay attention to you. This will help you zero in on your gifts.
For the next five minutes, write about what gave you joy as a child.
Write quickly without analyzing or editing.
Take another five minutes and describe the most glorious or satisfying event of your high school life.
Try to remember the last time you were involved with a project that so captivated your attention that you lost track of time. What were you doing?
If five people closest to you—whether friends or family—were to tell you honestly what good things you have brought to their lives, what qualities or gifts would they list?
The activity that gives me greatest joy is . . .
The good qualities that best describe my life are . . .
The help that people often solicit from me is . . .
The part of my personality that I would most hate to lose is . . .
The work that is most satisfying to me is . . .
The activity that I feel drawn to, even when it’s scary, is . . .
Write a paragraph about what saying yes to your gift has already meant for you.
Write a paragraph about what you fear saying yes might cost you.
Name, as specifically as you can, the gift that seems to be calling to you most consistently or urgently right now.
In one sentence, articulate what you plan to do that will say yes in a new or more intense way.