Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Necessity of Fear

One of the convictions that motivates my concern for the arts and artists is the notion that the creative process itself is not something limited to artists. The creative process is the concern of any living, vibrant being. To be human is to be creative. Each of us make dozens—maybe even hundreds of creative decisions each day. Some decisions are small (how much toothpaste to squeeze onto your toothbrush, a decision of technique) and some are large (how to engage in and sustain a vibrant conversation with another person, decisions of love and trust). We decide what clothes to wear, how to style our hair, whether to walk to work or drive, what to eat for lunch, how to communicate with co-workers. All these decisions can to some extent contain a creative impulse that makes the difference between a boring and an interesting day, the difference between a vibrant and a banal life. It seems possible that someone might breathe, eat and sleep and yet be for all purposes dead to the creative life we have been designed to experience—to be a living dead person.

Many of us are stuck in this quagmire of living death because we are trapped by fear.

One of my goals is to demystify the creative process, to remove the intimidation so that anyone might take a good, close study of what artists do and glean some insight into their own creative decisions as a result—to look over the shoulder of a professional artist in order to understand our own creative journeys. The creative process for an artist is merely a condensed, focused and deliberate act of being human. If there were an ESPN-like network for the arts, I would have a cable subscription and be glued to the TV. Nothing is more thrilling to me than watching an artist in the studio, to watch something emerge out of raw materials, sweat, deliberation and time into something tangible—something for an audience to behold.

So, I encourage everyone, even if you’re not a songwriter or a musician to consider my following reflections.

I read an interview with Matt Berninger, singer of the National, last night. The interview is the most transparent account from the lips of a highly respected rocker that I’ve read. When I heard the National’s Boxer, it was one of the few times in my life that I could tell from the first song, that the record would sustain itself with integrity from track to track. I managed to find a used copy of the band’s 2001 release, Brassland. I disliked that CD so much that I haven’t bothered to put it on my computer or ipod. Now after reading the interview about their pending release, I can see that this is a band that works hard to improve and stretch itself in the creative process. In hindsight, it is impressive to see what a band can learn about itself in the space of six years, the time between 2001’s Brassland  and 2007’s Boxer. What impressed me so about Berninger’s interview was his ability to confess his struggle. He speaks of the band’s infighting, the hours spent working away at lyrics, his reluctance to listen to music while he’s in the thick of the creative process for fear that his own work might seem fruitless:
I missed an entire year of music in some ways. I listen to a song or two from people that I loved, just for inspiration here and there, but I don't know if it actually worked. I think it just frustrated me. You know, when you hear something you love so much and you feel like you're getting nowhere with a song, it often just makes it even harder to write to it.
David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote a classic text that all artists should read, Art and Fear. Here is a quote I return to often that captures the spirit of what the book speaks to,  “You’re not up to the task…you can’t do it, or can’t do it well, or can’t do it again; or that you’re not a real artist, or not a good artist, or have no talent, or have nothing to say.”

My assumption is that all of us have felt this way about something in our lives. Each of us fundamentally struggle with the significance of each of our own accomplishments. We go to bed at night wondering if what we have applied ourselves to during the preceding hours of the day was worth anything. The artist is only in a more vulnerable position because when she finishes her day’s work, she hopes an audience will behold the culmination of her work and decide whether or not her energies were fruitful or not. The artist is consistently looking over her shoulder in a very particular manner, and the more successful the artist, the higher the expectation and accompanying fear.

Being human, being creative, implies regularly facing fear. What we fear plainly reveals who we are essentially in the core of our beings. This is why as Christians we understand what may seem troubling to someone outside the faith, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fear is powerful. It can either smother us and kill us, or it can be an opportunity. Fear is the thrill that we conquer in the struggle of our faith in the deliberate, intentional labor of the creative processes of our lives. Faith is the victory that overcomes the world, that overcomes all doubt, all fear. When the writer sits before a blank page, a painter at a blank canvas or a mother wakens with a newborn child or a plumber or banker returns to another day of the grind or a teacher to her students, the question is if we have faith to believe that there are good things in store for each day, that one hope-filled creative decision will lead to another creative opportunity and to another.

Underneath this is a question of hope and optimism. It is a question of whether we can become more than what we are today. Can a person really change?

I’ve always struggled with the parable of the sower. If I was there with the disciples when Jesus explained the difference between the good soil, the rocky soil and the soil with thorny weeds my immediate question would have been, can a person become a different kind of soil? Can the rocky soil become fertile?

These are not just abstract reflections. My last four years have been terrifying in many ways. The move from my comfortable community in Oklahoma into public leadership—from teaching sixth graders to becoming a very public figure at Hope College—this has been a struggle. I’m an introvert for goodness sake! My marriage has been tested and stretched with Susanna and I being strong willed, independent people and with her living in Valparaiso during the week these past two years. My own art has been fraught with fear and insecurity. I’m still working on a record I began four years ago. I’m eight years into my master’s degree with only one final writing project left before graduation.

Yes, I’ll boast in my weakness.

At times fear has suffocated me, yet it is the fear that has forced me to become a different kind of leader, a different kind of husband and a different kind of artist. Yes, by the grace of God, we can change and become much more than we could ever imagine on our own. The past four years have been a further excursion in the pursuit of living life vibrantly and creatively.

I want my experience to be an encouragement to you. There is more, but our fears we will have to face.

Now unto Him who is able to abundantly more than anything we could ever ask or imagine, be blessing and glory, honor, power and majesty forever.

Here’s a link to an interview with Junot Diaz, a favorite author, from You’ll need to register to the website, but its free and a good read. Consider Diaz’ response to the question of faith in the writing process.

1 comment:

Courtney Kay said...

Thank you for talking about fear...