Creating + Celebrating → Community

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One of the best things I heard at Hutchmoot this year came from Thomas McKenzie during the session on cultivating artistic community. “Create content,” he said. Not “write the next great novel,” or “paint a really stunning portrait.” He did not advise us to compose Shakespearean sonnets or Bach-like symphonies. In fact, Thomas made a point of telling us that just because some people are professional artists, does not mean everything else regular people create is cow dung. “Simply create,” Thomas encouraged us. “The community will come. You just have to do your part.”

I heartily agree, and I’d like to share more about the ways I’ve found this to be true. Last December, I watched a movie called Julie and Julia and I was inspired. Not to cook though, I wanted to learn something totally new. I hoped to give myself a challenge and set some parameters so I could be held accountable and maybe even measure how well I’d done. Funds were limited, and it needed to be something I cared about as well. I settled upon poetry, something I hadn’t done much of since college, but definitely something I felt passionate about. I launched a new blog called Poetry Padawan (combining my love for alliteration and my nerdy knowledge of Star Wars) and decided I was going to write one poem a week for the entire year of 2011.

I started out rather slowly. I was too much of a perfectionist, and it took me awhile to give myself a break and just put the words down on paper. After talking briefly in an e-mail to Pete Peterson and writing through some of my fears on my regular blog, I was able to let go of some of that perfectionism. I began averaging about two poems a month in the spring, but the pace of my original goal was too strenuous and I got waaaay behind. Still, I was hopeful. There was a lot of year left to go. Maybe I would get faster and produce more the more I worked at it. Maybe I would be able to write two poems a week during the summer.

When summertime actually came though, production slowed to a screeching halt. With three kids and myself at home full time, there just wasn’t a lot of time for poetry be it writing, reading, or even poetical thinking. Yet the summertime led me to another realization. Writing a poem is not exactly like cooking a meal. You can’t just go to the store and buy all the ingredients you need and come out with a savory dish three hours later. When I followed this analogy to its logical conclusion, I saw that I had started out with a bowl, a spoon, and the taste of tomato soup in my mind, when what I had really needed was to plant some tomato seeds.

Still, I can’t call this project a failure, and though at times it was tempting, I never gave up on it. I just adjusted the parameters, and my expectations. But the fact that I set the goal at all is what led to the fifteen poems I’ve written this year, as opposed to the zero poems I wrote last year. And no, not all my poems are terrific. I really only like two or three, but I never would’ve made it to those few if I hadn’t challenged myself to write in the first place.

The community wrought from this creative process showed up in a concrete way for me back in August. I finally worked up the guts to attend my first meeting of a newly formed Knoxville Writer’s Group. I took one of my poetry journals, just in case, but I was only planning on listening to everyone else, then deciding if this was a group I would be interested in joining. God had other plans in mind though, because the meeting ended up with exactly two people. Adam Whipple, a singer-songwriter, photographer, and aspiring novelist, and me. We talked for awhile so we could get to know each other a little better and passed the time in case there were any later- than-me comers. When it was painfully clear that no one else was coming, Adam read a few pages from his latest work in progress and asked for my opinion. I’m afraid I didn’t have much to offer him, but he graciously considered my advice and then he asked if I had anything to read.

It was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life as I cracked open my journal, looking for the page with my latest creation. Yet Adam assured me that art isn’t very honest if it’s not embarrassing on some level. After I read my poem, Adam was so encouraging. He said he loved it, and that my poem had life. Then he told me about a friend it reminded him of and said the words felt true, like she could’ve actually spoken them. I left our meeting that night feeling like I’d just torn through the ribbon at the finish line of a marathon. That’s what community can give to an artist, exhilaration and the push to create even more.

The whole experience reminds me of how I used to feel about singing. I love to sing, but I’m definitely a background singer, not a lead. See, I can pick up a melody, but I don’t have a great range, and I do not possess the spiritual gift of volume. I used to spend a lot of time wishing I could sing as well as other members of my family, or perhaps my favorite pop singer, and I was so worried about sounding good that I didn’t sing at all. And you know what was good about that? Nothing. It’s good to sing. People have a need to express themselves in song. Just think about the people you know who regularly sing aloud. Now, think about some other people you know who you’ve never even heard whistle. Can you see a difference in these two groups of people? Well, I can. The first group, in general, seems a bit happier.

Perhaps this is a catch-22, and it’s the overflow of their hearts which causes them to erupt in song, but I happen to know that whenever I sing aloud, whether I’m in the car by myself, with a group in church, or just humming to my kids at bedtime, something happens inside of me. Maybe it’s a chemical reaction, maybe it’s simply a small rush of endorphins, but whatever it is it makes me feel good. And feeling good, for me, feels good. I don’t say that in a flippant, hedonistic way either, I’m speaking as someone who struggles with depression, both major and minor. I’m speaking from my own experience, where I’ve learned to pay attention to what things calm and soothe me as well as what makes me sad or down. And when I want to feel better, it’s good to know what things help, so I can use them offensively when I see myself headed in the wrong direction. Of course I don’t always see it, but that’s another post.

One day several years ago, a friend of mine asked me to help out with the praise team at our church, and I decided to give it a try. I was still scared to sing in front of other people, but I trusted my friend’s opinion of my voice, and I knew this was a place where I could feel passionate about serving our church. Can you guess what happened? The more I practiced, the better I got. Now I never did sing an awesome solo, and since we’ve moved to a much larger church, I’m no longer on stage, but I wouldn’t trade those hours spent with my friends around the piano for anything. And the community I shared with those ten people that year is mine forever. Yet it never would have happened if I’d held onto my obsessive perfectionism.

Sara Groves wrote a song a few years ago called “Setting Up the Pins” and there’s one line in it that gets to me every time I hear it: “Sing for the beauty that’s to be found,” Sara says. And we are living, here and now, in a beautiful world. No, it’s not perfect, and yes, there is much to be sad about, but if you’ll take a second or so to look for it, you can find beauty. Can you imagine the difference it might make if you then sing about the beautiful things you see? When we create art, whether it’s sculpting, scripting, or sautéing, we’re singing in celebration of the beauty we’ve found. What better way to imitate the Lord than to rejoice over all that we love with singing?

Is there some small goal you could set for yourself that would inspire you to make more art in the year ahead? What will you do in 2012 to create content and foster artistic community? I believe there’s a spot for your unique voice in this great choir of the world. Won’t you please consider joining?


21 Comments

  1. Loren

    Thanks for the encouragement, Janna. As a fellow-mom of three little ones, I’ve often felt I’m not progressing very well in using my creative bents. Often I feel like it’s not even worth doing the little things I come up with because they’re not as good as others (in my opinion), and I’m not diligent enough or disciplined enough, so why even bother! But like you said about singing, when I do it, I feel good. I see how God opens my eyes to things I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. And as a result my whole family benefits. What’s not to love about that?

    I’ll be taking a few plunges this year and we’ll see how God uses them. I think the biggest hurdle for me is actually plunging. After that, the results are up to Him, and I need to trust Him with those. If they are His, they are beautiful.

  2. J. H. Friedrick

    Amen and amen! One of my favorite things to do is listen to songs that everyday people write. I really don’t care if the song is good or bad, what I enjoy is seeing someone else’s creativity.

    I wonder how often I tend to be a perfectionist Christian, so worried about doing a thing well that I don’t do anything.

    Well thank you for the thoughts!

  3. Chris

    Love this. Just pausing to say thanks for the encouragement. And thanks to Fr. McKenzie for the inspiration. And this site is a great example of the community that forms around creativity. It inspired me and my friends to do our own little version of the Rabbit Room so we could share our songs and writing with one another. God gave us the job to “be fruitful and multiply” – yes, have loads of kids but I think it can also apply to what you’ve written here…to fill up the earth with good things (kids included 🙂

    Thanks again. I really want to get to Hutchmoot one of these years!

  4. Laura Boggs

    Janna, Thank you for being so real and including solid examples of your journey. It’s a battle, isn’t it? Time and energy constraints, perfectionism, and FEAR are formidable foes. But isn’t it lovely to discover what brings us joy — and wards off the blues?

    Sometimes I wonder why we wander away from all this (singing out loud, creating, sharing) as adults. Children seem to instinctively know whose image (The Creator’s)they were made in — and then they turn 12 or 13 and get scared about the quality of their efforts. I have no business creating, most folks think. Ah, but we do, even if we’re not the greatest in the world. And it takes guts not to be the greatest — trust me, I know.

    And I love your point about how our artistic strivings open our eyes to beauty. Do we really want to walk around dead inside? We can participate in all this glory set before us. In our small ways, we can try to reflect what we see. Sometimes I think our lack of output, no matter how suck-y, is a cause of depression.

    Thank you for your encouragement. And good for you for giving yourself grace to be flexible about your poetry goals.

  5. redheadkate

    Thanks for this encouragement to create, Janna!
    Proud of you for writing it and for what is going on in the background that prompted you to write.

  6. Greg

    I thank you for sharing this. I am unfortunately one of those perfectionist Christian another poster mentioned above, and therefore barely get by the first initial steps of creating, though my wife keeps telling me, “Write! Write! It’s so good!” Yet I am, even in these times of hesitation, surrounded by a communion of saints living and passed, artist and non-artist, who constantly prod me to take another step, no matter how small. Of whom Janna is another voice on the breeze, calling out to braver things ahead. As my favorite author wrote, “Further up and further in!”

  7. Jen

    This really got to me — “art isn’t very honest if it’s not embarrassing on some level.” This is the hardest thing for me, and I suspect all of us who struggle with perfectionism. And this is what shuts me out of community and creating.

    Thank you Janna! I love what you write here… your thoughts about perfectionism, fear, and community are always so encouraging. Oh, how I can relate. My 2012 goal? Late last year I started writing poetry again (and trying not to worry about if its terrible. keyword = trying. :)). I think I wrote more poems in those few months than I have in years. I want to do more of that, focus on the creative side of my writing, and work on not being so terrified of sharing.

    Again, thank you for this!

  8. Cherie Heringer

    Janna, I’m encouraged and inspired with your post. Having an entrepreneurial bent, I’m always thinking, “how can I earn some money off of my creativity.” I advocate artists and their work and if I had it my way educators and artists would be the ones paid the big bucks. But then, you lose the focus of just creating for the sake of beauty and as one blogger said above, getting your creativity out. I, too, get depressed if I can’t create.

    So. I’m going to take your advice and just begin. Somewhere. I could spend the rest of my life pursuing nothing but creative endeavors and be totally content. So instead of making the mechanics and “must dos” the priority, I’m going to flip it and make creativity the priority in all that I do. Look out toilets! You’ve never seen clean like this before!

  9. Laura Peterson

    Janna, I love what you said about singing because it makes you feel good. Perfectionist me tends to look at opportunities to create or try something new and says, “Oh, I can’t finish that, or I can’t do it well, or I’m not as good as that person,” and I don’t even hear the other me saying, “But I love doing this!” I think I needed the reminder that sometimes making something beautiful just for me is ok. 🙂 “Start a blog” has been on my half-hearted New Year’s resolution list for years, but I haven’t done it because the little voice says “What if no one reads it?” This post just pointed out to me that even if no one else reads it, I still will! I will be grateful to have all those words and stories in one place, and that’s enough to start with, I think.

  10. Teela

    Janna, You continue to amaze me. I had no idea about this writing, in fact I read this on facebook from someone else that you’d written a piece and it was at the Rabbit Room. Coming from a perfectionist, you really struck a chord about the singing. I’ve not been singing for several years, when I used to love to sing. I guess it’s the deaf thing, or at least that is what I blame it on, that I can’t hear and I would always love to harmonize, esp. w/Billy. Love to sing with that guy! So, I joined our little church choir to work on the Christmas contata and quit…b/c I was on the end and could not hear a thing. Then I noticed the day of the contata, a little lady had taken my place and I heard alot of notes that needed tweeking but at least she was up there singing for Jesus with a smile on her face. As for the perfectionist thing, well, you know that’s in the past, you’ve seen my art/creation station….what a mess. But I love it. It makes me happy to be creating something wether anyone sees it or not. So thanks for the post and your most eloquent way of challenging us to be more than we currently are. I love you, Mom

  11. Ua Vandercar

    Thanks for the continued encouragement from the Rabbit Room community! i have recently been led to create a site that may inspire myself and others toward creative musical endeavors that can affect a change in the world, even beyond the power of the message. Much similar to your poetic blog, i am challenging myself and others to directed songwriting throughout this year. You can check it out at http://www.songsgiving.net.

    Thank you, especially, for these reminders …

    “Simply create,” Thomas encouraged us. “The community will come. You just have to do your part.”

    That’s what community can give to an artist, exhilaration and the push to create even more.

  12. Andy Vandergriff

    So…I saw the title of this post, and immediately thought of Adam and his writers community, only to keep reading and have 2 and two come together and see that indeed they do make four, as I realize that it is about (in large respect) this seedling of a community. Adam has been a best friend to me for nearly as long as I can remember, and he’s been one of the things I’ve missed most in moving from my home of Knoxville out to San Francisco about 5 months ago. I am in the middle of his book (well, begging him for chunks of it), and it helps.

  13. Chris C

    Janna, thanks for this piece! I enjoyed reading it and it reflects some things I’ve been contemplating lately.

    ‘Tis true, that in creating and then sharing that we are put in a very vulnerable position. We reach inside our soul and bring out an offering from our inner most parts.

    I have played music for most of my life. In my adult life, I’ve led worship in large and small groups, both by my lonesome with my guitar and also with a band. But, leading worship isn’t about the worship leader – it’s about Jesus. So, there’s nothing too vulnerable about this. The focus is Jesus and we try to get the focus off ourselves. I’ve also played in an orchestra, but obviously, there’s nothing extremely risky about that. It’s a large group where we share each other’s faults and also each others strengths to create music together. In the last couple of years, I’ve started writing songs. I’ve created and recorded (in my music room/office, nothing fancy) several songs – instrumentals and also songs with lyrics. The instrumentals aren’t as risky or vulnerable, though they definitely do have that aspect, since I created them, both in writing and performing the multiple parts. The songs with lyrics of course make me feel much more vulnerable and I tend to think I may never share them. Perhaps I’m a coward. Or perhaps I’m wise not to share? This is a new level of risk and vulnerability that I’ve never experienced.

    It’s a bit of a frustration and a bit of a quandary, that I should create and then keep to myself. Then, when I was reading Sir Gibbie recently, there was something that George MacDonald wrote that stuck out. When describing Donal, the poet, George MacDonald wrote that the poet’s creations of poetry were mostly for the benefit of the poet himself. If the world wrought some benefit out of the poetry, that was an additional benefit. But the benefit is not lost if only the poet himself has reaped the benefit of his creation, as this is the primary reason for creating the poetry. And so, for now, this is what I cling to. Whether it’s in self-deception mixed with cowardice or in holding on to something a little more substantial remains to be seen.

  14. Peter B

    Chris — interesting thought process. One might say that all creativity is for God’s glory, and if anyone else benefits from it, that would be nice too 🙂

    For what it’s worth, I think there is wisdom in sharing carefully. This is true in other areas of life, so why not in creative ventures as well?

  15. Chris C

    I agree, Peter! If no one shared their creativity, where would we be today?

    My thinking was actually that if I never shared my creations (for fear that they are sub-par or not worth sharing) then at least I would have reaped some value myself. I was just encouraged by the words of that great poet and writer. Perhaps there is some cowardice behind my thinking. Perhaps it is because I am too “holed up”.

  16. Jill K

    Janna my friend… I may have read this back in January when you first posted it, but I am SO GLAD that you re-linked it on FB today because it was exactly what God wanted to use to speak to me through this evening. So many “perfect timing” details that it could only be him. I JUST (literally the action before I clicked on this tab) got done sending a message to Bryan M. about his Sunday morning services regarding the psalms and singing to God. And just yesterday morning on the way to work I was listening to Sarah Groves and found myself focused on that EXACT SAME line. Thank you for sharing as you share, for writing as you do, when you do. God can use every single offering – big, small, ordinary, or extraordinary. Talk to you soon.

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