Question of the Week: “Can you identify a common thematic thread that runs through your work– something that separates you from other artists in your field? Or, in regard to work other than your own, what kinds of themes are you particularly drawn to?”
Eric Peters – Hope. Curt McLey once reviewed (very kindly, I might add) an album of mine, “Scarce”, and said I might as well wear the letter “H” (instead of “A”, I suppose, in reference to Hester Prynne’s own Scarlet Letter) emblazoned upon my chest since he found that same theme running throughout most every song I’ve recorded over the years. That gives me a great t-shirt idea…
What separates me from other artists in my field? I’m shorter than most every one of them.
Matt Conner – I’ve often thought about this idea – what draws me specifically to the music that I love so much? I would have to say the dominant idea is ‘passion.’ It’s something in the emotion of the singer, the poet, the speaker, the artist that communicates the idea they are passionate about what they are singing, writing, speaking or painting about.I’ve found that it can even be things I totally disagree with or ideas that aren’t completely my own beliefs or viewpoints, and yet when they’re communicated in a passionate way, I can still resonate with their artistry.
Jason Gray – Most times I’m aware of the person in church who feels alienated by the feel-good, sloganeering, hyped music. Maybe it’s because they’re broken-hearted, disillusioned, or that they are intellectually inclined and are put off by what they perceive as emotionalism or shallow theology. I’m talking about the kind of person who wants to hope, but who is weary of feeling disappointed. I’m aware of the weak and broken, who feel fated to be outsiders, and I want them to know that the gospel is better news than they might dare believe, and that the good news is for them. So in almost every song I write, I acknowledge doubt and try to explore the virtues of weakness.
I have a speech impediment known as stuttering, and it’s been a great opportunity for me to explore redemptive ideas of weakness with my audience. I meet people who are afraid that because of weakness, addictions, failures, depression, or any other variety of brokenness they are disqualified from doing anything significant for God’s Kingdom. But it’s my great joy to get to be someone who tells them that they are exactly the ones who should be expectant. Scripture tells us that it is in our weakness that God’s strength is perfected, and if this is true then our weaknesses are our greatest qualifications. So the virtue of weakness is a thread that runs through most of my music.
It’s also important for me to acknowledge doubt, fear, pain, and disappointment, in hopes that my music might be a tool to help my audience process their own hurt without losing their heart. I guess I’m always trying to coax out hope that has gone into hiding.
The best thing someone ever told me about my music is that in her difficult time of a divorce, trouble with her kids, and professional challenges, my record restored her worship. That is a humbling thing to hear, and something I aspire to in all my work.
Evie Coates – I feel like a bit of a loser these days on the creative front, so I can’t answer that first question or I may cry. I walked past my spare bedroom-turned-workshop yesterday and glanced longingly at my work table. (sniff, sniff.)
But the second question, I think I can handle. My answer is this: food. (The broader theme being any sort of creative hospitality.) Anything with a respectable slice of screen time devoted to beautiful goings-on in a lively kitchen, I will watch. I know they’re not the Oscar winners, but “Chocolat,” “Amelie,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Babette’s Feast” and “Spanglish” are all on my shelf. The other night when I caught a glimpse of a scene from “Chocolat” on television, I couldn’t turn it off because I knew what came next: the party scene. Or rather, the party preparation scene. (Since I own the movie, this is a little silly.) In the film, Vianne (Juliette Binoche, yummy herself with her bright lips and red shoes) throws a party for Armande (Dame Judi Dench). The swirling motion of dark brown chocolate and pure white drips of cream, the delicate touch in the seasoning of the prawns, the breeze that blows in, lifts their hair and cools their dewy brows, all underscored just perfectly with lilting accordion cheer, and the resulting slow motion chewing that goes on afterwards at the beautifully appointed dinner table in the courtyard…it all just thrills me. (Fast forward to minute 5:52 in this clip and you’ll get a little insight to what I’m talking about.)
Or take “Under the Tuscan Sun” for instance. (Fellow RR boys, I don’t expect any of you to have seen this film, or at least to admit to having seen it. Should you wish to secretly e-mail me and second the emotions below, your bravado is safe with me.) Notwithstanding the fact that I wish that were my life (for the most part), I wish that were my villa to do with as I pleased. Watching the process of restoration, however endless, is utterly fulfilling for me. As an artist, I think that “redemption” might be a looming ideal. I’ve only come to that conclusion, or at least to putting words to it, just now. (Does this mean I’m a “verbal processor?”) Whether it’s in the revival of a home — paying close, sweet attention to the house that it always was, but adding unique settings to make it one’s own — or whether it’s in the old cast-off junk I give new life to in my art pieces (crying now), the ideas of resurrection and re-purposing are attractive to me. Then add the scenes in the movie where it is lunch time and she gets to cook for all of her workmen and I get to watch, and I’m a happy girl.
I’ll try to curb my verbosity (ahem) and end with a bit from “Babette’s Feast.” This movie is slow, methodical, sleepy (in the best way possible), until the last 45 minutes roll around. It positively drips with sacred themes (and wine, exotic fruits and seemingly sinful luxury.) When Martina learns that Babette, their maidservant from France, has spent 10,000 francs on the dinner she prepares at the end of the film, she says “But now you’ll be poor for the rest of your life.” Babette answers, so delicately, her grey eyes shining with tears, “An artist is never poor.” And this is where Evie fell apart. I sobbed uncontrollably. This concept has carried me through years of financial worry and wavering trust/distrust that it’s “all going to be fine.” But the comforting thing is this: all I have to do is go to the grocery, buy a bunch of lilies and the perfect artichoke, stop for a lovely bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, sit in the grass with all of these simple gifts and some music, and understand that my Father has made me a rich woman.
Curt McLey – I’ve started and deleted this post more than any other I’ve written for The Rabbit Room. Why? Because every sentence I type makes me cringe. I think this is supposed to be an introspective piece, reflecting on the themes of my own writing. If I were reading this aloud, those words themes of my own writing would have been stated with a pompous, pronounced British accent. Why am I struggling with words, as if I’m trying to craft the first words of “War and Peace?”
Like most of us, I suppose, it doesn’t take much encouragement for me to prattle on about myself. And after all, isn’t a writer’s work implicitly all about himself anyway? Those that write for public consumption must admit that they covet an audience. They want to be noticed. They want to be read, to be felt. A believer may contradict, “No, everything I do is about Jesus Christ and points to Him.” Well okay, maybe that’s the goal, but if we hired a literary forensic investigator worth his salt, I’m betting in a day or two, we could find this contrarian’s own fingerprints all over the pages. Shoot, his DNA is probably embedded in the words. In the courtroom of disingenuous writers, his own writing would convict him of writing about–himself. We can’t help ourselves.
The thing is, surrounded by so many good writers, both in terms of my writing colleagues in The Rabbit Room, as well as our literate readers and responders, this assignment has me sweating self-conscious bullets. For heaven’s sake, our proprietor is ANDREW PETERSON. My thematic thread? I don’t know. Next to these great writers and artists on the red carpet, with a distant, confused look in my eyes and a nervous smile, I hear myself mumble into the Entertainment Tonight microphones, “I’m just happy to be here.” And I am.
Pete Peterson – I don’t really consider myself to have written enough to be able to single out a theme yet, but I do think that taken in concert with the other types of work I’m drawn to that I can narrow the field quite a lot. When I get right down to it, I’m fascinated with people who are broken. The more broken they are, the more I take notice. But more than that, I’m interested in how such flawed vessels are used, against all odds, for good. I think this surely has a lot to do with how I see myself and when I’m drawn to characters like Godric, or movies like Magnolia, or music like the Counting Crows, it’s because I want to know how the stories end, how the mending begins, how old things are made newer and better. Re-creation. When you boil it down, this idea is the essence of good storytelling; it is the great struggle. If I can put any hint of that into my own work, then I’m very grateful indeed.
Andrew Peterson – I don’t know about common themes, but I’ve been accused of using the word “thunder” too much in my writing. It’s a great word, rather onomatopoeic I think–I love it when a word sounds like what it means. Then again, if it was truly a case of onomatopoeia, it would be something like “bkhhhwwwwohhhkkkkhh.” So maybe forget the whole onomatopoeia thing. I do think, however, that I tend to write about thunder because it’s a window-rattling sound that ought to remind everyone who hears it that they are small and God is big. Thunder is the very sound of great power, an invisible, unstoppable burst of pure energy loosed from the fist of a dark cloud. How can I not use a word like that to describe the God I love?
I’m also known to write about cheese.
Ron Block – I write mostly autobiography – transparency can be greatly used by the Spirit (but it’s definitely a double-edged sword). Since I write about my own experiences with God, my journey of unravelling the many layers of Scripture as I grow in experience, a common theme is reliance on God’s Word – the taking of What God Says literally and at face value. And hand in hand with that is the growing awareness of my “cup-ness,” the idea that I am not here to be Joe Super-Christian4God@aol.com, but that I’m here to be in willing participation in the life of the Holy Spirit through submission – through reliance on Him rather than on soul/body needs-wants-desires. This human container has no ability in and of itself to be “like Christ” in any way; it is merely a container. And yet, as I abide in Christ, this human branch becomes the means by which the Spirit manifests Himself to the people in my circle of influence. As I have become aware of my total weakness and inability to be “like Christ” I’ve become more reliant on God’s power within me, His peace, purity, passion, faith, desires.
That’s the essential theme of many of my songs – our human inability, and through faith, God’s total sufficiency. Humanity with its suffering, fears, desires, and finding God living within that human cup.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.