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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?