Creative Arson

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It goes beyond knowing that we’re not alone. It’s not even summarized in having a place to belong. The desire for the artist to hold membership within a creative community moves past the pain of loneliness or the need for identification into a real longing for stimulation. We yearn for like-minded sojourners to help shape and form our words, our music, our work. And yet outside of circles equally beautiful and rare (like the Square Peg Alliance), many of us find it difficult to locate others we can partner with.

One of the common threads at Hutchmoot last fall was this very desire. I met artist after artist (although so many are reticent to name themselves as such) who used words like “isolated” and later terms like “afraid” came rolling after. The two are linked — fear and isolation — and so many of us hope and wait for someone to join us, to help us shed our fears and create without obstacles.

As Thomas and I shared in a breakout group about building co-creative communities, it actually felt like we were poised to share bad news. In my own experience, there’s no formula to build any community — let alone a creative one. I came to Hutchmoot and heard the words, “Are you ready for your session?” My initial thought was “No. Well, yes. Perhaps?” The reason was that I was without either PowerPoint or worksheet titled with anything remotely helpful (i.e. “Chia Community”).

Instead, the only thing that both Thomas and I knew to tell people was to pursue what was inside of them with the utmost excellence and discipline — to move beyond their fears and put something, anything, out there. The only way to start a creative community is to first be a creative community of one.

There’s a quote about this that I’ve read attributed to both John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon over the years (thanks to Google). Perhaps it’s Roseanne Barr. These things are impossible to tell in the Internet age. That said, it doesn’t change the meaning of the quote: Set yourself on fire and people will come to watch you burn.

I could not be more proud of the church community that I’ve pastored over the last 8 years in the Indianapolis area. The Mercy House has been a haven for the most unlikely people creating the most unlikely organizations, ministries, artwork, and more and we’re often asked about the origin of the mess we call our community. “How did you do this?” My answer is easy. I point to the people who set themselves on fire.

Steve was a college senior who had a passion for guys coming out of prison systems or addiction recovery programs, but he also noticed that every “shelter” sort of program had staff that went home to their own lives and kept a distance from the men. It became a language of “us” versus “them.” Some referred to those they were serving as “clients.” Long story short, Steve did his research, formed a non-profit and decided to create the Exodus House, a men’s transitional shelter where the “staff” live with the “residents” and obey the same rules. Others have followed suit and now a vision is emerging for multiple houses to serve a myriad of people in need. He set himself on fire.

Megan was a 20-something girl who loved making handmade journals. I’ll never forget the tear-filled conversation as her heart welled up and she described to me a dream she had to teach oppressed women in Uganda how to sew the journals and she would work stateside to sell them. The dream felt so fragile she rarely shared it for fear it would fall apart like a house of cards. I told her, in so many words, “Set yourself on fire and see what happens.”

She made an announcement the next week at our Sunday gathering and eventually partnered with several girls to form Bound 4 Freedom. A non-profit organization was born and over the course of a couple of years, the girls were making trips to Uganda to teach HIV-positive women how to make their own living and they’re sold in boutique stores locally. They’ve now grown to include jewelry and other programs. She set herself on fire.

Fans of the Rabbit Room, myself included, can trace this same story in the songwriters that we listen to and the authors that we read. They write books without an audience in mind. They write songs without ears to listen to them. While we are now witnessing the payoff of those moments, the early days are easily forgotten when things felt as fragile as Megan or Steve felt in those early days of fear and wonder.

Hutchmoot is described in 100 different ways by 100 different people. It’s difficult to pin down. Yet when I’m asked what it’s about, for me it’s a very simple answer. The beauty of Hutchmoot is found in the freedom that people hopefully feel as they leave Nashville — a freedom to follow their passions beyond their fears and begin to call others alongside them. There are always those waiting in the wings to join in, as long as someone is willing to be the spark.

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


27 Comments

  1. Christopher Stewart

    Matt-super encouraging notes on the last Hutchmoot/creative community! I walked away from last fall’s Moot with a bundle of emotions that I didn’t quite know what to do with. I was running sound for the majority of the event, so I felt a little isolated throughout, but then, it sounds like many of us showed up behind our own little proverbial ‘sound booths’ of self-protection/isolation. That’s both the blessing and the ‘curse’ of the creative I suppose-we create things that we are both desperately in need of having noticed and also mortified at the thought of having noticed/critiqued/torn down-or worse, just plain ignored. Anyway… encouraging thoughts from you, Matt. Time to go find my box of matches…

  2. Brian Roberts

    So true Matt. In part thanks to the Moot (and your session) I’ve gathered a group of like-minded filmmakers here in Nashville that now meet several times a month and we’re halfway through production of a half-hour TV show with a cast and crew of over 35 people. Amazing community is formed in the mutual act of creation, for me getting off my buttocks to actually start making something is the biggest hurdle.

  3. Brad

    Thanks. Really needed this. My teenaged children and I have a band and write our own songs. I had one of our pastors ask if we were going to move to Nashville, knowing that many folks pursuing a music career do that, but we don’t want to move as we’d prefer to create an artist community here (southern Oregon). I guess the hardest part of getting going is even seeing myself as an artist. So thanks for the encouragement. Just nice to know we’re not alone.

  4. James Witmer

    The only way to start a creative community is to first be a creative community of one.

    This is true, and your thoughts well communicated. I’d like to add a possible second step: Find a creative person to invest in, even if that person is unable to invest in you.

    Stirred by my readings here at the Rabbit Room, I have invited two young men – ages 14 and 11 – to meet with me periodically at my house. We eat popcorn and read our recent writing aloud. The “rules” say they we all have to bring something, and they have to criticize my work, not just listen to my suggestions. They have dubbed these meetings “The Wee Inklings,” shortened to “W’Inklings”. Our times together are precious.

    But a warning: These things do not ease my ache for the affirmation and camaraderie I see among members of The Square Peg Alliance. This is not the creative community I wished for – it is the creative community God has given. As usual, He gives what I need, not necessarily what I want.

    If you do what I’m doing, you may be disappointed. But you may also find that there is receiving in the giving.

    And to lose your life for another, I’ve heard, is a good way to begin

  5. Janna Barber

    Matt, Thanks for posting this. I lost my notes from that session and couldn’t remember these great examples, but I knew you’d shared some awesome stuff. I’m so glad I got to know you better this year. It’s good to hear your voice again — even if only via RR post.

  6. PJL

    Thank you for speaking words like this. I definitely needed it. I’m a writer, not a musician, but finding the courage to believe in my work is the hardest thing of all.

  7. Vanessa

    “They write books without an audience in mind. They write songs without ears to listen to them.” – As an artist, I’ve envied my missionary-type friends who ‘have a heart’ for folks in India, or the Ugandan women like the journal-maker you mentioned… Maybe artists are prone to isolation because we often not only lack a community of like-minded artists, but lack connections the community of an ‘audience’ that other types of missional-giving situations have more inherent connection to.

    It’s encouraging to find by your words that I’m not alone in not yet knowing who I’m writing for. I’m not the only artist who doesn’t yet know my audience in these “early days of fear and wonder”. But as I aspire to ‘set myself on fire’… 🙂

  8. Fellow Traveler

    I’ve been blessed to find community and people who’ve appreciated and encouraged me in what I create. Unfortunately, I didn’t always find it where I hoped or wanted to find it.

  9. Becca

    Beautiful, Matt. Your writing urges me to remember that so many silent makers around me are often battling loneliness and fear as they blaze. Lord, help me be a safe place for them to stretch those wings!

    There is a segment of the Christian community that is quite prone to armchair quarterbackery. Sitting on sullen haunches, they almost seem to enjoy finding errors and dishing out rebukes.

    “You didn’t list the Bible as your favorite book.”

    “You chose the ‘wrong’ single word of this intricately-wrought poem.”

    They needle, and nudge, and huff, and rebuff — as if God needed some sort of referee truth service. ‘Wears me out. Perhaps mostly because I used to be like that.

    Your essay reminds me that when I see a “brother or sister in making” posting a blog entry, working through a poem, or piecing together the first trembling notes of a new song — my job is first to stop and listen. Then, I need to recognize such faith overcomes a thousand shadows of dragons. Sacred ground is being covered.

    Hush, critical hearts. Wonder over every infant blinking gaze. Coo beholding these first, pink stretching fingers. Let the first hymns roll down deep inside me, and let me revel that little believing Lucy becomes a great and glorious queen.

  10. whipple

    How wonderfully freeing!

    Too often an unseen lodestone of passion and calling is ignored by harkening to these fears. I cannot give enough thanks to and for the handful of people who have been encouraging in this right.

    Perhaps the frustration many folks harbor out of creative solitude is the (divinely)restless impetus to reach out to others who need that affirmation. Like going on a mission trip, the ones doing the reaching are often the ones most healed. Cultivate community, and you will find that community flowers around you.

    Be strong and very courageous.

    The ghost of guilt often haunts my steps as I consider stories like those Matt recalls. Helping AIDS victims, prison ministries – these are wonderful and hopefully obvious examples of good work, and I’ve felt as though I should be more passionate about them than I am about art. I’m now starting to think, however, that the encouragement and fostering of artists and artistic communities might be – dare I say it – just as godly a calling as the others.

  11. Jody SF

    Thanks for the encouragement. It’s easy to forget that our Creator wants us to create so we can share in that special way, too! Stirring my flame today. (Just another singer / songwriter from the Indpls area, btw)

  12. Julie Silander

    I’ve been sitting with this for a few days… Among other things, I’m struck by the responsibility we hold when our lives intersect with anothers. When speaking into the life (or work, or art) of another, we can fan the flame or quench it. The power of the word, both spoken and written. What an honor.

  13. Julie Silander

    Ironic – I immediately found a grammatical error in my post, and wanted to crawl through the screen to retrieve it. Fear and isolation shows up in many forms…

  14. Jen

    That taste of community I got at Hutchmoot really was freeing… to create, to wonder, to “hush my critical heart. (thanks Becca.) So true. Fear and isolation are so closely linked and I wonder how much great art they’ve stifled.

    I’m still so grateful for the understanding and belonging I found at Hutchmoot, and still learning how to bring that home. Setting the fire seems like a good place to start.

    Julie: Yes, absolutely! (and I didn’t see the grammatical error. ; ))

  15. Matt Conner

    Some really great comments in this thread expose side streets that deserve illumination on their own. This is why I love this community. It feels as if there are 50 other “ignore your fear” posts on this site every year, and yet again and again, it’s one form of fear or another that grips us time and again.

  16. Joy C

    I think that in giving space to the Holy Spirit to create community, we get to be part of God’s creativity.

    I see love beyond what I can describe in the prison where I minister. Let me share something that happened today, because I’d like to tell it to someone.

    At the men’s service, we were “praying someone out.” He’s leaving soon, going back to his home and family. Myself and some of the men gathered around him at the front of the service, and each shared a prayer. I was surprised to see an older, small, shy and simple man standing there among us. His prayer was eloquent: “I’m not much of a speaker. I’m not much of anything. But you were a good friend to me. Thank you.”

    May it always be so. Amen.

  17. George W

    Thanks, Matt, for the reminder. Co-creative Communities was one of my favorite break-outs at Hutchmoot. Hearing ideas from so many in attendance was both encouraging and challenging.

    Since then, I’ve been trying to set myself on fire.

  18. Eddy Efaw

    My friend George Welty and I were in that session Matt. The words that you, Thomas and others spoke are ones I’ll have with me the rest of my life. George and I now meet every Friday to talk about what we’re creating. He’s a writer and photographer. I’m a potter. Our day jobs are Youth Minister and Bible/Art Teacher at a Christian Prep School. Since Hutchmoot I’ve created more content than I have in years. I also had a paradigm shift for WHY I’m creating. Sally Lloyd-Jones told me, in a nutshell, that to think the fearful, “Will “they” like it?” and to let that stop you from creating is really sort of self-centered. This question really means “Will they like ME?” The focus needs to be on God. It must be done for His fame. She encouraged me to just create because God gave me the gift to create. She encouraged me to create with excellence “because the Story deserves it.” That concept change the reason I now create content. Hutchmoot changed my creative life. Creating is Life.

  19. Chris C

    Good piece, Matt. And, it’s got to start with us anyway, right? I mean, if we’re not affected, if we’re not on fire, how can anyone else be affected by what we do?

    I’m reminded of an old Daniel Amos song – “Don’t light your own fire”. I’m sure the song was inspired by Isaiah 50. The message being – we can trust our Creator to light a fire in us. And, Matt, I like how you correspond a fire with doing. If we never do, the fire will smolder and not be of much use to anyone. I think sometimes though, there should be a waiting until ripeness before doing. If we have the means to do good, we should do it, the Bible tells us that clearly. But sometimes, the means to do good is clearly not there – then we can wait on the Lord. In these times, sometimes we can pick the fruit before it is ripe and ruin it. I think God makes it clear when the time is ripe. There is a season to everything.

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