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Elbows on the stainless steel kitchen counter at a recent weekend retreat, I listened enrapt to a high school violinist describe his experience of music. With the waving arms and burning eyes of a poet or madman, Steven described music as an encounter with a whirlwind of color. Not a note could he play on his violin or a concert could he hear, but it came to his mind as a picture, a swirl of color in motion. Even better, he explained, each composer had a hue all their own.
Beethoven, he said, worked in blues. Cool, deep, starlit blues of pain and passion and crystalline violets like the coming of dawn. Mozart? Crimson was his verdict. A definite theme of red, with great flares of orange and little bursts of yellow like sunlight. How about Bach? But at this he sighed, and smiled a very knowing smile. “Bach is the best of all,” he sighed, “his music is pure, pure gold.” At my raised eyebrow and obvious curiosity he smiled. “Let me tell you a story,” he said.
Right there, as the clatter of last-minute dishes came and went and the kitchen grew slowly quiet with after-dinner ease, he spun a true tale (as he heard it from one one of his music teachers) from the life of his favorite composer. It happened one winter’s night, on an evening that was to be the premier of a great new piece of sacred music. Bach arrived at the church where the debut was to take place just as the stars came out in the evening sky. He stepped into the cold, stone building, expecting a crowd. Pin-drop silence was all he found, followed by the shuffling steps of the caretaker. With sheepish smiles and deep apologies he informed the masterful composer that no one had come.
Bach didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll still perform it,” he declared. The musicians met him, embarrassed, unsure, but he refused to let them go. “Get ready,” he bellowed, so they set up their instruments and ruffled the crisp pages of new-made notes into order. The scratch of each touch echoed off the cold stones and plinked into the darkened, empty corners of the church. Bach took his place to conduct. He held up his hands and drew his musicians to the taut pitch of battle-readiness, to the cliff-edge at which all good musicians stand, ready to fling new music into the darkness. His hands crashed through the shadows, the first notes were played, and the music of Bach, music that still echoes in our own age, filled the lonely, empty shadows.
“That’s why I love him,” Steven finished, “he understood that the music you make carries a beauty that is meant to be given, played into the world regardless of audience or recognition. It wasn’t about him. It was about what God had given him to create. He played it because it had to be played whether anyone heard it or not.”
His words struck me hard. I too, right now, create for an empty house. I am working on a novel, the first I have ever attempted. For the next two months, this is my full-time project, the work to which I must give myself every day and it is a great delight to finally be doing the work I have yearned to do for a good long while. But at this stage in the journey, I have no idea if it will ever be published. I’ve always worked quite well with deadlines, thank you, so this foray into serious writing without the strictures of audience, editors, or necessity is quite new. I began with high resolve and intense writing schedules. But I find it hard to keep those rhythms alone. When I become weary of long, isolated days, or the practical details of life scream impatience at my squandering of time, it’s all too easy to set my writing aside. Why give that almost painful attention of mind that writing requires, when success and publication and praise are unsure? The temptation to measure the value of what I create by the number (or relative importance) of the people who will receive it has stayed my hand more times than I like to admit.
That is why Bach’s voice thunders down to me as a mighty challenge. “Play on,” he commands, and I can almost see his fiery eyes staring me down. I suddenly want to leap upstairs and sit straight down in my writing chair, pen in hand. Steven’s voice echoes right after, “Bach played because God gave him that beauty and it wasn’t about him, it was about what God gave him to create.” Steven’s words cut even deeper than my dramatic image of Bach. His statement challenges me to think back, to consider what drove me to write in the first place. My answer is a memory.
I think I became a writer the day I stood in a summer field with the sudden knowledge that God was near as the golden wheat and close as the blue sky and ran straight inside to write it all down. I was eight years old and it was a laborious process. From that time forth, I struggled to make words contain the precious moments of insight or joy that I called simply knowings. As I grew older and began to think about vocation, it was beauty that made me choose to be a writer. The truth I knew in story and song, the wonder sparked by earth and art, the love I found when I least deserved it, the way my grief was met by hope I never expected. In my tiny way, I was witness to something sacred, something that could add to the healing of the world instead of its hurt. Steven is right; it was never about me at all.
A few days after my talk with Steven, I read back through the first chapters of Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water and found her depiction of the artist of faith as someone very much like Mary, mother of Jesus. For the Holy Spirit comes to us just as he did to Mary. He sets beauty before our imagination, gives us stories or poems, pictures or songs or even new ways to love and live, and asks us to bear them into the world. To create then, becomes an act of obedience, a joyous, faithful response to the gift of insight in which we have “tasted and seen the goodness of God.” Bach understood that. And Steven.
Now, I do too. And on this grey, solitary morning it sets golden resolve in my bones. Up the stairs I go, ready to take up pen and paper and craft this story that God has given into life. My mind simmers with characters and scenes that feel almost independent of me, with truths that came as gifts to comfort and liven my own heart. This tale may never be read by more than a few friends. But I’ll write on, like Bach, to empty house or full. The audience size doesn’t matter. The depth of the beauty does, for it was a gift. To write it is my thanks.
Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.