Process: Starting from Scratch

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It occurred to me this morning that it might be helpful to think through one really annoying aspect of creative work, which is that every single time you sit down to make something, even if you’ve done this for years and know the routine, it feels like you’re starting from scratch. It feels like you have absolutely nothing to offer, nothing new to say, and whatever you’ve managed to get right in the past was just a fluke, and you’re not writing a song so much as reinventing the wheel. Or building the Space Shuttle out of matchsticks. While this is true in some ways, in others it isn’t true at all. Here’s what I mean.

It’s true because the creative act is and will always be a mystery to which we are only allowed the access of clarity for fleeting moments if at all. For ninety nine percent of the time the process is frustrating and difficult and tiresome. This is to be expected. Good things take work, and in the end God isn’t interested in the thing you’re making half as much as the person he’s making out of you. Work, pain, frustration, joy, patience: these are the tools God uses (along with many other things) to shape our souls. In this sense, then, the song is writing you. Every now and then, though, the veil is lifted and the subcreator gets to see the beautiful mechanism (wheels within wheels) at work behind the curtain, and the process of songwriting makes sudden and perfect sense. “So this is how you write a song,” you think. Then, just as suddenly, the veil falls back into place, the glow is gone, and the world seems drab by comparison. Has this ever happened to you? It’s tantalizing—just enough to make you want to pick up your guitar again in defiance of your fears.

But there’s another truth at work: you’re not starting from scratch. You’ve done this before. You know how this works. If you wrote a song once, it must be possible to do it again, right? Songs exist. Humans write them. I am a human. Therefore it must be possible for me to write one—even if it ends up being lousy. You have the testimony of history on your side, Ebenezer stones dotting the landscape all the way to the horizon. It’s also the great blessing of the Bible. We have something the fathers of our faith didn’t have, at least not in the way we have it: perspective. We’re able to see in Scripture that when God makes a promise, he keeps it. We’re able to see the story as it has unfolded since the beginning, and so, though the future is dark, the past is pulsing with light.

So are we starting from scratch? Yes. And no. Every line in your notebook, every strum of your guitar is an act of faith. But you’ve been here before. Don’t be afraid.

 

 

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


21 Comments

  1. Ginny Norton

    And my creative work is yet once and again, working my my way through some annoying and frustrating pain, that God is using to shape my soul. It does feel like starting over – but thanks for the reminder…I have been here and done this before and I am never alone. I like to think that the past is pulsing with light as you say and also to know that there is great treasure to be found even in the darkness ( Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor). Every line in my journal, every moment of being still can be an act of faith. Thanks, Andrew for your beautiful words. You have already composed the song that my soul clings to today.

  2. Laure Hittle

    i feel exactly like this, a lot of the time. There is a frequently-recurring thought that creeps in: What if i have already had all my story ideas? And how can i call myself a writer if i have already written everything i will ever write? This thought comes in and all i can do is push it away and tell myself, Pretend it isn’t true. Because surely it is true and i am an impostor, but i don’t want to think it. i may have had all my story ideas already, but if i believe that, i will never write again, and my fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    i think this fear is strengthened by the idea of a creative muse or an identity as a Creative. You wrote, “Songs exist. Humans write them. i am a human.” What is required to write songs, even lousy ones, is to be a human who wants to write songs, who sits down and writes them. But if we believe that our stories exist in the aether outside of ourself, waiting only for us to take on the correct posture or for the stars to align, we have no hope of ever creating anything on purpose. We are victims of our own creativity. And contrariwise, if we believe that our stories come from within ourselves, from a font of dispensation in our Creative souls, what does it say about us not only as Creatives but as humans when we can’t make that work? We can’t fall into stories or songs, and we can’t bootstrap ourselves into them, either; the truth lies at the nexus of experience, hard work, vulnerability, and grace. This is part of what it means to be an imago Dei.

    One of my better works (a series of fairy-stories) nearly killed me while i was writing it. i felt like i had to pull every sentence out of my veins with tweezers, like not only was i reinventing the wheel with each story, but with each paragraph. But when it was finished, it was beautiful. i stepped back and looked at it and realized that there was a story woven throughout that i had not planned to put there. A year and a half later, i reread it at times and it makes me cry, and i wonder—how did i do this? How was this even in me to be pulled out? But i had to be willing to do my best even though i had no hope that anything good would come of it. And grace met me there.

  3. Peter B

    Every bit of this is true, but paragraph 2 needs to be pasted to an elephant and smashed through my wall on a regular basis.

    Thank you for being one of those Ebenezers.

  4. Josh Kemper

    That is so encouraging. For half of my life, I have hoped to write a song, and still haven’t completed one, because, as you aptly said, it feels like building a space shuttle out of matchsticks. And other endeavors have stalled out (or were at least slowed down) for the same reason. Trying to figure out how to cut a keg to build a coffee roaster, planning a garden, learning a language. Thanks for living out your calling, Andrew. You’re having a massive impact on the church, or at the very least, on me.

  5. Ming-Wai

    “We have something the fathers of our faith didn’t have, at least not in the way we have it: perspective. We’re able to see in Scripture that when God makes a promise, he keeps it. We’re able to see the story as it has unfolded since the beginning, and so, though the future is dark, the past is pulsing with light.”

    I’m going to carry that in my pocket and stow it away in the corners of my soul.

    Thank you.

  6. Hannah Hubin

    …”[T]he creative act is and will always be a mystery to which we are only allowed the access of clarity for fleeting moments if at all.” Wow. Ever so beautiful and ever so true. I only wonder if the process of creation shall forever be so very shrouded in mystery. Will the completion of Kingdom Come bring an all-encompassing understanding of this act? Or shall it simply mark the beginning of a tale which unveils the secret chapter by chapter, page by page – never fully understood, never growing tiresome, always just enough to moisten our lips yet leaving us ever so thirsty for more of this glory? As Chesterton so masterfully put it, “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

  7. Jess

    Yes. Yes, yes, and yes. Thank you for writing this; I needed the reminder.

    I actually wrote a poem a little while ago based on this frustration, and I thought I’d share:

    With every word I write, creation gets harder,
    And the journey gets longer with every step.
    Was there a time, was there a morning
    When I woke up and from the womb of my mind
    Gave birth to life, without labor?
    And yet it seems that as I age and as I do it
    A hundred—no, a thousand—times,
    It should get easier, the vision clearer,
    The words less painful and harsh.
    Why must a masterpiece be born of frailty?
    The longer I live, the more walls I build,
    And each one must be destroyed again
    With each new pang of art.
    And I condemn myself thus—
    By writing my own judgment in poetic form,
    Then hiding it from my face till I write it once more.

  8. Jonathan Fiedler

    Love this line… “in the end God isn’t interested in the thing you’re making half as much as the person he’s making out of you.”

    Great reminder of what matters and what we are really building through our art!

  9. Kaitlin de Graffenried

    So true! “Good things take work, and in the end God isn’t interested in the thing you’re making half as much as the person he’s making out of you. Work, pain, frustration, joy, patience: these are the tools God uses (along with many other things) to shape our souls.” — I think this has been my lesson of the last year and now even, as I find I can’t meet one of my goals due to computer issues. It’s restful to know that who God is making me matters more than the end result of what I make.

    @Laura Hittle. I loved what you said about where our stories come from. Beautifully written.

  10. Jennifer K.

    Yes, that line…”the person he’s making out of you.” This wakes me from a dream…when I look at a poem I wrote a month ago and think, “Where did that come from?” I think it’s important to try everyday, to practice…but when it works, when the pieces come together, it just happens. To expect anything else would be like expecting my clarinet to spontaneously burst into song inert in its case. No, someone has to take a sharp knife and shave a strip of bamboo thin and clean and strap it down tightly. Certain hollows must be covered while others remain gaping open so breath can pass through. He picks me up when it pleases Him and tools me to suit His purpose.

    Thank you for writing this. It’s something to hang onto when faced with a blank page on a still day…waiting for a puff of air.

  11. Jessica B.

    I stare at the blank page and its very blankness makes me feel small. Who am I to put pen to paper? And yet, how can I not? Like Jeremiah, “there is a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

    And, well…what everybody else said. To attempt to restate what they have done so eloquently would just be silly.

  12. Dan R.

    Peter B., was that a “The Magician’s Elephant” reference? If it was, I think it is very apt.

    Good stuff, and thanks for writing.

  13. Peter B

    Dan, I’m afraid I have to claim prior ignorance of that story (I was wondering where one could find yellow and green rings to fit an elephant); it just seemed like an image that would help me.

    Thank you for introducing me to that book! Looks like I have a new item on the wish list.

  14. April Pickle

    The photo is perfect. It reminds me of themes from Light for the Lost Boy. Around the time that album was released, I copied one of your quotes about it in my journal:
    “There’s something so beautiful about seeing the little boy inside your grandfather. It’s like, just for a second, he’s old and young at the same time, which I suspect is something like what heaven will be.”
    A few days after I made that journal entry, a lady visited our church. She was in her late eighties, her face covered with the most beautiful wrinkles I’ve ever seen, and she was beaming. She sang from her soul, and broadcasted a joyful face through the whole service.
    New sounds from old hands speak “do not be afraid” like nothing else.
    Praise be to the Ancient of Days who makes all things new.

  15. Lisa

    Thank you, Andrew. Every time I sit down to write, I feel like a fraud. And every time I finish a story I feel just as you described, “So that’s how you do it!” Until the next day, when the blank page awaits me again. Which is a good thing, or soon my ego would run rampant. The whole creative process is mysterious and practical at the same time, and you have captured both those sides of it very well here. Thanks for giving me more to ponder.

  16. Dino

    This is going to sound way over spiritual hehe but … In my song writing I find that music is from heaven it is not from this place but the otherside so I seek to not to shape a song to my ideas, I am not the creator of my song my songs are already there I just need to craft myself out of the way so I can hear them and join in.

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