The Slow Growth of Ideas, Part 2


Read the first part of this series here.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend my first writing conference. Having never been to one before, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I ended up gleaning a lot of great advice from the experienced writers, editors, and publishers who were gathered there.

One moment that particularly stuck out to me was during a panel discussion, when one of the writers dropped a comment that has been on my mind ever since. He referred to the work of writing as being a creative “long obedience in the same direction” (which is a quote from Nietzsche but has also been popularized by author Eugene Peterson).

I think I picked up on the comment because I’d been coming to the gradual realization of how truly vocational and unglamorous the creative life can be. I’m not saying it’s miserable–it’s just that the reality is a lot different than the starry-eyed literary visions of my youth (“I’m going to hide up in an attic, write some poems, and then people will know that I am SIGNIFICANT!”).

But as those naive longings have faded into a more realistic picture, I have started to appreciate the idea that the creative life truly is a “long obedience in the same direction.” In a way, that actually makes it more attainable, if you have the self-discipline and drive to persevere. It also takes a whole lot of pressure off of an artist to “make it big” in one burst of genius, one book, one album.

In this vein, I appreciate what musician Dave Barnes said in an episode of Nick Flora’s Who Writes This Stuff podcast. They were talking about the challenges of their respective careers as indie artists, and Dave made a comment about how “a lot of the great careers are gradual careers.” He pointed out that it’s easy to get jealous of other artists who rise meteorically, but the fact is that many of these careers are truly meteoric, and these artists fizzle and fade. Better to be the artists slowly but steadily toiling at their craft and building a fan base on the long-standing quality of their art.

It would seem then, for all the rabbits (hehe) in the creative game, it is still the tortoise who tends to win in the end.

Chris is an Associate Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, and is also the author of several books of poetry. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen.


  1. Joni

    It’s difficult sometimes to see progress or have patience with yourself and the path you’re on…
    What an encouraging post for someone who feels she’s (still) just pressing on. “…Steadily toiling at their craft…” I’d like to think this means the skills (I hope) I’m learning are really becoming ingrained in my character and practice.
    That things are just steeping. Like a good, strong brew of tea…

  2. Kelsay

    Chris, thank you for these insights on the growth of ideas, both in this post and the previous. What a great reminder to not only slow down and listen but also to diligently and daily walk in obedience in the direction set before us.

  3. Haylie Allcott

    Yes! Tortoises indeed. So much evidence points to the slowness and tension of the process and of living an artistic/creative life, along with the living within the question of what a non-meteoric rise looks like (or the question of if there will be a “rise” at all).

    A much wiser friend of mine and I were talking about how crucial it is to live in a state of continuous surrender- specifically with regard to our artsy gifts. She said that it comes down to realizing that our job and calling is still to serve- to be the handmaiden of Christ. (Of course, both being females, that makes sense for us. But you get the point.) To always be following closely to him yields that joy of being significant, but- you know- in a different and better way, so we’re not all just fools with fancy guitars, as AP says.

    (Side note: LOVE Dave Barnes and Nick Flora.)

    Thanks for words that help us keep wrestling down our inner demons.

  4. JamesDWitmer


    Thanks for this. I’m glad I finally made time to read it.

    Perhaps the long, slow obedience refines not only our art, but ourselves; so our art gradually becomes more worthy of lasting influence, and we’re less likely to fizzle under the pressure of successes.

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