If someone were to ask me, “What is it you’re trying to do with your creative work?” I think I would say, “I want to give hope, but acknowledge hardship.”
Growing up in the church, I hated the pat answers to life’s complicated questions. (Think, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “One day it’ll all make sense.”) These answers weren’t necessarily wrong, but they were often accompanied by a failure to acknowledge or engage real bewilderment or doubt being experienced in the present. Answers like these were meant to give hope, but at the same time they dismissed real pain. Or worse, these kinds of answers communicated that to acknowledge struggle somehow revealed that you were rejecting hope.
If our hardship isn’t acknowledged, hope is a disconnected thing that means little to us.Jamin Still
That never seemed right to me and I know now that it wasn’t right. Jesus offered hope, yes, but only after he waded into pain. If our hardship isn’t acknowledged, hope is a disconnected thing that means little to us.
And so that’s what I try to do in my creative work: give hope, but also acknowledge hardship.
In my narrative paintings I’ll often paint an individual (usually a child) going on a difficult quest, but carrying a lantern or going toward the light in the distance. These images are meant to meet the viewers where they are, to say to them, “Yes, this is hard, but it’s worth doing. It might be the hardest thing in the world, and it might not make sense, but there is something to walk toward.”
Here’s a piece I’m working on now: Five children hunting a creature in the forest. It’s an adventure, yes, but there’s fear there, there’s doubt, there’s danger. The children, though, are together, and in the distance there is daylight. Hope and hardship are twined together.
Two years ago I put out a collection of short stories. Those 12 stories feature characters who are dealing with some heavy things: grief, loneliness, self-doubt. While writing the stories I resisted the urge to fix those characters. I wanted to very much. One boy had lost his parents to a plague and I wanted to bring in someone to tell him, “Everything’s going to be all right.” But I couldn’t, because to do that would be dishonest, or at the very least, it wouldn’t acknowledge his pain. So I brought in a character who offered hope, but who also sat with him in his pain and said something to the effect of, “This is going to take a while. And even then it will never be the same. You will never be the same. But there is a way forward.” He offered hope, but didn’t dismiss the boy’s hardship.
I’m wrapping up a novel this winter, a follow-up to that collection. Some of the characters are fleshed out more in this story. As the story has advanced, I’ve continued to wrestle with how to write honestly about the difficult experiences of my characters. It’s not easy, but I’d rather do it poorly than not at all. I think about the kids out there who are like I was, who cling to hope, but also want their struggles to be acknowledged for what they are: hard and sometimes impossible to understand. I write for them, hoping that they will feel seen and that in being seen, their hope will be that much richer.
Stories have kindled Jamin Still’s imagination since he was small. As a child he drew and painted and dreamed, and the power of those things in his life never diminished. He went on to study painting in college and now he paints and writes for a living. Jamin works and lives in a little stone house with his wife and three young children in Wichita, Kansas.