Five Things I’m Learning About the Creative Process

The last two weeks have been some of the best of my sabbatical by far. I think I’ve finally “settled in,” and I’m finding a rhythm that suits me. I spend the morning reading and writing, until sometime after lunch, then I go for a run and spend the evening with my family, doing homework and cooking dinner together. Earlier this week that time erupted into a twilight game of football in the middle of the street, until we couldn’t see the ball anymore. I can’t tell you how much joy and peace I feel playing all-time-QB with my boys in the street at dusk, facing west and a beautiful sunset. Jennifer and I were in bed by 9, we watched an episode of Gotham, and I was asleep before 10:30, so I could get up early and see the boys off to school and repeat. I’m recognizing all the ways I “hustle” for love and attention and right now, I feel free from those pressures. I’m really in “the sabbatical bubble” now, and I love it.

I’m nearly always reading multiple books at one time, but right now the book I’m most excited about is Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic. She might be near the top of my list of people-I’d-love-to-have-over-for-dinner. If you want a taste of Big Magic, you can watch her TED talk or listen to her “Magic Lessons” Podcast. Anyway, a whole bunch of thoughts are running through my mind this morning about creativity and the creative process.

Here’s what I’m learning about creating things:

  1. You have something to offer the world. I love the way Liz thinks about our “muse,” and how “genius” works (“you have a genius, you aren’t a genius”). In her way of thinking, all kinds of ideas surround us – creative, musical, literary, technical, relational – waiting to find a human host to bring them forth into the world. We all, simply by nature of being a human being can be conduits of birthing beauty into the world.
  2. You will have to make choices. The modern world is full of distractions. The news is on 24 hours a day, cable television always has a new series kicking off, Netflix is creating great content, Facebook and Twitter always have something to say. And for some of us, the allure of hanging out with friends, eating in cool restaurants, drinking in cool bars is always a temptation. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, but they can all get in the way of the idea tapping on your shoulder wanting to find its way into the world.
  3. When you agree to work with an idea, work turns into play. In my experience, when I get tapped on the shoulder by a great idea, the “work” of writing a blog post or sermon or anything else, suddenly turns into play. There’s almost nothing I’d rather do than follow my muse, time flies by and it’s 10 minutes before the kids get home from school and I’m still in my pajamas.
  4. This will help you deal with disappointment. Here’s my truth. According to Google Analytics, very few people will actually read this post. But still, I feel compelled to write it simply because I felt inspired to and I’m trying to learn to say “yes” more often to ideas as they come, in hopes that it will open the floodgates to more ideas. I recently read The Alchemist and as much as I love the idea that “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” that idea kinda feels like a lot of bullshit to me these days. Mostly, I feel like the universe conspires against me, but I keep creating, because I’m most happy and fulfilled when I do so.
  5. This isn’t selfish, it’s for the people. If you’re having fun, and you’re doing the work, you might feel a little selfish (or some a-hole will tell you so), and in that moment you’ll be tempted to self-loathing. But according to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey isn’t just about the hero being transformed by an adventure, it’s also about the hero bringing back gifts for the people. Yes, when you submit yourself to the play of creation, you will be changed, but that change brings good things to the people you love. Over the last year or so, there have been people – who because they follow their muse – have been a gift to me. Micah Murray’s raw exploration of his escape from fundamentalsm, Addie Zierman’s vulnerability in her faith journey, Rob Bell and his continued faith journey – these people and their willingness to create even in their darkest moments have been gifts that Jennifer and I have savored, lying in bed reading to one another or discussing and voicing our agreements.

So, what idea is tapping you on the shoulder? What do you need to say “no” to today, in order to play with your idea?

We are all eagerly waiting for you.

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Book Conversation: Rising Strong: The Reckoning

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our fourth week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

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This week, I want to start with a couple quotations from the book in order to set the framework for what I’m thinking, especially for those of you who aren’t reading the book. (My location references are for the Kindle version.) We’re in chapter 4, titled “The Reckoning,” which is full of good things to talk about. I’ll be staying at the “meta” level, however, so here goes:

“You may not have signed up for a hero’s journey, but the second you fell down, got your butt kicked, suffered a disappointment, screwed up, or felt your heart break, it started. It doesn’t matter whether we are ready for an emotional adventure – hurt happens. And it happens to every single one of us. Without exception. The only decision we get to make is what role we’ll play in our own lives: Do we want to write the story or do we want to hand that power over to someone else?” (loc. 843)

“You either walk into your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness.” (loc. 853)

“The rising strong reckoning has two deceptively simple parts: (1) engaging with our feelings, and (2) getting curious about the story behind the feelings — what emotions we’re experiencing and how they are connected to our thoughts and behaviors.” (loc. 861)

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I know what it is to hustle for worthiness. For those of you that are Enneagram junkies, I’m a classic type-3, which means that I’m an (over)achiever. I dream big and get it done. The dark side of the 3 is that I tend to define myself by my accomplishments. And, the even darker part is that I tend not to see the accomplishments, but instead focus on the failures. So much of the time, I feel a lot of shame. And when I feel bad about myself, I try to accomplish more stuff, so I can feel good again. This is my hustle.

But really, we all hustle for love (or what Brené calls worthiness). You have your own ways of behaving to get the ego strokes you need, but which are ultimately empty because you know you hustled for them. This chapter is all about shutting down the hustle. Once we’ve identified our story (last week’s post), we need to dig a little deeper into it. We need to get curious, and instead of hustling, we need to first own our stories, and then own our emotions.

“In this stage of the rising strong process – the reckoning – we need to get curious. We need to be brave enough to want to know more.” (loc. 958)

I think there’s this narrative in our culture (I probably hear it more from guys, but it’s certainly not gender-specific) that to get curious about one’s feelings, motivations, failures, insecurities, etc., is somehow weak. “No regrets, keep looking forward, move on, there’s no use wallowing in our past failures,” says this particular train of thought. And I agree to a point. Wallowing in failure and disappointment isn’t useful. But running away from it, refusing to get curious about it isn’t healthy either. We can’t learn from what we refuse to face.

What Brené is asking of us, in this chapter, is to own our emotions and then ask “why do I feel this way?” I think I’m a fairly emotional guy, but in my experience the reasons for my emotions aren’t always easily apparent. I know I feel hurt, disappointed, angry, etc. and sometimes I can even point to the precipitating event. But it takes an effort to get curious and sit with my emotions long enough to get to the fine point of why I feel the way I do.

It often takes a long time for me to get to the truth of my emotions. And, because humans (and ogres) are like onions, there are layers and it takes time to get to the core. And so, part of the Sabbatical journey, which I’m still on for the next month, has been sitting with some difficult emotions: loss, disappointment, shame, etc., and getting curious and getting down to the core.

Of course, there are alternatives to this work. Our culture specializes in helping us numb our emotional pain (one avoidance technique among several that Brené explores). We’re proficient at keeping things light and breezy, keeping ourselves slightly inebriated (just enough to not deal with our stuff), overfed and shopping our way out of our pain.

“And just so we don’t miss it in this long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy; living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us. We fill every ounce of white space with something so there’s no room or time for emotion to make itself known.” (loc. 1105)  – (OUCH)

I know this sounds heavy on a Wednesday morning. But here’s what I also know: when I get curious and give myself some white space to get curious with my emotions, and I refuse to stuff or numb them, and I finally get to the core, there’s freedom, there’s a lightness that comes to the soul, to the psyche because now I know what I’m dealing with, and now I can finally start moving forward.

I’ve heard people say – when they’ve been struggling with an unknown illness, one the doctors can’t seem to figure out – “I just want to know, so we can start dealing with it.” And what’s true of physical ailments is also true of our insides; knowing is the first step toward healing.

And so, today, or at least some time in the next couple of days,I challenge you to set aside some quiet space, turn off your phone, turn off the music/television, refuse yourself the alcohol or food that serves as your method of choice and get curious about your emotions. And then, if you feel courageous, I challenge you to share what you learn with someone you trust. You just might start feeling better. At least I know that’s the beginning of wholeness for me.

Thanks for reading along! I’ll be out of town next week, but I’ve already written two posts for next week, they will publish on Monday and Wednesda

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: Civilization Stops at the Waterline

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. I don’t aim to point out the parts I agree or disagree with, but rather to reflect on whatever the book caused me to start thinking about. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our second week reading Brené Brown’s new book Rising Strong.

There was a moment last winter when I hit my rock bottom. It was a hard season in my life for a whole bunch of reasons, and I’ve recounted the details to some of my closest friends about the day that I hit rock bottom. I’ll spare you all the details but this one: at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, I crawled back into my bed and pulled the covers over my head and cried.

It was “day two” for me. I was in that dark space between when you set off on a journey and when you see the finish line. Brené describes it like this:

“Day two – or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re ‘in the dark’ – the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.”

Every hero’s story, every adventure has a day two. In a marathon, it’s after the half-marathoners have split off toward the finish, the course is now much more empty, and you still have double-digit miles to go. It’s when your newborn isn’t a newborn anymore and getting out of diapers seems to be an impossible dream. It’s when you’ve started your own business and the newness of doing something you love has worn off but long-term profitability isn’t assured. It’s seven years into a marriage when the romance of the wedding day is long gone, and you’re not even sure if he loves you anymore.

But, Brené notes, after her interaction with the Pixar team, where she learned about the essential elements of a good story and recalling her reading of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces,* that every story has a middle. And it’s in the middle that the hero learns the lessons that she needs to learn about herself. Yes, the middle of the story is difficult. Yes, you feel like you’re drowning. Yes, victory isn’t certain, but it’s in this space when you ask hard questions and deal with your stuff. What you learn in this space will give you the tools you need to get through.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I know we just want the middle to be over with. We just want to get to the other side and win. The flaw in our thinking is that we won’t become what we need to become if we set out on an adventure and then immediately win. Star Wars would be a really short movie. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru die, Luke shoots down the Death Star, roll credits. Rocky agrees to fight Apollo, next day he wins, movie over. Bo-ring.

It’s so clear when we see it in others, isn’t it? We see how the people we love grow and become something more as they work through their own “day two.” We root for them and encourage them and tell them, “I see such growth in you.” It’s just really hard to accept it when it’s our own “day two.”

So, here’s to our “day twos.” 

Here’s to times and spaces when we don’t have anything figured out, when everything is dark, when we feel like we’re fighting for our lives, when we’re too far in to quit but the end is nowhere in sight. Here’s to the things we need to learn about ourselves and the world. And here is to becoming what was already in us, but which will only come to the surface in the dark “day two.”

Here’s two exercises, one for those of you currently in your own “day two,” and one for those of you who are rooting for and with someone in their “day two.”

If you are currently in a “day two” season of life: take some time to write down the things you’re learning right now. How have you grown? What do you think now that you didn’t think when you set out on the journey? How do you act now? What new muscles do you feel that you didn’t feel before? What are you becoming?

If you are currently rooting on someone in a “day two” season of their life: same thing as above, but tell them. Affirm what they are becoming. Write them a note, an email, look them in the eye and say, “I know this is hard and it’s dark for you, but this is the good I see.” Warning: this isn’t cheerleading, and you shouldn’t minimize the darkness they feel. You may have a vantage point where you see the ending, but they don’t and that’s okay. Just encourage.

Again, thanks for reading along! I’m going off the grid for a couple days right after this posts, but start the conversation without me! I’ll catch up when I get back.

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* I just started reading this book because it keeps coming up in conversations, the books I read, and the podcasts I listen to, but it’s tough reading in the prologue. Anyone have any encouragement?

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