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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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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When You’ve Gotten Off-Track

He still had some doubts about the decision he had made. But he was able to understand one thing: making a decision was only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.

Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (p. 70).

I ran into a friend the other day at Starbucks and I asked about this season of his life, where he’s finishing school and also travelling a lot for his job while he juggles the demands of being a husband and father. And he told me how hard it is, how much he misses his family, but how it’s only for a season. And we talked about how sometimes when you decide to start out on a journey, you weigh the costs, but then along the way you second guess yourself and you have to decide again.

“That’ll preach,” he laughed.

“Already writing the blog post in my head,” I returned.

We laughed. But seriously.

This fall I’m doing a half marathon, and I’m aiming for a rather aggressive time (at least aggressive for me), which requires me to run 5 days a week, about 45+ miles most weeks. And even though I know I want to run the race, and even though I enjoy running (most days), this kind of training is tough, especially when it’s blistering hot. And so, I have to decide again to train.

Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that if we just make an initial commitment, everything will change. If we just throw out all the oreos and start the diet, if we just forgive the person who has hurt us so much, if we just say the right vows at the altar, if we just say a particular prayer, then good consequences will follow.

But nothing in life actually works that way. Only in the movies do people ride off into a “happily ever after.” In real life, a new diet will force you to decide almost hourly to keep going. In real life, forgiveness is something that you will have to choose a thousand times (and the deeper the hurt, the more you will have to choose it). In real life, marriage vows are simple compared to the thousands of decisions you will make to either strengthen or weaken your marriage. In real life, the Apostle Paul told the Philippians to “keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning.” In some translations it says, “keep working out your salvation.”

Years ago, our oldest son “prayed a prayer to accept Jesus into his heart.” And that’s good. In my book, any experience of the divine that cause us to respond to the invitation to draw closer is good. But I remember Jennifer and I having a conversation about how this was only the first of many decisions he will make about whether or not he wants to draw close to God. He will have to make that decision over and over and over again.

I’m still making the decision to draw closer to God over and over again.

So, don’t get discouraged if you set out on a journey and you find yourself struggling to keep going forward. This is how all epic journeys go. They always involve Deadly Swamps of Sadness, where you lose your horse. (anyone?) There will always be the Mines of Moria, the Dagobah Cave, and Nazis trying to get to the grail first. But the hero’s journey is one where the hero keeps deciding, keeps recommitting, doesn’t give up, keeps walking.

So, today, what is it that you’re struggling with? Where do you feel discouraged? What did you decide to do that now you’re second-guessing? Yes, maybe you need to adjust your goals, but maybe you also need to consider what (re)commitments you need to make.

Maybe you need to throw the Oreos out again.

Maybe you need to say to your spouse, “I’ve gotten away from some of our promises, let me start over and promise again.”

Maybe you need to say to yourself, “Remember, I’ve forgiven him for what he did to me.”

This deciding again takes courage, and sometimes there are setbacks and tears, but the journey is worth all the effort. And when you make a decision, usually the next decision like it is easier. That’s the strong current that Paulo Coelho is talking about. It’s like we build a sort of muscle memory for hard decisions. 

So today, I hope you find the strength and courage to flex your decision making muscles. And when you do, I hope you feel strong and feel the strong current taking you to your desires.

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