On Saturday 15 July I spent the day with folk in East London exploring creativity and imagination. It was put on by The Pursuit, an initiative set up in 2015 to encourage and equip Christians in their pursuit of God. It was splendid time. We ate lots of food, worshipped together, got creative with clay and bars of soap (yep, really!), and heard about the different ways people were expressing their creativity.
In the afternoon I gave a 12-minute talk on my journey with creativity, specifically in regards to writing. During preparation for this I was struck by how far I had come since I began this blog over five years ago. I don’t say that to boast. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve felt like an imposter and wondered whether there was any point in continuing.
Does anyone read what I write? Is it any good? Does it make a difference? I have frequently answered these questions with a resounding no.
Anne Lamott wrote an excellent book on writing called Bird by Bird. The back cover gives the reason for its title:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”
It’s a lovely story and one I can relate to. Though riddled by doubts, discouraged by silence and red-faced by mistakes, bird by bird I’ve managed to get some writing done; a little here, a little there. And by the grace of God along the way some cool things have happened. It’s taken until now for me to see more clearly the progress I have made.
Below is a summary of what I talked about that afternoon, for anyone who maybe interested. They are some of the things I’ve learned while treading the writing path. Whatever your own creative pursuit involves, I hope one or two will be a source of inspiration for you.
Ideas often come in the most unexpected places
How easy it is to spend the more routine and mundane moments of our day with yet more noise and information: sit on the loo and scroll through Facebook; queue up at the bank and check the news; do the ironing and watch the TV; put the kettle on and catch up with paperwork.
While these can be useful ways to add further productivity and fun to our day, I wonder if these moments present an apt opportunity for something else to be introduced: nothingness.
Around 18 months ago I was in my kitchen making a cup of tea when an idea unexpectedly emerged in my mind. As the tea brewed I paced the downstairs of my house and began mulling over thoughts, illustrations, structure, direction. Tea in hand, I shot upstairs and jotted down some thoughts. That idea later became this…
So, remember to leave space for your mind to wander and roam. You may stumble upon something delightfully new that will have you rushing for the drawing board.
Network with others
I am a bit of a CS Lewis geek. Recent visits to Oxford have involved taking the CS Lewis Walking Tour and visiting his house of 30 years. One of the fascinating aspects of his life was his relationship with JRR Tolkien. Interestingly Lewis was one of the first people introduced to the world of Middle Earth. He was enthralled by it and greatly encouraged Tolkien in the world he was creating. If it wasn’t for Lewis we may never have had The Lord of the Rings. What a thought.
Networking with likeminded individuals who share our passion is a key avenue through which can express and develop our gifting. Lewis and Tolkien were part of a literary group called The Inklings who met up weekly and part of its purpose was to critique what each other were working on. What a treat it would have been to nosy in on their gatherings!
Find people to meet with, exchange ideas and receive feedback. Be intentional about it. And make effective use of social media. I have a friend called Matt who has in the past few years built a budding friendship with Alan Fletcher, aka Karl Kennedy from Neighbours. They have dinned in pubs and visited Iceland to do some photography and filming. Matt has even appeared as an extra in Neighbours! How did it all begin? Matt tweeted Fletch recommending a band he thought he’d like. It is often as simple as that.
Don’t be discouraged by silence
One of things I was asked to cover with this talk was what has been the biggest challenge I have faced in seeking to express my creativity. It is silence: sending in a pitch and hearing nothing for a week, two weeks, a month, never; publishing an article I spent hours on and thought was relatively good but receiving no comments and not even a ‘like’. The silence is not just deafening, it’s paralysing. Why even bother?
Whenever this happens I try to remember three things:
You’re not alone. It’s comforting to know that even those who’ve reached the top of their profession have done so despite — and often because of — setbacks and disappointments, whether it’s a proposal rejection, negative feedback, a poor first draft. We are in good company. We must press on.
Never underestimate what God is doing. On occasion people have come up to me in person to tell me that something I had written had spoken to them. This is usually when I thought the piece was rubbish and had little impact. People won’t always tell us that they liked something we shared so don’t let silence deceive and discourage you. More people are listening than you think.
Let God be our eternal encourager. “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (2 Thessalonians 2:16). The praise of men and women will ebb and flow. While it’s lovely to receive, we cannot rely on it. The minute we do disappointment will soon follow. If we are seeking to be faithful to God in whatever our gifting, skill and passion is, know that you have the greatest cheerleader of all behind you and with you. Let Him be the One who lifts you above all others. He will never disappoint you.
Jot down encouragement
Remember the MySpace years? Seem like an eternity ago now. In my first year at Bible College MySpace was the platform for some banter amongst some of the students. There was one message I sent which prompted another student to say that they liked my writing style. I’ve never forgotten her words and I frequently refer back to them when I am inclined to stop putting pen to paper altogether.
A great perk of the internet is that there are many platforms to receive and log encouragement. But it also comes in person, or from God when reading the Bible or spending time in prayer. Jot it all down and when you’re tempted to put down for good the paintbrush or pen or instrument or whatever tools you’ve come to cherish, return to those words. Sit with them, soak them up, and go again.
Make time to learn and be inspired by others
Feeding on the work of others is a good way to discover new ideas and tips and break down the creative walls we often ram into. It can relight a spark that will have us fidgeting to get back to the work desk. Here is what helps me:
‘My writing day’ is a column in The Guardian written by different authors who describe what their typical day looks like. The pieces are short, intriguing and replete with useful tips.
‘That’s me in the picture’, also in The Guardian, plays to another of my pastimes: photography. It gives the backstory of famous photographs by the people featured in them. The stories are fascinating (often putting pay to many a misunderstanding) and it reminds me of just how enduring a photograph can be.
Expect the unexpected
I’ve genuinely been amazed at the journey I have been on with my writing. When I first started blogging I would never have imagined I’d be still doing it now, had spent 16 months writing for a charity, had pieces appear on a variety of platforms, built many strong friendships, or learned the myriad of things I now know.
Giving things a go — however small it may at first seem — can over time give birth to a multitude of opportunities. We will likely not know what that looks like at the time, but one day we will look back and see how things have developed. God has a lovely habit of surprising us. Walk faithfully with Him and just see what He will do.
Commit your way to the Lord
Some three years ago a writing opportunity opened up for me to explore. I was so excited. This could be my breakthrough moment. If successful it would give me a good platform to develop and express my writing. I began applying but a sense of unease came over me. At first I thought it was nerves but the more I pressed on the more I felt it. I wondered if it was God putting the breaks on it. But I refused to believe that this was the case, and I went ahead and completed the application. Two weeks later I received an email telling me I had been unsuccessful.
Throughout the whole process I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was running ahead of God, pursuing my own idea of success and progression rather than His. I had divorced the gift from the Giver, a temptation we can all easily fall into, particularly in a society that places a high premium on pursuing our dreams. I believe God gives us a dreams and desires that are good and right to chase after, but we must chase after them with God. He after all is the One who gave us our gifts and has a far better idea than us of how they can be used for His glory, our good and the benefit of others.
I learned from this episode (and am still learning!) that I need to hold my gifts and passions lightly. To not rush into every window of opportunity, however perfect it seems to me, but to instead focus on the Giver and let Him take the lead. When I get that right things have a habit of following nicely (and often unexpectedly) into place…
Videos of all the talks from the day can be found on The Pursuit’s Facebook page.