It's a rainy gray morning but not cold. I sit at the long, wooden community table at our neighborhood Starbucks. I’ve started most weekdays here in 2017. In the five o'clock hour, I wake and walk softly around our creaky top floor gathering my clothes, computer, and purse. Clementine is kicking and grunting as she slips through the lightest of sleeps. She will nurse a bit more. I leave hoping that she is sustained for another couple hours of sleep and that Anabelle will keep snoozing, too. When they wake, Mitch will start the morning with them slowly. Babies can be terribly insistent that you start the day slowly.
In the dark early morning, the dim orange glow of city lights diffused through fog and rain drops illuminates the tall pines that encircle our house. They lean long in the wind, arcing over slightly like when a yoga teacher urges you to “open up your side body.” Trees understand because they are all side body, needles, and cones. Highway sounds whir and whoosh not far away, invigorating me and inviting me out. The day has started and I am awake for it. Today I am faithful to the word God has given me to write.
I’m feeling intimidated as a writer lately. Will I always battle this feeling? The books I am reading are too good. They show me all the ways my writing is uninformed and self-centered. They make me feel like I’ve been asleep for the last ten years-- not learning, reading, and creating nearly enough.
Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday is crammed with insight into Scripture and church history, and evidence of many adventures, much research and a voracious appetite for questioning and learning. I have not been as hungry as she, not even close. And lately, I can’t go a day without recommending Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist or leaning into the words of Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect. I’m also reading a book called Freedom Journeys written by two rabbis and it is lighting my mind on fire. Ah! And I just watched 13th, a documentary (on Netflix now!) by Ava DuVernay about race and mass incarceration.
The bees are busy. There is so much good writing out there. And music and film. Visual and performing art. It stuns me.
What have I been doing? What am I doing now?
Art, writing— it pushes me to create, to respond. But sometimes, it’s tempting to let it cut me off and shut me down. Inspiration gets silenced by insecurity. Do you ever feel that way? Like your ideas were published yesterday by someone else with a bigger platform and shinier hair? Like before you even start running the race will already be over and the trophies handed out?
Me too. I know those insecurities are lies. And they threaten to turn the entire creative canon into a competitor to beat.
Creativity isn’t a competition. When we rise up to say something, make something, do something new— our objective isn’t to speak loudest, to solo, or to silence the other voices. We aren’t called to lead the conversation, necessarily, but to join the chorus, to add in another layer of harmony or even dissonance, to move the song forward together. Or to submit as an ensemble to a powerful, meditative silence only to erupt again together on the next verse.
So creativity isn’t a competition, but silence can still be helpful when finding the note, establishing a melody, etc. Metaphors can only take us so far but they are never the thing. What I am wondering is if I should temporarily stop reading books in the genre that I am writing. I have heard that. There may be wisdom there. So that it doesn’t mess with your head too much, seduce your insecurities, and bleed over into your writing. Maybe.
Yet, this is true: writing must be accompanied by a vigorous reading habit. Writing that only feeds on your own thoughts is as nutritious and complex as the corn syrup I poured on my sad waffles a couple weeks ago at a hotel breakfast in Waco.
Creating is responding. It is the next line of dialogue in the conversation you have cultivated around yourself— a conversation consisting of sights, smells, sounds, feelings, experiences. It can include art, music, film, literature. We can choose to ingest cable news, public radio, the opinions of our Facebook friends, endless images on Instagram. We can consume non-fiction, philosophy, or professional journals. We can disappear into reddit or A Wrinkle in Time or a game. We can fill the air around us with texts or conversation over coffee, sermons or the sounds of dogs barking. We cultivate our own cacophony and sounds of silence.
Here again, I catch myself speaking from a place of privilege. I have an incredible amount of agency in my own life. I can choose whose voices I hear. I can pay money for better content, for symphony tickets, or museum memberships. I can choose silence, simplicity, and white walls. I never flinch when I buy a book or when Apple Music bills us monthly for unlimited access to what seems like every song ever recorded. Many people are not so free, have less access, fewer resources to shape their conversation.
I remember long car rides as a child when we would be subject to the long diatribes of my step-dad for miles and miles. Neither the drive nor the polemic would ever seem to end or go where I wanted them to. When you’re a kid, you have little control of the voices beating against your eardrums. You can’t drive yourself to the gallery, can’t stay up all night painting. And when you are poor, or powerless, or displaced— what control do you have then over the input you’re receiving? And yet, even in these constricted spaces— fantastic art births forth. The soul flickers and burns past circumstances and limitations and bondage.
In the midst of the hubbub that we either choose or are subject to, we respond. In our literal conversations and in the works of our hands and minds, we are responding to the voices and ideas we allow in. We are always in conversation.
I love the book I’m writing. I doubt myself here and there (every single damn day) but I seriously love this. I love that this project is sending me out to gather research and stories. I love that it’s guiding the conversation I’m having with history, theology, feminism, and current events. I love the people and books it’s introducing me to. It’s fun to have a puzzle that my mind is always working on no matter if I’m driving to a playdate, scrubbing (ignoring) the dishes, or watching Gilmore Girls (the last seasons are the worst ever ever ever-- I hate you, Lorelai!).
I take this conversation wherever I go.
Is this idea just for people engaged in creative work? No. We are all responding to input. We all have some degree (perhaps very small) of agency in what we expose ourselves to. We choose which channel to watch, what to read, what to scroll through. And we respond when we speak, sing, dance, paint, laugh, tell the joke, shape the story, form the loaves. Our output necessarily responds to our input and it is altogether a dialogue, a back and forth.
Toward the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus says that the “mouth speaks from that which fills [the] heart.” Maybe what fills the heart isn’t this inherent thing— goodness or badness. Perhaps we fill and decorate our hearts ourselves. We can seek truth, beauty, and goodness or we can feast on sludge. We can choose the voices that make up our conversation: we can choose to fill ourselves with only people who agree with us or we can choose to engage with people who know more than us or who think differently or who have an entirely different worldview.
Maybe our conversation should trouble us a little, should make us wonder if we’ve been asleep for the past decade, should spur us on to learning, should make us approach our work with a dash of trepidation and the excitement of being unsure.
Am I getting this right? And what about this thing? How did that begin? And what do the rabbis say about this? And what do the Catholics say? Who else has dwelt on this? Who am I loving with this project? Who am I leaving out? I can’t write the words fast enough and yet I know I need to slow down and just enjoy the process. The writing is the thing.
So, I’m writing the first draft of a new book. It’s Christian non-fiction, along the lines of things I’ve written on this blog and on Sara Goes West, although I’ve never written a big project in this style. Do I temporarily stop reading books in the same genre? Do musicians stop listening to similar music while they’re recording? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d like to hear some opinions.
My initial instinct is that I should keep reading the things I want to learn about, the voices I want to engage with in my writing. And if I notice jealousy and insecurity rising-- I should investigate those feelings, not just mute those voices. And then amp up the other beautiful and challenging things I’m taking in— more art, more film, more music, more fiction, more feasting. I think if I am faithful to following the song where it will go, wherever that is— it will show me what to silence, what to amplify, and where I come in.