What Really Matters (Part 5)

So the final question is this? Is it worth it? Is whatever it is we are working on worth the humiliation of self-promotion? Is it worth the potential disappointment and being misunderstood? Is it worth potentially being tossed aside?

That is the real issue isn’t it? We are desperately afraid of creating something that is completely inconsequential. We have the sinking feeling that once we publicly launch we will know with greater clarity why it really was not a good idea.

These are the paralyzing sort of thoughts that enter an artist’s heart before launching something he has carefully crafted for too long. This is the artist taking too much credit for the piece, assuming almost the blame before it is there.

After all, have we not clearly established that this is a baby, the result of two entities coming together in love? Sure, but no one can really blame the Muse for a flop. The artist stands alone at the end of the day for his work.

But the beautiful equalizing question is simply and seriously this: who cares? Who cares what people think? Who cares what critics think? Who cares what our relatives think? Who cares what the passing trends of teenagers think?

The answer tends to be: “we do.” But why do we care? Why do we care what people think? Why do we allow our creative enterprise to be judged worthy or not by someone else? Getting to the heart of this question is critical for the artist.

Nowhere are we advocating for a free pass for anything “artistic” in nature. There is great value and need for critical inquiry. The fundamental crux of the problem is that we can only judge a work based on the externally-measured merit it brings to the public.

The necessary freedom to create as an artist requires distance from such measurement. An artist can most certainly create with a certain context in mind, and with a goal for that context. But still he must lead, and not follow it.

Being ahead of the market, but responsive somehow to it, is the unique challenge of the arts. Especially in today’s world where market research is so incredibly restrictively defined. Everybody fits into a category with a unique set of needs and wants.

Being able to lead a market means knowing that market. But in business that means something completely different than in the arts. Leading the market in the arts does not imply the market research and branding acuteness. It is something else.

It is more like leading a group of children or a youth group. Sure there are certain things that will work, certain patterns that make more sense, but there is more mystery involved. There is more relational currency needed to really get it.

The goal is not only understanding the needs of the market, it is actually helping shape those needs. In other words, it is directive, not merely responsive. We do not tell the group they need this or that (marketing), we guide them in assessing for themselves.

Violet, grape, disgust. Hate, happy to be. 18-Pontiac street. Lord, help me! 

What Really Matters (Part 4)

So where do the power of words and images come from? Why does it matter that we can put them together in some neat combinations? Our words and images actually animate our experience and tell it in such a way meaning is conveyed.

Any sort of circumstances can be communicated. This is where it is sad but true. Art is no distinguisher of persons. Art is not moral in that sense, though it does have a way of favoring those things which are truthful and beautiful.

Can we ever say with clarity what is done with benevolence and grace? Not necessarily. The most “family values” of movies may have some underlying issues. Whereas at times the poet lost in the darkness of the underworld hit it.

That’s why street or gang-related hip hop can translate so easily to suburban white America. “Surviving the streets” is so far removed from the latter’s experience that they crave, in a sense, its visceral nature. Its “truths” set them free.

So, speaking the truth is essential to good art. But, we have lots of truths. We experience so many things that can remind us of truth. Which lessons do we focus on and why? This is the discernment part of art making.

Which experiences, hopes, thoughts we choose to convey will ultimately shape how and who people see us as. Why this one and not that one? Those are the questions that define us. Which things continually rise to the top as inspiration?

Partly its the things that actually make it to paper. Out of the hundreds of experiences we have daily only so many make it into our recollections and assessment. We can only reflect on so many things. That process is the start.

Once we begin reflecting certain experiences produce inspiration. We won’t always know why but certain things are fertile fields for creativity. Whether painful or exhilarating these experiences lead us to a pure inspirational goldmine. 

Though certainly this process is beyond simple cause and effect. There are other elements at play than our own experience. Creativity itself seems to have an agenda. We are not alone in the creating, maybe at best we are co-creators.

In other words the words or the music them-self have been fighting for survival long before we get ahold of them. Like the one in a million sperm that happens to attach to the egg, there is a story built in, a DNA full of a life imprint.

We are simply the carrier. Perhaps at best we are the passive receivers. Certainly we court creativity (or more directly the Creator), we try to open ourselves up to receiving directly, but there is little credit that we can actually take in the process.

In some ways our “improving” as writers, artists, etc. only gets in the way. We start to rely on something in ourselves. We become more aware of the process. That is not good. Experience breeds contempt. In this realm, we must be perpetual virgins.   

What Really Matters? (Part 3)

Are we at the well or are we not? Are we drinking from the living fount that gives life-sustaining hope? As creatives, we either drink from this well or we have absolutely no business wasting other people’s time. What are we doing?

Think about true inspiration. It is beyond us. It is a stream. It comes in and goes out. It is not for us. It is for our hearers, our watchers, our attenders. It is for the people who will come into contact with our content. Is the content alive or not?

That really is the essential question for the artist. Anyone can create skilled art work. The halls of flea markets are filled with skilled art work. The halls of art galleries. What’s missing? Either we have Big Eyes or we are the husband faking it.

People connect with and engage with the real stuff. They collect and trade the skilled stuff. Skilled but not inspired is the most awful sort of stuff. It breathes with contempt. It is so full of itself it literally has no room for anyone, including an audience.

True art must literally be inspired, that is animated by life. Otherwise it is like the dust God picked up and formed. It may have been art at that point. It may have been skilled at that point. But was without life. Only after God breathed into it was it art.

Suddenly the thing went from form to life. It went from vision to reality. It went from interesting to unbelievable. When the art took on a life of its own it becomes art. Now nothing is art quite like the human life. Of course.

But our artistic pursuits are art nonetheless. They are mini-human lives in a sense. They do take on a sense of life, they are animated, giving life to other things. They are created below that of human life itself, but still they are created.

Not everything God made and was good was human. God made many things. Some of them quite small. Yet even the smallest thing was so beautifully intricate. It bears resemblance to His touch as did the human, just not to the same degree.

So the artist has both realities to understand: art without inspiration is nothing, and inspiration without skill is nothing. We, of course, deal in the realm of skill mostly. Our will is to hone in that skill and cultivate it from the bottom up.

Our skill also must be, if we are serious about art, to listen for and cultivate inspiration. It is not enough to work at our skill nor is it enough to wait around for inspiration. It is the tender balance of both that makes life interesting.

The skilled artist void of inspiration is a poisonous viper. He is an endlessly disappointed critic. Yet one with a daily portion of inspiration but no platform for his art is an endlessly disappointed cynic, convinced no one cares. 

We need both. We have to hone our skill. In today’s world that inevitably includes not just our craft but the marketing of our craft. We have to navigate the world of business. But it is worth it. It is worth promoting truly inspired work to the world!

What Really Matters? (Part 2)

There are various views of maturation in the world. Some assume a sort of exterior astuteness: tucking in your shirt, waking up early, being decisive, having a rather serious demeanor. The word harbors a sort of stiff deliberateness.

But in the spiritual world, maturity may look a little backward. “He who loses his life for my sake finds it,” said Jesus. There is fundamentally the concept in spiritual formation of not being in control, confessing powerlessness to change many things.

The one thing needful, the one thing we can control, is our attitude, our outlook, what we chose to believe is true. That radically is given to the individual person to sovereignly steward. But do we “control” that? Is that the goal?

Mastery of your emotions sounds like a good thing, but it may run smack dab into the reality of our interdependences. We are people of context, and that context is not merely external. We are given an internal context we have to navigate.

That internal web of connections sheds great light on who we really are and what things really are “working.” So many things we can do hover around what we need to do. They are very closely related, but definitely not our sweet spot.

It is akin to being on a baseball team but in the wrong position. Even though what position we play defensively should not effect our batting (which is offensive), it does. Not until we get the one right does the other seem to gain its clarity.

So being on the right kind of team (baseball :-) is a start, but only the very beginning. Which team? Which position? Which spot in the batting order? So many other variables need to line up. Our internal context guides us through this.

Fortunately we just feel “off” when not in alignment. Not that our emotions are clairvoyant, but they certainly work to adjust our rudder. There is a sense in which we can trust them to help us finesse the wheel. They know something!

So we must learn the art of discernment, of honing in our intuition (which is beyond but including both our reason and emotion). We must learn to listen to our lives, to hear the sound of perfect harmony between our calling and the world’s need.

These intersections are seldom easy to navigate, but there is a compelling vibration of sort when we approach one. There is a sense of destiny, a feeling of the wind behind us. There is belief and a strange familiarity like we have been here before.

Those moments of clarity, though often short, are oxygen to intuiting our calling. They give us a deep sense of vindication that external circumstances can neither confirm nor deny. These vocational moments are worth their weight in gold.

The reality is that our calling is a set of very small footsteps in a very vague direction. We know basically what the end product looks like but we simply don’t know how to get there. We move forward in faith, and trust we will not be forsaken. 

What Really Matters? (Part 1)

Ride the waves of inevitability. If you have drive, if you have curiosity, if you passion for a project, you have life. You have a responsibility, you have a precious, rare gift. You have this unique moment to actually participate in the creative process.

Don’t think. Don’t get caught up in the how’s. Just feel. Feel the ideas flowing out of you. Feel the insights brewing. They are there a plenty if we will only put the pen to paper and get out of the way, we can experience this great joy.

What matters in 10 years? What matters in 20? What will be remembered at our eulogy? What things about us transcend us? What gifts can we leave to the next generations? What about our life will matter in the long run?

These sorts of questions get real focus in the mid-life. They also get crystal clear with a view of death in mind (threat of disease, near-fatal accident, close friend dying, etc). As death makes its way into our view, we are forced to consider.

Is what I’m spending my time on really what I “should” be spending my time on? Do my actions stand the test of time? Am I making decisions for the right reasons? If I were to find out I had only one year to live how would my life change?

Would we have more courage to risk? That is the question. Would we be more free to follow those hunches, the leanings we have intuitively but for fear or lack of focus do not pursue? Would we finally take the leap into a preferred future without a guarantee?

At some point there is an inevitable leap. Soren Kierkengaard spent most of his life fascinated by this point. Life ultimately is a risk. There is an essential existential crisis to being human. We have to make choices without knowing their consequences.

There is no way to we calculate the results of our actions today. Nor should we. Instead we are given the responsibility only to choose. Make a life by choosing it. God will not do it for you. God does not remove the burden of choosing our life.

We alone can choose. That incredible freedom is also the pivotal responsibility of life. What are we going to do with what we have? We will be held accountable. Every religion and every creed has some sense of a universal reckoning.

Even the most well-intentioned person can sincerely screw it up. In the end intentions can not justify us. It is our actions, our actions alone. What did we DO? What impact was made with what we did? How was the world left better as a result?

This is very different from the frenetic sort of approach to change-making, jumping head-first into every possible avenue that comes up. The novice is swallowed alive by the sheer force of good opportunities. Most don’t get out.

Many such bleeding hearts went in full till and did not really come out. Smart action requires the grace of active waiting. As we move forward and continue to strengthen our risk muscle, we pull back and we wait, giving time to contemplate.

We re-configure, assess, investigate, run inventory, pray through and receive input for our pursuits. We constantly offer them back to the places from which they came. We give the many seeds we planted a chance to catch up with us.

We also give the well-watered growing parts of our enterprise a chance to rest. Where some might say get another lap in, the pit crew here realizes the immensely important need to stop for new tires and a fill up. Do it now.

If we insist on activity and are happy with mere busyness, we will never quite get it. Our well-intentioned actions will lead to very little return. If, on the other hand, we are patient and deliberate, pushing and pulling with life, we may just find what we seek.