When Doing Leads to Undoing

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I’m learning to crochet. Is that dorky? I have a feeling what the hipsters do with yarn these days is knitting. But I’ve heard that takes two needles which is completely intimidating. So for now, it’s crochet.

The girls and I took a class at a local craft store, and after three hours we learned one stitch — if that’s even what you call it. We make rows over and over again in a line, turn, and make another line.

It’s too narrow for a blanket, too wide for a scarf, and it doesn’t matter anyway because I don’t know how to read a pattern or do anything, really. So far I’ve worked the yarn through Mr. Bean’s Holiday, one episode of American Pickers, and lots of conversation.

I want it to be relaxing, but so far I mainly work tense. I hear that shows up in the yarn. Of course it does.

Of all the things on my to do list, crochet doesn’t show up once. But maybe it should, as I’m learning sometimes I need to engage in an activity for the single purpose of disengaging from productivity. Today I’m writing about the importance of making an undo list over at (in)courage. Join me there?

The Real Job of a Writer

As a writer, I sometimes forget what my real job is. When I’m rushed or under a deadline, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking my job is to string words together in some creative way resulting in a variety of desired outcomes for me or the reader. Hopefully both.

the real job of a writerObviously a writer has to actually write. But my job, even before writing, is to pay attention.

Listening with all my senses is my first real job. When I remember nothing begins with me and purpose to stay small in the presence of others (not in a woe-is-me kind of way, but in a you-have-something-to-teach-me way), the writing not only comes more naturally, but is more full and textured.

This listening posture is a lifestyle, not a decision I make because I have a deadline coming up.

Pay Attention to the World Around Me

There are different ways of listening. First, I pay attention to the world around me. My brain is now trained to listen for certain concepts and perspectives no matter where I am or what I’m doing. If I hear something true about faith, grace, or creativity, it’s going to catch my attention and inform my own thinking by either confirming what I already believe or challenging me to see things differently.

Here’s an example.

On my way down to Charlotte this weekend, I listened to Here’s the Thing, a podcast with Alec Baldwin. On this episode, Alec Baldwin interviews Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live and the man responsible for launching the careers of Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Will Farrell, Bill Murray and way too many others for me to list out.

From episode 8 of Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin, orginally aired January 30, 2012:

Alec Baldwin: Now you have this great success – you have THE great success – in late night television, and then you have success in primetime television, you’ve produced TV shows particularly now, that have done well, and you have great success in film. But you’ve never worked in cable.

Lorne Michaels: Well, I did with “Kids in the Hall” and I did now with Fred in “Portlandia” which is on IFC.

Alec Baldwin: Do you feel you haven’t been as aggressive in cable as you might have been?

Lorne Michaels: I think at the end of the day…

Alec Baldwin: You’re more comfortable with network – I’ve grown to prefer network because you’ve gotta walk that tightrope and you can’t just go crazy.

Lorne Michaels: Yes, to me, there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s fourteen lines. So it’s solving the problem within the container. I think for me, commercial television and those boundaries, I like it. I like that you can’t use certain language. I like that you have to be bright enough to figure out how to get your ideas across in that amount of time with intellegience being the thing that you hope is showing. Not officially, but you want it to be, “Oh, that was kind of bright.”

After hearing him say this – There’s no creativity without boundaries – I paused the podcast, made a note in my phone voice recorder, and continued to listen. I agree wholeheartedly with Lorne Michaels on this point, something I’ve written about here on the blog and in A Million Little Ways.

I’ve thought a lot about this concept so my ear is now trained to notice it. When I hear it again from different perspectives, I write it down.

Pay Attention to the World Within Me

But there is another way of listening, a way I am sometimes loath to practice. As a writer, I take seriously the job of  listening to my own life. I don’t always like what I hear which is why this kind of listening is more difficult than the first.

The very thing Lorne Michaels pointed out in that interview, the concept about creativity I agree with and have written about myself, is the reality I slam up against in my own writing and life.

I face the limiting factors of insecurity, fatigue, doubt, pressure, and time. For example, today I have to work within the practical limit that it’s March 18 and our kids are out of school again because of icy roads. And I want to point to the external limit and say that there is what is keeping me from being creative today. When really, the lack of a consistent writing schedule lately is forcing me to be creative. Not necessarily in my work, but in my life.

How will I decide to spend these extra unexpected days? How will I handle the unplanned? How will I respond when the schedule doesn’t allow for me to do what I hoped and wanted to do? The easy, uninspired way is to be frustrated. This takes zero creativity. But the real challenge for me is to walk into this day with new eyes – to decide to see, handle, and face the ordinary in a different kind of way.

This is when there is no creativity without boundaries actually matters. It’s easier to face the limits in my writing than it is to face the limits in my life. Feel discouraged in your writing? Be brave! You have a job to do! You’re a writer after all.

But feel discouraged in my living and it gets tougher to pep-talk me out of. Especially when my living is keeping me from my writing. See how twisted this can get?

It’s ugly, but it can also be a thin place – a place where heaven touches earth in a mysterious kind of way because this is your real life. This is where Christ wants to meet me, as I stand in the midst of my own limiting factors. When I am my own limiting factor.

 This is when living is art is living.

Paying attention is the writer’s real job – in my world and in my life. Otherwise, the writing will be empty and meaningless.

If you would like to receive a free copy of Seven Little Ways to Live Art - an ebook that accompanies my full-length book on uncovering the art you were made to live – simply enter your email address here and click newsletter. I plan to send the March newsletter out this week and will include content you won’t find anywhere else.

What Martha Stewart & Mr. Rogers Can Teach Us About Art

Yesterday I watched two videos.

The first one was an interview with Martha Stewart. Stephanie Ruhle of Bloomberg Television asks Martha Stewart about brands she trusts and who she thinks has good taste. Then the subject turns to her opinions on social media. (I’m including the video here, but you may have to click over to watch her response. I’ll transcribe it for you below)


Here is what she said at 1:39:

“Who are these bloggers? They’re not trained editors at Vogue magazine. I mean there are bloggers writing recipes that aren’t tested, that aren’t necessarily very good, or are copies of everything that really good editors have created and done. So bloggers create a kind of popularity, but they are not the experts. And we have to understand that.”

Then I watched another video.

I found it  on my Dad’s blog as part of his 31 day series about families. Mr. Rogers was being presented with a lifetime achievement award. I’ve included the video here in this post, but I’ll transcribe it for you below:

“So many people have helped me to come to this night. Some of you are here. Some are far away. Some are even in heaven. All of us have special ones who have loved us into being.

Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are? Those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life.

Ten seconds of silence. I’ll watch the time . . .Whomever you’ve been thinking about, how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made.”

Both of these are famous, talented, and expert. Granted, the timing and circumstance of these two videos are very different. But I watched them both for the first time within an hour of each other yesterday, and the words of Maya Angelou came immediately to mind:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The feeling I had after watching one was significantly different than the feeling I had after watching the other.

One sounds closed while the other is open. One sounds territorial while the other is generous.

For one, the world is one of scarcity where only the expert need apply. Those who look to her for inspiration are disrespected and disregarded.

For the other, the world is one of abundance, where even when you win an award for your own achievements, you can choose to make that moment about everyone else. Those who look to him for inspiration are honored and thanked.

Both of these people have something important to teach me about living and making art.

a million little waysThis is day 17 of 31 days of Living Art. Visit this page to see all the posts in the series. If you would like to have these posts delivered directly in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Check out my newest book A Million Little Ways to continue to explore what it might mean to make art with our lives.

this is your courage, fully released

It’s October, 2012. I fly to Colorado, touch down in a land of pointy red rocks taller than skyscrapers, flat land nestled up to the Rockies.

I rent a car that smells like cologne and cigarette smoke. Memories of my father-in-law hit me like a wall. I tear up the minute I get inside. He’s been gone over a year now.colorado springsAs I drive away from the airport toward those massive mountains, I feel a bit desperate for the familiar. Even though my surroundings are beautiful, I have a strange desire to add trees to the landscape in my mind – give me tall pines and green leafy foliage, the comfort of my East Coast home. This feels like a longing for something deeper, but I try to avoid it by listening to Ingrid Michaelson’s Turn to Stone.

Her voice helps a little.

I drive up I-25 to find Panera – eat lunch, a cookie and a bottle of water. If anyone is going to avoid altitude sickness, it’s this girl.

The Garden of the Gods takes my breath away. I haven’t traveled a ton in my life, but I have lived in Michigan, Iowa and Indiana; North Carolina with her rolling hills and South Carolina with her Low Country charm. I’ve visited Canada, Spain, Los Angeles, Maine, and the Philippines.

colorado springs garden of the gods 2But here in Colorado Springs, those red rocks in The Garden of the Gods might be the oddest things I’ve ever seen in real life. I’m certain the people who live here think these mountains are normal. But I have a hunch we might be on Mars. This land is dry, different, and strangely beautiful.

I’m here for a week to take a class, but really I see it as a personal retreat. By now I’ve written and released two books with moderate success and I need some time of quiet listening. I need a deep breath.

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I haven’t hit any best-seller lists or won any awards. But the books have sold well enough and I’ve signed a contract to write a third.

My room has two beds, a desk, a chair, a window. No TV, thankfully. I wish I had a TV. Give me the evening news, a reality show, anything to distract me from myself.

I have dinner with Larry and Rachael Crabb. He’s written more books than I can count, has more degrees than I can remember and understands his own inadequacy in a way that shows both deep humility as well as profound masculinity that I can’t explain but puts me at ease.

I share with them about this book I’m working on, how it’s due at the end of the year, how I’m struggling and circling around the word art. I tell them I’m nervous, worried that I’m not cut out for this work. I tell them I can’t get the work off my mind.

They seem to understand.

But Larry knows how to initiate a conversation that matters, so he wants to know about more than just the writing. He asks me what my friends would say about me if they were here. I tell him a few words I think they might say, none that particularly excite me.

Then he asks what I wished they would say.

“Smart.”

It comes out before I have a chance to remember not to say it. I don’t even realize I think that. What about kind? Giving? Supportive? Nope. Smart is the word that comes out.

And then I start to cry.

In my great insecurity, I am most concerned about smart people reading my words and thinking them small and uninformed.

“If I had to preach your funeral tomorrow,” he says, “I would say ‘Here lies Emily, a woman with almost fully released courage.”

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, Larry Crabb just hypothetically killed me. On the other, he pointed out how I’m living scared. And the worst part is, he’s right.

Just as I’m trying to decide how to respond, Rachael leans over closer to me, “You want to get rid of that ‘almost’ don’t you?”

Yes. Getting rid of the ‘almost’ is the only appropriate response. But how?

The next day, we gather to listen to Dr. Crabb teach about the power of relating with people in the energy of Christ rather than always trying to prescribe them help. He emphasizes four words and I write them down in my notebook.

colorado

Engage. Arouse. Envision. Release.

He’s talking about what it looks like to have conversations that matter, to be believers in the world and to be with others in a living, centered, relational way. But all I can think about is art.

I think about my trip years ago to New York City with my college roommate, Faith – how we went to see Wicked and I wanted to weep through the entire performance because it was all so beautiful.

I think about being 17 and listening to Sarah Masen sing and play her guitar in my high school youth group, how she didn’t just sing notes, she sang story. And yes, she was talented, but she was also generous.

I think about the watercolor hanging in our kitchen, painted by small hands, offered as a gift.

The kind of art that moves us, the kind of art that leaves a trail, the kind of art that makes an impression is not the bossy kind.

Art doesn’t diagnose, treat, advise, scold or lecture. Art doesn’t lie, manipulate, assign, or prescribe.

Art engages, arouses, envisions, and releases.

Isn’t that our job, too?

Art, the human kind.

school of spiritual direction dinner

It’s been over a year since my trip to Colorado Springs. That book I struggled so much to communicate is now fully written and perhaps even on your bedside table.

I believe I’ve finally made the connection between making art and living art. I have Dr. Crabb partly to thank for that.

Now it doesn’t seem to matter as much if smart people read my words and think I’m ill-informed. I am finally beginning to live as the artist I am without apology.

You can, too.

As an artist among fellow image-bearers, you are not to ask, Did I do this exactly right? 

Maybe you did and maybe you didn’t. Or maybe you’re asking the wrong question.

Instead, your job is to decide, Was I me? Did I offer my genuine self into the presence of others as myself? Or did I show up as an imposter?

In your profession you may be required to diagnose or advise or lecture or fix.

But as a human living among humans, your job is one of an artist, not a know-it-all or an expert.

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Make a mess, be a sloppy first draft, scribble in the margin.

But don’t turn in someone else’s work. We just want you, fully alive as you. We want the person of Jesus relating with us through the filter of your unique personality. And whatever comes out as a result of that?

This is your art. This is your courage, fully released.

This is day 9 of 31 Days of Living Art. Click here to see all the posts in the series.

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If you are interested in joining a book club to read A Million Little Ways (the book I share here in this post), visit Bloom (in)courage for all the details, including the reading schedule and how to apply for a sponsored book if you are unable to purchase one. We’ll officially begin on October 21. I hope you’ll join us.