I recently found some stories I wrote late in high school, and they reminded me of an old ambition that colored my whole childhood. Since second grade when I wrote my first book about a cantankerous cat and dog, my plan was to become an author of fiction. And I worked on it. Between the ages of eight and eighteen, I wrote dozens of stories, poems, and plays, most of them ridiculous, but a few of them charming, if I am allowed to praise the writer I once was. Then I went to college and drowned in the oceans of Milton, Faulkner, and a hundred other giants of the literary canon. What was my puny imagination compared with that of Alexander Pope? Now I merely hoped that I might make a good literary critic, trading arguments in my puny voice with other critics, our heads stuffed with quotations and theories. Somewhere along the way, my dream had died. Besides the stories and poems that were milked from me in my sophomore creative writing class, I have not finished a piece of fiction since the 12th grade.
But I believe that flame needs to be reawakened, in me and in anyone who has let skills or artistic dreams slip away. Many of us mistakenly view human creativity as the prerogative only of the most talented and revered artists. The more extensively we have been educated in the classics of literature, music, and art, the more firmly we seem to hold this idea that the ordinary man or woman cannot create much of anything worthwhile.
But all of us are driven to imagine beauty. What child does not invent stories and adventures in play and act them out, in a kind of double of creation? Children love to color, build, tell stories, fashion sand castles. As we grow older and move into real life, many of us stifle these desires to create. But wouldn’t we all, if offered an open pathway, jump at the chance to be a published author, to hear someone sing a song we have written, or to act successfully in a show—not only for the fame, but for the pleasure of having created something? But there are obstacles in the path. Creation is unbelievably hard, and few have the skills or motivation to paint a portrait or even compose a simple poem. Most of us don’t try those things. We devote ourselves to our day jobs and leave artistic activity to the professional artists.
In The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy L. Sayers gives voice to an often forgotten Christian idea, that “The characteristic common to God and man is apparently . . . the desire and the ability to make things.” According to Sayers, if you are human, you are a potential artist. Each has not only the desire, but also the ability. Ability of course must be cultivated; but no creature made in the image of God is without it. Why leave all the work, and the fun, to the Mozarts and Miltons of the world? Maybe few of us will craft masterpieces as captivating as Beethoven’s Fifth. But we can still humbly exercise our artistic skills and creative imaginations as a way of better knowing God, ourselves, the world, and the world’s wonders, and as a way of connecting with those in our community.
I think there is further reason to create, though, and you can find it in the fervor that drives those Beethovens and Miltons in their work. Stories and myths often speak of a death that precedes birth, or birth that feels like death. Artistic creation always involves pain; pain often inspires it. Confusion, anger, grief, depression, alienation, longing, or sensitivity to the loveliness and promise of the world that tantalizes but does not satisfy—these all drive the artist to the birthing.
In a fallen world, we create to ease the pain of being human. However full of Christian hope, no one is whole. Everyone grapples with (or else strives to ignore) the brokenness of the world, our feelings of homelessness, and the way time catches us by surprise. We are troubled by what C.S. Lewis calls
. . . the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both (from “The Weight of Glory”).
This desire to tell, to understand, and to expunge drives the artist. Do the great, troubled artists–Emily Dickinson and Francis Thompson and Gustav Mahler–feel this pain more acutely than ordinary mankind? Maybe they do, or maybe others have found their own answers. And maybe some of us have just settled for easy ways of distracting ourselves so that we need not think or feel more than is comfortable.
Even though it is difficult creating offers great pleasure. I believe the joy and power of the creative work lie in the act of naming things to an audience. Like an excited child learning and bestowing names, like Adam in the garden naming the animals, when we name an object or idea, we discover it. A writer who can name or rename something by metaphor in prose or poetry has the power to offer the reader an apprehension of an experience or object as we have never before known it. As Walker Percy puts it, artistic exchange always involves “one man encountering another man, speaking a word, and through it and between them discovering the world and himself.” For artists of all kinds, the purpose is the same: to discover, represent, and express something for themselves and another person. In expressing, the artist gains power—not to create reality, but to understand it and help another to see it.
What, then, does this mean for our busy, every-day lives, especially for those of us who never learned artistic skills? Contrary to general belief, adults are not too old to cultivate artistry. If you have skills in music, writing, or art, develop them. If you don’t, start learning to play an instrument or sing; make time to write (and read); learn pottery, woodworking, sewing, and cooking, and practice these things. Study and enjoy all kinds of art. Find music or drawing lessons for your children and expose them to lovely things in nature and art. Find a way to exercise your creative imagination. Since you are by nature a creator, attempting creativity can never be a waste of time.
But I am afraid, and you are afraid. What if we fail in our artistic efforts? How often will we really succeed in expressing and communicating? Will the amateur fiction writer or the violinist who begins playing at age thirty ever move themselves or an audience with their art? I believe they may. If we as amateur artists do not learn and experience something of the glory, the pleasure, and the pain of what it means to be a creator in some area of life, than we have not tried hard enough. Artistic desire and artistic capability, at some level, is God’s gift to each of his children. We have only to awaken it.