At the recent Intersections: Faith & the Arts Conference, we ended the final session with a panel discussion where the main speakers were invited on stage to dialogue with the other attendees. Derek Martin, moderator and William Jessup University host, kicked us off with an easy question: “Where does your inspiration come from?”
Of course, this isn’t an easy question at all. So it was no surprise when we responded with awkward silence. As the other speakers hesitantly weighed in, it gave me a chance to think about my own wells of inspiration. Yes, I listen to music, watch movies, read books (though not as many as I should), and experience art when I can. Yes, I try to hang out with creatives as much as possible, both in an unstructured, “let’s do coffee” kind of way and also in a structured “let’s make art” kind of way. And yes, I try to remain attentive to the still small voice that keeps me Kingdom-focused and other-centric. But when it came my turn to speak, these were not the answers I gave.
Instead, I told them the truth: my inspiration comes mainly from deadlines.
Most of my deadlines are fixed. Sunday comes once a week. Christmas and Easter come once a year. I write a blog post every two weeks or so. I release a CD project every three years. These deadlines—both fixed and self-imposed—are really what drive my creativity.
There’s a bit of a myth associated with the creative process, that inspiration happens in moments of Spirit-filled, ethereal enlightenment. We have these lofty notions that artistic inspiration happens when clouds part and rays of heavenly serendipity shower down on our blank pages and canvases and stages. Like the ancient Greeks, we await the muses to descend from Mount Olympus and stir us up. And though Spirit-filled inspiration definitely does strike the artist of faith, the truth is that most inspiration happens in the midst of hard work and slog-filled drudgery.
Ernest Hemingway was famously known for his strict spartan approach, writing deliberately early in the mornings and working while standing for long periods with only a pencil or typewriter. Johann Sebastian Bach is not only known for the intellectual and artistic beauty of his music, but also for the prolific discipline which produced a dizzying body of work including a full 300 cantatas. And Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky once wrote, “We must always work, and a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”
There’s an internal tension at work in the artist—a tension that pits our hard-won mastery of technique with the need for imagination and inventiveness. Art is born from such tensions. I think this is one of the things that differentiates the professional artist from the hobbyist. We create in the midst of this internal tension of expertise and inspiration, and thankfully, we can lean on our hard work and expertise when inspiration does not come. Deadlines become our inspiration because we have attained a level of excellence that allows inspiration to flow more easily. And when inspiration does not come, we can still perform at a high level.
In the midst of this tension, there is another dynamic at work. We must apply the very difficult discipline of releasing our artwork, even when it may not have turned out the way we wished. For we must make peace with our creations, allow it to exist outside of our preconceptions of it, in order to let it truly be what it is. As creators, we release our art to the Creator, who can use it quite apart from and beyond our limited imaginations.
Madeleine L’Engle reminds us to listen and to be a servant of our artwork. It is the only way our art can become greater than ourselves. She quotes Jean Rhys, who reminds us:
“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
Interestingly, when I revealed that deadlines were my muse, all the other speakers chimed in heartily in agreement. For all of us—as authors, musicians, painters, actors, directors, dancers, and all our ilk—are merely small streams and creeks which feed the lake.