I can still vividly remember a moment almost twenty years ago—on a flight from Phoenix to Sacramento—when I was sitting next to our architect discussing the master plan of our church campus. As we dreamed and debated and dialogued, he smoothed out a paper napkin on my seat tray and we began sketching out what would ultimately be the building that housed our church. That moment is burned into my memory primarily for one reason: Thousands of hours of labor, many financial sacrifices by many faithful people, and much prayer and conversation and thought—all converged in that single moment in time on this tiny scribbled napkin.
I’ve probably had hundreds of what I call “napkin revelations”—moments when the muse to create ended up spilling on to a wrinkled paper napkin. I’ve composed lyrics and musical hooks on napkins. I’ve sketched out graphic designs and stagecraft plots and album covers on napkins. I’ve written sermon outlines and blog post ideas and even parts of books on napkins. I’ve worked out math calculations and even drawn graphs describing my life on napkins. And of course, there are oodles of doodles that have flowed out of my pen and onto napkins over the course of my life.
There’s something pure and uncomplicated about pen on paper, as if it were the most direct path from thought to depiction, from idea to reality. And I think that this is one of the tricks of creativity. For creatives, we must strive to minimize the barriers—both real and perceived—which keep us from actually being creative.
A painter friend once told me that it took an hour to set out her paints and brushes and easel, and that time often discouraged her from painting at all. I’ve spoken to musicians who have the same issues with their bedroom recording studios, and photographers and filmmakers with their cameras and tripods and other equipment. Ironically, it is the process of art that often keeps us from art making.
And not all our barriers are physical. Often the barriers are internal, huge emotional barriers like writer’s block or fear or performance anxiety. But we must not allow our demons to rule us. It is in those times that we must place ourselves in the middle of our canvas, our blank page, our silence, and simply move the brush, or type a word, or play a chord. Move, and keep moving. And art will come.
I always advocate that artists carry a sketch book or music staff paper or a camera or a digital recorder app on their phone or tablet. Creatives should always arm themselves with the means necessary to get their ideas “on paper” when ideas strike us. Act on the muse when we can, and do not take the sacred stirring for granted.
If you are an artist of faith, what are the barriers that keep you from creativity? What are those impediments that keep you from easily expressing yourself artistically? And perhaps, what are your internal excuses as well? If there are any, what can you do to eliminate or minimize those barriers? How can you re-orient your life in such a way that creativity is a more natural expression of it?
A little over two years ago, a friend of mine and I were meeting for our weekly coffee, and I wanted to share a crazy idea with him. So I smoothed out a paper napkin, took out my pen, and we began sketching. Two years later, we are now moving forward with pre-production on a brand new musical instrument that we have patented. It is scary and exciting, daunting and challenging, and we don’t know where this road will be taking us.
But I do know it would not have been anything if I had not reached for a napkin.
[Note: The accompanying photo is some butterfly tattoo artwork by my daughter, Rachel. Yeah, I’m pretty proud of her.]