Talking Shop: The Case for Frivolity in Art

This blog resides at the intersection of two subjects: that of spirituality and art.

If you believe in either of the two, the subject probably matters a great deal to you. What could be more important than your relationship with God? And why shouldn’t you care very deeply about the very expression of your soul? 

Of course you should care. These two subjects are taken more seriously by their–practitioners, we’ll say, than anything else.

But at the same time, both topics also demand a sense of levity that can be markedly absent from their discourse, writ large. How often have you heard a sermon that was devoid of liveliness? And how often have you read a poem by someone who clearly takes themselves too seriously? In truth, you’ve likely experienced both at some point in your life.

G.K. Chesterton, a theologian and a creative-writer, never shied away from employing a little lightheartedness. In fact, he once stated, “What can one be but frivolous about serious things? Without frivolity, they are simply too tremendous.”

If this sounds like an oxymoron to you, well, he wasn’t called “the Prince of Paradox” for nothing!

In any event, he was so adamant about the above quotation that he reiterated its sentiments multiple times throughout his life, stating, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light,” and even, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”

While the full import of Chesterton’s statement can be difficult to discern, this much is clear: he believed that a relationship with Christ was anything but stuffy and stifling. After all, isn’t joy a fruit of the Spirit?

But if the church can fall prey to a stifling seriousness, academia is certainly no better. Many self-important painters, poets, and novelists have churned out example after example of joyless art. In fact, literati as a whole tends to eschew work that they view as “low-brow” or less serious, whether it be *gasp* “genre fiction” or “light-verse” poetry.

But what’s wrong with utilizing some tropes, if it’s effective in conveying a point? (See Ursula Le Guin’s masterful works of sci-fi and fantasy, for example.) And some of the greatest writers in recent memory dabbled in light-verse poetry, including W.H. Auden, Dorothy Parker, and–notably, Chesterton himself.

In short, I think we would all do well to take ourselves a bit less seriously at times. Perhaps my opinions on the subject can best be summed up in the following aphorism by the Samurai master Miyamoto Musashi: “Think lightly of yourself and deeply of the world.”

May we all strive to do so.

Why I write (Creative Nonfiction)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

Every human is born with a mind-palace.

Well-kept, clean-swept, fastidiously organized. When it comes time to retrieve an idea, they walk through hallways of doors, each arranged in some methodical alpha-numeric sequence. Upon reaching the right room, they scan metal cabinets, open the drawer they need, thumb through the file-folders until they find the words they wish to write. In this way, they always have the right words to say.

When I was born, the doctors stood in semi-circle, confused by the CT scan that hung on the wall. Where my mind palace should’ve been, there was nothing to see.

Mine had sunk to somewhere deeper in the brain; somewhere less stable- the amygdala.

And what should’ve been a palace was instead a thicket of trees.

So, when I’m tasked with finding the words to say, I take to the trees without so much as a map to guide me. I amble around through thistles and brambles, looking for a sugar maple that I can tap.

The words don’t come gushing forth all at once. Rather, it’s a drip, drip, drip, slow as…well, molasses, as the thoughts freeze and thaw. It is not at all consistent.

After some four, maybe five months, my pail is filled.

I hack down the selfsame sap-producing maples and feed them to the fire, boiling buckets of sap over the open flame.

This converts thought-sap to syrup at a ratio of 40 gallons to 1.

After the foraging through the thorns and the cuts on my arms and the rips through my sleeves;

after the poison oak spreads and there’s a hitch in my step from the long hike and axe-wielding;

after the woods around me have been reduced to smoldering embers just to produce this:

I hold in my hands, my sticky, resin-stained hands, a piece of conscious concentrate: something that can be so essentially saccharine and sappy that it ceases to be so.

Bearing little semblance to sap, it becomes something else altogether.

Then, having drunk deep of this syrup, I pick up spade and seedling, knowing the next batch won’t be ready for another 50 years.

I write because words are the labor, and the reward.
because in the Scriptures, God Himself identifies as “the Word.”
Because words are both the mystery and the revelation.

Don’t phone it in

Students of history may be familiar with the famous (or perhaps, infamous) perfectionism of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Politics aside, there is an illustrative story of his uncompromising standards during the late sixties:

Winston Lord, the Ambassador to China at the time, was tasked with writing a speech for Kissinger. Kissinger, a gifted speechwriter himself, had exacting standards for those who served under him.

The story is told that Winston Lord brought the first draft of the speech to Kissinger one evening for his feedback and approval. The next morning, Kissinger called him back and asked, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord thought it over. He thought he’d done his best. He answered, “I’ll try again.”

A second time, he tinkered with his speech and brought it back to him after a few days had passed. And again, Kissinger asked him, “Is this the best you can do?”

Lord was shaken up, but stated he could do better.

The process continued for eight drafts. Each time, Kissinger resolutely asked, “Is this the best you can do?” After the ninth draft, Lord finally responded, indignantly, “I know it’s the best I can do! Not a word can be improved upon!”

Henry Kissinger looked on Winston Lord and replied, “In that case, now I’ll read it.”


Maybe this story made you smile. Or maybe it made you cringe at the unrelenting perfectionism showed by Kissinger. In any event, I believe there’s a takeaway for each of us, as artists, from this anecdote.

They say that artists are perfectionists by nature. I didn’t get that gene.

The first time I read this story, I felt a sort of conviction related to my writing. True, I’m not delivering important, policy-shaping speeches to heads of state…but how often do I just “phone it in” when I’m working on a new piece of writing? If I’m being honest with myself, it happens more often than I’d like.

Steven Pressfield makes a great case for rugged self-discipline when it comes to writing in his book The War of Art. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, I highly recommend it to start winning “your inner creative battles,” as he puts it.

That book (and this post) is not for everyone. Some writers edit and revise their pieces to ribbons. Some artists trash their seventeenth version of a painting before tearing their hair out. But if you’re like me and you sometimes struggle to “give it your all,” I hope this blogpost acts as the kick in the pants that you need.

Threescore Years and Ten of Writer’s Block (poem)

To quote the infinite monkey theorem: if you were to
be one of a million monkeys at a million typewriters
or keyboards, spread across eternity, time constraints
not-with-standing, you would eventually put
to ink the entire corpus of Shakespeare’s work.
Be certain of that.

That is what worries me, though–that the theorem
is correct; that the typewriter is my own; that I’m
the lone monkey in
question.

On Writing (Pensée)

There have been years I tilled the soil of my mind,
weeding out the passe, banal thoughts before I sowed a single seed.
I meticulously cultivated the plot of land that is the page. 

Those years yielded a handful of well-constructed, satisfactory poems.

There have been years I doused the sidewalk of my brain with herbicides
and all manner of thoughts not fit for human consumption.
Entire months passed when I neglected to set aside any time
for watering, composting, or gardening.
I didn’t expect a single fruitful thought. 

Still, a handful of poems poked their way up through the cracks,
identical in quality to the others.

Maybe I have less to do with this than I thought.

There is no godless art

“There is no godless art. Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” -Gabriela Mistral

The quotation above is from the Nobel-prize-winning Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, and it’s been bouncing around my head for the past few days. It comes from the brilliant poem “Decalogue of the Artist.” 

Besides the obvious nod to the Ten Commandments (in both formatting and title,) the poem serves as a tantalizing intersection between faith and art.

The question that I can’t seem to wrap my head around regarding the aforementioned line is this: “Do I really agree? Is there truly no godless art?

“All truth is God’s truth,” yes? St. Augustine certainly thinks so. 

By proxy, I can’t readily imagine any truth–whether it’s math-related or scientific or historic–being described as “godless.”The idea of a godless truth seems paradoxical.

But somehow, it’s easier to imagine a “godless art.”

Maybe it’s because it’s easy to find examples of breathtaking “art” that I vehemently disagree with. I’ve grappled with artwork that was out-and-out riveting, but seemed to me devoid of truth or “godless.” After all, didn’t Oscar Wilde say “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art?”

I believe the truth that Gabriela Mistral is so eloquently unearthing is a little more nuanced.

The first sentence I quoted from Mistral is quickly put into context by the second one: “Although you love not the Creator, you shall bear witness to Him creating His likeness.” Even those who aren’t in sound spiritual standing with the Father are capable of reflecting some of his attributes.

A writer who is godless in his theology can still reflect the awe-inspiring wit of God. The painter who eschews Scripture is still able to portray the grandeur of His work in a landscape painting. Indeed, as the tenth item on Mistral’s decalogue states, “Each act of creation shall leave you humble, for it is never as great as your dream and always inferior to that most marvelous dream of God which is Nature.”

There are artists who reflect the glory of God willingly. There are others who do so reluctantly. There are still others who are dragged kicking and screaming into reflecting the Image of God through their work.

But whether an artist is a willing participant or not, if they are co-creating with God, they are reflecting an aspect of His nature.

One could argue, “I don’t recognize God! My only aim is to create something emotionally resonant.” But who created humankind—and who governs what resounds in their souls but the Creator of their souls?

A person might say, “Some of the greatest literary minds were antithetical to the message of the cross.” That may be, but where the content of their passages may not reflect God, the cleverness of their form can’t help but bear witness to a Supreme Intelligence.

All art is derivative. Every artist is the progeny of one or more artists. If you could dig into this family tree of imagination, you would invariably find that all creative acts trace back to the Creator Himself.

Scripture tells us “Every good and perfect gift is from above.” (James 1:17)

So, no, there is no godless art. Some art reflects a more full-bodied truth of God’s personhood, while some only reflects select parts of his characteristics. But a creative work with any noble aspects, inherently, cannot be godless.

Errant Thoughts

My muse didn’t stop by my house today. She couldn’t work up the motivation, because her muse didn’t visit her. Turns out, my whole creative process is predicated on one muse inspiring another muse inspiring another muse, and now my lack of creative output makes sense.

Still, I have a responsibility to put some ink on the page, irrespective of quality. Because, as it were–

They do not serve who stand and wait, if those who stand could’ve served.

Talking Shop: Overcoming Writer’s Block

(“Talking Shop” is an ongoing series on the craft of creative writing.)

No ailment vexes wordsmiths across the globe like writer’s block. At one point or another, it haunts the steps of all who dare to pick up the pen and scribble down their thoughts.

If I could prescribe one antidote to the scourge that is writer’s block, it’d probably be this: Read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and call me in the morning.

The War of Art (titled, of course, as a play on Sun Tzu’s The Art of War) is a call to arms for artists everywhere, imploring them to utilize self-discipline to overcome the self-sabotage that so many creative-types fall victim to.

It’s no coincidence that the book utilizes a lot of war imagery. Pressfield is a former Marine who draws on that selfsame level of tenacity and grit to win his creative battles.

In Pressfield’s book, he suggests that we label all of our self-defeating behaviors and thought-patterns as “Resistance.” This Resistance keeps us from fulfilling our ambitions, whether they include finishing a novel, beginning an oil-painting, or opening a self-made business.

Pressfield suggests we re-purpose our “Resistance” and self-doubt as a sort of compass.

If there’s a creative pursuit that we feel disinclined to start, Pressfield argues, that’s precisely the project we should dive headfirst into. In such a way, we can overcome obstacles in creating art.

Others advocate a less militant approach to overcoming writer’s block. In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

The implication here is that artists should steal away, sneaking in a few minutes when they can. They should look at their creative processes with an ever-changing, new perspective. This approach brings to mind experimenting, squeezing in a time for writing whenever possible, and embracing the spontaneity of the creative process. In some ways, it almost seems diametrically opposed to  Pressfield’s approach.

Still, I don’t think either perspective is wrong.

Simply put, each writer must come up with their own method for overcoming creative obstacles. For some, that means a well-regimented routine. For others, it means writing when you can. Which rings most true for you? Or do you subscribe to a different method entirely?

How Niche Should we Write?

Recently, I took up sketching comic-book style illustrations.

I don’t have an iota of talent in terms of drawing, but I picked up Jason Brubaker’s “Cognitive Drawing” and have been plodding through it ever since. I enjoy the challenge of taking on a new artistic medium. Perhaps by expanding my horizons a little bit, my primary creative outlet (writing) will somehow improve by osmosis.

Besides, engaging in creative pursuits is never fully wasted, right?

This artistic diversion has led me to wonder: how beneficial is it to specialize in the arts? Does pursuing a multitude of styles of writing, for instance, make you better at your primary discipline? Or is there a law of diminishing returns, because you’re not focusing your talents solely on the artwork that’s in your wheelhouse?

There are plenty of fantastic artists on both sides of the spectrum, of course. Leonardo Da Vinci, the quintessential “renaissance man” was astounding in nearly every academic discipline he pursued. Conversely, Thomas Pynchon hasn’t strayed far from what he excels at: writing complex post-modern prose.

My grandfather is a talented oil painter. As a child, he noted my proclivity to dabble in multiple mediums. He remarked on several occasions that I’d eventually “have to choose one” if I wanted to be truly great.

Even in sub-sets of the arts, I wonder how true this is.

During my college years, I worked toward a journalism degree. As such, I wrote almost exclusively narrative pieces, creative nonfiction, and other journalistic types of stories. During my post-graduate studies, I picked up an affinity for flash fiction and prose poetry. Did my creative non-fiction suffer as a result? I doubt it.  One could make the case that I would’ve further developed my journalistic skills if I’d applied myself to that style of writing, instead.

I’d rather not pigeon-hole myself. The last thing I want is to end up with an impossibly esoteric niche of writing. Who wants to be known as the world’s greatest neo-formalist poet who focuses on sparrow migration imagery?

What about you? Do you delve into various arts with reckless abandon, or mostly stick to one discipline?