Struck by Lightning

(by Daniel R. Jones)

A poet whom I greatly admire recently shared the following quotation:

“A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” -Randall Jarrell

Those familiar with Randall Jarrell will recall that he was no stranger to being struck by lightning. In fact, I’d say he could bottle it. More often than not, his poems seemed to hit their mark. But was he on to something?

I had a professor in grad school who told me that if I’m being honest with myself, in a year’s time I only write two or three truly good poems. If I’m having a particularly productive year, I might get lucky and write four or five.

At the time, it felt painstakingly pessimistic. But as I look at my corpus of work, I’m forced to reckon with the fact that regardless of my output in any particular year, the amount of really good poems never jumps much higher than three to five per year. 

So, what does that mean for my creative process? To be honest, absolutely nothing. If we’re going to extend the metaphor that Jarrell put forth, there’s not a lot I can do to “up” my chances of getting struck by lightning. I suppose I could employ a lightning rod or splash around in a body of water. 

But the best thing I can do to ensure I can bottle that lightning when it comes is to simply stand in the thunderstorm. 

Taking a more spiritual approach to it, I think the artist who serves Christ is actually beholden to such a task. As Jesus’ disciples, we have a mandate to listen for the Spirit and dictate accordingly. In the immortal words of a poetic titan- “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

So with the mindset of Jarrell and the obedience of Milton, I’ll stand and wait in the thunderstorm, hoping and praying for lightning.

Motivation is a Mechanism in your Brain

(by Daniel R. Jones)

If I had a dime for every time I heard someone weasel their way out of the creative life by saying they don’t “feel inspired,” I could quit my day job. Others will go days, weeks, or even months without picking up their pencil to work on a new drawing.

If you are comfortable with this lack of production, that’s entirely acceptable. For most, there is no moral imperative to keep creating artwork. We often place unrealistic stress on ourselves to “produce,” and the goal of this blog post is certainly not to shame others for their lack of consistency.

But at times, most of us find that we do wish we were more motivated. We hem and haw and wait for the moment that inspiration will strike. This, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of motivation.

Most people think that the chain of events that leads to the accomplishment of something goes like this:

Motivation>Task>Task>Task>Completion

Since the first domino never falls, they don’t begin their first task, and they make no headway in their creative life.

We tend to think of motivation as an abstract concept, like that of the Muse. In reality, we can easily dupe our brain into providing “motivation” through simple physiology.

The neurotransmitter most associated with motivation in the brain is dopamine. Simply put, when your brain needs to get things done, signaling of dopamine occurs, and you feel the compulsion to complete a task. This is why people all across the world guzzle coffee each morning, desperately trying to tap into this physiological reaction in the brain.

Endogenous dopamine, (that is, dopamine naturally occurring in the brain,) can actually be utilized in a much simpler way. Numerous studies have shown that ticking a task off your To-Do List, no matter how simple or trivial, activates this neurotransmitter.

In much the same way that strength-training tells your brain that it needs to grow more muscle, completing a task tells your brain that you’ll need more dopamine.

So, in actuality, the chain of events that leads to productivity goes like this:

Task>Motivation>Task>Motivation>Task>Completion

Have you ever wondered why on some days, you’ll get into a rhythm and clean your whole house in a whirlwind, while on other days, you can barely muster up the strength to do anything but watch TV on your couch?

This is why.

It’s the same rationale that leads countless self-help experts to advise people to start their day with the simple act of making their bed. These “gurus” know that by accomplishing one menial task, you’re cascading a series of events in your brain that will likely lead to the completion of many more.

So, what’s the secret? An incredibly simple one: any time you’re feeling unmotivated, complete one miniscule task, and give yourself permission for that to be the end of it. Tell yourself, “I’ll just sharpen my pencils to prepare them for the next time I’m ready to draw,” or “I’ll open up my Word Processor and just jot down three ideas for a short story.”

Before you know it, you’ll be halfway through drawing or writing your next masterpiece.

Parasitic Muse (Poem)

(by Daniel R. Jones)

You’ve seen them—Calliope and Mneme
seducing mortals with sublime beauty.
You’ve heard their voices; sultry, sonorous
seducing mortals,
inspiring them to create works of art
as voluptuous, as full-figured
as they are.

But just as common is the parasitic muse:
flitting across darkened skies
heavy and bestial.
It stalks its prey with a cleaving knife
looking for a galley-slave:
a host to inhabit;
sometimes burning, sometimes hacking its way out.

Inspiration from Hafiz: A Hole in a Flute

Sometime, Christ-honoring poetry can come from unexpected places. Consider, for instance, “A Hole in a Flute” by Hafiz, a Sufi poet from the 1300s:

A Hole in a Flute

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through.
Listen to this music.

I am the concert from the mouth of every creature
singing with the myriad chorus.

I am a hole in a flute
that the Christ’s breath moves through
Listen to this music.


 

Though it cannot be argued that Hafiz was a disciple of Christ, this poem speaks vividly of the Lord’s enlivening πνεῦμα (Greek “pneuma”–breath, or spirit.) The poem calls to mind the words of John the Baptist, when he said “He must become greater, I must become less.”

If we study closely, we can see clear evidence of the Image of God being reflected in His creation, whether the author of said words had a full understanding of Christ’s role in eternity or not.

 

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?

God has no Taste

I’d like to take this week to recall a gem from a Rich Mullins concert. The entirety of the performance can be dug up online, but I’ve transcribed the following excerpt because it particularly speaks to my condition:

I remember reading a thing that Picasso once said. I like to read what famous artists have to say because I’m barely able to look at their paintings without going into a coma trying to figure out what it’s about. But he said this one thing that I really did like. He said, “Good taste is the enemy of great art.” Which I think is very, very true. Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined and if art has to do with anything, it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.

I remember when I was a kid and people would always say—you know, because I was one of those typical depressed adolescent types. I wrote poetry and stuff. That’s how morose I was as a kid. People would go around saying, “Oh, cheer up, man. Because God loves you.” And I’d say “Big deal. God loves everybody. That don’t make me special. That just proves God ain’t got no taste.”

And I don’t think he does. Thank God.

‘Cause God takes the junk out of our lives and He makes the greatest art in the world out of it. If He was cultured, if He was as civilized as most Christian people wish He was, He would be useless to Christianity. But God is a wild man. And I hope that in the course of your life, you encounter Him. But let me warn you: you need to hang on for dear life. Or let go for dear life, maybe, is better.