Letter to a Young Artist
Note: This essay was originally published on the Theopolis Institute Blog.
Thanks for sharing so honestly about your current crisis of creativity. I totally understand and relate to that; it’s happened many times in my musical life thus far, and I’ve begun to accept it as a normal rhythm of the creative process. I actually went through a serious dry spell as recently as a few months ago, so as much as I hesitate to tell you, it’s not unusual.
I don’t know if I can tell you how to make it all work for you, I can only share from my experience. Much of what I say below may be old hat to you, familiar as rain, in which case, I hope the reiteration of it is edifying. For me, I didn’t know a lot of these things until later in my life as an artist, and I dearly wish someone had just sat down and walked me through them. Hopefully something in the following might help or encourage you.
The first thing is, don’t worry about quantity. We live in a society that is built around the expectation of results; this is as true for how we practice our social lives and our religious practices as it is for our artistic pursuits. We feel like we have to accomplish things to prove our worth; I suspect this is because we moderns are a rootless people, and don’t have a sense of our own cultural or spiritual identity, so we use our professional accomplishments to mark the parameters of who we are.
As far as composing is concerned, technique is a wonderful thing, and every excellent composer needs to develop it; but how much time do you spend developing your soul? What are you reading lately? How often do you get outside and spend time in nature? Are you developing friendships and making liturgical rhythms toward yours and their betterment? Your artistry doesn’t come from a vacuum; it emerges from the pattern of soul enrichment you are weaving day to day. Artistry only grows in good soil, and to cultivate good soil, you need to engage in much more than music.
If your creative well is dry right now, that doesn’t mean you don’t still have the opportunity to grow as an artist. Spend that down-time developing what you believe about your artistry. Too many artists create without knowing why they create. Who you are is just as important as what you do, because what you do emerges out of who you are. Discovering and articulating your story is one of the best things you can possibly do as a composer. I say this because I was often told by profs along the way that I cared too much about thematic writing, and needed to learn to love music for its own sake, and to write for no other purpose than my own pure compositional expression. With due respect to those excellent composition profs to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, that’s rubbish.
Music which is written for its own sake leads to a worship of music, turning what ought to be an icon—a window through which God’s presence is glimpsed—into an idol—an end in itself. Music, like all art, is a means toward an end. Artistry is very similar to language; in language, we communicate about concepts and ideas through explication, attempting to concretize and manifest. In art, we are mediating that which can’t be understood through explication, but only through encounter. Art is a means of transmitting truth by way of experience, when mere words fail to communicate. This has enormous implications for innovation. Rather than trying to create out of thin air, composition becomes a means of communicating what is true through the lens of our experience, our emotions, our inner eyes. It is imbued with immense power. I’m far less interested in how a composer innovates than in what they conserve. What do you protect, and defend with your music? Innovation isn’t wrong per say; but the “new” in composition becomes a mere novelty unless it carries something substantial forward.
You see, you don’t belong to yourself, and neither does your artistry. Music, whether well or poorly-written, necessarily emerges from a rooted story, and to become meaningful, it must return back toward the shaping of that story in the future. You don’t belong to yourself; you are the product of community, and if your artistry is to be successful, it will speak to your community as well. What is the telos of your artistry? What do you intend to use your composition for? You know your own story; you carry the burdens and treasures of it with you. Those things inform who you are, and what you create, and if you listen to them well, they will cause you to fuse your story with your artistry.
If you are a Christian, that substance—your story—most fully belongs to Christ, and is shaped by Christ. The deep-down roots are the story the church has been telling for 2000 years. Your artistry has both the capacity—and the obligation—to express the themes of Christ’s narrative, even if you don’t do it in an explicit way. I cannot express to you how much I believe it is imperative that Christian artists become good theologians. Without understanding sacramental theology, the Gospel ends up being necessarily spelled out in explicit terms in art (i.e. movies that end with an altar call); without incarnational theology, art becomes something incidental, a distraction from “spiritual” activities.
If you’re frustrated by writer’s block, pick up a book by Jeremy Begbie or Makoto Fujimura; read Pope John Paul II on the role of the Christian artist, and Hans Urs Von Balthazar on Christian aesthetics. Read about Madeleine L’Engle’s life as a writer in Walking on Water, or Frederick Buechner’s suggestion of Christianity as drama in The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. Read Hans Boersma on sacramental ontology, and Alexander Schmemann on liturgy. If all of that seems daunting, or if it doesn’t help to recharge your creative batteries, then let me give you possibly my most important piece of advice yet:
Put your pen down (or your computer, depending on your composition style), and get outside. Eat a cheeseburger and drink a coke; take a night out at the movies. Watch one that will make you laugh. Take a joy ride and put on your favorite music. Spend time with your friends, and your family. Get good sleep, read your scriptures and pray every day. Love the people in your life well.
Most of life is waiting, there is never a season where you can escape it. As T.S. Eliot says in East Coker, “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” If you can learn to be a good long-sufferer, and to find joy in the fallow seasons, you will be a much better and more prepared writer in the busy ones.
I wish I could tell you that there is a magic bullet to getting back to artistic transcendence. But I think it would probably be more helpful to tell you that being a successful artist is about waiting well; shaping your life around truth, beauty, and goodness, so that when the muse visits itself upon you, you are already well-prepared to speak those things back out into your art.
And finally, just keep writing, bit by bit. Don’t worry whether it’s great or not, just keep moving along. Make it a faithful liturgy; if not a satisfactory rhythm, then at least an act of obedience and worship for the gift you’ve been given. Good artistry is as much a result of faithfulness as it is of genius. God will do the work within you eventually, in His time.