“None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands.”
With these words, Pope St. John Paul II began his Letter to Artists in 1999. No “Dear artists…”. No gentle preamble. Instead, he begins with this profound comparison between the artist and God the creator.
Almost 20 years later, John Paul II’s words are more relevant than ever.
With the advent of the digital age, it has never been easier for people to express themselves through their chosen artistic medium.
The gatekeepers are gone. Artists are no longer only those who have their work featured in galleries. Writers are no longer only those aligned with a major publisher or periodical. Musicians are no longer only those lucky enough to get signed by a record label.
Social media sites, blogs and music streaming services have empowered “creatives”, as they have come to be known, with instant platforms to share their creations with the world. Yet, in the midst of this unprecedented creative freedom, one question that far too few people are asking is “what does it mean to be a creative?”
Often, the examples our culture gives us are the tortured geniuses or the entrepreneurial up-and-comers. Creatives end up believing that if they want to succeed, they either have to be a Mark Rothko or a Tim Ferris.
What John Paul II seeks to remind us of in his letter is that, as Christians, we already possess the most incredible example of what it means to be a creative – our God.
The Bible begins with the five phenomenal words “In the beginning God created…” (Gen 1:1). God is a creator. He’s the Creator. So as graphic designer Cory Heimann points out “If we are calling ourselves creative, then we are sharing in the very first thing God did.”
The significance of this is that by trying to better understand who God is as Creator, and how God creates, we can better understand what it means to be a “creative” today.
KNOW WHO YOU ARE
God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM” (Exodus 3:14).
For many people, the idea of applying the label “writer”, “artist”, “designer” or “musician”, to themselves is daunting. These are titles reserved for an elite few, for full-time professionals and those whose work has been critically acclaimed.
But what if they weren’t? What if instead we used these labels to describe a part of who we are? A part of what gets us up in the morning and makes us feel alive?
I’ve always loved writing. I distinctly remember being 6-years-old and filling page after page of a notebook with stories. Half of the letters were printed backwards and I’m sure I was plagiarising whichever Goosebumps book I had been reading at the time, but I loved every second of it.
My love for writing survived high school and the drudgery of turning in dozens of essays at university (barely), but at no point would I have dared to call myself a “writer.”
This only changed after I had the opportunity to work alongside an academic whom I deeply admired. As far as this mentor of mine was concerned, I was a writer. Not only was she deaf to my objections on the subject, she would go out of her way to constantly reaffirm me.
It took me a long time to believe it, but she was right. I am a “writer.” Not because I write full-time (I don’t), not because I’ve published a book (I haven’t), but because I love to write. I’m a writer because, often, the highlight of my day is the 30–60 minutes I will spend each morning trying to fill a page with words.
If you find joy in painting a canvas, designing a graphic, or playing a piece of music, then you are an “artist”, a “designer”, a “musician.” Believe it. It’s part of who you are and there is real power in declaring that (even if it’s just to yourself). It might not change anything externally, but it will completely change your mindset.
One word of caution – being a creative is a part of who you are; it isn’t the entirety of who you are. When Moses asks God who He is, God doesn’t reply “I am the Creator”, He replies “I AM who I AM.” God knows He is so much more than just “Creator” and its important to recognise that you are so much more than just a “creative.”
Placing your identity primarily in your creative talents is a sure-fire way to have an emotional breakdown. When who you are is wrapped up in what you create, it becomes impossible to take constructive criticism. You’ll desperately seek approval for your creations because it will be one of the only ways you can feel valued.
As Christians, we should find our identity and our value first and foremost in being loved by our Creator. When we make this the centre of who we are, it liberates us. Rather than being tied up in the pursuit of popularity or validation, we are free to create simply for the joy of it.
POUR YOURSELF INTO IT
So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them (Genesis 1:27).
Humankind is the magnum opus of God’s creation. We are His greatest masterpiece. Why? Because out of all that God creates, only we are created in His image. Humankind is dust, but then God breathes something of Himself into the dust and it becomes a living person (Genesis 2:7).
In a similar way, we should seek to pour something of ourselves into everything we create. Addressing this point, John Paul II writes that for the creative who does this, their art becomes a “unique disclosure of their own being.”
The more I write, the more I realise that the most powerful thing a writer has to offer is their own story.
Take the topic of Christian dating, for example. This is a topic that has been done to death in thousands of books and blog posts. When I find myself reading a generic article about what Christian dating should look like, how to set boundaries, or the importance of saving sex for marriage, then assuming I make it to the end of the piece (I won’t), it doesn’t inspire me. I’ve read the same thing a dozen times in a dozen different publications.
But if someone addresses this topic in a way that shares something of him/herself – if they write about their frustrations with Christian dating culture, if they write about the joys of learning to love someone in the day-to-day life of a relationship, if they write about the experience of being a 25-year-old virgin in a culture where 80% of the unmarried Christians have had sex before – then I’m intrigued. Then the writer might actually say something that changes my life.
There are dozens of reasons why we can be reluctant to pour ourselves into what we create: fear of those creations being rejected, fear of breaking away from the popular trends, fear of getting vulnerable. But creativity is at its best when it expresses who we are as individuals.
DELIGHT IN THE WORK
God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (Genesis 1:31).
At the end of the sixth day of creation, God looks upon everything He has created He sees that it is very good. God delights in his work.
Too often in the digital age, I think creativity can be distorted to become a means to an end. We create with the aim of generating “content”, attracting views or making money, rather than just delighting in the creative process.
As Jordan Brokaw writes, there’s nothing wrong with having “tangible goals for our work, especially for those of us who are creative professionals.” But the foundation of these goals, whether it’s to build an audience or make a living, should always be a deep love of the work itself.
The reality is that if you hope to create with any kind of consistency, whether its as a hobby or a full-time career, you’re going to have to delight in the work. That’s the only thing that is going to motivate you, day in and day out, to stand before a blank canvas, overcome the fear of not being good enough, and create.
… and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude (Genesis 1:31–2:1).
God creates for six straight days. He doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike. He doesn’t wait for ideal conditions (light literally doesn’t exist at the start!). God just shows up every day and creates.
A lie people believe too often about great artists, writers and musicians is that their creativity comes “naturally” to them. We see them as half-mad geniuses, constantly struck by bursts of inspiration that the rest of us mortals can only dream of.
The reality is far less romantic. What separates these “greats” from everyone else who had at least a trickle of talent is usually consistency. The difference between Ernest Hemingway and every person who has half-heartedly claimed they’d “like to write a book one day” is that Hemingway would get up every morning and write.
Malcom Gladwell, himself a best-selling author, provides scientific support for this approach is his book Outliers. Gladwell claims that the the key to success in any field, to a large extent, was a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.
10,000 hours. That number demands consistency. You could try to reach it by staying up until 3am every time inspiration strikes. But those moments are few and far between, and you’ll probably burn yourself out.
Far better is Gladwell’s approach. “I write a little bit, almost every day,” he says, “and if it results in two or three or (on a good day) four good paragraphs, I consider myself a lucky man. Never try to be the hare. All hail the tortoise.”
BE A BIT ABSURD
I don’t have a Bible verse for this one, but look around you. We live in a world that is home to the platypus, the blob fish, and the tarsier. You only have to google any one of those creatures to see that some of what God created is thoroughly absurd.
Sometimes, it can feel like creativity needs to be this very serious thing. Between the tortured artists and entrepreneurial up-and-comers, we can end up believing that not only should everything we create express the innermost agonies of the human condition, it should also double our follower count on Instagram.
Which is fine, if you want to wring every last ounce of joy from the creative process. But if you’re anything like me, you will create your best work when you aren’t weighed down by these pressures. This is where being a bit absurd comes in.
In his letter, John Paul II urges artists to be “obedient to their inspiration.” Taking heed of this, I have a rule when I’m writing that unless I’m working to a tight deadline, I will write down whatever comes into my head as it relates to the topic. It doesn’t matter how absurd it seems, how unlikely it is to survive the editing process, whatever I’m inspired to write, I write.
I can always cut these little bursts of “inspiration” later and often I do. But just occasionally, they end up being the funniest, most insightful, or must vulnerable parts of my writing.
A willingness to be a bit absurd frees us from obsessing over perfection. Don’t misinterpret me here – creatives should absolutely strive to give our best to everything we create. “Good enough” should never be good enough.
Yet, at times I think the pressure to create something “perfect” can paralyse us from creating anything at all. The way we grow as creatives isn’t by putting out perfect piece after perfect piece. It’s by experimenting, by learning from our mistakes, and, just occasionally, by being a bit absurd.
CREATE LIKE YOUR CREATOR
In this digital age obsessed with churning out an endless stream of “content,” we need creatives who truly grasp what it means to create. We need creatives who know who they are, recognising their obligation not to squander their talent, but to use it in service of what is beautiful, good and true.
So to you, my fellow creatives, I say this: Create like the One who delights in all His creations. Create like the One who created consistently and, at times, with absurdity. Create like the One who made you in His image.
Create like your Creator.