There is some dispute about whether Ernest Hemingway actually said the words, “write drunk, edit sober”. Whether or not this is an authentic Hemingway quote, this saying has become quite popular in artistic circles. Some see the popularity of this quote as a glorification of addiction. Others take this advice quite literally seeking to imitate their artistic role models in both life and art. I think there is something deeper at work here.
Ernest Hemingway Collection. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
This leads me to my second observation from Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.
The majority of those profiled had a significant drug and/or alcohol problem.
A cliché about the creative personality? For sure, but even a casual look into the daily rituals of the 161 world-renowned artists profiled in Daily Rituals reveals a prevalence of substance abuse that is hard to miss. The reasons for this reality are generally not hard to see. There are some that use mind-altering substances for the express purpose of expanding their creativity. For other it is a symptom of their obsessive-compulsive personalities. For some, it functioned as an anesthetic numbing significant personal pain. Arguably for many their substance abuse proved fruitful in freeing them from their personal issue for a season. However, many times their excesses in drug and alcohol use lead to a decline in creative output, declining health, and sometimes even death. A two edged sword.
Rather than taking Hemingway’s advice literally, let’s take a different approach. I think what we are observing here is the pursuit of creative freedom. As anyone who spends any amount of time doing creative work knows there is an ongoing battle between the idea generation process and the editing process. The battle between the “editor” and “free creativity” is a classic artistic roadblock. The voice of the “editor” can be difficult to turn off. Let’s look at some healthier examples of this ongoing pursuit of creative freedom.
Pat Pattison, a professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston, shared his first Nashville co-writing experience in his blog post, CO-WRITING: THE “NO” FREE ZONE. Being new to the Nashville process of co-writing songs, he was nervous.
Pat describes his state of mind in his own words:
“I was waiting in the SESAC writer’s room with my notes and titles, some complete lyrics, song ideas, and I was feeling nervous. I, after all, am a big-time Professor at the biggest time music school in the world – Berklee, where I teach lyric writing. What if I can’t come up with anything? What if he thinks all my ideas are dumb? They don’t look too good to me right now either…”
His co-writer entered the room and double checked to see that the door was sufficiently shut. Setting the stage for their co-writing session, he encouraged Pat to say everything that came to his mind. Don’t censoring anything not matter how dumb it may seem. A dumb idea may lead the other writer to a less dumb idea which may lead to a good idea which might lead to a great idea. But it all starts from the freedom to SAY DUMB THINGS.
Business guru, James Altucher suggests a daily practice that he calls exercising the “Idea Muscle”. He writes down ten ideas per day, every day. The topics vary day to day but the practice stays the same. He suggests this practice as a way of keeping your creativity “in shape”.
Here’s his advice for those who find it hard to come up with ten ideas per day:
“Here’s the magic trick: if you can’t come up with ten ideas, come up with 20 ideas. You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle. Perfectionism is your brain trying to protect you from harm. From coming up with an idea that is embarassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain.”
The point being that if you struggle to come up with ten ideas you aren’t allowing yourself the freedom to come up with something that might be a bad idea.
Click here to read the rest of James’ thoughts on this subject.
Well known songwriter, Matt Redman has this advice. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open”. Start your writing process with a “closed door” sense of freedom, writing like no one is listening. The time for the “open door” objective editing process will come later. Fellow worship songwriter Paul Baloche talks about staying in a place of play as long as possible in the initial songwriting process.
Many theologians refer to John Wimber as “The Great Practitioner” due to his emphasis on “Doing the Stuff”, walking out the Kingdom ministry of Jesus in daily life. With this in mind, I am reminded of the often quoted John Wimber saying “Faith is spelled “R-I-S-K”. While this quote has a specific ministry context, I think this idea can bleed into all areas of our lives. This idea of “risking” involves being freed up from what others may think of us. Wimber is giving us the freedom to look foolish as we step out into unfamiliar territory walking out our creative calling.
Also built in to Wimber’s thinking on this subject is the reality that our creative work is a partnership with the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit works in us, we can experience a deeper level of creative freedom beyond the effects of other substance – a true freedom born from the God of Creation.
Question – What are ways you find creative freedom?
Question – What does your creative routine look like? What are your best practices?
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work written by Mason Currey is a book that documents the daily life rhythms of “161 inspired, and inspiring, minds—among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians.” Each short chapter focuses on one person’s daily work. Some of the notable people profiled in Daily Rituals include Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Mozart, Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Søren Kierkegaard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.
Over the summer I discovered a book entitled Daily Rituals: How Artists Work written by Mason Currey. It documents the daily life rhythms of “161 inspired, and inspiring, minds—among them, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters, philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians.” Each short chapter focuses on one person’s daily work. Some of the notable people profiled in Daily Rituals include Jane Austen, Mozart, Picasso, Benjamin Franklin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Søren Kierkegaard, Frank Lloyd Wright, and many others.
Daily Rituals is a fascinating read to say the least. Having the daily lives of so many creative people described back to back allowed some interesting over-arching themes to emerge. In my observation, most of the people represented in the book had three main things in common. My first observation was the following:
Daily work was generally done in routine and focused blocks of time with distractions kept to a minimum.
These time-blocks were generally in the 2-4 hour range with the shortest example being only 30 minutes per day. Many times, a given days work consisted only of one time-block. Of course there were the obsessive exceptions to this rule but this general rhythm was present more often than not. The rest of the day was spent doing other activities some of which I will unpack in the next few blog posts as I believe they are integral pieces of the overall creative process in their own right.
This practice of time-blocking seems to include a few underlying ideas.
One example comes from the life of renowned architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
The author Mason Currey writes:A friend of Frank Lloyd Wright’s once observed that for as long as she had known him, the architect seemed to spend the day doing everything but actually working on his building designs. He held meetings, took phone calls, answered letters, supervised students—but was rarely seen at the drafting table. The friend wanted to know: When did Wright conceive the ideas and make the sketches for his buildings?
“Between 4 and 7 o’clock in the morning,” Wright told her. “I go to sleep promptly when I go to bed. Then I wake up around 4 and can’t sleep. But my mind’s clear, so I get up and work for three or four hours. Then I go to bed for another nap.”
On a related note, I was recently reminded of an article written by Paul Graham entitled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Written in July 2009, this simple 1100 word article has sparked a lot of dialog and rethinking about the way these two important but very different roles should interact. The basic idea behind the article is that the manager’s schedule is generally broken into hourly segments typically changing what you do every hour. In other words, a manager’s schedule is meeting based and meeting driven. The maker’s schedule tends to be based on focused units of at least a half day. You can see where the rub starts to come in. Paul’s company Y Combinator moved their entire infrastructure to this “maker’s schedule.”
As a creative person, this practice of time-blocking rings true with my experience. Being a creative person that also serves on staff at a local church I know the tension that can exist between daily pastoral ministry and scheduling dedicated time to create, even when we are creating as an extension of God’s call on our lives.
I believe we can also see a similar tension at work in Acts 6:1-4.
6 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Represented here are two important ministry activities. One involves meeting a very practical physical need – the distribution of food to widows. The other involves attending to spiritual needs, giving time to hearing from God and distilling God’s word for the people – aligning our hearts with the very will of God in the process.
As I wrestle with walking out these ideas in my own life, I believe that we need to live in both of these worlds, making sure not to neglect one expression over the other. Both are important.
I think there is a very real connection in this practice of time-blocking our creative work to the spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, and study. When we give our energy toward writing a song, preparing a sermon, or any other creative work, there is an opportunity to turn our efforts into an act of devotion. Giving dedicated time to creative work is important for our own lives before God as well as for the people we serve.
Question – How does this idea of time-blocking fit into your own experience?
Question – What restraints are currently in the way of giving dedicated time to your creative expression?
Sarah Brusco has an amazing story. A complication in dealing with an ovarian tumor resulted in the hardening of her vocal chords. She was told that she would never sing again. Sarah’s journey recently culminated in the release of her latest project “The Woven Whisper”.
I am honored to be a part of Sarah’s project with the inclusion of a song I co-wrote with Sarah’s husband, Eben. Sarah’s version is delicate and heartfelt and includes the beautifully haunting cello work of Sharon Gerber (Imogen Heap).
In the fall of last year we were going through a series entitled “God In Us” at Vineyard Anaheim. The idea of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can sometimes be under-emphasized perspective in certain corners of the church. A regular prayer of ours is “Come, Holy Spirit”. We talk quite a bit about the Kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven”. This idea is also very common in the language of many popular modern worship songs. I’m on board with this popular concept of the work and activity of the Holy Spirit. However, on the topic of “God in us” I just couldn’t find enough material.
I’ve learned that when I am struggling to find the right song to serve my current need, I’ve found a great opportunity to write a song.
During a mid-week rehearsal, as we were working through the Bryan and Katie Torwalt song, “Holy Spirit” a melodic motif started to take shape. The original lyrics were “Hallelujah, oh my Lord”. For me, there is an x-factor that takes an idea from just “messing around” to being a potential song or “song seed”. I like to think of it as “the kiss of God”, that something special attached to a lyric, melody, and/or chord progression. This “Hallelujah, oh my Lord” idea had that “kiss of God” on it. Then the work began.
Putting this melodic idea through the lens of “God is us” a new phrase came leaping to life – “make Your home inside my heart”. More forward motion. Here’s an iPhone demo of this initial idea in process from October of 2013:
A about a week later I had a Skype co-writing session with Eben where I played him this initial idea. Things were starting to take shape. Eben and I bounced ideas back and forth over the next few weeks. Then one Sunday night at Vineyard Anaheim I was free singing over an extended ministry time when a new melodic phrase emerged inspired by Psalm 139 – “search me, know me, make Your home within me”. This eventually became the bridge and the capstone to the finished song.
Here’s another iPhone demo with the raw bridge idea:
Some melodic tweaking to the bridge and lyrical work to fill out the verses and we were there.
I love what Sarah and Eben have done with the song.
Here’s a lyric video Eben put together recently:
Sarah’s project is now available on iTunes by clicking here: