“I’m convinced,” writes Andrew Peterson, “that poets are toddlers in a cathedral, slobbering on wooden blocks and piling them up in the light of the stained glass.”
The colorful description comes in a book on the beauty and the pain of making things—whether one is a poet, a preacher, a musician, or an artist of some other stripe.
ADORNING THE DARK
I just finished Peterson’s new book, Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making.
I’ve appreciated his work for years.
Despite a voice that (allegedly) sounds a bit like Kermit the frog with a sinus infection, his music has always moved me.
- Brianna and I chose “Canaan Bound” to be sung at our wedding.
- My kids loved Peterson’s fantasy novels (The Wingfeather Saga), with Lucy proclaiming them to be even better than Harry Potter. (Not true. But still.)
- And his entirely original, Behold the Lamb of God, is my favorite Christmas album of all time.
Adorning the Dark is different from these other works. But there are still some helpful lessons for those involved in the creative process.
Here are four:
1. Write the bad ones too
Peterson tells sheepishly how a fan once approached him after a concert with a request for him to write down some songwriting advice on the inside of a CD case. Being a bit tired, Peterson wrote, “Don’t write bad songs.”
Seeing the somewhat snarky inscription, Peterson’s bandmate Andy Gullahorn wrote his own advice: “Write the bad ones too.”
Gullahorn’s insight was not just that one should be kind to fans, but that “quality control” is not the chief skill an artist must cultivate: Output matters too.
The two pre-requisites for getting published are (wait for it…) writing and finishing.
So make something, even if it isn’t great.
Excellence is for editing (and re-writing).
2. Artists need “resonators”
A second take-away is that art nurtures community and community nurtures art.
After being dropped by his record label and nearly bankrupted by the post-Napster death of album sales, Peterson founded a collective called “The Rabbit Room” with a ragamuffin group of Nashville artists.
These friendships not only allowed for cross-promotion between artists; they also provided encouragement, community, and feedback.
I’ve been blessed with fantastic “resonators.”
- My colleague, Dr. Jerome Van Kuiken, is the smartest person I know, and he provides invaluable critique on everything I write for publication.
- My wife Brianna reads my blog posts, and she often weeds out the lines that could get me fired and/or tarred and feathered.
- I also have friendships with folks like the up-and-coming novelist K. M. West, who provides not only encouragement but also a (silent) reminder that there are people out there busier than me who still write consistently—and at a high level.
Art nurtures community. Community nurtures art.
Artists need resonators.
3. Boil it down
After reading Wendel Berry, Peterson tells how he and his wife sold their comfortable suburban home and bought a small, ramshackle cottage on several tree-lined acres near Nashville.
If artists need resonators, they frequently need nature too.
Since the property had maple trees, Peterson Googled “How to make maple syrup.” He was stunned to learn that a person gets one gallon of syrup for every forty (!) gallons of sap.
If you were to taste the maple sap before you boiled it down, which I did, you’d find it hard to believe there’s any sweetness hiding in there at all.
Writing is like that too.
The sweetness often comes in “boiling it down.”
I was reminded of this yesterday when I picked up a copy of my book, Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements. For the most part, I am proud of the writing—which is significant since I first hammered it out over a decade ago.
That said, upon re-reading what I’ve published, my overriding critique is that I could have cut a few more words from certain sentences and paragraphs.
I could have lost some empty calories and gained some “sweetness.”
Boil it down.
4. Plant the berries
The most moving story in Adorning the Dark involves a trip to Sweden that Peterson’s family took in 2016 after a season of busyness, burnout, and depression (another commonality of artists).
While abroad, he sought to locate the old stone cottage of his great-grandfather.
After much research, the general location of the ruined house was found, and an ancient local Swede agreed to take the Petersons by bicycle into the dark, thick forest to find it.
[The Swede] explained [through a translator] that he was looking for a certain kind of berry that would tell him where the old foundation stones would be.
A hundred years ago, he said, the berries were planted outside the cottage for food, and long after the house fell into ruin, the berry bushes lived on. If you want to find the remains of a dwelling in a Swedish forest, [he] told us, look for berries.
Lo and behold, they found the berries—along with the home.
The story forms a parable for the kind of art that matters.
As Peterson concludes:
“One day, perhaps, when I’m dead and gone, and my songs and stories lie in the ruins of some old forest and no one remembers my name, whatever good and beautiful and human thing that the King of Creation called forth from me will fall to the earth and grow brambly and wild, and some homesick and hungry soul will leave the well-worn path and say, ‘Look! Someone lived here.
Praise God, there are berries everywhere.’”
Good art is the “berry” that adorns the darkness.
And homesickness leads home.
I’m going to open the comments on this one.
Fellow writers, preachers, musicians (etc.): What’s the most helpful advice you’ve found about the creative process?
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3 thoughts on “Adorning the dark: A post on the creative process”
Thank you for the shout out, Josh! I recently got a wonderful bit of advice from a musician friend of mine which really resonated with me. He said that it’s not enough to create, but that you have to have the audacity to share what you’ve created.
Ego is a tough thing to work around, and trying to balance humility with confidence is an area I struggle with. His point was that real creativity–especially when an idea forms seemingly without your consent–has effectively chosen you as its vessel. There’s nothing new under the sun, but our unique experiences forge the lens through which we can see the world, and therefore shape our message. If your intentions are true, sharing art is not for the ego, but for the audience.
And this was not advice I received, but something I gleaned as a result of that same conversation: Inspiration is an upward cycle. There’s a lot of power and freedom in recognizing that we may not be the final destination of an idea, but rather might be the gardener planting the seed in someone else’s mind who can incubate it into something even greater.
As always, thanks for a great post. ❤
I knew you’d have insight on this one.
“Audacity” seems like the perfect word. I also appreciate your line that “we may not be the final destination of an idea.” I’ve certainly benefited from seeds planted by others along the way–including you.
Can’t wait to see the fruit that grows from your work in the future.
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Thanks for sharing, Josh. It re-stirred something inside of me that my own writing does matter and that someday the berries of my life will (hopefully) continue to be a sweet reminder to people that “somebody lived (and loved) here.” I think one of the most consistent things I’ve found for creativity to flourish is to harness and use my pain. Rob Bell talks about it in his book, “Drops Like Stars,” that Pain and Creativity exist on the same wavelength. That’s been an inspiration for me to use “all of me” to write the stories I write.