Pray for Revisal: a book review

I am a writer. Most days I believe it. I have that badge that all real writers have: rejection letters from magazine submissions failed attempts and false starts, a loud inner critic and writer’s block. But also, I have moments where I write something (often on my blog, but also for sermons) and I know my words hit home. I share myself and others find themselves in what I’ve written. I haven’t written anything long form, because I don’t know how —I’m afraid of it—I’ve never done it, and feel too scattered to engage a topic in a sustained way.  One day, I will find my literary muse and produce something beautiful to offer the world. Until then, all I have are my eclectic musings on faith and spirituality and vocational frustration (my most popular blog posts have been about making fun of Christian music and bad job interviews).

But enough 511kqidf2b2bl-_sx260_about me. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review? You are right. The book is called Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. She teaches memoir, essay, and journal writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, is the recipient of the Minneapolis State Arts Board artists’ fellowship and has been a Minneapolis Book Award finalist. She is the author of Writing the Sacred Journey, On the Threshold: Home, Hardwood and Holiness and the novel Hannah, Delivered. 

Andrew has a heap of helpful advice for would-be-authors on writing,—clarifying and communicating the story, and the whole revision process. By this, she doesn’t mean revision in the sense of copy editing, getting your grammar in order, all your “i’s” dotted and “t’s” crossed and your modifier’s grounded.  Instead, Andrew speaks of revision as the complicated but profound journey of creativity, where a writer engages their work and dares to see it anew.  This involves both holding our work lightly and engaging it wholeheartedly. It means doing the inner work required to know what we are trying to say, what we are afraid to say, and what we dare not say. In the end, revision helps us clarify our message and transcribe our truth to the page in a way that is both self-aware and inviting.

Andrew has thirteen chapters which guide her readers through the writing process—from the rough first draft, through rewrites and enduring discomfort, reframing, strengthening, restructuring, and attention to language. She has us ask hard questions of our writing, like what is the inner story and subtext? And what is our story asking of us?

So, I took uncharacteristically too long reading this book—in part because I didn’t have a piece of writing I was currently working on. However, I did write some shorter things (e.g. sermons, blog posts, book reviews) and did use some of her suggestions. One of the insights from Andrew that I found particularly helpful is her idea that writer begins their drafts and the work of reworking of projects under a cloud of privacy and unknowing (63), but as we engage the work of revisioning, we increasingly open ourselves to our audience. So the act of writing is a pregnant solitude which allows us to press in to our creative flow, but the re-writes and revision bring about a context for communion with our readers. She writes:

Here’s the trick to sustaining a joyful, healthy relationship with writing through revision and beyond publication. Never abandon your space of curiosity, freedom, and love. Our work may travel outward to meet an audience. We may meet the audience as well, which is a tremendous privilege. But the source of a writer’s well-being is that safe place where we can be intimate, honest, and adventurous. We neglect it at our peril (66).

This was a profound insight for sermon writing (did I mention that Barbara Brown Taylor writes the forward?).

Throughout the book, are toolboxes designed to help authors engage their work, and exercises to do in your writer’s notebook to engage the process of writing—e.g. wrestling with your inner critic and discovering what your story is asking of you. Because I didn’t have a sustained project I was working on, some of these exercises weren’t helpful for me, though I underlined a butt ton and there are things I’ll come back to when I have something to work through.  The ‘spirituality’ piece is the inner-work necessary for good writing to emerge. One day I’ll get there.   I give this four star. – ★ ☆ ★ ☆

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the author or publisher, via SpeakEasy, in exchange for my honest review.

Creative Creep Weirdo Troubadour: a book review.

Jacob Nordby is an author, a teacher of writing and a host of a creative writing podcast.  He previously wrote The Divine Arsonist.  His new book aims at inspiring creativity for those on the margins. The name of Nordby’s manifesto for creatives, Blessed are the Weird is drawn from his poem, “Beatitudes for the Weird.” The poem provides a good summary of his vision of creativity:

Blessed are the weird people

—poets, misfits, writers, mystics

heretics, painters & troubadours—

for they teach us to see the world through different eyes

Blessed are those who embrace the intensity of life’s pain and pleasure,

for they shall be rewarded with uncommon ecstasy.

Blessed are ye who see beauty in ugliness,

for you shall transform our vision of how the world might be.

Blessed are ye who are mocked for unbridled expression

of love in all its forms,

because your kind of crazy is exactly that freedom f

or which the world is uncousciously begging.

Blessed are those who have endured breaking by life,

for they are the resplendent cracks through which the light shines. (8)

The people who don’t fit the mold (i.e. a 9-to-5  job, white picket fences and 2.5 kids) have something special to contribute to society. They buck against the status quo and make our world beautiful, and provide us a vision of new possibilities for the future. Nordby celebrates poets, prophetic truth-tellers, comedians, writers, mystics, heretical iconoclasts, activists, painters, filmmakers, rebels, magicians, and songsters. Whatever is in you, Nordby tells you to listen to your heart and become that special snowflake you were always meant to be. If you do, you will live more fully, have a greater degree of satisfaction and a better sex life.

debut-releaseNordby’s encouragement for creative types is for us to  “become what we are.” Rather than apologizing for the weirdo vibe people get from us, we ought to pay attention to what gifts our difference brings to the table (cue Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful). Life and art (and activism) on our own terms.  Of course, creativity is more than just following your bliss and being true to yourself. Nordby offers practical advice about facing our fears of failure.

I appreciate Nordby’s encouraging tone. He does get a little too weird for me in places (i.e. a vague spirituality and magicky-talk always gets my Christian hackles up).  I also wish Nordby said something more substantive than he does. This felt less like a manifesto and more like a motivational speaker vibe (“Young lady, what are you gonna do with your life?!).”

However, I think he gets a couple things really right. First, if we are going to ever do what we were put on this earth for (draw, write, create, lead change, etc), we have to pay attention to who we are and what unique gifts we have to offer. Second, he highlights the weird—the ones that don’t fit in our society’s mold. If something new and creative is going to happen, it will come from the margins, not the center.

I give this book three stars and recommend it for weirdos.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Create! a ★★★★★ book review

If I were to copy anyone, I’d copy Ken Wytsma. He is lead pastor of Antioch in Bend, Oregon, president of Kilns College (where he teaches philosophy and justice), creative advisor for non-profits and founder of the Justice Conference. Additionally, he is the author of three great books. His latest, Create vs. Copy, digs deep into the theology and practice of creativity. So yeah, I’m overawed and would love to copy Wytsma. Only I couldn’t (and shouldn’t).

9780802413499Create vs. Copy doesn’t have much to say  about copying, outside its introduction and first chapter (SPOILER ALERT: don’t do it!). Wytsma’s focus is on creating. Creativity leads us to blazes trails, innovate, and try new things(14). Copying does not (although there is space for creative borrowing).

The book unfolds in two parts. Part one presents a theology of creativity. Part two explores the practices which bring creativity to life. Of course it isn’t quite that neat. Wytsma’s thoughtfulness about the ‘why’ behind the creative process underpins his practical suggestion; practice bleeds out of his theology.  The whole book is an invitation toward creative action.  Here is a closer look at what to expect:

Part 1

In chapter one, Wytsma quotes Genesis 1:27, observing the one aspect of God’s nature described in the verse is this: God creates (24). So Wytsma identifies creativity as part of what it means for us to bear God’s image. This means all of us:

Yes, artists, but also everyone else. While artistic ability is a talent few possess (and/or cultivate with time and hard work), creative capacity is something all of us are born with. Put another way, artists are skilled with unique talents, but creativity is part of what makes us human. (27)

Chapter two, “Continuous Creativity,” begins with Wytsma’s  reflections on the Second Law of Thermodynamics (Increased Entropy) which states “All closed systems tend to move toward a state of greater disorder and dissipated energy” (37). Wytsma connects this with our experience:

This dissipation is familiar in nearly every area of life.  If not renewed, donor bases will erode over time. Congregations will shrink. Family dynamics will tense up. Relationships will fade. Leadership strategies become stale and ineffective. Even our bodies and minds lose their vigor (38).

But entropy characterizes closed systems and creativity is our means to crack them open to allow life back in (39). Wytsma links the work of ongoing, continuous creativity to our image bearing and Gods redemptive plan: God created the world, is in the process of creating, and will create a new heaven and a new earth (42-43); we were created as creative, are creating and are reaching forward with our creative potential. Wytsma closes this chapter with practices for incorporating creativity at home and work (48-52).

Chapter three gives shape to how creativity brings life to our decaying systems. A closed system leads to narrowing horizons, creativity is aimed at making space for life to flourish (51-53). The process is organic: a narrowing horizon is a fear-inducing-context or problem requiring a solution; by responding with intentional creativity (a pattern of life emerging from a nourished imagination) innovation occurs (67).  Chapter four describes the outworking of this theology of creativity and innovation in our globalizing world.

Part 2

In chapter five, Wytsma explores the ways imagination helps us see what is and what should be. As we age, our capacity to imagine possibilities is constrained by our culture and peer group (110).  Our creative impulse atrophies, but Wytsma contends, through its exercise, we can reignite our creativity (114).

Chapter six probes the role of imagination in creative process. The comprehensive imagination names our ability to understand the relevant data for seeing  current problems (120-121). Our artistic imagination helps us envision what could be (122). Our practical imagination helps envision and enact solutions which will work, leading to innovation (122-123). Wytsma also identifies challenges to our imagination (i.e. knowing what ideas to ‘prune’ and convincing people that imagination isn’t the purview of the few).

Chapter seven identifies the process of intentional creativity as both movement and alignment (136). Movement means doing something. “Our natural response to change is to buck against it, to dig in our heels, to wish things would stay the way they are or go back to the way they used to be” (136-137). But inaction leads to the dissipation of entropy, and our best ideas will come in the midst of our work. Drawing on Robert Epstein, Wytsma suggests we sharpen our creative skills by taking notes of new ideas, seeking out challenging tasks, broadening our knowledge, and surrounding ourselves with interesting things and people (138-140). Yet undirected creativity without healthy constraints won’t get you where you want to go (142). Our creativity is aligned when we  understanding our role in “God’s creative, redemptive work” (143). Wytsma observes, “When our values guide our whole creative process—imagination, intentional creativity, and innovation—something beautiful happens” (147).

The final chapter discusses ‘generous creativity’: the  ways in which creativity is collaborative, ‘in-processs’ and is aimed at relationship more than results. One example of creative-collaboration is how each chapter is punctuated with Paul Crouse’s stunning illustrations, making this book  practical AND beautiful. A brief conclusion summons us to creative action (don’t just be a copier or a critic).


 

I was predisposed to like this book. I am artistic and have read Wytsma’s previous books appreciatively. I also love the interactive aspects like the additional reading suggestions from Ken’s blog and reflection questions appended to each chapter. But this book  was also very helpful for me. Despite my love of creativity, my last leadership role was in an entropic system where I failed to lead a process toward vitality.  I didn’t know how to lead innovation. Wytsma gives shape to how the creativity makes space for life to flourish. As a rookie pastor this would have saved me a lot of grief (in a way  vision-casting exercises didn’t).

According to Wytsma, all of us have the capacity and ability for creativity; however he favors leadership in his examples. He states, “Those who create blaze trails, take risks, and try new ways. . . . They lead. . . .Copiers by definition, will always follow” (14). Creativity is defined as leading; copying means following. Maybe so, but not everyone leads (processes or people).  More ought to be said about creative following. For leaders and artists, creativity is explicit. It is what they need to do in order to thrive in business, art and life. In other vocations creativity is implicit. How does creativity play out in the lives of accountants (creative accounting isn’t good, right?), nurses, housekeepers, or whatever?  Creativity is essential to all our image-bearing,  so I wish there were more examples from ordinary lives.

None of this detracts from my enjoyment. This was a fun,fruitful read which pushed me to think and act with more creativity in ministry and life.  I give this five stars and recommend it for leaders, artists, innovators, and yes, copycats, followers and ordinary folk. It calls us to embody the spacious and life giving. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of Create vs. Copy as part of the launch team for the book. I was asked for my honest review. The book is slated for release on March 1, 2016 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon and can be ordered directly from the publisher’s website.

 

From Fishing For Zen to Fishing for Men: a book review.

I am artistically reclined. I have enough talent and creativity that people sometimes notice (good genes!), but I don’t have much to show as far as artistic output. The reason is only partly talent and vision. It is also about execution (inspiration and perspiration!). One the best things I can say about Douglas Mann’s book The Art of Helping Others: How Artists Can Serve God and Love the World is that it makes me want to get off my butt and make something beautiful and compelling. Mann is a visual artist and activist but he isn’t urging us towards propagandist art or art for art’s sake, whatever that means. He has a generous vision of how great art reflects reality and a peculiar sense on how a Christian artist’s reality shapes their creative process. Mann calls fellow Christians, creatives, artists and activists to a lifestyle of creative incitement.

Before Mann was a visual artist, he was a  published songwriter and music business and publishing executive (for Integrity and Navpress).  He was good and successful at his job, but he felt God’s call towards full time mission work. Now he splits time between Colorado and the Ukraine. He describes his road out of life as a music executive as a Damascus road experience where God met him and set him on a new path. Stepping away from a lucrative career was risky, but it was also spiritually enlivening. In the process he learned to trust God more, and recaptured some of his God-given creative vision.

Mann looks at art and activism (and the Spiritual life ) in three movements. Part one, aptly titled ‘Awareness,’ describes the call to the arts–something worth losing everything for.  Mann exhorts us to join in the call to creative incitement by contrasting what it means to be ‘fishers of Zen’–introspective artists seeking places of contentment and comfort, with Christs call for us to be ‘fishers of men’–looking for the in-breaking Kingdom of God and inviting others to the feast. While a certain amount of ‘fishing for Zen’ isn’t bad (who doesn’t want comfort and contentment), ultimately it is antithetical to the gospel call of self denial and discipleship.  Part two delves deeper into what it means to make ‘Art. Mann advises us about the creative lifestyle (a life of intentional tension). He talks about how art transcends propaganda and narrow schismatic boxes. and speaks winsomely about the freedom to ‘create dangerously’ as Christian–entering into the heart of culture creating rather than messing around at the margins. Part Three explores activism. Artists enter into the brokenness of humanity describing reality through art. God also enters into covenant with ordinary human beings (a shady lot) and calls us to emulate the way of Jesus in entering into the creative process in order to serve the world. That is, the telos of great art takes us beyond the realm of personal aggrandizement and invites us all to something far richer.

I like this book a lot. There are books which give a more detailed theology of the arts. There are also books that describe in greater detail the creative process. What makes Mann’s approach great is how inspiring it is. He is careful to give a peculiarly Christian understanding of the arts (and activism) throughout the book. However this isn’t a ‘narrow’ book. It is an inviting book. Mann will make you want to create better art and live a more compelling life. I felt inspired by Mann’s prose and recommend this to artists and activism including us artisitically reclined slacktivist varieties. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author or publisher via SpeakEasy and agreed to write an honest review.

Drawing On Creation, Getting Drawn In: a book review

I confess that I am a better buyer of books on creativity than I am a reader of them. My shelf is loaded with books on the creative process, on writing, on drawing and painting, on making beautiful things. I tend to see these books and dream. I rescue interesting books from bargain tables and bring them home with best intentions. Often I puruse the introduction and the first several pages. Invariably, these books collect dust on my shelf. Often I wish to get back to a book, but time and busyness keep me from my goals.

Drawn In: A Creative Process For Artists, Activists and Jesus Followers by Troy Bronsink

Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists and Jesus Followers was a book that I read cover to cover. I found more here than interesting exercises to explore (though yes, there are some). Troy Bronsink lays out a theological foundation for the creative process which can be applied to whatever medium we work in. Hence the insights of this book are applicable to both artists and activists. Bronsink seeks to ‘sketch out the correlations between “the creative life and the life of faith by tracing how God creatively draws all things into one vision of a new creation (2)” Artists and activists in their own way participate in ‘new creation.’ So does every follower of Jesus.  Bronsink has plenty of personal examples of each. He is an artist (and musician), an activist, and of all things a Presbyterian pastor.

While Bronsink writes as a Christian and with an explicitly Christian, theological vision of the arts, his method is broad enough to accomodate artists and creatives from other faith perspectives. This book is evangelistic in the best sense–it gives a Christian vision of creativity and the arts without manipulating and demeaning the creative vision of those outside the fold. Anyone interested in Creativity or art will find much in this book which is instructive and helpful.

Bronsink develops his vision of creativity in two parts. Part one looks at God’s relationship with creation while part two examines our relationship with creation.  There is a self conscious patterning here. Bronsink believes that as artists (and activists) create, they are ‘imaging God’ and participating in God’s New-Creation. God’s creation of the world recorded in Genesis provides the basis  for his vision of the creative process.  Bronsink proposes a cycle of six waves (which reflect God’s role in the creation account):

  • Dreaming– God dreamed our future into existence, likewise our creative projects all begin with dreaming, meditating and brainstorming.
  • Hovering– The Spirit of God hovered over the chaos before the creation.  Our own creative process includes a period of incubation where we wait patiently for our dreams to bear fruit.
  • Risking–God created the heavens and the earth and we must risk creating if our artistic vision is to become reality.
  • Listening–God listened to his creation and heard its voice. We too must listen and hear from the stuff and material we are creating. This step is dialogical. Creator and creation listen to one another through the creative process.
  • Reintegration–God (re)integrated everything with the rest of creation.  Our own creating as ‘God’s comissioned artists’ involves are sharing generously our ‘art’ with the world: no strings attached.
  • Resting– As God rested at the end of His creation so we too must end creating and surrender our creation to its fate.

These six waves are repeated twice in the book. The opening chapter in section one presents God’s creation and the “Lost Arts” of creativity. The final chapter, “Make Your Life a Monastery,” presents our human appropriation of the process. Between these two  poles, Bronsik reflects on the medium of God’s work, materiality, space, time, working with others, our senses, how work relates to our vision and how we are ‘drawn in’  to participating in God’s creation.

I appreciate the richness of the theological reflection that went into this book as Bronsink reflects on the creative process.  He was a student of Anna Carter Florence (preaching), Darrell Guder (Missiology) and Walter Brueggemann (Old Testament). The stamp of each is evident in his theological vision, but he is unique in the manner that he appropriated their insights.

Bronsink is a good companion in the creative process. I liked this book a lot. I have yet to complete the thirty two creative exercises included in the book but they offer a chance to cement the lessons in these pages. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review