October 6, 2014


“Art is never finished, only abandoned.” — Leonardo DaVinci

There’s some part of every artist that will never be happy with the status quo. Every artist I’ve ever met has issues with dissatisfaction and perfectionism - nothing will ever be quite … done for us. There’s always one extra edit to make, one more smear of paint to add, one more rehearsal to perfect that one phrase, one more paragraph to add. It’s a temperament that has served artists well for a long time - we improve our craft and produce our best art when we obsess, not only over the big picture, but also over the details. Like many things, however, such a strength can also be an achilles heel; spend too much time on something, and other projects, family, housework, even health will all suffer. At some point, we need to put the brush down, call it “done” (or at least, “as done as it can get”) and move on. If we abandon ourselves to obsession over one piece, we’ll never make anything new.

I’m finding, though, that this same thing is true - for myself, at least - when starting art. I know what good writing or photography looks like, what good music sounds like, and so if I don’t feel like I have it within me that day to craft a fantastic blog post or an excellent essay or a beautiful song, I somehow get it in my head that it’s best not to even start;

Why waste the time producing sub-par material?

Cue writer’s block.

There are a few things colliding here. The aforementioned obsession with perfection is obviously a major contributor; I want to make the best thing, but I want to make it right from the start. Which is the second element: we Americans are, for some reason or other, also obsessed with efficiency. We’re very bad at lingering, at taking the long way around, because our cultural narrative of production demands that if we think we have time to take the long way, we could probably take the short way twice and thereby produce more. I’ve written before about our culture’s desire to produce as much as possible, and while we must be careful not to swing the pendulum too far the other way (we do need to make something or else we won’t be able to survive), creativity often comes from the times of disruption, silence, quiet, lingering, and seeming inefficiency.

Which means that sometimes, when I find myself in a rut and unable to start, I’m finding that it’s good to do something totally inefficient. Last night, for example, after dinner I pulled out my pastels (for the first time in a long time) and simply blended color together on blank pages in my notebook. My seven year old kept asking what I was drawing. When I told her that I was just making color, she looked confused, insisting that this must be a tree or something (Rorschach was a genius, by the way). In truth, I was just burning up pastels to see what might come out of it. I wasn’t making “something;” I was making anything, or more accurately, I was making “whatever” - flexing my mind to see which direction it might bend. You might call it artistic calisthenics; other art forms often inspire our primary form simply because they pull us away from our patterns and help us try new things.

Sometimes, change for the sake of change is actually a good, healthy thing. I don’t actually like doing it, personally - I like my patterns, my habits, my routines. But if I stick to them as if they’re the point, I end up leading a stale life, and my writing, my leadership, my music, and even my parenting ends up sort of … blah. Lifeless. Inert. Lacking flavor.

Lives lived well - lives in which God is working, lives that are works of art - will always need to experience new things, learn new ideas, try new activities, go new places, and at least occasionally, break their routines in order for God to work. It is true that God works in many routines - of gathering and sending, of daily prayer, of sunrise and sunset - but it’s just as true that God works by breaking those same routines - retreats, camps, fasting, celebrations, vacations, even weekly sabbath to break the rhythms of work.

I had a professor once who told me that he felt like his teaching was stale for a while, but couldn’t figure out why. And then he realized that he’d been telling the same stories over and over again; he start teaching, and then one day it had suddenly been five years since he’d told a new story to his classes. He’d gotten so used to telling the stories he’d collected that he’d forgotten to make new stories to tell. He was no longer modeling the life he was trying to teach because he’d gotten sucked into teaching the life in a classroom. 

If you think about it, a routine is like telling the same story over and over and over again, and one day we wake up and realize that it’s been years since we told a new story, that everyone around us has tuned out because they’ve heard that one about a thousand times. You might say that our salt loses its saltiness. So if you’re like me and have a tendency to get sucked into your routine, be brave and try something new. Go to a different restaurant for lunch this week, or take a different route home from work, try holding your pen a different way. It doesn’t matter what, but do something NEW! Don’t let your story get so routine that you forget to tell it!

After all, your life could be a work of art, and art is never finished, 

only abandoned.