After 20 years of writing in literary, culture and trade arenas, I still struggle with writing from my vulnerabilities rather than my strengths.
It’s so easy to do what comes naturally—write what interests me—when my job is to write in ways that will connect deeply with another human being.
Here are five areas of failure I’ve discovered over the years.
1. The work is safe. It’s also-ran. It lacks daring and depth. It tries to be perfect. It doesn’t see the familiar in unfamiliar ways.
2. The work is ideological. It serves an agenda rather than an idea. It seeks to lead, rather than discover. It plows toward a predetermined destination, rather than stay available for interesting alternatives.
3. The work is disconnected. It’s self-centered, pandering, simplistic or uninformed. It contemplates its navel. It neglects the human condition.
4. The work merely informs. It doesn’t inspire. Or enable. Or enlighten. Or entertain. Or even enrage. It presents, when it should perform. It says, when it should show. It’s smart, but lacks heart.
5. The work can’t stand on its own. It needs something outside itself to complete it. It feels unfinished. Or it’s way too polished.
So here is how I’m challenging myself as I enter 2013. These will guide my choices.
- The work must risk criticism. And failure. And being misunderstood.
- The work must find narrative structures that free ideas rather than force them into tried-and-true formulas.
- The work must embrace the complexities and tensions inherent in the intersections of art, faith, family and career.
- The work must create tension in both culture and the church.
- The work must connect the disconnected.
- The work must be the best I can offer with the resources, talent and time I have available at the time I do the work. Nothing more. Nothing less.
I’ll tell you why I’m accepting these challenges.
Because artists are first known by their art. It’s not the other way around.
The first time someone experienced a Picasso painting, they didn’t say, “Cool Picasso.” They said, “Who did this?”
We hear a great song and want to know the band.
We use great products and want to learn about the company behind them.
We read a great book and want to read more by the author.
Paintings make painters.
Songs make bands.
Products make brands.
Books make authors.
It’s easy to get tricked into thinking we—the artists—make the work.
It’s our work that makes us (in the public’s eye).
And, for me, it must be daring and deep. It must serve ideas. It must connect. It must inspire. And it must stand on its own.
Which means it will take a lot of practice and do-overs to get to something with lasting value.
I’m up for the challenge! Are you?
From May 2012 to July 2013, I wrote a weekly series of intimate essays for writers and artists seeking a deeper connection with their identity and place as modern creatives. I called this series Root Notes. This was an essay in that series. It was originally published on December 27, 2012.