13 February, 2001

Betsy Von Dreele, fabric collageWelcome to my world.
. . . In my world, people who know little about discipline are considered experts.
. . . At 9:00 a.m. on March 18th, you're invited to hear "Creativity as a Spiritual Discipline" at St. David's Episcopal Church (Delaware), part of their Lenten series on "Spirituality and Practice." Because I write and photograph, the organizer of the series thinks I'm creative. I'll have to be creative to figure out how my writing and photography involves discipline.
. . . Happily, I won't be alone. Betsy Von Dreele, who creates fabric collages, will be my partner. I'll share my wordsmithing with the audience by writing about creativity (incorporating her suggestions). I'll share my photography by photographing her work, then giving a slide show as I talk. We'll be an act like Penn and Teller. I'm tall, she's short. I'll talk, but unlike Penn (or is it Teller?) I don't expect Betsy to be mute.

Having a partner and a Plan of Action doesn't solve my biggest problem -- how to talk about creativity as a discipline. Trying to talk about creativity at all is difficult. It's like trying to hold a river in your hands. The best you can hope for is to catch enough to drink.
. . . As a Christian, it's easy to see how creativity is spiritual. The Bible begins with a creative God moving across the waters, making something out of nothing, making us in the image of the divine. Jesus's first miracle is turning water into wine.
. . . My own experience is that creativity is a gift, not an effort. It's something that surprises, not something one does. When something creative happens in my writing or photography, I have a sense of discovery, that I've witnessed something appear for which I cannot take credit. Words flow from the tip of the pen. Images fill the frame of the camera. I push the pen. I hold the camera.
.Betsy Von Dreele, fabric collage . . I'm not claiming that God takes over, that I'm filled with the Holy Spirit when I write or photograph creatively. Neither am I saying I'm not.
. . . I don't want to say anything about the source of creativity except to say that it ain't me.
. . . What I am claiming is that creativity is like being present at the continued appearance of God into the world, at the birth of incarnation, and, in that sense, creativity is spiritual.
. . . If this sounds Zen-like, I'll admit to recently reading Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching. Chapter 48 says, "The Master does nothing, yet he leaves nothing undone." Chapter 27 says, "A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants." (Among Mitchell's other translations is "The Book of Job" and "The Gospel According to Jesus.")
. . . Just last night I came across another fragment of the Tao Te Ching, in Mark Salzman's hilarious book, "Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia." As a teenager determined to be a perfect spiritual master, Salzman in his youth was impressed that the wisdom of true masters cannot be described, that only their appearance can be described. Wise men, (says Gia-Fu Feng's translation of Chapter 15), are "watchful, like men crossing a winter stream; alert, like men aware of danger; courteous, like visiting guests; yielding, like ice about to melt; simple, like uncarved blocks of wood; hollow, like caves; opaque, like muddy pools."

The description, "courteous, like visiting guests," stands out. Three weeks ago, before looking at either of these books, I wrote about politely photographing the woods. I described my picture-taking as an act of courtesy; each click of the shutter, a little bow of respect. At the time, it seemed an absurd way of talking, even if the description was accurate. I am so relieved to learn now that I was, in fact, wise -- or at least had that appearance.
. . . I'm reminded of Saint Paul's description of love. "Love," he says, "is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way." That's the New Revised Standard translation. In J. B. Phillips' translation we hear that "Love has good manners..."
. . . If there is a discipline in creativity, it is in being watchful, alert, courteous, yielding, and simple. It means being patient, kind, and having good manners. It may also involve being hollow like caves and opaque like muddy water, though I'd look for other translations of those words. Mitchell suggests "receptive" and "subtle".
. . . That said, neither creativity nor love is a discipline. Maybe the way it works is this -- you do the best you can to create something good and you let the good happen. When you create something, you learn why the rules are good; why practice is good; why skills, techniques, and tricks of the trade are good; why education is good; why patience and diligence are good. These disciplines don't produce creativity but flow from it, just as patience flows from love.
. . . These, at least, are my first thoughts on the subject and most of them are someone else's. Thanks for being so patient! Come March 18, I'll probably say something completely different. After all, I'm a creative kind of guy.

RESPONSES

Two artists wrote lengthy responses to the above letter. Click here to see their comments.

OTHER RELEVANT LETTERS

Go to "Photographing Politely" Letter
Politely Digitizing the Woods.

Monday, January 22, 2001.

Go to "Dissatisfaction is a Blessing!?" Letter
Working toward creativity.

Monday, February 26, 2001.

Betsy Von Dreele, liturgical garments in process

Photos, top and middle: Two of Betsy Von Dreele's fabric collages.
Photo, above: Betsy Von Dreele, liturgical garments in process.

Go to Previous Letter
Adjusting expectations.
Thursday, February 8, 2001.

Go to Next Letter
Two Artists Write.
Wednesday, February 21, 2001.

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Text and images copyright 2001 Danny Nelson Schweers