Beyond the Starving Artist: Restorative Formation Through Song Writing

I was thinking to myself, and like a true academic, I wrote my thoughts on the nearest napkin. Something with which I think many scatterbrained, creative people can connect. In this particular instance, I was thinking of the connection between myself and the art that I hold as a sculptor of songs, clay, and paint. The source of my creativity in the ancient world, at least that of the Greco-Roman philosophers, would have been believed to be a daemon. Some believed a daemon, a benevolent ‘good spirit’ – that is felt and not seen – brought wisdom and inspiration. Thus, the one venerated was not the person, but their Daemon, as this spirit was their source. 

This is something seemingly still seen in present-day society. It is the idea that art, and thus all creative work, comes from an ethereal well within the artist. We understand this to be talent. Also similar to this ancient idea is the belief that individuals are born with varying degrees of artistic ability. Some have more, and some have less. This is reminiscent of the Greeks saying they do not have a daemon– or at least not a good one, and that they therefore do not have the ability to bring greater wisdom into the world.

I am going to run with this topic for the rest of this article. But do not get too attached to this extra-planar benevolent spiritual creative creature. That is not the point. We should not live our lives as starving artists, focused on an ethereal spirit or well of creative juice. Rather, we should use our giftings as tools for intentional structured work that grows Christian character and is foundationally based on God. 

So, let’s look at this idea of the ethereal well of talent.

As an artist, I have and will continue to experience that wretched thing known as ‘Writers/artist block’. You might have felt something similar. What do we do when our creative juices run dry, when we can not make, or create? Do we look at the greater creation around us? We go on a hike, hear the bird song… or, more likely, skip the outside part and instead listen to David Attenborough talk about it on a nature documentary. 

I took a songwriting class with a professor of songwriting at Berklee College of Music—he suggested no such thing. He stated that it would be better for you in those moments to sit down and still write music, to still write lyrics, and to pump out melody from your exhausted creative mind. Simply put, life as a songwriter might not always let you sit down and forget to write for a month or two. In a world where talent is king, where creation is run by daemons, real value comes from clocking in hours of hard work.

When it comes to the practical and what will happen in actuality, it is important to be intentional and not ethereal. Make this a job and put work into it, even if that means it is not your favorite thing to do. We perform for a world that does not, so just perform. 

There is also an issue, however, when art becomes merely a profession, merely a career pursuit. This is what kills many artists. The problem here is not that they are not making art, but that their art no longer carries any personal meaning. The song, painting, or article that nets the most profit is often the one an artist hates the most. These are the rushed pieces, the ones made hours before the deadline in hope to cover the electricity bill. I am of the mind that both Christian and non-Christian artists should not produce their art out of an ethereal well only; dependence on talent is a crutch, it’s unrealistic, it’s an excuse to not grow. Yet at the same time, the best songwriters and artists are those that have the creative muscles and discipline to work with the strength of their own hands, arms and voice. 

That is why it can be intimidating to sit in a room with a songwriter who has two-hundred songs under his belt, all of which are above your most inspired work. When you work, you pour out your ethereal well. You scrape it dry, yet that guy still seems to make better work than you, even on a bad day. 

However, that’s not talent, that’s dedication. That’s working from a strong foundation of both talent and intentionality: he makes art a career without a fear of losing a love for his craft. 

Artists have been building their careers like the foolish man in Matthew 7:24-27. I understand that all of us want the bungalow built in the sand, and yes that might be the place to fill your ethereal well. But a house with real walls and concrete foundation, a paid-off mortgage, and a white picket fence might be the place where your silly songs support a family. We can not afford to live out our call as Christians while clinging to our own romanticized desires for the life of a starving artist. Even if this kind of life is brought to fruition through the workings of our God-given gifts, that does not make it God-ordained.

Life would truly be easier if we had a daemon that gave us all the wisdom. Life would be easier if our society did not pressure the artisan to self-hatred. However, is it not great that we have the God of the universe who made the melodic angels and the voice boxes of the songbirds? He is the master architect of underground aquifers and majestic mountain ranges. 

We live in a combative secular world that aims to distract us from our real calling. In our work as artists, we should establish a relationship between faith and a mindset, not just of an ethereal well, but of hard work. This balance can only come from a reformative study of scripture. So call unto the Lord for inspiration!

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.

Categories: Arts

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