Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
As I slog through the writing process to put together my book, I’m fortunate to have some friends who are also writing books. We share tips, ideas and encouragement, and take turns asking one another, “Why am I doing this again?” The other day we were talking about the early rough drafts of our current projects, and marveling at how, well, rough they were. In talking through what we’ve learned, we realized that the spiritual approach we take to writing has helped us improve our work just as much as the practical knowledge we’ve gained.
Looking at all the mistakes I’ve made in my own creative process, which were brought to my attention by wise friends and spiritual directors, I realized that it was as if I’d been following a how-to guide for creating a mediocre book that nobody wants to read. If you too would like to create uncompelling art that will neither entertain nor inspire, closely follow all of these guidelines:
1. Confuse inspiration with infallibility: If someone, especially a professional in your field with years of experience, tries to give you constructive criticism about how you could improve your project, reject his advice on the grounds that what you created was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Ignore the fact that even the greatest artists in history, whose magnificent pieces were undoubtedly inspired by God, spent decades improving their work by getting feedback from experts.
2. Believe that it’s all up to you: A quick way to block your creative process and end up in a pit of frustration is to put the weight of the world on your own shoulders. Adopt the mentality that God simply cannot get this message out without you, and stress out accordingly.
3. Fall into the trap of false humility: The pride of thinking that you’re the only person in the galaxy who could possibly inspire the world in this particular way can dampen your art, but so can false humility. Genuinely humble people can be led astray—and be prevented from creating something truly great—by not taking their work seriously enough. Thoughts like, “It’s just an article for the parish newsletter,” or “It’s not like anyone will see this painting anyway,” prevent you from giving each piece everything you’ve got.
4. Ignore Truth, Beauty or Goodness: As Dr. Peter Kreeft has pointed out, the three things the human soul most wants are Truth, Beauty and Goodness. If you create a poem that has a beautiful cadence but says something untrue about the human experience, or write a book that speaks the truth in clunky, wordy prose, you’ve failed to create great art.
5. Confuse laziness with holiness: This has been a personal favorite of mine. Since my conversion, when I start to feel challenged by something I’m writing, I now have the option of the Holy Spirit Cop-Out: I announce that “if God wants to use this for his glory, he’ll be able to!”, and then I promptly go back to surfing the web. Rather than carefully discerning if my role in the process is finished and it’s time to turn it over to God, or if perhaps I should put in the effort to make it more beautiful, I throw up my hands and put all the hard work on the Holy Spirit’s plate.
6. Don’t take spiritual attack seriously: The devil hates it when we glorify God through art, no matter how small the project, and he’ll throw everything he’s got at us to prevent us from doing so. Of course it’s not popular to talk about such things, and if you acknowledge the reality of spiritual warfare you might look foolish in the eyes of your peers. If you want to avoid creating excellent, God-glorifying art, do blow off this subject, because not knowing how to combat spiritual attack is a surefire way to miss reaching your full potential as an artist.
There you go! If you want to be a frustrated artist whose work never quite seems to resonate with people, these six steps should get you there. However, if you want to produce the best work that you possibly can, do the opposite. It might not turn you into Michaelangelo, but it will at least help you get close to the full realization of your God-given potential.