Lent for Creatives: Five Hard Lessons

At Ancient Faith, we believe that the spiritual life and the creative life are woven together. The fact that we are an Orthodox Christian media company is proof of this conviction. We exist to promulgate the Gospel through the work of people who use their creative gifts to affirm and explore the life of faith, in the persistent hope of edifying and encouraging our fellow human beings on their journeys.

During this Lenten season, we are all engaged in spiritual struggle of one kind or another, and it seems a good moment to share what I’ve learned in the last five years about the intersection of creativity, struggle, and media publishing. With this goal, I’ve created a list of five hard lessons we all seem to encounter on our way to producing high-quality books and podcasts. If you have already been published, this list will be familiar. If you are still trying to be published, it may be even more familiar! I pray it will be helpful, no matter which side of that fence you occupy.

Don’t be an “idea person.”

Almost nothing will shut you out faster than those fatal words – “I’m an idea person.” Many people describe themselves this way, and in our experience, an “idea person” is one who can come up with an endless list of inspiring suggestions but is not able to follow through on them. An idea is like a flame without a lamp. It burns brightly and then vanishes, unless you provide a wick, some oil, and a vessel to hold the oil. Your idea needs a plan. It needs background research. It needs the ability to make and meet deadlines, foresee and overcome obstacles. You and your idea both need a significant amount of staying power, so that your publisher knows you will put in the effort to bring your idea to life – real life, enduring life, the kind of life that will justify the expenditure of staff time, resources, and just plain stamina required to publish a book or produce a podcast. If you were telling yourself that you could hand your idea to a publisher and staff members would provide the wick, the oil, and the lamp, please stop. No publisher can or will be a replacement for the diligent effort you should have dedicated to your idea before we ever heard of it.

Learn the difference between felt need and perceived need.

These two terms are often used interchangeably, and in many contexts they should be. But for you, the creative person, there is an important difference. Creative people need to create. That recurring urge to say something, write something, make something? That’s real. God made you that way. It’s the life force He gave you to ensure that you’d actually use your gifts, that they wouldn’t languish on the shelf in your mind and never see the light. Your “felt need” to create something is real and important, and it should always find expression in your personal creative life, even in your personal relationships. But to break out of that personal realm and into the world of publishing and media production, you need more than your own felt need. You need to identify and meet the felt needs of other people, preferably large groups of other people.  This is one of those intersections between the spiritual life and the creative life – you must serve more than just yourself.

This is where perception is so important. You need to hone your gift for perceiving the needs of other people and channeling your creative gifts to meet them. You can. Creativity and perception are extremely close to each other on the color spectrum of human gifts, I’ve found. It can take some practice, but people who try will discover after a time that they have a special “eye” for the ways their gifts can bring joy or comfort or edification to their fellow human beings. As a media publisher, we can’t meet every single individual need. We are, regrettably, finite. We have to limit ourselves to projects that will help the largest number of people possible with the limited resources available to us. That’s why we want to hear about projects that meet a perceived need. Help us feed the multitude!

Work the problem; don’t step around it.

There are two kinds of work that people often neglect when they’re in the grip of inspiration. One is market research. The other, for lack of a better term, is plot development.

The human condition being what it is (full of humans, all of whom are experiencing it), it’s not impossible that someone else had the same idea you had. It may be completely new to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely new to the human world. Save yourself some agony. Get on the internet and find out. Do you want to write an Orthodox book about butterflies? Do an internet search for “Orthodox book about butterflies,” but don’t stop there. Come up with every way you can think of that someone could possibly describe an Orthodox book about butterflies, and do a search for all of them. Market research has a lot to do with that “perceived need” we were just talking about, but it also requires that you know who else is trying to do what you’re trying to do. Did someone else get there first? Did they do what you want to do, only better?

When you discover that someone else already wrote an Orthodox book about butterflies (or otherwise walked off with your inspiration), you have two choices. Both require mature consideration. You can either abandon your idea, or you can develop it to meet a need that other person has not met. Inspiration can be an emotional roller-coaster. Your first impulse may be to fling your idea out the window and weep, or it may be to dig in your heels and insist that your idea is more unique than it actually is. Let go of both of these impulses. They don’t help you. Take a breath, take a walk, and do some hard thinking about what you can do to develop your idea. Chances are, your idea just needs to become more complex. It needs more depth and specificity. If you meditate on it for a while, you may find that you can add an angle or an application. Maybe your book can be an Orthodox book about butterflies for children, instead of adults, or maybe it can be an Orthodox butterfly coloring book with quotes from the Church Fathers about the afterlife (because butterflies are often seen as a metaphor for the resurrection), or maybe….just keep brainstorming.

And that brings us to the other, extremely important part of this point. Keep brainstorming. Whether you find that your idea is 100% original or not, you still need to develop it to the fullest extent. You need to know it inside and out. You need to find all the holes in it, poke your finger through them, and figure out how to fill them. Work the problem. Don’t gloss over the surface, make it all look pretty, and hope. If you don’t find the holes, your publisher will find them. Save us both the sorrow of collapsing something that would have succeeded if you had finished thinking it through.

Lose the agenda; pursue meaning instead.

If you’ve been in Christian media for more than 15 minutes, you’ve heard about the necessity of creating content that is not “preachy.” This comes up most often in writing for children, but it’s just as important in content for adults, especially fiction. Most people don’t think their writing is “preachy,” but you’d be surprised how often someone in the grip of a strongly held agenda can’t see that it has leaked out all over their writing and buried it.

The problem is not that agenda-driven writing doesn’t sell. It doesn’t, but that’s not really the problem. The problem is that when your agenda is sticking out all over your writing, your reader will quickly decide that your main goal is mind control, and they will put the book down and run screaming into the hills.  The lesson you are hoping to teach might be the best, most important lesson in the world. But your anxiety about convincing the reader will be louder than the lesson. Always. And that means it will fail to get through and will instead become a cycle of frustration – your anxiety will increase, you will try harder, and your target audience will run faster and farther.

What’s the solution? Permit me a quote from an old song: “You gotta have faith.” This is arguably the biggest intersection between your spiritual life and your creative life. If you are practicing what you want to preach, if you are truly immersed in the way of life you hope to share, truth and beauty will seep into your words and reach people in ways that aren’t possible when you try to drive the train yourself. If Orthodoxy is true, then it is true in every aspect of human life. If you observe and communicate with deep faith and understanding, whatever you write will become a “lesson.”

Accept the humility of “not being humble.”

In my experience, almost nothing horrifies an Orthodox writer/podcaster/blogger/artist more than the idea of promoting their work. This is a good sign. The person who can’t wait to plunge into the limelight is often prone to errors in taste and judgment, and will  likely be disappointed in the amount of limelight available in the Orthodox media world. Setting aside “I’m shy” and “creative people are introverts,” the biggest reason for this phenomenon is that the Orthodox faith teaches humility. There’s a Bible verse that describes this situation perfectly: “Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.” (Matthew 6:2) Makes you shudder, doesn’t it? It should.

But there’s another Bible verse that’s far more relevant for those of us working in Orthodox media: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16).

Letting your light shine can be just as uncomfortable as parading for glory with a trumpet. It can be more dangerous. It can be humiliating. But if you chose to create Orthodox media instead of secular media, you had a reason. There was something good you set out to do, and if no one ever sees or hears your work, it will have been in vain. Your book won’t help anyone if no one reads it. Your podcast won’t spread any light if no one hears it. Like so many moments in our spiritual journey, I believe this is one that requires a deeper understanding of the problem. The simple answer is “don’t talk about your work because it’s not humble.” The more complex answer is that humility might include willingness to serve in whatever way is asked, even the ways that stretch and try us to the limit.

The good news is that if you choose this work, you will be throwing in your lot with a community of people who love what you love and chose what you chose. All of us who are trying to use our creative gifts for the glory of God can walk together on this journey and lift each other up. You don’t need to do this hard thing by yourself. We can keep each other company, promote each other’s work, and comfort ourselves with the knowledge that if we are “doing it right,” the result will not be an embarrassment to us. If your light is shining, and your good works can be seen, God grant that your readers and listeners will “glorify your Father in heaven.”

Melinda Johnson

About Melinda Johnson

Melinda Johnson is an Orthodox Christian, wife, mama, writer, and the author of Letters to Saint Lydia (AFP, 2010), The Other Side of the Bonfire (LSP, 2012), and is hard at work on another book project. Melinda has a Master’s in English Literature because she loved taking literature classes so much she couldn’t stop doing it. When she is not seeing “heaven in a wildflower,” Melinda enjoys writing for children, walking and talking, and knitting. She lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest.

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