on Judgment Day
To tears of shame,
reciting by heart
The poems you would
have written, had
Your life been good.
- W. H. Auden
There are psychologists in white lab coats who study creativity, and they generally maintain that anything creative happens in 4 stages: Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification. As writers we tend to focus on Illumination (actually writing something) and Verification (rewriting the piece, and rewriting, and rewriting...), but many of us don't think a lot about the Preparation and Incubation stages.
It’s always wonderful when an Idea comes along—whether it’s for a song or a poem, a painting or a novel, a sermon, a new angle to help us explain something to our kids, a way to resolve a working relationship, a joke, whatever. But we must be mindful of the fact that everything we've been until the moment we receive the idea is the soil into which that seed is planted. Every emotion felt, thought processed, book read, movie watched, sunset noticed, mistake made, prayer prayed, Scripture learned, grudge nursed—all of it feeds all we do.
Craft—learning to wield a pen (or any other instrument) with skill and intentionality—is hugely important. But if craft is the tool set, and inspiration the blueprint, I am beginning to understand that our lives are the wood. Ultimately our work is only as deep as our prayer life. Our words are only as sturdy as our character. The clarity of our vision is directly proportional to the time we invest in contemplation and meditation.
My friend Roy is fond of referencing a passage from a Frederick Buechner book. Buechner is staring out the window. His wife enters the room and asks, “What are you doing?” Buechner replies, “Working.”
We are a culture of doers. Better to type than to ponder. Better to plan than to play. Better to run than to walk. But if we are to be fertile ground for ideas to fall upon, we must remember good soil is the product of time (and it involves more decomposing than composing!) If we are to be usable wood for the building of something beautiful, we must accept the fact that solid trees need deep roots, not to mention sun, water and oxygen. And we must never forget that for us, as for both soil and wood, there is sacrifice involved. We must be churned and chopped and dug up if we are to be of any real service.
Still, the fact remains that we can be of real service if we are willing. Where Auden has us weeping at poems unwritten, the Apostle Paul imagines our unveiled faces reflecting the glory of God. That is why it is astonishing to think of the poems we might write should we live our lives well. And it's even more astounding—and rather thrilling—to think God might have a vested interest in our writing them.