Creativity is kin to spirituality.
As a writer and a pastor, I am always intrigued by how the creative process—for any artist—tracks so closely the movement of the Spirit. The key to creativity, I find, also fits the lock and opens the door of the soul. And that key is: limits.
Everything about our world screams endless possibilities. All you see on television are people who hold in the palm of their hand a small, sleek device, calling up anything the planet has to offer. It appears so freeing, images of blue skies and wispy clouds slipping by, but what seems like a larger world is actually crushingly small. At least, that is, if you know you have a soul. If you want to be creative, if you want to be a spiritual seeker (and the two follow a strikingly similar path), what you need is something or someone to impose limits upon you.
In his book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon writes, “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. Write a song on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.”
Yesterday was W. H. Auden’s birthday, and my daily writer’s almanac supplied me with this gem. “His [Auden’s] first American teaching gig was at a boys’ prep school, where he asked his students to write essays in which every sentence contained a lie.” That’s imposing limits. Dr. Seuss’s editor bet him he couldn’t write a book using just fifty different words. So constrained, the doctor penned Green Eggs and Ham, won the bet and produced a best-selling classic for all time. It was certainly not my most polished homily, but the eulogy I offered at the funeral of my friend Wallace Sellers lives in my mind as my most creative and triumphant. That’s because, five minutes before the funeral was to begin, Wallace’s wife told me she was so grateful that I was the one who would offer the eulogy. Apparently, in the fog of grief, the family had not informed me, but I was not about to disappoint this woman. On the back of the service bulletin I scribbled three words that conjured Wallace in my heart, stood and delivered.
When life paints us into a corner, we naturally want more options, more room to maneuver, more power to determine our fate. I need more time, more money, a stronger body, a sharper mind. I can’t find happiness and peace until I find a better wife, a decent boss, less treacherous children, more attentive friends, and a bigger house with larger windows and more light where there are no toys scattered on the floor and no scale on the tub and no cat shit on the rug.
Spiritual wisdom teaches us to be keenly alive to these moments when we feel trapped, because they hold the key to ultimate freedom. We find our joy not when we can make the world snap to attention, but when we release our need for something bigger and better and more promising. If we follow the arc of the Spirit, it will always pull us down into a place of less and less, where we are being stripped and shorn, until we think, by God, there’s nothing left of me. Which is when things start quivering.