Creativity's Shadow: When Sadness Stalks the Imagination
For about ten years, my wife and I wrote and directed plays for students in schools. We never set out to do it, and it was almost like an accident. And the only reason we started writing was because I had started a drama program with real live kids in it and they kept asking me, “So Mr. Bundy, like when are we going to do a play?”
What they didn’t know was that I actually had no idea when we were going to do a play. I looked for one but had trouble finding one that would fit. And even though I did theatre in college, I didn’t really know how to direct a play. . . barely knew how to act in one!
But it’s like that saying. . .Fake it till you make it. Or was it, till you make a fool of yourself?
The idea to actually write a play for the kids and community didn’t arrive until my honeymoon. Romantic, right? We were moving/road-tripping from California to Kentucky. And we were in Kansas, I think, and I mentioned the idea of writing a play based on A Christmas Carol. My Bride of only a week immediately jumped in and started throwing out character ideas and plot turns! She was good. Really good.
A few months later, we had a finished draft of the play and announced a performance date. I remember opening night, and especially the night before opening night when we were up all night ironing bed sheets and hauling PVC pipe to the theatre.
Bed sheets? PVC? Yeah, that was our set.
Did I mention I didn’t really know what I was doing? My wife of four months seemed to though, and she somehow helped me stay together, because what I wanted to do was collapse and cry. And she kept me from doing that, well, at least in front of the kids and the audience.
I remember the tsunami of emotions when the curtain (uh, bed sheets) closed for a final time. What had we done? We -- Megan, I, the kids, the volunteers, had created something. I liked that feeling.
But when the kids had gone, the PVC stored away, and the bed sheets returned to our home, a strange thing took place: a sting of melancholy.
THE MYSTERY OF CREATIVITY
Over the next ten years, Megan and I continued writing plays and directing kids, and we repeated the creative process over and over again. Sure, our sets grew more sophisticated and we learned more about writing and our kids developed in their performance abilities, but that wave of melancholy just about always met us in the end.
We’d call it our post-play depression. I’m not saying that we had clinical depression, but that a dark dash of sadness swept over us.
Why did that take place? I’m not sure, but I’ve spent a lot of time with people who love performing and creating and they’re terribly familiar with it too.
I mentioned earlier that writing and directing came about almost accidentally for us. I believe God is sovereign and that there’s no true accidents, so if I’m careful with my words, what I really mean by “accident” is that I never saw it coming, but I’m so glad it came. These creative accidents still come, and no artists really know where they come from, although they’re pretty adamant that you should be ready for them, and even expect them.
In my experience, the whole practice of creativity is mysterious, reminding me of what Jesus says to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit and the new life, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).
Now, to clarify, I don’t think every creative endeavor a person has is from the Holy Spirit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Holy Spirit hovered over the face of his image-bearers inspiring them to create beautiful things and dismantle ugliness.
Andrew Peterson in his book, Adorning the Dark, writes that Bach used to notate S.D.G. at the bottom of his manuscripts, which was short for the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria -- “glory to God alone” (8). I don’t think I knew that. Peterson also shares that Bach wrote Jesu Juva at the top of his manuscripts. It’s Latin for “Jesus, help!” I definitely didn’t know that.
But creativity can be difficult and painful, and so I know why we’d need to ask Jesus for help.
THE DARK SIDE OF CREATIVITY
I recently finished a creative project that was terribly important to me. Over the years, I’ve experienced times when I’ve sensed the need to complete a creative endeavor. To say I was drawn to it is not strong enough language; that I was compelled is more accurate. And it’s not always a fun process (for me or those around me): I totally forget to eat and can barely sleep and I ignore my dog. To be fair, I’ve only experienced this four or five times in my life. I can’t predict when they come or how long they’ll stay, but I try to be ready for them.
Often when I finish one of these intense projects, I’m exhilarated: I’ll pull a King David and even dance and sing. And, if you know me, I don’t dance and sing.
But with these projects, there’s a dark side. When the project comes to an end and some time passes, I come back to it and look at it with a fresh perspective, and a form of despair sets in. I see the mistakes like the sun off of a full-length mirror. Almost every time, I doubt whether I should share or ditch what I’ve just completed.
I remember a professor telling me that when he finished his Master’s thesis he was so proud of it, and when time passed and he finished more schooling, he just wanted to hide his Master’s thesis so no one could find it.
My brother-in-law who’s a wonderful artist and brilliant thinker reminded me that there’s a principle behind this inner-criticism and creative despair. He saw it illustrated by an artist on YouTube who explained that it had to do with the progress of our artistic eye in relation to our artistic ability.
When our artistic ability moves beyond our artistic eye, we can feel pretty good about what we’ve done. We say, “Hey, I’ve created something great.” We can then rest.
When our artistic eye transcends our artistic ability, we see where our craft falls short and where it should be. This can be a painful and discouraging realization without any rest.
In the creative journey, we need both: if we never see where we fall short, we’ll never know how to get better. That’s why we need teachers. But if we never sense that we’re creating something that has artistic merit, our doubt and despair will always win, and we’ll never create anything.
The last time I experienced the sadness of seeing my project fall short, I walked out into the living room to see my wife. This, by the way, was the same project I had just danced about a day earlier. Now, I had no rest.
I told Megan I was so frustrated that I couldn’t finish something and be truly, deeply pleased with it. That I felt like these creative projects were never done and that I always felt the impulse to scrap them and start over.
Megan then quickly responded and said, “Only God does that.” The insight took me aback. She reminded that after Creation, as we read in Genesis, God declared his own creativity “good” and that he rested.
THE HOPE OF CREATIVITY
It was a brilliant insight, one that I desperately needed in that moment. It perfectly captures the essence of what distinguishes the Author of creativity from his image-bearers when it comes to making things: only God can create something and state with complete accuracy that it is “good” -- not only morally good, but of the highest artistic quality. We might say that God’s artistic eye will never outpace his artistic ability.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I remember Andrew Peterson at The Hutchmoot conference in 2012 addressing us in a small Nashville church saying how he doesn’t like the term “creatives,” as if only some do creative work and others do not. He reminded us that all image-bearers are involved in creative work. He’s so right: whether we’re painting, or engineering, or raising children, human beings are creative forces trying to bring goodness and beauty into the world. To be human is to be a creator, or to steal J.R.R. Tolkien’s phrase, a sub-creator.
And so, creative people, there will be times, many times I think, when our eyes will be more finely tuned to the mistakes and ugliness in our work and the world around us. This will probably lead to moments of despair and discouragement and doubt. We will wonder how well we illustrated a comic or delivered a sermon or taught our students or raised our children.
That seems to be expected of a people called to create things in a fallen world that’s mired by chaos and disorder.
So, redemption is something we work toward, something that reorders the chaos of the curse, but it’s also something that ultimately only God can do and has done through Jesus.
And that’s why, with Bach, at the bottom and top of our lives we write “glory to God alone” and “Jesus, help!”
Dane Bundy is president of Stage & Story and principal of the secondary school at Providence Academy, a classical Christian school in Johnson City, TN.