A Writer’s Whim

On a whim, I dug up my old “writing portfolio” last night. It was late and I was exhausted, but my mind yearned for something:

An idea.

I’d been struggling all day to compose, write lyrics, pick a blog topic… but it was one of those days when no ideas stick and all efforts are frustrated. My heart warmed, though, as I snapped open the old plastic binder in which I took such pride. I remember a friend of mine in high school had her own “writer’s portfolio” and we carried them like children and melodramatically declared them to be our very souls.

There is a bit of truth in that ridiculous statement. As I thumbed through the old pages, I saw flickers of my past that I’d forgotten. All at once, I revisited my bedroom late on school nights where I lay scribbling a story instead of weaving dreams. And I saw myself on the floor on a sunny afternoon, telling myself fairy tales in ink instead of playing outside.

I found etchings of my face and mind at different ages in the ever-evolving handwriting; from the ostentatious signatures of my elementary school writings (in which the “e” of my first name became a looping heart) to the chicken scratch of my high school years and eventual printed type, I met myself in those papers.

Skimming the stories I loved so, I see the growth of a writer. Glimmers of the novel I am drafting and the woman I am becoming shine even in those early pages of limping syntax and predictable plots. Every now and then, a single good sentence or word stands out and says, “There is hope for you yet, Scribbler.”

I have come a long way since drafting tales such as “The Magic Drinking Glass” (which is not without its charms) and have a long way yet to go before I publish anything as marvelous as Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt.” Still, as we all learned in elementary school, stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. Looking back on my beginning in these old stories inspires me to persevere in this messy middle as I work toward that the end: a future as a published author.

In this hodgepodge of childhood drafts, I did find three stories that stood out among their peers. I was reunited with the first that I deemed good enough for competition: “The Painter.” I also unearthed one which truly reflected something of my soul: “The Window Washer.” Finally, I found a draft that I must revisit now; it was oddly prophetic, though I drafted it years and years ago.

There is no real point to this post, reader, but to encourage you. Whatever your art, look back on your younger creations. In doing so, you too might remember a few important lessons…

First of all, creating something simply for your own joy is worth it. Most of these stories will never see the light of day, but they kept me entertained during dull high school classes and nights when sleep eluded me. Rereading them, I remember those late nights and sunlight afternoons and find again the joy of telling myself the story that I wanted to hear.

Second, handwriting is a work of art in itself. I’ve become increasingly digital, but I make sure my journals are always handwritten. It’s just more personal. Something about lying awake scribbling in a notebook feels more intimate than typing.

And, finally, you are meant to create. A bad day does not make you a bad artist. You are not writer’s block; you are the piles of paper covered in words that came from your imagination alone. Be the writer that you wanted to be as a child and do not let those many hours spent practicing go to waste. Perhaps one of those drafts will even be worth revisiting.

Three Principles

As I was practicing piano the other day, I wrote a series of three questions to ask myself as I worked on each detail:

  1. Is it clean?
  2. Is it beautiful?
  3. Does it mean something?

First, I work technically, listening even to exercises to discern if they are played with clarity and precision. Are they clean? The same attention to purity must be given to all other passages, even (perhaps especially) the most Romantic. The greatest pianists play beautifully, but do so over the canvas of excellent technique and clear sound.

Secondly, is it beautiful? Is there a way I could shape this phrase to make it more lovely? Is the sound of the individual note rich and pleasing? How could I voice this to make it even more musical? A great pianist can set audiences to gasping at his exquisite turn of a single phrase. How can I make this phrase such a moment of beauty?

Finally, does it mean something? I was working diligently away on the first two (clarity and beauty) before I was caught by this third principle. I played a phrase surprisingly well and it conjured an image in my mind. It was nothing profound, just a little glimpse of a boat spiraling in a current, but it was enough to give a newfound meaning to the line that I was practicing.

Without meaning, what does it matter if music is beautiful? What does it matter if it is clean if it is not beautiful and, further, does not have meaning? These principles build off of each other not only in music, but in the creation of any art. The artist might (and should) begin with an idea of what he wants to communicate, but he must execute it with technical precision and aesthetic appeal in order to properly convey this meaning. Bearing this constantly in mind as I practice has revived my approach: I am not just playing rote repetitions, but am working with the goal of achieving accuracy so that I can then focus on beauty and, finally, communicate the meaning governing those two.

Being an over-the-top Torrey Honors Institute nerd, I realized that these three principles of effective artistic practice can be aligned with the overarching ideas of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

  1. Is it good? Are the notes or strokes or words placed with commitment to good technique, adherence to structure, etc.? Is the art made with a spirit working toward excellence? This is convicting, is it not?
  2. Is it beautiful? Once technical excellence is established, it naturally gives the freedom for elegance, color, and expression! The “good” allows for the “beautiful” to be made with greater potential to be both achieved and understood. If our technique is helter-skelter, the likelihood of playing a natural-sounding and well-shaped phrase is extremely low. Artists should take chances, but trying to generate beauty without technical awareness seems a foolish one to take.
  3. Is it true? Clean performance practice and beautiful sound build upon each other to, ideally, generate meaning. Think about writing. We follow the rules of grammar, only breaking them when it serves an intentional purpose, because these set standards promote elegance of expression and clarity of intent in even the most unskilled writers. In the same way, poets often follow structural rules because it gives shape to not only their beautiful lines but also makes their meaning more accessible.

As I was reading through Ephesians this morning, I was struck by a note I made in the margin a couple of years ago: “Art of Faith.”

These three principles are not only for the practice of artists, but for the life of believers. Indeed, the walk of faith is perhaps the greatest art. We are restored Images, saved by the Word, called to worship in song. We are redeemed works of art and as we “practice” our obedience and gratefulness, we might find in these three simplified principles helpful guidelines for making our lives shine as art that is pure, lovely, and truthful.

In all aspects of our lives, whether or not we would consider ourselves “artistic,” we ought to be thinking as co-creators and, indeed, works of art. Before purchasing, making, doing, or saying anything, we should ask ourselves: is this thing good, useful, quality? Is it beautiful and lovely? Is it true, helpful, and honest?

Imagine how our lives might be transformed if we asked ourselves these questions. I doubt I would own as much clutter. I would likely speak with greater thoughtfulness. I would spend so much less time being frustrated with the repetitiveness of practice– of the everyday– because instead of just going through the motions, I would be considering even the tiniest details of my life in relation to the three greatest ideals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.