Hi, I have a Creative Writing degree: on making and Michelangelo


(This post is part of a series on the writers, thinkers and makers who help me do those things better. See the intro here.)

Hi, I have a Creative Writing degree.

That’s the name of a folder on my computer that was supposed to motivate me to write this Summer.

It isn’t working.

I keep a general mental list of Things I Want To Write About, and go about waiting for motivation to hit, and then a month has past and I’ve written a couple of letters, some notes in my journal, and maybe a few grocery lists.

And somewhere along the way I’ve realized this non-making doesn’t feel good. Somewhere along the way, I remember that I like writing. Writing makes my mind feel like a machine that’s doing the thing it’s made to do. It makes me happy. It’s a way I worship. But it’s also work.

So if I wait to feel motivated –if I put writing, my medium of making, into a box that says “open only when feeling inspired” — what does that say about what makes work good or meaningful? Do I really want to buy into the narrative that says art is worth doing — or not — based on the emotional state that made it?

*  *  *

Last Summer, I got to fulfill at least one childhood fancy, when I walked through the Sistine Chapel in real life, neck craned backward and eyes wide with wonder.

(I tell some of that story here, and my friend Lynnette tells some here.)

It was magnificent. There is a reason the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are a cultural/historical/artistic treasure. They are beautiful, and people have been acknowledging their beauty for five hundred years. They’re beautiful formally, because Michelangelo understood both how paint works and how bodies work. But they’re not just beautiful formally. They’re truthful too. They tell a story that doesn’t belong to just one artist or just one commissioner or even just one culture. They tell a story that is humanity’s, and ours because it is God’s and because He wrote it for us.

At least one writer has pointed out the impact of that story communicated visually, here. For her, that impact was enough that she walked into the Sistine Chapel wanting a checklist cultural experience, and walked out wanting God. She explains, “When Michelangelo breathed that beautiful thing into the world, it became bigger than him. It became a holy thing, a moving thing, something that could change people and make the world better in ways beyond anything he could have ever thought . . . When we create art we join in the divine process of creating.” As my favorite preacher turned fairy-tale writer said in the single line of literature I reference more than any other, the artist is “dealing all the time in things that came from thoughts beyond his own.”

Michelangelo alone couldn’t change people’s lives. In fact, in person he probably wasn’t very inspiring. He suffered from poor health for much of his life (maybe because he did things like spend five winters on his back, suspended beneath a ceiling in a drafty chapel — just a wild speculation), he was famously unattractive thanks to a broken nose from a teenage fight, he met with frustration in many of his personal and professional relationships, and he wrote pages of poetry filled with angst.

The poetry in particular is interesting. It is full of angst, sure, but it is also full of honesty about need for God. In the notebooks of a man history has labeled a genius, we see one who didn’t like himself much. One who saw with devastating clarity his own inability, and his dependence on the Creator to inspire and redeem all he could do and make under his own power. (I neglect to include the poetry here, but I highly recommend searching it out. Or ask me sometime.)

Somehow, this self-loathing maker channeled that angst and that frustration into art which is not only beautiful, but which points people to God.

Are you pausing to think about that for a second?

I’ll wait.

Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it on and off for the last year.

If I could pick a narrative for my creative life to emulate, that might be it. A narrative that admits imperfection and tumult, but rather than using that energy to make art about my imperfection and tumult (“self-expression,” we might call it), using it instead to make art that points to God. What if that was the modus operandi of my life in general: when my self is dissatisfying, as my self usually is, stop moping and start making, and stop looking at inward and start looking at God.

Sistine Chapel ceilings don’t come from fits of inspiration. Those aren’t sustainable. They come from work. From dedication to making even when honestly it doesn’t sound that fun. From acceptance of the paradox that I cannot do this thing without God, and that yet maybe that means it is the thing I’m made to to.

*  *  *

Clearly, the connection between my writing and the Sistine Chapel is tenuous at best. I have no delusions of grandeur, or wispy hope that future generations will look at something I made with wide-eyed awe. Not counting my children if I have them and if they don’t hate me, “future generations” aren’t going to give a rip, and I don’t really mind. What I want is for my writing do to the small-time day-to-day work of telling truth, and pointing back through beauty to beauty’s Origin. And truth and beauty don’t depend on my feelings. They just are, because God is.

My choice is to do the work of communicating.

soli Deo gloria.

image: outside St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Summer 2014. Photography inside the Sistine Chapel is discouraged.

2 thoughts on “Hi, I have a Creative Writing degree: on making and Michelangelo

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