Renewed Strength

This morning, two of my favorite Scripture texts became real to me as never before. You probably love these passages as well. The first is Isaiah 40:28–31.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

The second similar text is Psalm 103:1–5.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 
All my adult life, I’ve considered these as beautiful, meaningful, and true verses. But they hadn’t come to expression in my life. I knew God did all these things in the figurative sense, even in the literal sense for some people. I saw God blessing me in many of these ways over and over; however, I felt older and weaker as I aged.

Yesterday was particularly brutal for some reason. Perhaps recent grief sapped my physical strength. Maybe my adrenaline reserves had been depleted. I suspect I’m fighting off a cold. Whatever the reasons, my physical strength seemed at an especially low ebb. Immediately after dinner, I fell asleep in my recliner. I woke and spent a brief time on the computer, before stumbling to bed at 10:00.

cloudy-skiesAnd I felt just as exhausted when I woke this morning. Although I’d slept fairly well, I was still tired. I crafted some correspondence and did a little online research that initially seemed a waste of precious time. Then I did my devotions.

I’m reading The One Year Chronological Bible, published by Tyndale, and I finished Job this morning. I absolutely love that book of the Bible! I love God’s direct speech to a mere mortal: “Brace yourself like a man” (Job 38:3, 40:7). I love God’s vivid imagery and relentless litany describing His power and sovereignty.

We’re all a bit like Job at times. When we suffer with no apparent cause, a niggling part of our sinful nature would like to give God a piece of our mind. Certainly, we’re tempted to ask, “Why?” But as someone once suggested to my husband and me, better questions to ask God might be, “What do You want to teach me through this?” and “How do You want me to serve You in this?”

As I spent time communing with God after my Bible reading, I realized how my earlier correspondence and online research had piqued my literary interests and fueled my flagging creativity.

The more I thought and prayed, the more I became aware of God’s blessings in my life and His awesome power. Is anything too hard for the God who laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions, who stretched a measuring line across it and laid its cornerstone, while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:4–7)?

My spirit was refreshed and my strength renewed. I felt as eager to tackle my work as a war horse spoiling for battle (Job 39:19–25). I’m rising on eagle wings.

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Looking for whip-poor-wills

whippoorwill
Image found on Illinois Raptor Center website.

Have you ever heard the whip-poor-will cry down the twilight? Years since I’ve heard the haunting chant, it still echoes in my mind. A chance glance recently reverberated melody and memories.

As a subscriber to Iowa Outdoors magazine, I receive its lovely DNR calendar each year. Each month features a gorgeous picture showcasing Iowa’s natural beauty. The dates are sprinkled with fascinating facts and timely reminders. May 2 tells us: 1890 Large meteorite strikes 11 miles northwest of Forest City, and Walleye season opens on Iowa’s Great Lakes.

A May 24 notation made my body pause and my mind reel backward: Look for return of whip-poor-wills.

Five years after my husband and I were married, we built our house on a wooded acreage. We would live in the basement and finish the hollow frame bit by bit. Soon after we moved, we discovered one of our location’s treasures: whip-poor-wills nested in the shrubbery along the fence line about fifty feet from our front porch. On summer evenings, we sat on the cement block serving as a temporary step and listened to the onomatopoetic call. (You can hear it at this link.) But we never saw the elusive and well-camouflaged nocturnal bird.

What a thrill to hear that rare call! And what piercing memories my mind associates with it. Little boys leaping to catch fireflies. A young husband’s strong arm cradling my shoulders. Stars sharpening in a darkening sky. Cool air. Warm hearts.

But one year the whip-poor-will was silent. The new neighbors on the other side of the fence had dogs. Whip-poor-wills don’t build nests, laying their eggs directly on the ground. We never again heard the whip-poor-will sing.

Some years ago, I wrote this poem, dedicated to my husband:

Vespers

 

When you and I

were in our prime,

we sat on the cool concrete step

with bare feet in dark grass

as dusk deepened.

 

Boys who had leaped

to snare random spurts of pale light—

squished into glowing rings on fingers—

quieted in beds.

 

Above our heads,

the Milky Way materialized

in a pointillistic arc

of bright blessing;

while the whippoorwill

sang vespers.

 

© Glenda Mathes, 2006; revised 2010

Standing and staring at the calendar created a melancholy feeling. If only I could look for whip-poor-wills with any expectation of seeing them return!

Thoughts and memories tumbled in my mind for a few days, until I wrote a new poem:

Look for return of whip-poor-wills

 

The tiny notation

On the calendar

Prepared by the conservation department

Puckers time as keenly as a pleat

Pressed by my mother’s hot iron

A quick stitch

Skips from childhood cotton

Past bridal satin

To parenting denim

 

And we two sit

On the front stoop

In evening’s cool

As the whip-poor-will

Sings its onomatopoetic song

Low tones bracketing

Rising trill

 

The melancholy notes soar

From earthy berth

Through honeysuckle blossoms

Past quivering cottonwood leaves

To echo in the deep blue

That turns black as a bruise

While the lonesome chords

Encircle my heart

And constrict

 

As I stare at the calendar

Alone

Waiting for whip-poor-wills

 

© Glenda Faye Mathes, May 2016

The poem’s persona is imaginary, but grows more real to me as I age. The whip-poor-will echoes in my mind may haunt me, but whatever losses in my life, I wait for a return far more significant. I look for the return of the King of whip-poor-wills and every other created being.

 

 

What inspires creativity?

Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006
Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006

How does a writer fuel the creative muse? What role could poetry or music play? Could sermons or scripture generate creativity?

For years, I’ve believed poetry–or at least being familiar with good poetry–elevated prose. The instructor for my first creative writing course (more than 20 years ago) taught a unit on poetry before teaching prose, saying, “If you know how to write poetry, you’ll write better prose.” He was right.

Being able to recognize assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, and a host of other literary techniques makes you a better reader. And being able to judiciously implement technique enlivens any writing. I’m not advocating going through your manuscript and thinking, “How can insert a literary technique here?” Rather, a literary mindset leads to fresh ways of expressing thoughts and techniques that tumble into the manuscript unsought.

My Word Weavers meeting this week discussed the place of poetry in prose writing. One of my fellow Weavers recalled advice to begin each day or work session by writing a poem. This reminded me of poets John Piper and Edward Taylor. Oh, you thought those guys were ministers? Yep.

Piper is a contemporary Christian minister of Desiring God fame, the ministry name drawn from his bestselling book. He often prepares for writing sermons by crafting poetry. His poems can be found on the ministry website. He gives some great advice for how to begin writing poetry here, recommending Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook for beginning poets. I’m not familiar with Ted Kooser, but the title intrigues me. And I’m very familiar with Mary Oliver’s poems, some of which are among my favorites, especially this one with its beautiful conclusion: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

Edward Taylor may not be as familiar. He was a Puritan minister and poet and “one of the finest literary artists of Colonial America,” according to this biography. He became my friend many years ago, when I discovered him in this collection.

When I hear a vivid sermon by a passionate preacher, I often feel moved by my personal muse. Some of my best poems have been inspired by sermons. Reflecting on Scripture or other devotional material before beginning my work day can trigger creative energy.

My most creative thoughts arise from my daily early morning quiet time, lying in bed and communing with God in what I call “the votive silence” (you can read my 2006 reflections on how I came to adopt that phrase here). My joke, based on something a fellow participant said at a writer’s mentoring retreat several years ago, is referring to this morning time as being “sack-religious.”

Until this morning, I hadn’t considered music instrumental in fueling creativity. In fact, I thought it too distracting, believing I could accomplish more without jarring notes or someone else’s words drawing me out of my creative process. I even commented about this recently on a Facebook thread. Today I found this post on “Finding Your Way To ‘Other Time'” by Doug McKelvey over at The Rabbit Room website. McKelvey is a songwriter who also writes juvenile fiction, such as The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (another intriguing title).
And the music clips he links into his post definitely intrigue me. I haven’t taken time to check all of them out, but I’ve listened to enough that I believe I may have to adjust my thinking about music fueling muse.
What do you think? What fuels contribute to your creativity?

Creativity and Productivity

100_2684At the beginning of a new year, many people implement innovative strategies to increase productivity and meet specific goals. I usually consider ways to make better use of my time, work smarter, and get more accomplished. Like others who work creatively, I struggle with bringing projects to completion.

Is it possible to be productive and creative? Doesn’t creativity spring from quiet contemplation while productivity is achieved only through focused work?

While quiet contemplation is often the catalyst for writing poetry or discovering creative ways to phrase a thought, I believe it’s possible to be productively creative–or creatively productive.

Are you there with me, thinking about ways to increase both productivity and creativity? Maybe you’ve already started a new schedule or time management technique. I usually attempt some new practices, but few strategies last the year.

Success comes more from attitude adjustments than band-aid strategies. Some helpful advice I read last year wasn’t directed specifically at writers. But the basic principles apply to anyone whose work is creative, people commonly known today as “creatives.”

In The Creative Habitdancer Twyla Tharp describes how routine generates creativity. If you’re not familiar with and practicing the steps daily, new ways to use them won’t occur to you. It works the same with writing. If you’re not writing every day (or nearly every day), creativity remains elusive. Near the beginning of her book, Tharp writes:

I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosophical tug of war will periodically raise its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dionysian act of inspiration, a kiss from God on your brow that allows you to give the world The Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.

If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is called The Creative Habit. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell (p. 7).

Tharp’s words resonated with me. I used to think writers were an elite few, born with a creative brain and blessed with a special endowment of creative imagination that made the words flow effortlessly from their pens. Now I know they use keyboards. (Just kidding!)

I also now know that writing takes work. You may be blessed with a high intellect and a great imagination. You may receive revelation or direction that you recognize as a divine gift. But that doesn’t mean you can write a book without work. I don’t know anyone who crafts a manuscript of literary excellence without applied effort. Period.

The most basic principle of writing is you must work at it. You can’t fritter away time on Twitter (I still resist that siren song) or Facebook (I confess my guilt), simply hoping inspiration will hit while you’re browsing status updates. Many of those updates only increase your guilt or feelings of inferiority. They certainly aren’t going to inspire you to write the next paragraph in your novel.

But authors are encouraged to be active in social media. It’s part of building our platforms and increasing our tribes. So what to do? It’s all about finding balance, that aspect of the writing life that feels like standing on the backs of two circus ponies. Kind of like this viral Volvo truck ad with Van Damme doing his epic split.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out. And then watch this spoof featuring Chuck Norris, which made the rounds during the Christmas season.

Did I mention part of my productivity problem is that I’m easily distracted? Back to recent reading I’ve found helpful.

As I was saying, writers need to find a balance between building platform and allowing social media to sap their time and energy. More and more people recognize the addictive character of social media, and many post helpful suggestions for curbing technology urges.

John Meyer, founder and CEO of Lemonly, provides a list of Eight Simple Tips to Banish Low Productivity (the link takes a bit to load, wait for it).

An interesting book I purchased last year is Todd Henry’s The Accidental Creative. While Henry writes primarily for a corporate audience, I found his basic principles intriguing. Essentially, he advocates establishing a “Creative Rhythm” in your life through structuring these five elements: Focus, Relationships, Energy, Stimuli, and Hours. Henry writes:

Practices in each of these five areas (F-R-E-S-H) provide the foundation for a life that is prolific, brilliant, and healthy (p. 22).

Who doesn’t want to be prolific, brilliant, and healthy? While that sounds like a claim more far-fetched than the Churck Norris split, I appreciate Henry’s FRESH formula because he includes the crucial elements of relationships and stimuli. These things are often overlooked in corporate models, but are important aspects of the Christian life.

A believer’s relationship with Christ affects his or her relationships with others. And a Christian’s most inspiring stimuli often comes through worship and meditation.

Busy writers tend to view relationships and stimuli as distractions, but the right attitude can help us appreciate these aspects of our lives and recognize them as part of a rhythm that increases productivity AND creativity.

What helps you increase both in your life?

Makoto Fujimura’s recommendations on creativity

Picture on World magazine’s website.

Well-known artist Makoto Fujimura recommends on the Christianity Today site his top five books on creativity. If you click on that last hyperlink, you’ll see his five are:

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde

On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry

Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle

The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers

Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot

Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker has been one of the most influential books I own, shaping my concept of creativity as mirroring the Creator. I’m also familiar with Eliot’s Four Quartets, but have yet to read the others.

In 2006, I interviewed Makoto for Christian Renewal. A slightly edited version of that interview, “Refracting Light and Reflecting Grace,” appears here.

In addition to being an extraordinary artist, commissioned to do the artwork for The Four Holy Gospels, ESV Bible, Makoto is the author of Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture. He’s the creator of the innovative Fujimura Institute, currently featuring the QU4RTETS project. As the founder of the International Arts Movement, he’s the catalyst for creative and cooperative efforts to resist the alienating effects of today’s fragmented society.

His recommendations on creativity certainly have value. Of the three I haven’t read, Walking on Water most intrigues me, but each piques my interest differently and I’m eager to read all three.