At the age of 25, I have become a class A cynic. It’s a self-diagnosed disorder in which I choose to search for and highlight the flaws and failings in the creative expression of myself and others with the belief that it makes me some sort of expert or enhances my cool-factor.
I am reading a book by Elizabeth Gilbert called “Big Magic” about the magic to be found in creative living. And I realized it’s been a while since I truly believed in magic. Not pixie dust and Santa Claus magic, but the spark of joy from my creator that can be found in the love of creativity…especially as it pertains to music.
I moved to Nashville almost 8 years ago with very little cynicism and a lot of joyous expectation. I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college freshman on the campus of one of the most well-respected contemporary music schools in the country. I had stars in my eyes–not because I expected to become the next big superstar, but because being in a place where my primary focus was creative expression among other talented creatives was just so thrilling.
I voluntarily spent my evenings in the practice rooms writing very average songs with above average conviction and learning to play the piano because I believed I could. I had dreams of singing in an artist showcase–the big kahuna of student performance events. I recorded a very amateur demo in the smelly closet of a freshman audio major. I had a professor tell me that I should have been a pageant girl and that I should probably quit the voice program, and after a tearful afternoon, I picked myself up and chose to disbelieve his rash judgment of my talent.
As the years progressed, I became acquainted with a new friend. Her name was cynicism. I can’t remember who introduced us. Maybe it was an older student I respected or a jaded professor or a weary industry veteran. In Nashville (or any creative place for that matter), cynicism has a lot of social connections. She came with me to the practice rooms and assisted me by reminding me that nothing I did was ever really good enough and everyone else was more talented and qualified than me. She sat with me at church and at concerts and helped me nitpick the performers and worship leaders. She introduced me to self-doubt and fear; we made a really powerful team. Under their influence, I began listening to music less for fun and seeing practice as a chore rather than a joy. I mastered the art of crippling self-editing and procrastination.
Many times I ignored cynicism and her posse, and throughout college I still maintained a overriding sense of joy and optimism in my craft. I achieved many of the goals I set out to accomplish. I released my first short album, I spent two years in the jazz vocal ensemble that I so aspired to be a part of, and I made the cut for that showcase. The Lord continued to remind me that my creativity is a gift from him to be used and enjoyed.
Now, four years later, I have spent the last four years working on the business end of the music industry. And boy does cynicism have a fan base in this world. Her friends are not ill-intentioned (for the most part), but they are everywhere.
I now find myself joining the masses who fold our arms at concerts instead of raising our hands and have a judgment and criticism for every aspiring or existing artist. I read articles about how the music industry is dying and Christian music sucks and streaming is taking the place of digital music sales which took the place of cds and nobody can make a living and touring is hard and marriages are failing and only the lucky few can ever really find happiness and fulfillment in the art of music making. The rest of us just try to do our best to get by and maybe our art can make one person happy. Sometimes I can’t remember what it was like to love music just for the sake of it.
I see those same college freshman, or highschoolers, or young aspiring creatives, and I shake my head and say, “just you wait. It’s a rough world out there, kid”, with a feigned sense of superiority. Ew. I’m embarrassed to admit that I actually think that way sometimes.
Moral of the story: I have taught myself to believe a whole lot of bull.
The truth of the matter is: it is a rough world out there. Making a living in art is not and has never been an easy road. It’s a world of harsh criticism and apathy. The decision makers are subjective. There’s not a clear cut path to success.
But I think I’ve missed the point completely.
The most joyful moments of creative expression in my life thus far didn’t make me a single penny. I didn’t do them for the acclaim or for the pat on the back.
At least in this stage of my life, when I have a great day job, I don’t have to rely on my creativity to make a living, so why am I not the most joyful creative on the planet? There’s so little pressure in reality, so why do I not create with freedom and abandon? And, more than that, why do I judge and envy those who do?
When I was writing my first songs at the age of 7 (remind me to sing you the masterpieces called God Is The Light and I’m Going On a Mission With God), I honestly didn’t care if someone successful said they were the best thing they’d ever heard. (Although, I’m sure my naive seven-year-old self probably thought they were amazing.) I just created because it came out of me and because it was so fun.
God didn’t make peonies and tulips and sunsets and butterflies because he wanted us to say “Good job, God. Here is a prize for creative excellence and a paycheck to prove Your worth.” Honestly, I’m not completely sure why He created those things. But, I imagine it had something to do with the fact that He is God, and He is good, and beauty is a natural outpouring of that.
I am a child of God, a representative of Him here on this earth. Shouldn’t I find joy in creativity just because it’s good and wonderful? I’ve never been in a life-or-death creative crisis. Nothing truly serious rides on my success or failure. So why am I so afraid to try?
As Gilbert would say in Big Magic, fear is boring. Everyone fears. Why not be bold and actually enjoy the art of creativity? Why not think to myself, “Wow! What a complete honor to be able to write songs about God’s goodness!”?
It’s human nature to want approval and to seek success. And it is also important that we pursue excellence in our craft. A little bit of cynicism is healthy. There’s nothing wrong with making a living of art. But, art is really all about joy anyway. We don’t create art to save the world or to solve world hunger or to cure cancer. We create art because it enriches life. And, if it’s not bringing me joy in the creation, why do I force myself to participate?
I recently released an EP. Five songs that I carefully crafted and recorded. There was a lot of fear tied up in the creation of that project. People keep asking me how it’s doing, and I feel like I need to give them some impressive stat about its success. The other day someone asked me, and I felt compelled to simply say, “I released it. It’s on iTunes for people to hear. I’m really proud of it, and I count it a personal and spiritual victory that I released it at all. It was a lot of fun.”
And that’s really ok if that’s all there is to it.
I have had people say some nice things about it. Some people have bought it. I think it’s pretty decent music. But why do I always temper my joy with qualifications like “I mean sure it was fun, but, you know, it’s not like it’s going to be that successful or anything”?Sure, it probably won’t, but why give that disclaimer? Why, when people ask if I’m an artist, do I respond with “No. I just try to do music on the side. It’s tough, you know?”?
Why do I harp on the struggles and bemoan the difficult creative existence? Why do I make excuses?
There is certainly a place for criticism and for objectively looking at art and thinking “that isn’t any good at all.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion about artistic expressions. It is also unrealistic for everyone who finds joy in creativity to believe they are destined for a career in the arts. But so what? What if the only thing that happens is that they created something that glorified God and brought them joy? Is that really so bad? And what if someone writes a scathing review or tells them it stinks? If that’s the worst that could happen, is it truly a reason never to have created it in the first place?
I’m not going to stop critically assessing music, and I’m certainly never going to achieve complete separation from my good friend cynicism. She is like a live-in relative, and it’s best when she has her own kitchen so she doesn’t have to share my space all the time. I could use her help in distinguishing between my own works of excellence and stuff that’s better suited for the waste basket. But, above all, I’m going to try finding joy in art again. Because that’s why we love art in the first place. I’m going to try not to emulate my peers who look at the music industry with disdain while simultaneously devoting their lives to it. I just don’t see the point in that. I want to find joy in creating art and cheer on others who do the same. I want to be an encourager.
God gifted us with art, and we have the privilege to partner with him in creating it and reveling in it. What joy. Whether it’s blogging, poetry, drawing, painting, or simply enjoying those things.
“Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” Psalm 100:2