Tag Archives: making art

Why Writers Never Have to Worry about Failure

They always say write what you know.

And what I know best is not my few successes, but my endless failures.

Oh, I’m a failer. I fail! Over and over. Stick around long enough and you’ll get to see it!

Or just wait a few seconds.

And I’ve been doing this editing thing for the better part of 20 years, managing book edits, and failing at it big time. All the time.

I miss things every day. I miss deadlines. I forget to call. I don’t follow up. I miss the point and end up frustrating people. Or worse, convincing them to try something that doesn’t work, overwhelm them, or even shut them down.

And worst of all, I miss the point. Again and again. For instance…

I’m not qualified. Honestly, I’ve never felt qualified for this. I just love books and especially writers, learning from them, and listening, asking them questions, and walking with them.

It’s what I love. I don’t love eliminating mistakes, correcting oversights, and condensing. I do it as best I can, but I fail at it.

And today I wonder if I accepted that failure more, if the work could become more, and maybe the books themselves too.

Maybe not—maybe writers don’t want such realness and honesty. Maybe they only want to see I’m extremely skilled and competent. It’s just extremely humbling how often I’m anything but. And when I inevitably mess up, I think there may be a higher purpose in that…maybe even a useful one.

Wendell Berry says it may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work. Practically speaking, if editing is my real work maybe it’s a good sign I don’t actually know how to do it.

But I think maybe my real work is being a good failer and demonstrating that very humbling reality as best I can.

Some part of me loves this idea–could be the lazy me. Or it’s the idea of rejecting that perfectionistic standard people have about professional editors. (Do I need to mention I was a pastor’s kid?)

Excellence is an important goal. But only grace can comfort us.

Can we really love people well without showing grace?

Ask your average writer what book they first loved. I’ve mentioned mine before: Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved the passion of Meg Murray. She was a misfit, but that made her special, and her keen observation set her apart. I couldn’t have expressed it when I first read it as an 11-year-old, but it gave me hope knowing that the very thing that made her feel like a fool, like a failure, like a misunderstood misfit, was what made her the chosen hero.

She just had to let it out. Let it show.

We like to think of our heroes, even Jesus, as strong and capable and standing victorious on the mountaintop with the wind blowing in their hair. Why do we think that’s what a hero is when all the stories we’ve ever loved show that’s not a hero at all?

In their failure, they made us feel known, seen, heard, understood, comforted. Loved.

Everyone wants to be chosen. Isn’t it in our weakness, in our wounds and our struggles, that we most need to feel that?

I even fail at this. Which means I can probably trust this is what every writer needs, what every person needs: someone to listen and ask them the simple questions that draw them out and make them feel comfortable and accepted. And I do this every day, and it brings me something too, the very thing I’m looking for. It begins manifesting in my own life, this comfort and acceptance. This assurance of grace.

I don’t know why I got so lucky, and a lot of people think they have the greatest job in the world. And maybe they do. Maybe if they get to do this and embrace their failure for a higher purpose too, I can believe it.

Oh, and I still fail to do it, or even want to daily. I just know every day brings the choice: will you fill your own needs today or fill others? And who among us doesn’t realize which is the best choice?

Yeah, still that horrible fear of not having our specialness seen, loved, chosen, it makes us all choose the selfish way sometimes.

But don’t we also find hope knowing that the failure that makes us feel unworthy is actually irrelevant?

Is this another way to show what sacrificial love means?

We’re afraid and incompetent and selfish and lost–and still worthy of deep, real love!

We can fail to write well. We can fail to write for others. And yet success is what every finished book eventually reveals, even as they’re written and edited by total failures.

Maybe what we need most is also what everyone needs most: grace.

Maybe it’s even okay we forget this over and over. Maybe we’re always going to fail to remember it and maybe that’s why we have to read it and reread it and fail at writing it so many times before we can truly live this way consistently.

I don’t know. Maybe we all just need people willing to risk failing us, willing to risk us failing them.

The struggling, disillusioned, the weary and weak, we all need to see that failure doesn’t matter. Grace is irrespective of failure. I want to start showing that more so my writers can write freer, and maybe (hopefully) start living freer, to show others how to be freer too.

It could be only in finding failure no longer matters that we find our greatest success.

And if so, maybe we don’t even have to worry about failing to remember that.

For the higher purpose,

Creativity and the Holy Pursuit of Delight

As I came to map out the work week with Sheri this morning, I made space to sit at the dining room table that looks out on the forest, reclaiming an edge from her paper collage experiment.

My desktop image. I call it “voyagers.”

I make efforts to be gentle and remind her not to apologize.

It’s not the laptops and cellphones we should be making space for, after all, but the more uncommon beauty that takes time to be arranged.

It’s not uncommon to find Charlotte hard at work on a project here, or artwork from one of Ellie’s ad hoc drawing games.

They’re beautiful rough drafts, unfinished, forever in process.

And so are their artworks. :)

Often, there’s music notation or photos cut from magazines or several books stacked up for school projects with pages sticking out of them. An unexpected visitor could wonder if we live on a diet of multicolored paper. And we’re obviously over-indulgers.

In fact, you’ll find paper in every room of the house (not even including the rolled kind or the kind that comes in tissue boxes). Multiple books, notebooks, manuscripts, drawings, and plans are stashed, stacked and strewn in their respective locations, waiting to be reingested.

Like cud. :)

And for some reason this morning I stopped to wonder why. We each have our digital devices, but why this deep vice of consuming paper? We hang it on walls, give it as gifts, organize our lives around it. And no one ever talks about reduction, only increase.

If the trees could see in the windows, they might turn on us and start throwing their fruit and pinecones.

An observant person might see all this paper as evidence of an obsession with creativity. Their shared passion is for the words, music and pictures we’re preserving, an insatiable appetite born of a deep curiosity.

I believe it’s a sacred inner fire: the holy pursuit of delight.

How do they determine what makes it onto a page? Some ideas need to be chewed a while, to reshape things in your mind and heart. Some things you keep coming back to over and over, teaching you how to listen and growing your ability to hear them. Some are waiting for their right moment to show you how to more fully engage with life.

Some of the smallest pieces can hold the biggest thoughts you’ve ever had. And I don’t have to watch their faces to know there’s delight in every mark. Whether tentative or confident, every sweep of captured motion hints at a hidden world.

If you came to visit today and we had this discussion over coffee in the morning, or tea in the afternoon (or whiskey in the evening, I suppose, if you stayed that long), I’d submit that this pursuit of delight is our messy, introverted way to honor and delight our creative God.

As we make space for all of this, all we sense him speaking through, we feel a sort of shared delight if you will, equipping us to understand and take in more of our purpose in this journey.

We’re not unique in this, though we each have unique perspectives and gifts. And there’s beauty in all of it, though much of the time experiments fail and don’t live up to expectations. But the more we can realize what we’re really doing, and acknowledge that–“I am pursuing my holy delight”–the better we can pay attention when the voices of doubt and derision come.

What you acknowledge is what gets captured.

And you can write that down and stick it somewhere in your own messy house to come upon later. I share it in the hope that it will reshape you as it has me into someone more confident and less concerned with the appearance of mess.

For it’s a holy pursuit, this creative life. And we take time to be arranged and to realize the delight we’re a part of every day when we determine to capture even one more glimmer.

For it’s your own hearts we’re ultimately reclaiming, for the higher purpose,


How to Progress In Your Process

“Are we there yet?”

Remember how fun it is to travel with small kids? The longer the trip, the more this favorite question gets repeated, like a bad commercial.

I think that could be how God feels when we keep unfocusing on the real goal of art and start obsessing about the finish line.


Two quick examples. Several weeks ago, I got frustrated at a situation at church when a kid had a meltdown and the parent left me to handle it alone. It blinded me for several hours and eventually I felt ashamed of how I handled it.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, at my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I wanted to forget myself and simply enjoy others. I wanted to encourage the bride and groom and tell them how inspired and happy their love made me, how it lit them from within. The beauty was overwhelming and I felt lost in it, forgetting myself and so relaxed and happy.

Writers are a strange bunch, but we do share some things in common with human beings. One of them is that at our very core, we want others to see what we’re seeing. And writing is sort of a way to ask, “Are you seeing this?”

In both situations, I just wanted to get where I was going. “Look how amazing/terrifying/ridiculous/pitiful/horrible/whatever this is!” Not a bad thing, but I forgot my process.


At church, I thought sharing what I saw would help some people, help a relationship and maybe a kid’s development. At the wedding, I thought sharing my viewpoint could help fuel love and help spread it to others. I thought about Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

Good goal. Yet whether or not I got to share what I saw, I needed to remember what all artists will eventually learn, that life is an exercise in doing all you can to improve things in the midst of never quite getting to the finish line.

Downshift and consider this: the true artists’ questions are always the same: How did I do today? What progress can I celebrate? And what did I learn about my process?

Forget whether I shared what I saw or whether I created something that changed someone’s life forever. Cultivating awareness of my process to produce and express words, art, beauty, meaning, it can feel like a fruitful exercise, even dangerous. It feels like looking too closely at the how can unbalance the machinery.

But it’s also a necessity, an unavoidable business to encourage my development. Gaining insight and evaluating the machinery isn’t the same as messing with the works (which also is sometimes necessary). Getting a better look in there won’t automatically jinx the final product.

In fact, if I’d let go of my barricading attempts to control and predict the final product, I might see that greater awareness of my process is the best result–and the only real way forward.

Making art is not a choice for an artist, just like life is not a choice for the alive. Art, like life, is a process.


Which means, of course, it isn’t about a goal, a finish line. It’s about the middle. In the middle, it’s safe to say you can completely forget about the goal and focus on the rewards that are inherent in the journey.

(Are you hearing a favorite theme repeated in here?)

Of course, I easily forget this like everyone does, and I need reminders and encouragement to refocus and enjoy the process. But if I know it’s not about a personal victory at the finish line far out there on the horizon somewhere, maybe I won’t need quite so many reminders.

Also, while community is often essential to continuing on the journey, we can’t allow ourselves to get too focused on feedback. Like Bayles and Orland write in Art and Fear, others can’t tell whether you’re making progress or if you’re doing what you should merely by looking at a finished product. They frequently don’t know or care what went into your work because they only see the tip of the iceberg. Our focus on process must respect that we’re in a relationship with our process. And our true work is protecting, preserving and promoting that over all else.


In the beginning and in the middle of the journey, we must be more focused on process over product. We must make room to let go of our obsession with the end goal to see the little details at our feet. Finished pieces will not define our work. The goal is not producing anything; the goal is awakening, being more aware with every day and becoming more alive. Living with this focus more of the time will produce a continually improving string of works.

With greater awareness of the mechanics of your process, seeing what others too easily miss will become easier. It will be your advantage over the more common crafters. Practicing this presence of mind will increase your insight into what others miss, revealing undetected inaccuracies, omissions, faults in logic, form and structure that a less-focused artist miss by relying on what he thinks he already knows about creating.

To gain a relationship with your process is to gain your true reward.

Pay attention to it. And count it as the true goal to be celebrated. Because that will never be more vital, nor will anything you ever produce be more rewarding.

Practicing this will grow in habitual awareness, and inevitably to ever greater progress.

Acknowledge the oppositions of distraction and frustration, and make progress anyway. Everyone struggles. Everyone faces derailments specific to them. But those who face them and learn how to not quit succeed.

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them you need only to see your work clearly—without judgment, without need of fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs—not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.” – David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear

Be always on the way and you’re already there.

Never arrive.

For the Higher Purpose,


A special thanks to my amazing friend Tina Howard for the gift of Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland