It occurred to me this morning that it might be helpful to think through one really annoying aspect of creative work, which is that every single time you sit down to make something, even if you’ve done this for years and know the routine, it feels like you’re starting from scratch. It feels like you have absolutely nothing to offer, nothing new to say, and whatever you’ve managed to get right in the past was just a fluke, and you’re not writing a song so much as reinventing the wheel. Or building the Space Shuttle out of matchsticks. While this is true in some ways, in others it isn’t true at all. Here’s what I mean.
It’s true because the creative act is and will always be a mystery to which we are only allowed the access of clarity for fleeting moments if at all. For ninety nine percent of the time the process is frustrating and difficult and tiresome. This is to be expected. Good things take work, and in the end God isn’t interested in the thing you’re making half as much as the person he’s making out of you. Work, pain, frustration, joy, patience: these are the tools God uses (along with many other things) to shape our souls. In this sense, then, the song is writing you. Every now and then, though, the veil is lifted and the subcreator gets to see the beautiful mechanism (wheels within wheels) at work behind the curtain, and the process of songwriting makes sudden and perfect sense. “So this is how you write a song,” you think. Then, just as suddenly, the veil falls back into place, the glow is gone, and the world seems drab by comparison. Has this ever happened to you? It’s tantalizing—just enough to make you want to pick up your guitar again in defiance of your fears.
But there’s another truth at work: you’re not starting from scratch.
Today is the official release of the new edition of Jonathan Rogers’s The Wilderking Trilogy. I wanted to write a few words to commemorate not just one of the best writers around, but a good friend.
Come with me, if you will, to Belmont University in the year 2005. Belmont hosted a C. S. Lewis conference called Past Watchful Dragons, which I attended for a number of reasons, none of which yielded anything nearly as impacting as my chance introduction to the Good Doctor Rogers. I had just released my fifth album, The Far Country, and because of the Lewis/Tolkien influence on those songs, I thought the conference might be a good opportunity to sneak my CDs into the gift bags of the attendees. (That album was released independently, so any crazy marketing ideas were carried out by yours truly.)
Towards the end of the conference Douglas Gresham (Lewis’s stepson) was signing autographs and I decided to wait in line and give him a copy of the record. After that extremely awkward interaction I saw another dude standing around. He leaned against the wall in a way that made me think he was much more smarter than I be. As I recall, he had under one arm a box of leftover Wilderking books which his publisher had also included in the gift bags; I was carrying a box of leftover CDs, expecting at any moment to be ejected from the premises. I remembered seeing The Bark of the Bog Owl on a display at the local Walmart, so when I saw his name tag I introduced myself and told him so. He was doubtful that the books had ever had such prestigious placement. What I didn’t tell Jonathan was that when I first saw his books I was a little jealous that he had beaten me to the punch. At the time I had been working on The Wingfeather Saga for a few years and had yet to find a publisher. Here was another Christian writing fantasy aimed at children—so I decided to finagle my way into his inner circle and thwart him. (It hasn’t worked. He just keeps writing awesome books.)
The Rabbit Room, both as a community and as a website, has been in a state of evolution since its inception.
It started as a glorified blog, the content of which was provided by a ragtag group of acquaintances and friends who had very little idea what they were getting into. We also sold used books by our favorite writers, books usually culled by Eric Peters and I from the shelves of bookstores around the country. Then the website evolved into a ragtag group of actual friends—no longer just acquaintances—whose enjoyment of music and books and writing spilled over into the website. We began to realize that the website was perhaps more than just a glorified blog, read by more than just our moms.
From John Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer, day one, morning. I removed the “thees” and “thous” as a matter of preference, and adjusted a few words to recast this as a prayer for the whole year. If you’re not familiar with Baillie’s book, I recommend it. I also heartily recommend a listen to Ben Shive’s song “New Year” and Eric Peters’s Birds of Relocation for more helpful meditations on the great mercy of starting fresh. Happy New Year, Rabbit Room friends.
Eternal Father of my soul, let my first thought be of you, let my first impulse be to worship you, let my first speech be your name, let my first action be to kneel before you in prayer.
For your perfect wisdom and perfect goodness;
For the love wherewith you love mankind;
For the love wherewith you love me;
For the great and mysterious opportunity of my life;
For the indwelling of your Spirit in my heart;
For the sevenfold gifts of your Spirit;
I praise and worship you.
Yet let me not, when this prayer is said, think my worship ended and spend this year in forgetfulness of you. Rather from these moments of quietness let light go forth, and joy, and power, that will remain with me through all the days of the year,
Keeping me chaste in thought;
Keeping me temperate and truthful in speech;
Keeping me faithful and diligent in my work;
Keeping me humble in my estimation of myself;
Keeping me honorable and generous in my dealings with others;
Keeping me loyal to every hallowed memory of the past;
Keeping me mindful of my eternal destiny as a child of yours.
O God, who have been the refuge of my fathers through many generations, be my refuge this year in every time and circumstance of need. Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.
Almost ten years ago I put my three kids to bed, told Jamie for the millionth time about my desire to write a novel, and with her blessing dug out my sketch pad to draw the first map of Aerwiar. I turned off the television (this is key) and sat in the recliner with my high school art supplies, eager to tell a story. As with any adventure, had I known how much work and time it would have taken, I might not have had the guts to start. I drew the coastline of Skree on the left, then for some reason on the right I drew another coastline and named the continent Dang. The expanse between was named the Dark Sea of Darkness. I grinned like the geek I was, sharpened my pencil, and began the work of filling in the details. Eventually, Glipwood sprang out of the map, and the Wingfeather children sprang out of Glipwood. But who were they? And why did their story need to be told?
If you’ve been hanging around the Rabbit Room for any length of time, you’ve read about two of our favorite things: Hutchmoot and Laity Lodge. If you don’t know what Hutchmoot is, I encourage you to click this link. If you don’t know what Laity Lodge is, click this one. If you’re not all that into clicking links and want the quick summary, here it is:
Hutchmoot is a yearly gathering in Nashville for people who like good stories, good music, good food, and community. Laity Lodge is a beautiful retreat center in the Hill Country of Texas where many in our community have experienced life-changing rest. Well, thanks to our friends at Laity Lodge, and in response to quite a few emails from those of you who are frustrated that Hutchmoot (capped at 135 registrants) sells out too quickly, we’ve cooked up the mashup of the century, and we’re calling it the Hutchmoot Retreat. It’s happening at Laity Lodge, February 20-23, 2014.
(Photos by Mark Bell)
On the north coast of Ireland there’s a town called Castlerock, where I left a bit of my heart. I’ve thought about it every day since our return to Nashville. In fact, if ever go missing from the States for a few years and you need to find me, it should be the first place you look. You may see me happily repairing an old boat on the beach, just like Andy Dufresne. The town rests on the white shores of the North Atlantic between crags and green fields. It’s flanked by the mouth of the River Bann on the right and an old castle ruin called Downhill Estate on the left. After a few days there my geek bells rang when I discovered that dear old C.S. Lewis came there regularly as a boy on holiday.
Since Northern Ireland is proud (and rightly so) of its connection to C.S.L. many places there claim to be the inspiration for Narnia, but none have as strong a claim as quiet little Castlerock, where a train pulls into the station every two hours then disappears into a deep tunnel at the edge of town; or where you can still see the window where as little boys he and Warnie likely watched the train steam past; or where you can still walk the path to Downhill and encounter castle ruins, or a tangle of forest called the Black Glen. “This is Narnia,” said my new friend Mark proudly as he talked about his family’s front yard: a field of waving wheat with Downhill castle off in the distance. In fact, here’s a great picture among many that Mark took just a short walk from his house.
We walked the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. People told me that of all the places on the island of Britain, Edinburgh was their favorite. I had seen London and Oxford, both of which have their own great beauty, so I was skeptical. But after a week there, I was ready to sell the house and move, even if the thick Scottish brogue was almost impossible for me to understand.
One of the highlights of the trip was the bus tour, led by a friend of a friend, a pastor named James (who supposedly was written about in Erwin McManus’s The Barbarian Way. The family and I sat on the open upper story of one of those red tour buses, rolling through the streets of the old city while James told us fascinating bits of history. Being a typical American, I of course asked him his opinion of Braveheart. I’ll save his answer for another, more testosterone-charged post.
After the bus tour, James asked if we wanted to “have a bit of a wander” so he could tell us more of the Christian history of the great city, which I’m glad we did. The stories he told were enlightening and terribly sad. At the end of the tour we stood on the main drag, the Royal Mile, next to a heart-shaped patch on the pavement called the Heart of Midlothian. Here’s what Wikipedia says about it.
Visitors to Edinburgh will often notice people spitting on the Heart. A tolbooth (prison) stood on the site, where executions used to take place. The heart marks its doorway: the point of public execution. Some people spit on the Heart. Although it now said to be done for good luck, it was originally done as a sign of disdain for the former prison. The spot lay directly outside the prison entrance, so the custom may have been begun by debtors on their release.
That may be true, but according to James it isn’t the whole truth. The Heart of Midlothian is now the emblem for a Scottish football (soccer) team, and much of the spitting comes from people loyal to their rival. Either way, in the space of about ten minutes we saw about fifteen people pass and spit on the heart without a thought. There wasn’t even a pause in their conversation or their stride. They spat without a glance, as habitually as if they were genuflecting in church. For luck? Spite? Who knows.
[I wrote this to encourage every single person on earth to purchase Beyond the Frame, the new album by Andy Gullahorn. Get it here. There's also a great review of the album by Jonathan Rogers here. --AP]
“Write it like you would say it.”
I can’t tell you how many times over the years that maxim has snapped me out of whatever florid garbage I was writing. It’s a good idea to emulate your heroes, to ask yourself when you get to the bridge, “What would Paul Simon do?” Or when you happen upon a guitar part which, miracle of miracles, sounds unique enough to try and build a song on upon, to ask, “How does James Taylor get into a part like this?” Steal boldly, I say.
But most often, when I’m scribbling in a notebook the nonsense that I hope will become a not-unbearable song, when it’s late and I’m sleepy and I’m stuck, stuck, stuck, I remember these words: “Write it like you would say it.” It usually opens the door to the lyric I was looking for. It keeps me from putting on airs, which we’re all prone to do. People can spot a fake a mile away. It’s the difference between reading a speech from a podium and looking someone in the eye and telling them “I love you.” It communicates to the listener that you’re not pulling any punches but you’re not blocking any either. “Trust me,” it says. “This might hurt, but if we make it out alive we’ll be better for it.”
[Editor's note: This post was written about a month ago. Do not be led into a space-time paradox by the opening line.]
[All photos by Aedan Peterson.]
Can I tell you about last night?
Part of the reason for this self-indulgent post is that our time in Wales is possible in part to an anonymous donor, and this is the best way I know to show my gratitude. We’ve been gone for more than a month now, and so much has happened that I won’t burden you with the details. The highlights: a wonderful 3.5 weeks in Sweden, during which time I made good progress on The Warden and the Wolf King and visited the ruins of the cottage where my great-grandfather was born. Then I got a kidney infection, an illness that knocked me out of the game for six fevered days and ended in a hospital visit on the island of Gotland. I recovered, and we pushed on to Norway, then hopped across the channel to London, where, like good Americans, we did everything we possibly could between the four concerts last week. That means the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, a play on West End, the British Museum, the National Gallery, Platform 9 3/4, and too many London Underground train rides to count. Needless to say, I didn’t get much Wingfeather writing done that week.
(I’m leaving out our visit to Oxford for now, because there’s no time. But trust me: it was magical.)
During the London stay we had a single show in Wales, so we took a train from Paddington Station to Bridgend. When we got off the train we were greeted by two great guys, Phil and Von. Phil is a South African pastor, Von is an American musical missionary. Stepping out of the station in Wales after having spent a hectic-but-awesome week in London was like easing into your favorite chair after a good day’s work. The countryside! It’s impossible to avoid comparing it to the Shire. I even heard that Tolkien may have based the Shire on Wales (and hobbits on Welsh folk, a comment that rankled the one whom I mentioned it to). We spent the day in the ancient town of Llantwit Major, played a blast of a concert in an old church (along with a local folk band called Valhalla), and even paid a visit to a 1,000 year old pub in the country, which was started by monks. It was a lovely day. The next morning we took a deep breath and boarded the train back to London for two more concerts. I SO wish I had the time and energy to tell you everything, and that you had the time and energy to care. We’ll have to save it for Hutchmoot or something.
Oy, lads and lasses. I’m writing this from the front steps of a little flat in Edinburgh where the Petersons are shacking up for the week. This evening we walked the Royal Mile down from the castle to the sound of a dude playing bagpipes, and it was as awesome as it sounds. Something else awesome? The accents. I can barely understand what the Scots are telling me (especially the cabbie), but I’m happily oblivious. I just answer, “Aye,” and occasionally scream, “FREEDOM!”
Last week my family and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon in Oxford, England, where of course we stopped in at the Eagle and Child, the pub which inspired the Rabbit Room. It feels a bit like a tourist trap nowadays. Not only were there Lord of the Rings quotes on the walls, but I’m pretty sure every accent I heard in the place was American. We’re such suckers for this kind of thing, apparently. But still! That little back room with Lewis and Tolkien pictures on the wall, the fireplace, the copy of the document whereupon the Inklings, after eating a particularly good ham, signed their names and drank to the health of the proprietor of the Eagle and Child, casts an undeniable spell. It’s an irresistible stop for any traveler who loves Narnia or Middle-Earth.
So this guy named Evan Weppler was visiting Oxford about a month before us, and when he learned Team Peterson was planning to visit the original Rabbit Room, he came up with a great idea. I didn’t tell the kids what it was, but I told them something pretty cool was going to happen when we got to the Eagle and Child. We found our table in the Rabbit Room, ordered our food, then I told them, “Watch this.” I looked over the books on the shelves until I found a little white one about the Trinity. I flipped it open and out fell a folded note that said, “To the Peterson family.”
I knew this would happen. We flew from Nashville to Stockholm on Tuesday, arrived in a fog of half-sleep, ate some pizza for comfort more than hunger, and collapsed as though we might sleep for days. But then this. This tossing and turning in Sweden’s summer midnight, which is never totally dark, this weary awakeness in which I’m so tired I can’t sleep, where I’m obsessively and compulsively working out what time it is at home, working out how many Swedish crowns equals a dollar so I’ll know how much I really paid for that pizza, a head game made all the more irritating because of my ineptitude at math.
I’m not cranky, truly. Just jet-lagged. I couldn’t be more thankful to be here, safe and sound, with my sweet wife and three sweet kids in this little borrowed Stockholm flat, all four of them sleeping much better than I can right now. And so I give up on rest this first night of our adventure, and my thoughts turn to what led me here. There’s a long version and a short version, but I’m going to give you the ultra-short version: sometime late last year I realized that I was exhausted. There’s no better rest for me than being alone with Jamie and the kids, so we kicked around the idea of making this Sweden tour a family affair and trying to book enough concerts to pay for all of our plane tickets this time (this is my seventh tour over here). We realized furthermore that Aedan will be 15 this year, which means we’re running out of time for a trip like this. Well, one thing led to another, and we decided that if we’re crossing the dadburn Atlantic we may as well make it count, which led us to booking concerts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In addition to the shows (fifteen of them, I think), I’m trying to finish The Warden and the Wolf King while I’m here, and I’m really hoping that walking these ancient lands will season the story in the best way. “So much for rest,” I hear you thinking. But just having the family close by will be for me like riding the eye of the hurricane.
The trip only began yesterday, but I’ve already learned so much about life and the Lord and how faith might work. See, I’ve wanted to play in the U.K. for more than a decade, but it’s never worked out. I’ve wanted to bring my family to Sweden since my first visit ten years ago, but it’s never worked out. This year, though, we felt such urgency about the trip that we decided not to wait for the concerts to show up. Rather, we looked at the calendar, chose a window of time, then told as many people in the U.K. and Sweden: “We’re coming this summer and we’re looking for help.” Not, “We’d love to come, but we can’t unless we get X number of gigs.” Not, “Let’s wait and see how this pans out, and maybe it’ll work.” We just decided to make our plans as if it was a done deal. This isn’t a blog about how to book a tour in Europe, of course, because what worked in this case might not ever work again, for you or for me. But now that I’m sitting in the half-light of Stockholm at 4:56 a.m. listening to my family sleep, I think back to a meeting with my manager and booking agent in January in which we decided that we weren’t going to wait for this to happen. We were just going to do it. It felt like Indiana Jones and the leap of faith.
I went to the doctor yesterday for the first time in years. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been sick; it means I’m the kind of stubborn fool who doesn’t like to take an ibuprofen for a headache, the kind of crank who would rather walk around squinting and snappy than to take the blasted aspirin. I just don’t like medicine. I prefer sweating it out, however inconvenient that is for the people around me. So after ten days of coughing and sniffling and whining I finally decided it must be a sinus infection. I have a show in a few days, and I can’t afford to be sick. So I bravely did what any man in my shoes would do: I asked my wife what to do. She told me which doctor to visit and I drove to the offices with a steely resolve. The nurse behind the sliding glass window handed me the clipboard with the dreaded New Patient Paperwork, and then the thing happened that made me want to write this.
The questions began. “Do you have any allergies?” “Do you drink caffeine?” “Do you use tobacco?” “If so, how often?” “Do you exercise regularly?” “Is there a history of heart disease in your family?” “Have you had any surgeries?
I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Osage Beach, Missouri. Ben Shive is in here, too, working on a string arrangement for the upcoming CALEB record. The weather is chilly, I’m a little homesick, I’m wearing three-day jeans, all adding to a pleasant melancholy brought on by the fact that today something is ending. A story that started last January, which actually started many years before that, about a little kid from Illinois who grew up and lost his way a million times but was found a million more by God himself, is reaching its final chapter tonight.
I’m glad. And, as I said, I’m feeling a little blue about it too. I’m glad because singing these songs every night has been painful. I’m sad because the little community that gathered to tell this story has been deeply encouraging and Christ-like in humility. You know, it’s not just music that makes high school kids want to be in bands–it’s brotherhood. It’s belonging. It’s that peace-giving fellowship of locking arms with friends in defiance of something. There are few things so moving as watching a team of people with diverse gifting, temperament, and background working together to accomplish something greater than any of them could do alone. It’s a good picture of the church. Whenever someone says, “I want to join a band,” I try to remember the word “band” is older than rock and roll. I think of Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men, or Shakespeare and his “band of brothers.” The kid isn’t just saying, “I want to play some songs,” he’s saying, “I want to belong to something.” I was that kid, so I know.
It’s Holy Week, so I dug up a few old writings and uploaded a live version of “Hosanna” in case you haven’t heard it. Click here to download it. Below are two very different pieces: first is the “about the song” paragraph that I wrote for the press kit. Second is the first of what someone named my Resurrection Letters. If you’re interested in the rest of the meditations, click here. I pray your celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus this week brings you great joy.
“Hosanna” is an old Hebrew word that means “Save us, now!”, which the Jews employed while they waved their palm branches and welcomed the Messiah into Jerusalem for the last time. Only in God’s Kingdom is a cry for help equal to a shout of praise. Once, the Jews asked Jesus for a sign to prove his authority. He declared that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it again in three days, a statement that I’m sure set them gasping and fanning their faces and running in circles. Some of them probably fainted dead away. The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus was talking about himself. But Jesus of Nazareth has plans to wreck us, too, and leave not one stone on another–-indeed, we should welcome it, because we know that Jesus has not just the power to lay waste, but to rebuild–-even his own body. And we all need rebuilding. This song is both a confession and a praise. To say to Christ, “Save me,” is to admit that you need saving, and also to acknowledge that only God is man enough to do it.
I. THE TRIUMPHAL ENTRY
Lord, forgive us.
We welcome you in because we think you’ll give us what we want. We act as if our true motives are hidden from you—you who made the world with a word. We spread our coats and wave our hands and cry “Save us!” and you ride with your back straight and your face drawn, accepting our hosannas because you know that even if the heart is false the words are true, and for now, that is enough.
You come in the name of the Lord. Son of David, you come to save us. You come to save a fickle people, who one minute cry for help and the next cry for blood, and it is both help and blood that you give us.
The sun shines hot on the city gate, and you feel the air move with the palm branches. You hear the hearts pumping in their chests. Their mouths cry “save us” while their hearts cry “give us what we want.” But because you are God you hear even deeper in the spirits of men and women and even children the silence of our profound loneliness. You hear the trickle of need we scarcely know ourselves.
You come to us though you know we’re praying to you for the wrong reasons, singing to you without the faintest notion of how powerful and just and holy you really are.
We don’t even realize the danger we’re in, crying for salvation from Caesar when the Devil himself is battering the door—crying like a baby for its bottle when a wolf is loose in the nursery.
And yet, you come.
You set your iron gaze on Jerusalem, and because the Father wants you to, you come.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.