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Everybody’s a “Creative”: A Rabbit Room Rant

This is a transcript of my opening remarks at Hutchmoot 2011, revised slightly to work as a post here. In case the spirit of the thing comes across as actual irritation, let me say that this is intended to be good-natured ranting, if there is such a thing. I have a lot of friends who use the terminology I’m poking fun at, and the last thing I want is to make enemies. This is just me raising my hand from the back of the class to ask if there’s a better way to think about the subject. –The Proprietor


Allow me to kick off Hutchmoot 2011 with a complaint.

Many of you have heard of “verbing”: the practice of using a noun as a verb. The very word “verbing” is a case in point. Other examples: friend, spam, and Google. You “table” a discussion. Concerts get “booked.” I get it. Language is a fluid thing, and part of the beauty of it is the way it changes with the times. Still, as Calvin said to Hobbes, “Verbing weirds language.”

Allow me to dialogue a little more with you about it. (See what I did there?)

There’s another word that’s popped up recently, and every time I’ve heard it or read it I’ve had some kind of reaction. It’s not a noun that’s been verbed—rather, it’s an adjective that’s been nouned. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I just verbed the adjective-ing of “noun,” and in this very sentence verbed “adjective” too.

Nouning verbs is a little more difficult, but it happens every time I go on a “run.” It happened a few minutes ago when I stood in line for Evie’s cooking. I thought to myself, “Gimme some eats.” And Evie, in a brazen case of verbing two nouns and employing  two nouned adjectives, with some hyperbole thrown in, likely thought to herself, “If Andrew comes back for thirds I’m going to fork him in the innards, and he won’t stomach that for a second.”

I’m certain that made no sense. Let me be clear: this phenomenon is nothing new, nor is it wrong. Again, it’s one of the things I love about language. But let me get to the point. The word I’m talking about, the one that galls me a little, is this: “creative.” I keep hearing people refer to themselves not as creative but as creatives. As in, “I’m a creative who works in the ministry,” or on the occasional Twitter bio, “I’m a wife, a mother, and a creative living in Punxatawney, PA.” I’m sure some of you are in this room, and that’s fine. But let me push back just a little, lest this “creatives” thing get out of hand.

I think what folks are trying to say is that they’re especially creative people, that they aspire to live a life of creativity, or perhaps to pursue a career in some artistic field. They believe themselves to be wired differently than normal people. To be honest, the first few times I heard someone describe themselves that way I thought it was kind of cool. I thought to myself, “Ooh, I want to be a Creative. Where do I sign up?”

What that tells me now is that there’s a sense of membership involved with the word, as if a new inner ring had been created, and I was outside of it. All I had to do to enter was to casually refer to myself and my friends as “creatives,” and I could be one too. A line had been drawn, and I wanted to cross it. It was just one more case, in my heart at least, of wishing I could sit at the cool table in the school cafeteria.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with naming. When my brother Pete first moved back to Nashville a few years ago, he hadn’t finished The Fiddler’s Gun yet, and was living in a fifth-wheel RV in my neighbor’s driveway. We can laugh about it now because, as many of you know, he was miraculously married a few weeks ago. But at the time, he was suffering from a degree of identity crisis and wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be doing with his life. We went to lunch with Russ Ramsey and Randy Draughon, two pastors at Midtown Fellowship, and Randy asked Pete, “So what do you do?” Pete poked his fork at his quesadilla for a moment, then said, “I have no idea. I’m just trying to find my way.”

That’s a fair answer. I think that’s true of all of us, to some degree. But I interjected, “He’s a writer. An excellent writer. He’s finishing up his first book.” Later that day we sat in the roach-infested RV and talked about this very subject. I told him something I learned from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life, and from many of my friends here in Nashville: if you’re going to be a writer, you have to make some changes. You have to order your life around the idea that you write. You adjust your paradigm. You fine-tune the way you see the world, the way you move through your days. You’re a writer, and that means you have to start paying attention–it also means you have to get to work. If you ask many Nashvillians what they do, they’ll tell you without batting an eye that they’re songwriters. Or they’re record producers, or authors. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s their full-time job. But in some measure it’s a way they spend their time, and maybe even make some money. I’d bet that in the beginning, most of them felt a little sheepish describing themselves as songwriters. But eventually, if you stick to it, and you’re adept enough for people to pay you to do it, you give up the fight and admit the truth: you’re a writer.

I encouraged Pete to overcome his fear of pretentiousness and start answering the question “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” Or at least, “I want to be a writer.” It’s important to pursue the outworking of your gift with intentionality and diligence. When I was growing up I would never have imagined that a regular person could actually become a novelist, or a film director, or a guitar player. Those careers were reserved for people of privilege, or at least people who knew some Great Secret that I didn’t. The only secret there is to know isn’t a secret at all: it takes a lot of work. Even then, it takes the miracle of Christian community to help you distinguish between your dreams and your gifting. My dream in high school was to pencil Batman comics. It wasn’t my gifting, though. I’m not saying God couldn’t have used me somehow had I doggedly pursued a job at DC Comics. But even though I love to draw and hope to grow as an illustrator, it couldn’t be clearer to me that my gift is very different from that dream to draw.

But there’s a difference between saying that you’re a writer or artist or musician and calling yourself a Creative. One answer tells us what you do, the other makes a claim about who you are. To say that you’re a songwriter implies, “I’m a person who writes songs.” To say that I’m a Creative implies, “I’m different than normal people. I’m a thing that you are not. I’m a creative person. You’re an uncreative person. No offense, man. It’s just the way I was awesomely made.” Now, I’m not saying that’s exactly what’s in the heart of everyone who calls themselves by that name–just me. I know my heart well enough to see how easily I could end up there. And eventually I’d find myself surrounded by a bunch of people who are just as pretentious as I am.

Now my annoyance is showing.

My point is this: we’re all creative. Tolkien coined the word subcreator. Some of you have likely heard me or someone else talk about that idea, but it bears repeating. He said, “We make in the manner in which we were made.” To put it another way, we serve a Creator, with a capital C. One of the ways in which we’ve been made in his image is that we also delight in creating. Everything we make is derivative and secondary, and in some manner draws attention to the primary creation, the truth, and the Creator himself. That means everyone on earth could justly label themselves a Creative. That means that even if you don’t wear hipster glasses, skinny jeans, and have Justin Bieber hair, you’re a Creative. It means that even if you’re a banker, a produce manager, or a doctor you’re a Creative. So allow me to reclaim that hijacked adjective, for the good of the world. None of us in this room is a Creative. But all of us are creative.

What that means is this: the Rabbit Room isn’t just for authors. It’s not just for writers or artists or musicians. It’s for people who love the arts, good stories, and fellowship, or maybe it’s for people who carry a great longing that feels like loneliness but is in truth the God-given ache that calls you home. I have a theory, friends, that that means the Rabbit Room is for every person. You may have come here without knowing why. You’re welcome here. You may, like me, feel uncomfortable at conferences. You’re welcome here. You may in fact be an artist of some kind. You’re welcome. All manner of Christian denominations are represented here. You’re welcome. Some of you may be struggling with mighty doubts. You’re welcome. Some of you may refer to yourselves as Creatives. You’re welcome, too. Seriously.

We have never wanted the Rabbit Room to be an esoteric place. We’ve never wanted our conversations to be stuffy or eccentric. That isn’t to say there’s no place for big ideas and brainy people to study them. But I want the Rabbit Room to be incarnational. That means that it is, hopefully, a place where big ideas take on flesh and descend to mingle with fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes and tentmakers—with normal folks like you and me. Our heads may be in the clouds, but our feet are on solid ground. People talk a lot about the intersection of faith and art. I want Hutchmoot to be about the intersection of faith and dinner. Or the intersection of faith and laughter. Or maybe the intersection of faith and frustration–or what about the intersection of faith and intense, debilitating, soul-crushing doubt. How about that? What about the intersection of time and eternity? What about a three-point intersection of faith and art and the smell of used books?

One of the things I loved most about Hutchmoot last year was that none of us had any idea what was about to happen. This isn’t a workshop. We’re not here to evaluate your works. We’re here to hang out, and to talk, and to see what happens at the intersection of faith and folks like us.

So this place is for lovers of good stories, good art, good songs, good food, and good conversation. I happen to think everyone on earth falls into that category. Not just Creatives. Tolkien described our creations as lights refracted from God, the pure and ultimate light:

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light Through whom is splintered from a single White To many hues, and endlessly combined In living shapes that move from mind to mind. Though all the crannies of the world we filled With Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build Gods and their houses out of dark and light, And sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed. We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Our hope is that in this incarnation of the virtual community in the Rabbit Room, the eyes of your hearts shine bright with the hope to which you’re called, that this weekend you would know with all of the saints, the height, the depth, the width, and the length of the love of God, whose earth is spilling over not just with his own creatures, but with men and women endowed with his image, scampering about like children on a playground, unable to help themselves from speaking into being these many lesser lights–lesser, but no less the Lord’s. So as we delight in these lesser lights, let us remember the Creator, to whom we owe our thanks, our deepest praise, our adoration, our admiration, and our allegiance.


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