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Process: Starting from Scratch

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. You’ve done this before. You know how this works. If you wrote a song once, it must be possible to do it again, right? Songs exist. Humans write them. I am a human. Therefore it must be possible for me to write one—even if it ends up being lousy. You have the testimony of history on your side, Ebenezer stones dotting the landscape all the way to the horizon. It’s also the great blessing of the Bible. We have something the fathers of our faith didn’t have, at least not in the way we have it: perspective. We’re able to see in Scripture that when God makes a promise, he keeps it. We’re able to see the story as it has unfolded since the beginning, and so, though the future is dark, the past is pulsing with light.

So are we starting from scratch? Yes. And no. Every line in your notebook, every strum of your guitar is an act of faith. But you’ve been here before. Don’t be afraid.


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