from “Adorning the Dark” by Andrew Peterson
You mumble a phrase. It’s gibberish, but it suggests a melody. You’ve gotten melodies in your head before, but this one feels different, like it’s made of something stronger and older. You notice this because you’re able to repeat it, and you like it, and you sing it again and again, enough times that you pull out your phone and record it. As soon as you get it down, you forget about it and move on.
Skip ahead a few days. Now you have your guitar in your lap. Fear and self-doubt are taunting ghosts at either shoulder. You try to find some combination of chords that doesn’t sound like everything else you’ve ever played, or everything everyone else has ever played. But after twenty minutes you’re sick of yourself and your guitar and the weather and your lack of talent. Then with a thrill of hope you remember that voicemail message you left yourself in the moment of mumbled inspiration. You listen to the voicemail, and you’re disappointed. It’s not terrible, but it’s missing whatever magic it had before. With nothing else to do, you try and find the chords that the mumbling melody wants. You play it through on the guitar a few times in standard tuning, key of G—the same four chords you learned when you were in eighth grade. Then you capo it up and try it with a different voicing. You happen upon a little pull-off with your index finger, a slightly different way of playing the same old chord. That sparks a melody that suits the gibberish a little better, and like a dying man in the desert who discovers a cactus, you get just enough juice to keep crawling. “O God,” you pray, “I’m so small and the universe is so big. What can I possibly say? What can I add to this explosion of glory? My mind is slow and unsteady, my heart is twisted and tired, my hands are smudged with sin. I have nothing—nothing—to offer.”
Write about that.
“What do you mean?”
Write about your smallness. Write about your sin, your heart, your inability to say anything worth saying. Watch what happens.
And so, with a deep breath, you strum the chords again, quieting the inner taunts, the self-mockery. And you sing something that feels somehow like an echo of the music and the murky waters you’re wallowing in and the words you mumbled several days ago. Then, after hours and days of the same miserable slog, something happens that you cannot explain: you realize you have a song. Behold, there is something new under the sun.
Writing about writing is precarious. On one hand it could be terribly self-indulgent, while on the other it could be terribly boring—both of which are cardinal sins when it comes to the written word. I spent way too much money on books about writing before Reed Arvin, a record producer-turned-novelist, told me, “Trash all those books about writing. Just sit down and write the darn book.” (Only he didn’t say “darn.”) I didn’t throw all the books away, but I did stop reading them. There are a few that did me some good, and even fewer that did more than offer up pointers on writing—they taught me to think about the creative act as a kind of worship, as a way to be human.
Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do. I ask myself when I feel God’s pleasure, in the Eric Liddell sense, and it happens—seldom, to be sure, but it happens—when I’ve just broken through to a song after hours of effort, days of thinking, months of circling the song like an airplane low on fuel, searching desperately for the runway. Then I feel my own pleasure, too, a runner’s high, a rush of adrenaline. I literally tremble. There is no proper response but gratitude. The spark of the idea was hope; the work that led to the song was faith; the completion of the song leads to worship, because in that startling moment of clarity when the song exists in time and history and takes up narrative space in the story of the world,—a space that had been empty, unwritten, unknown by all who are subject to time—then it is obvious (and humbling) that a great mystery is at play.
I hope it’s clear that I’m not talking about the quality (or lack thereof) of the song itself. That’s irrelevant. The point is, time is unfolding like a scroll, and we’re letters on the parchment, helping to make up the words that tell the story. Each of us is a character, in both senses of the word. At times, characters become aware that they’re part of a story, and that brings the realization that, first, there is an author, and second, they are not him.
This realization is good and proper, and leads into the courts of praise, if not the throne room itself.
I wish I were a contemplative like Merton. I wish I could order my thoughts and follow them to their ends. I wish I could track an idea to its logical or illogical conclusion the way C. S. Lewis did. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that I can’t learn without doing; I won’t know the story until I write it down. As long as the idea stays in the conceptual realm it withers.