The Burden of Purpose – When You’re Haunted by Your Creative Gift
by Tineke Bryson, Staff
“Do you want to be published?”
I have never answered this with a straightforward Yes.
Our hesitancy to name ourselves as writers and talk openly about our creative goals is usually attributed to lack of confidence.
But, for me, it’s about wanting to keep my disappointment with myself private. Because the thing about admitting I’m a writer is that then anyone can Google my name or ask to see my work and find out just how badly I am failing at it. (And you thought noms de plumes were only adopted by people with a fondness for flair.)
It’s like being followed by a balloon. Everywhere. By one of those black balloons made specially for The Big 4-0. Only inscribed with “I want to be published, but I’m not.”
Being tailed by such a balloon is self-serving, of course, since it saves me breath. But it’s also disconcerting.
I am too proud to be that transparent about my dreams.
“This balloon? No, it’s not mine. I don’t know where it came from.”
When I was a writing major in college, I sat in critique circles with more mediocre writers of astonishing confidence than I ever want to meet again. I’m one of those people who just can’t handle watching others embarrass themselves. When I watch comedies like Mr. Bean, or even page through an Amelia Bedelia picture book, all I can think is, I pity your mother.
Why doesn’t someone tell them? I’d agonize, reading the excerpts in front of me. Why doesn’t someone break it to them that their gift is for a smaller sphere? But I didn’t want to be the “mean critiquer” so I just smiled and said, “This is great.” I just left them to be disillusioned later, after having spent all their college money. I am nice like that.
I’ve never forgotten what my dad said once, when I was a kid, about a disillusioned friend who “never made it big,” despite all his musical talent. “He doesn’t see that his gift might have never been meant for that. Maybe his musical gift is for a smaller stage. Does that make it less wonderful? I wish he would set himself free.”
Since then, it has been my life ambition not to set myself up too high. To be happy transforming my own sphere, my small stage. To accept that there are many ways to be successful.
But, deep down, I am haunted by my creative abilities. Haunted by the question, “Could I do more, if I were only brave enough to take bigger creative risks?”
I don’t want to die never having written the story that hides inside me (published or not). I don’t want to die having only attempted things I was sure of being successful at.
There’s narcissism to this. The idea that the world would be impoverished if I never graced it with my eloquence.
But underneath the narcissism is something else. I hate being vulnerable. I hate caring. I don’t want to be ordinary (read: weak).
There’s a saying that “God does not require excellence; he requires faithfulness.” But I am not satisfied with being faithful. I want to be the best.
Daniel Schwabauer—Mr. S. to many of you—is known for his question “If you had to choose between writing a bestseller that would be read by millions and promptly forgotten and writing a novel read only by one person, but remembered and appreciated forever, what would you choose?
I’d pick the second one, because, well, I would die of shame if no one cared about what I wrote (and, you know, it’s clearly the “right” answer). “But what if the one person were you?” asks Daniel.
Harumph. You had to go there.
What if the “grand purpose” of my gift is about me?
About God and me, sticking it out?
The last few years have been tough for me. I’ve wrestled with new physical limitations, subcultures that drive me crazy, and disillusionment with most of the causes that once enflamed me with zeal. I’ve sometimes felt like my faith might not make it. Not surprisingly, my creativity has suffered.
It’s felt like I am tethered, not to a mere balloon, but a humungous blimp. Proclaiming my failure to the world.
But these tough years have given me one special thing: the revelation that the whole point of giving me the ability to write was not for other people. Not for you, or for anyone. It was for me. It was to make sure I would have a sure-fire way to reach him.
If something I write helps someone else, that is wonderful, most wonderful. But that is not the purpose of the gift. In a sense, there is no purpose. It’s not a means to an end. It’s a gift. A worship-opening.
I found this out by writing again. Miles into my struggles, I started writing again. And as soon as I did, something happened that has not happened in (what feels, anyway, like) years and years: Worship. Connection. My spirit actually moved.
The reason I noticed the worship was that it had been such a long time.
Sitting in worship services, singing worship songs, listening to worship pieces. And feeling next to nothing happen.
Until I wrote. And my spirit moved.
In an instant, I understood. This was why I have the ability and need to write. Because it’s the only sorrow-and-cynicism-and-anger-and-disillusionment-proof way of connecting me to the Three-in-One-Persons who loves me. It’s the way I dig for my most honest questions. It’s the safety valve. The lifeboat. It’s how I heal.
The story hiding inside me needs to come out. But not for the world’s benefit. The story needs to be told to me. To change me. To teach me.
This is enough. And, of course, it’s exactly why you might like to read it too. Because it’s not for show.
It’s time for a trip to the florist for some more balloons. Custom balloons for the special occasion of my existence.
I think I’ll have them say:
Writing my story is how I grow.
Writing is a gift to bless me, not torment me.
Writing is a worship-opening and I am widening that hole.
What would you write on your balloon if you could order one?
“Writing a book is work for me,” I noted in my 1st-grade journal, and it’s still true. Writing has always been something I’ve both loved and dreaded—it takes the best I have to offer and then stands there asking for more. But as I am growing to appreciate, this is because it’s the most important effort of my life—it’s the way God made me to worship him. And what does that look like? Most of the time it looks like digging. Slaving away under the hot sun of pain to unearth the most honest questions I have so I can present them to him as my offering.
Before working for Daniel and Carrol Schwabauer, I studied creative non-fiction at Houghton College and then worked as an editor. Taking The One Year Adventure Novel class live last year gave me a lot of reasons to now try my hand at writing fiction.
Thank you so much for this post. I was nearly in tears as I read it, because you described exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. And now I think I know what I need to do… let go of the balloon and see what God chooses to write on my new one.
I wish I could “see” your new balloons too!
Thank you, Mum 🙂
Funny, how this post is a combination of things that I least pretend that I now understand (the one person my writing changes could be me is /so/ 2009-2011, right?) and things I’ve been struggling with recently (letting dreams live in the real world, where they may fail). I’ve been trying to formulate a post myself on that tendency to pretend balloons don’t belong to me. I’m untouchable. I’m fine where I am. Totally. No one has to see my disappointment or my failure except me…
Lovely post, as always. I hope I can see some of your fiction one day. 🙂
Thank you. When I am a woman of means, I will PAY you to see some of my fiction and tell me what to fix! 🙂
Yes, I like to think I am untouchable as well. This is why I found those college critique group circles so uncomfortable—because they forced me to see how vulnerable writers have to be.
Can I just say, “Amen”?
… yeah, that about sums it up. Thanks for writing this.
My balloon would say, “When I write, I am very, very brave.”
🙂 Hooray, someone is actually telling me about their balloon! (I was getting sad.) That is such a GOOD one. Thank you, Michelle.
It’s nice to hear that I’m not the only one who has a balloon! I only told my family about my writing for years and years simply because I didn’t want to have to answer “No, not yet” to the “Are you published?” question for years and years. I’m getting braver now, but it’s still scary. My balloon would say “Writing novels, this I know. I cannot stop, I love it so.” I’d never thought of it as worship before; thank you, I love seeing it that way.
(Michelle’s balloon is better! 🙂
That’s a fun one 🙂 Yes, I can understand why you decided to take your time telling your family.
When you write, you worship, Tineke. Yes, like a psalmist. And when another woman plays piano, she worships, and when she plays very well, others worship with her, and so a gift of worship flows from one heart to God and to God in another heart. Write much and please God in the heart of others, I say.
Wow, Tineke! What a wonderful post! I’ve seen the idea of writing as one-on-one worship once before, but I’ve kind of avoided the implications. What if I never publish? That’s not necessarily a question I want to face. But, at the same time, God wants me to be happy with always writing for him, regardless of what happens. My relationship with God is the most important part of all this, not my writing goals.
I like your balloons! I think mine would say “I write because God keeps sharing His creativity with me.” And perhaps, “God created through words and so do I.”
I especially like your second balloon.
It is odd that we tend to pit the goal of focusing on our connection to God against the goal of taking risks and getting published. We are actually so much more likely to persevere and be courageous if we accept that we are our own audience!
Thanks for reading!
So true! 🙂
“God created through words and so do I”…I’d like to order a dozen of those balloons, please!
Yeah, that’d be nice. I think it’s important to remember that writing may be hard, but God considers words worthy enough to create the universe with. He is the Word, after all. 🙂
Tineke…magnificent! Because of your writing gift, I now see a bright red balloon dancing behind me emblazoned with these words: “I am a writer…because I write.” Like painters and dancers and sculptors and singers, writing is our means of expression and our unique connection to God…quite simply, a major part of who we are. Aren’t we so blessed to have the gift of words?
Yes, we are! And to be able to write in English, which has far more words than most languages!
I really like that when you write you worship better. We all need to remember that God can help us thorough the toughest times.
Tineke, thank you very, very much for writing this. My balloon would say, “Writing is my bridge to everywhere.”
Reminds me of the VISA commercial for the Olympics. “This is my everywhere.” 🙂 I like it.
You are so welcome.
Thank you for helping me ‘see the words’ on my writer-child’s balloon. And maybe my own writer’s-soul message balloon as well. hmm…early memories – sitting on my grandmother’s lap telling her another story about “the animals up on the mountain that came down to visit” , and another to my mother about “the tiny little creatures that caused/lived in/came out of the old nail holes in a door to our storage room, and another to my mother and sister about “our quicker than time visit to the stars/planets” while sitting ing the car waiting for my father to get off from work…
You are very welcome! Thank you for reading.
It sounds to me as though you have a spectacular imagination—maybe it is not too late to tell stories again?? 🙂 At any rate, what a gift for your writer-child to have a parent who understands their balloon!
What an amazing post, Tineke! Thank you so much for writing this. It has been so inspiring to me.
I haven’t been writing novels lately, but I think this is true in a way for blogging, too. I’ve learned that it’s not just about my audience; I blog as much for myself as I do them.
Thanks for the great reminder and inspiration. I’ll definitely be sharing this post. (:
I’m glad, Emily. 🙂
Thank you! What a wonderful post! I am very new to the world of creative writing, but I have alot I’d like to say on paper… I love to see it as a form of worship to God, He is so good to us all.
Thanks for reading!
I must say this same conclusion has resided deep within myself. Though in all honesty, I’m not okay with this. I want to help others through my writing the same way; Anne Rice, Rowling, Galbraith, and so many other have helped me. Though while reading this one thing did come to the surface. I have to help myself before I can help others. Thank you for your post.
Thanks for reading, Amandia. I agree that there is something in us as writers that longs to make a difference. As you suggested, to do for readers what authors have done for us.
But for many of us, there is an enormous sense of pressure from within. Pressure to fulfill the high expectations others have for our writing gift. To use the gift to make a difference. To make the most of every opportunity. The scale of our expectations can be paralyzing.
For myself, learning to view my ability as a /gift/ freely given without strings attached—given so that I can experience the truth of God’s love—does two things. It lifts the self-inflicted pressure I feel to be impressive and to make a difference. And it also makes me a more authentic writer—no longer fixated on what I need to do as a writer to reach people. When I reach myself, I also end up reaching others. In my experience, readers respond much more to my writing when I write it “to myself” rather than “at them.”
I am primarily a creative nonfiction writer. I work with real events and experiences in order to say something meaningful. I am the subject. When I am doing a good job being authentic, because I am the subject, I am my readers too. Thinking about Rowling, working in fiction, I think she wrote her stories in response to the questions, needs, and longings she personally wrestled with from her own suffering and the suffering she encountered while working with Amnesty International. Her work says something powerful to us as readers because it actually addresses real suffering and injustice in a way that speaks to us as human beings. I would be surprised if she did not write her books at herself first. How else could they be so human?
[…] a beautiful article titled “The Burden Of Purpose – When You’re Haunted By Your Creative Gift”, writer Tineke Bryson talks about finding the burden of her creativity as a spiritual awakening of […]
Thank you for this blog post. It has given me much to think about, and is inspiring.
Thank you for commenting, Janet. It means a lot!
Thank you for this post. This really lifted my spirits regarding my creativity & my art.
I’m so glad. Thanks for reading!