by Anthony Martin
“To serve a work of art, great or small, is to die, to die to self.” – Madeleine L’Engle
On a hill overlooking a wide meadow next door to the house where I grew up is an oak tree with a few rotting boards nailed into its trunk. These misaligned memorials of my ineptitude harken back to my early adolescence, when my cousin and I embarked upon the holy construction project of an epic tree house. Never mind that we selected a tree with a very poor branching structure, where most of the thin branches were all on the same side of the tree. Forget also that we barely knew how to use a hammer. I had seen The Swiss Family Robinson, after all. We were going to have rope bridges and rope ladders; lots and lots of rope. And a spyglass, to keep a look out for pirates. This still sounds like fun to me. But we never built it. My cousin Justin and I put up three or four steps and quickly realized we were in over our heads. And we quit. For years now, the boards remain as a reminder of our inability to finish our “cool” creative projects.
Somewhere deep inside a container filled with my childhood drawings is another failed project. After watching ET (most likely), we had also embarked upon making a full sized space ship from cardboard scraps, equipped with control panels and a working cardboard drawbridge spaceship door, presumably also using rope. We made at least two control panels before finally giving up.
But wait, there’s more. We also wrote a book. In fifth grade. It was an egregious rip off of The Hardy Boys, and it took us over half of the “creative writing periods” of that school year to write something only marginally longer than this blog post. But we finished it. Well, except for the illustrations; I think we completed only two of those. But the story was written. It was not my finest work, but it was finished work. In the immortal words of G. K. Chesterton: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” And boy, have I tried to take that to heart.
As someone who is naturally quite “risk-adverse,” I sacrifice a large chunk of my soul trying to produce something creative on my own (or even with the help of my cousin). If something isn’t “perfect,” I struggle to allow it to be released from my protective control into the judging eyes of others. Surely they will see through the thin veil of creative pretense and observe haughtily that all my creativity is derivative, whether from The Swiss Family Robinson, ET, The Hardy Boys, or elsewhere. “He doesn’t even rip off ‘good’ movies, or read ‘the right books,’” (whatever those are). Other projects exist in the dustbin of my childhood creativity. Two or three full-length comic books. You’ll never guess who “Hulk Jr.” is based off of. And a short film that is a direct rip off of The Matrix, ifThe Matrix had been made in the basement of my cousin’s house.
There might exist some truly creative souls in the world, cloistered away in a deeply cultured elite institute I’ve never even heard of, fashioning the world’s greatest art and cultural artifacts. But for the rest of us, creativity is a process of trial and error. Most of what we create might only be seen by a handful of people, who will politely tell us, “It’s great!” while only listening to the first 30 seconds of your song, or briefly scanning the opening pages of your book. Or by completely ignoring the existence of your blog. Such is life. Many of the great artists of history are known only for one or two of their works among their other countless efforts during a lifetime of creative endeavors. The not-so-greatest artists aren’t remembered at all.
My wife and I go antiquing from time to time. Trust me, our world is filled with crappy art and weird handmade stuff; I have no idea why it was ever created or who bothered to make it at all in the first place. Why so many ceramic cats? And so what. Make it anyway. We are creatures who create. Creating, no matter how derivative and unoriginal, is one of the primary ways we reflect the image of our Creator. And it can also be a lot of fun.
In keeping with the spirit of doing worthwhile things badly, I’ve written a book. Correction, I co-wrote a very rough draft of a book over a period of two years with my cousin (are you noticing a trend yet?). It’s about — and for — his sons. Hopefully a few other people will read it too. Maybe not, though. Is it going to be a “rip off” of other things I’ve read or watched? Absolutely. But hopefully it will have a bit of creative spark as well. I’ve never read anything “exactly” about what we are writing. Originality is obviously overrated. Just look at the endless retreading of sequels to which Hollywood continuously gives green lights. Now they are resurrecting nearly every half decent television show from the last 20 years in an effort to be ever less original. I’m still waiting on a remake of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (Anyone? Anyone? It was great.)
So, here are two of the largest stumbling blocks toward creativity that I’ve faced: the desire for both perfection, and originality. I’m not nowhere near perfect, so why would anything I create achieve it? I’m also not that original. Neither are you. And that’s okay. Most truly “original” people are branded as insane or dangers to society. Originality is overrated. One of our main goals in writing the rough draft of this book (which currently stands at about 78,000 words) was not to get hung up on making it perfect on the first try. Just write something; just do it; just be creative. The imperfect, badly written book that I do write is better than the perfect book I’ll never write. We also chose to write about things we know. Like my hometown. It requires much less creativity to write a book about rivers and roads and people I actually know rather than create a world from thin air. You have to crawl before you can walk or run. Plus, its given me the opportunity to completely nerd out and research local history. I now know lots of weird crap about Ephrata, PA (my hometown) and the strange people who have lived here over the centuries.
Will this book be a national bestseller? Nope. Will it be even published by an honest-to-God publishing company? Hopefully. Even if it’s not, that won’t stop me from writing this book. Will my children and Justin’s kids someday enjoy reading something we’ve written? Absolutely. And that alone makes it all worth doing. What this book can’t do is save my soul or damn me. My eternal destiny isn’t determined by how successful I am at “creating” something. So the pressure is off. In fact, my salvation is derivative as well. Someone else had to do it for me. I couldn’t create it for myself, and thank God I didn’t have to.
So, by the grace of God, I’ll continue to work on this book, being a “creature who creates,” and we’ll see how it turns out. But we’ve already completed more than just nailing a few steps to the side of a tree. We’ve already succeeded because we’re actually writing; we’re actually doing it. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll finish that tree house too. It sounds like fun.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. And I’m pretty good at that.
Anthony B. Martin lives in Akron, PA with his wife and two children. He served as a youth pastor for several years and has a Master’s Degree in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary. He guest teaches on topics like Church History and Christian Apologetics when not landscaping or working on his first novel. He attends Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ephrata.