Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy Trees

I do not think my creative work has ever been described as angsty or depressing. In high school and college there were always peers who drew inspiration from deep, dark areas of their life experiences. Some of their work was interesting, but mostly it was just depressing. These creative productions were often accompanied with a far too detailed verbal account of how sad their childhoods were or how their parents just didn't understand them. I'm guessing 95% of the people on this planet would not consider the life of the middle class teenager to be a life of suffering.

But I had a great childhood and my parents are awesome. Maybe everything in my life hasn't been all peaches and candy....but I choose to focus on the positive things. My ideas are much more likely to come from silliness and laughing than from suffering. This is why I was not sure I would enjoy Rob Bell's new book.

His book "Drops Like Stars" was advertised as negotiating the connections between suffering and creativity and this made me uneasy. I feared Bell, who has earned my respect with his speaking and his writing, would talk about how all great art comes from those dark places. I planned to disagree with him but I couldn't resist ordering the book anyway. Though Bell is not a visual artist, he has ventured into this creative territory before discussing the connections between spirituality, aesthetics, and creativity. His ideas have been well researched and they always seem to contain a healthy dose of common sense.

The experience of reading this book pulled me in several different directions. I have to refer to this as an experience because this book is about much more than the words on the page. Each page has a visual effect and the entire book is very well designed. But it's also very short. So short that my first honest reaction to finishing the book in 30 minutes was fairly negative. I saw the images, I followed the verbal path, and I felt like someone ended my dinner after only an appetizer. I wanted more. I expected more. But then, like any good minimalist work will do, the book invited me in for a closer inspection. The second time through is when the book really began to inflate itself with meaning and significance. There were things I had missed. There were things in the images I did not see the first time. It was then that it occurred to me that this was more than a written collection of ideas passed from person to person. This was more than a person sharing some interesting images. This was an aesthetic experience that stood a chance at lingering in my head far longer than a plain book would have.

So I intentionally took my time in scrawling down any response to the book in order to give myself the time and space to process it. Then I loaned the book to a friend who made this very intelligent blog post about it.

Bell mentions several ideas in this book that are worthy of exploration. One of the things that made a connection with me was his mention of the musician Warren Zevon who died of cancer a few years ago. Zevon had several rock hits in his career but his life and music changed when he found out he was dying of cancer. Knowing his time was short allowed him to open up his songwriting to a more honest and fearless approach resulting in one final album that was essentially his goodbye note to his family and to his listeners. One of the best songs on this album is "Keep me in your heart" which you can listen to for free here.

Zevon appeared on David Letterman near the end of his life and during the interview Letterman asked about how this cancer death sentence had changed his life. As recorded on page 101 of Bell's book, Letterman asked, "From your perspective, do you know something about life...that maybe I don't know?" Zevon responded, "I know how much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich." This response indicates Zevon's new focus on every single detail of life. It points to a man who is sucking the marrow out of life, even taking the time to take pleasure in what most of us would consider mundane. I might contend that this heightened sense of awareness of the little things in life led Zevon to create the most beautiful and powerful creative work of his lifetime.

Bell's approach to the connection between suffering and creativity did not focus on the negative. Bell seems more interested in how artists like Zevon turn these negatives into positives.

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