tales from the creative wilderness

Originally published on The Writer’s Alley: 1/26/18

Have you ever been through a creative wilderness? Where your art feels more like an uninspired chore than a joyful passion? It’s a place of wandering, a land of haven’t-we-passed-that-dead-tree-39-times? The act of showing up over and over again can get a little angsty. The mind games may even tempt us to quit.

My name is Laurie Tomlinson, and that was my 2017.

My pastor did an extensive sermon series on Exodus, talking about a people group God freed after years of slavery. But instead of going straight to the promised land flowing with milk and honey, they spent forty years wandering, trying to find their own way out, worshipping other gods, even wishing they could go back to the predictable, familiar misery of slavery.

I wish I could give you a foolproof, five-step plan for getting out of the creative wilderness, but I can tell you what I learned keeps us from getting out: 

Being too far into our own head. It can be a season where real-life circumstances prevail over our creative work, but more than likely, it’s the result of too much navel-gazing. So much good work is sabotaged by overthinking, and the wilderness is a faulty mind contraption that converts our biggest lies to truths and beliefs we govern our lives by: I’ll never be enough. I’m not prepared to do this. Beliefs that don’t line up with the promises of God or His call on our lives. Beliefs that give us too much credit in a bigger story that isn’t ours to write. This can also look like focusing so much on the bad things happening around us that we numb the parts of ourselves that are vital to creativity. While we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the world, we cannot allow it to keep us from bringing good to our corner of it.

Comparing ourselves to others and wishing we were on their level. Sometimes that faulty mind contraption shifts our focus to others. Instead of celebrating their successes, cheering them on, praying for them, and seeing how we can serve them in our mutual calling, we measure ourselves against a ruler that’s designed uniquely for them. If resentment ensues, that resentment does nothing but hinder our own progress and keep us in the wilderness.

Focusing on the business side, the whys and what-ifs. Ironically, my wilderness 2017 was the year my first book released. While it’s important not to neglect the business side, the wilderness looks like dwelling so much on what we think will sell and what the experts tell us we should be doing that we neglect the beautiful, specific orders God whispered in our souls that got us started in the first place and have kept us going to this point.

Allowing fear to sabotage our work time. The wilderness can have two common denominators: a lot of procrastination and a lot of wondering where to go next. But often that itching feeling of unrest is rooted in fears that are custom-tailored to derail us. What if I’m doing the wrong thing? What does my voice have to offer in a sea of so many good books and talent? Why do this work when there’s a likelihood that it won’t make any difference? You know the ones. They lose their power when they’re named, rooted out, and replaced with the narrative of truth.

In the wilderness, we focus on productivity instead of obedience. We work from a place of guilt instead of a place of worship. 

Some of us have these arbitrary numbers engrained in our minds of where we should be, how much we should have to show for a given period of time, a set of results that constitutes success. But our creative work should first be an act of worship governed by a close relationship with our Father, a familiarity with His voice, and a willingness to change course–and even set our work aside for a while–as He leads.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals and deadlines; God honors those and helps us with them. Sometimes our wilderness seasons are simply because He wants us in a different place for a time, and we have to be obedient to that. But I can tell you this: when we focus on obedience instead of this picture of how things should be, whatever the Lord calls us to do will ultimately strengthen and better equip us to do our work. Always.

To those who are reading this knowing you’ve been obedient and your heart is truly in a place of worship when you do your work, I would encourage you not to allow a season of creative unrest to challenge your picture of God’s goodness. He isn’t an angry god in the sky dangling our creativity over us like a carrot or holding it hostage for a certain ransom. His goodness never changes, and His intention for our lives is not for us to wander.

We, like the Israelites in the Old Testament, may have walked into the freedom He offers, but embracing it and living accordingly is a separate process. The control and familiarity we had before are so tempting and sometimes even comforting, but freedom is better. We don’t have to rely on our own devices or carry our fears around like heavy idols. He’s constant, He’s with us, and He’s still good every step of the way.

I can identify the moment I came out of my wilderness. 

There was a morning I was so frustrated and writing felt like such a burden, occupying so much of my brain space that I told the Lord, “I will give this up and walk away if you ask me to.” But He didn’t ask me to. All He wanted was for me to surrender control and instead, work in His lavish joy and freedom. From the other side, I recognize that I learned how close God really is to us. I’m much better acquainted with the sound of His voice and the fullness of His presence.

I never, ever thought I’d say this, but I’m so thankful for that season of wandering and hope this story encourages you wherever you are. You are always welcome to reach out to me when you need to.

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