I remember my first day in composition class back at university. It was one of the most influential days of my entire education.
Professor B marched into a classroom of about 25 of us writing students. He was a natty dresser for the times, sporting a bowtie and blazer, looking quite East Coast and rather out of place in our mid-western university. The syllabus in the handbook listed two pens and a 70-page, spiral bound notebook for class equipment. No textbook.
B scribbled the course title and his name on the whiteboard and asked two questions: “Is this the class you’re here to take?”, and “Did you bring your material?” holding up a notebook and pens. Heads nodded.
He then slapped the notebook against the whiteboard and held it there flat with one hand as he opened it up with the other and explained, “I want you to open your notebooks and turn the first page over so you have a blank page on both on the left and right sides. On the first line of the right-side page, I want you to write a topic sentence of what you want to say in an essay. Only one sentence, no more. Beneath it, I want you to start creating an outline of what you are going to say about your topic sentence, all the way down to the bottom of the page. When it comes time for you to turn the page, DO NOT start writing on the left-side page, but continue writing on the right-side page. You are NOT to write on any of the left-side pages, but complete your outline and essay only writing on the right-side pages. Am I clear?” Heads bobbed up and down.
“Good,” he said. “It is five minutes after ten. I want you to start writing and we are going to stop at ten-thirty for part two of today’s class. Go.”
Befuddled, some students asked, “But, what are we to write about?”, to which B replied, “I do not care – whatever pops into your head. Go.” He replied to any further question with, “I. Do. Not. Care. You have 25 minutes. Get going!”
We buckled down and began to scribble furiously in our notebooks. I have no recollection what I wrote about. At 10:30, Prof. B said, “OK, stop.” He slapped his notebook back on the board. “OK, now I want you to go back to your first blank page here on the left-side and I want you to start writing a second, edited draft of all the stuff you wrote on the right-side, page by page. You have about 25 more minutes for your second draft. Go.”
No questions this time. Heads went down and pens scribbled. At five to eleven, he said, “OK, stop,” and pens went down.
B said to the class, “What is your total number of pages you wrote in your first and second draft combined? 8? 10? 12? Is the second draft better than the first? Does the way you just worked have an organization and system to it?” We all nodded again.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “writing is not magic. It is not the product of a Greek muse. It is the produce of consistent hard work and practice. It is about sitting down and doing it more than it is about anything else. When was the last time you produced this much stuff in 45 minutes?” Several of us muttered,”…never…”, to which he replied, “Right. That’s because you sat down and just did it. You’re going to learn many more things in this class over the semester, but the first lesson is the de-mythologizing of writing. Inspiration is nice, but we don’t sit around and wait for it. We go find it in the work.”
Over the ensuing semester we produced a steamer-truck’s worth of writing, and we learned much about writing, but what we learned about the creative process was that work and practice trumps everything – it trumps talent and education and location and support and class, everything.
As I went through university and later my career, I learned that most human endeavors are creative endeavors, be it dancing or accounting. And they are all the product of hard work and practice, consistently applied, as much as they are the product of talent or inspiration.
It was only later that I realized much the same is true for our walk with God and each other. Our life of faith does not rest so much on mood or inspiration as it does the daily application of work and practice, regardless if we are “not feeling it right now”. Yes, sometimes self-care is called for. But frequently the bed simply feels more comfortable than a pew and we’d rather stay home than pray with the faith community, or we’d rather take a pass this week on helping out at the pantry or visit that crabby old shut-in.
This is when we must consider that, like finding inspiration in the work of creative practice, we find the Spirit of God in the practice of creative community-building and hospitality. We connect with the Holy Spirit in the practice of righteous works and worship and study, even when we are convinced that it is not going to happen about now. It is the true formation-part of formation. Like writing, we need to “de-mythologize” the practice of living a Christian life and realize that it is, in large part, work and practice. Faith and revelation are wonderful, and so is inspiration, but we don’t sit around and wait for them. We go find them in the work.