Saturday, November 05, 2005

Inspiration - A Lesson Learned on the Rubber Chicken Circuit

“Use what talents you possess. The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang the best.”

- Henry Van Dyke

We’ve been back from Glorietta close to a week now. The afterglow of the creative fires we shared there travelled home with us. While the coals are no longer white hot, the embers still remain.

Over the past few days the question of how to keep those fires burning has crossed my mind. How does one stay inspired?

There are times I’m able to sit for hours, with words flowing like the milk and honey of the Promised Land. I can sense heaven above my head opened wide, revealing rooms filled with words, there for the taking. I find nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, gerunds, clever catch phrases, sonnets, sermons, stump speeches, treatises on the nature and shape of illusion, grocery lists, or letters to the editor. Most often, though, I sit like Jeremiah, agonizing in the darkness of a well. I look up, casting prayers heavenward, only to have them ricochet back down to the subterranean depths. Each time this happens I try again, often with the same result. The heavens seem to be like brass, a dome above me preventing me from laying hold to the treasures I so desire. There are times in this painful process I wonder why I even try. “It’s too hard, too frustrating, there are too few immediate rewards,” I often murmur.

Years ago I went on a revival tour of the Ozarks, tugging on the coattails of a revival preacher who considered what he was doing as much a job as it was a calling. As we wound our way south from Kansas City he talked proudly about it. “This is my job, Phil,” he said over and over, as if there was a message I needed to hear in all the repetition. “This is my job, Phil.” “This is my job.” Once we got to our first stop the day to day logistics of making things happen seemed to drown out the four words I’d heard over and over as we'd come down the highway. We were on the rubber chicken circuit and now we were going to get down to business. There would be no more talk of this being nothing more than a job. We were called men, on a mission for God, and early indications said as much. We sat, eating fried chicken, corn on the cob, country gravy, a few “praise the Lords” and “amen brothers,” the stuff that makes the rubber chicken circuit what it is. It was, as I saw it, the essence of being called.

Breakfast the next morning re-confirmed the message. The early morning was jump-started with eggs, biscuits, sausage, white gravy, and a few leftover “praise the Lords” and “amen brothers” from the night before. At about quarter to eight, Earl, the revivalist, told me it was time for us to go over to the church. “It’s time to go to work, Phil,” he said. I secretly wanted to protest. “The meeting doesn’t even start till seven tonight. Why are we going this early? I mean, there’s a lot of rubber chickening left in me.” But I went along with Earl, thinking and hoping that we’d be back sitting around the table “amending” within an hour or so.

We got to the church at about eight. As soon as we entered, Earl told me to start praying at one end of the sanctuary and he’d start praying at the other. A confused look came over my face. It must have been very transparent. “Pray for revival here.” “Pray for the fire to come down.” “Read your Bible.” “Listen for what the Almighty has to say.” Earl’s instructions came, in rat-a-tat-tat fashion, much like his words repeated over and over again on the highway the night before. “This is my job, Phil.” “This is my job.”

And so we prayed, read, and listened. At about noon Earl decided that his belly was hungry. At one we returned from lunch and went right back to work. The hamburger and fries seemed to energize Earl. “Oh, Lord,” he prayed over and over again as he walked up and down the aisles of the sanctuary. “I can’t make any of this happen. I need you to bring down your fire. Bring revival tonight, Lord. Touch hearts. Touch souls. Touch spirits.”

While my manner wasn’t as animated as Earl’s, I also prayed, quietly, much in keeping with my Episcopal roots.

At five-thirty we left the sanctuary. I thought we were going back over to the preacher’s house for more chicken, but Earl had decided to have dinner out at a small cafeteria he’d seen on our way to the church. “How come we’re not going back over to the preacher’s place? I asked as we pulled into the parking lot. Earl smiled. “Don’t wanna’ get caught up in table talk right now,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do and I need to focus on that.” We sat, silently eating for about twenty minutes. My curiosity made those minutes seem like hours. I couldn’t stand it. I had to ask. “Earl, is it like this every time you go somewhere to preach a revival?” “Like what?” he asked in return.
“You know. Eight hours in the sanctuary praying and listening. That sort of thing.”
“Yes. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s my job, Phil.”
“What about your calling?”
“What about it?”
“I guess it’s the connotation of a job that’s bothering me.”
“Why?”
“A calling seems a lot higher to me than a job, that’s all.”
“Really.” Earl paused, then leaned over the table and looked directly at me. “Would you have anything to do with a doctor who only worked an hour or so a day and didn’t practice his craft? Would you trust a surgeon who did nothing but sit around with friends all day to cut you wide open? “
He’d made his point. The only correct answer to both questions was “No!”
“Besides,” he went on. “I’m working out my calling, Phil. You see, I’m called to work. To me, that means that there’s more to what I do than sitting around eatin’ chicken and swillin’ down iced tea.”
Earl’s words sunk in. “It’s your job,” I said knowingly.

What does all of this have to do with writing, and craft? I think there are a lot of times I stumble over the same things I did in the Ozarks so long ago. I can’t treat what I’m doing now like the rubber chicken circuit. Writing must be as much my job as it is my calling. I’ve heard it said that inspiration is at least two thirds perspiration. I need to remember that at those times when the heavens seem like brass, when the words won’t come or the prayers for inspiration seem to just keep ricocheting back at me.

A while ago I read a short passage from Luke, the gentile physician who recorded, in striking prose, two books of the Christian bible. The words that follow are a bit more polished than the words Earl spoke long ago, but the message they convey is the same:

Luke 11:9 (King James Version)
9 “And I say unto you, Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

3 comments:

Gone Away said...

What could I possibly add to that? Any publisher who turns you down needs his/her head read...

James Fletcher Baxter said...

The arts and the sciences of man, as with his habits,
customs, and traditions, are the creative harvest of
his perceptive and selective powers. Creativity, the
creative process, is a choice-making process. His
articles, constructs, and commodities, however
marvelous to behold, deserve neither awe nor idol-
atry, for man, not his contrivance, is earth's own
highest expression of the creative process.

Human is earth's Choicemaker. The sublime and
significant act of choosing is, itself, the Archimedean
fulcrum upon which man levers and redirects the
forces of cause and effect to an elected level of qual-
ity and diversity. Further, it orients him toward a
natural environmental opportunity, freedom, and
bestows earth's title, The Choicemaker, on his
singular and plural brow. Selah

- from The Human Paradigm

Okay, Phil. It's time to go to work. It's your job. He is calling!

allan said...

That's better than I could say it.

Mark Twain said something to the effect "The art of writing is the art of putting the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair, and writing."

Yours has more depth, his is more direct.

Thanks