Five (and a half) Resources to Boost Your Creativity (especially you, pastor)

Creativity Resources

Creativity Resources

If you know me at all, you’d know that I think more creativity in any field is a good thing, especially ministry. Creativity unlocks new approaches and new ideas, as well as improves existing ones. It’s almost an issue of stewardship, since it involves (I believe) reaching the full potential of our resources.

Seth Godin writes in Linchpin that we should approach our daily work like it’s a treasure: “It’s our one and only chance to do something productive today… A days’ work is your chance to do art, to create a gift, to do something that matters.”

Now, Seth Godin didn’t write any of the Gospels in my Bible, but there is some wisdom in this. Any vocation can benefit from additional vision and creativity, including ministry, whether in discipleship conversations, preaching, or even arranging our schedule.

Here are a few resources that can jump-start your creative journey.

  1. Sometimes we get bogged down with solving the same problems with the same solutions (which isn’t really solving them at all, is it?). Thinkertoys, by Michael Michalko, is a collection of creative brain exercises to help you examine problems and opportunities from radically different perspectives. The exercises will seem odd and counter-intuitive, but they bear much fruit over the long run.
  2. Are you bringing your best energy to the most important part of your day? Manage Your Day-to-Day is a collection of short essays and articles from business and thought leaders (including Seth). It’s a very hands-on, “tactical” book that can help you reevaluate how you are spending your time. The chapters are short enough to read in 10 minutes, and they include summer pages and key takeaways. This book is really, really critical to putting all of the theory into action.
  3. I think everyone should have a collection of poetry nearby. This may be a little out there, but poetry engages a different part of our brain than prose, and in order to bring all of our resources to bear on our challenges, we should be willing to stretch our creative muscles (i.e., our brains) a little. I picked up an anthology of works by Rumi, who is a widely respected Persian poet and mystic from the 13th century. I read 3 or 4 poems a week, always out loud (the way poetry is meant to be read), just treasuring the way the words are strung together. (Note: you don’t have to understand poetry it to benefit from it.)
  4. These two works are combined into one resource: PresentationZen and The Naked Presenter, both by Garr Reynolds, are invaluable works on public speaking or “presenting” (read: “Preaching”). The quality of our message—whatever that message is—is repeatedly compromised by our inabilities to clearly and effectively communicate it. What’s more, our tendency is to add more— more slides, more images, more bells and whistles (animations? ugh)—when a better approach would be to take away. Clear the deck, so to speak. Provide space. Clarity. Reynolds ruthlessly shows how to arrange thoughts and information in ways that shout by whispering.
  1. Lastly, I present the lowly Moleskine sketch book. Early on when I began preaching, I instinctively began using sketches (as opposed to
    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    Moleskine // Jonah Sketch

    outlines) to develop my thoughts. As Mind Mapping has shown, our brain doesn’t work linearly, it works through “webs”, and to the degree that we try to visualize our problems with an outline or some other “linear” display, we are actually working against our minds. My sketchbook allows me to work with the brain’s natural tendencies, rather than against them. The next time you are trying to map a project or construct a talk, try sketching the ideas first, rather than outlining them. (Obviously, a nice white board works well too.)

These are just a few tools and tricks that help me approach my work from a more creative space. If you have any others, feel free to share them here.

 

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Sometimes I Just Get Tired

In some way, I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Books, along with music, were my constant companions when I was growing up, and regular trips to the library are some of my earliest and fondest memories. It seemed as natural as the progression of days that I would someday write a book of my own, though I wasn’t exactly sure when.

Hint #1: I’m working on a book (actually two) right now.

Hint #2: Writing a book is really hard. 

On my way to writing more prose, I learned to become a songwriter. I’d written songs off and on in my twenties and early thirties, but in 2006 I decided to really throw myself into my craft, and managed to churn out somewhere around 30 or 40 in a few years. It could’ve been more, but I did the best I could.

Now, along the way the internet happened and, as writers like Seth Godin pointed out, everything changed: the world, as far as creators went, was on its way to becoming truly flat, and we could publish to anyone anywhere (as long as you could managed to get heard over the noise).

I started a blog somewhere in 2009 or so, and launched thisisericcase.com in 2013.

In other words, I was doing the same thing as about 60 million other people.

No big.

I read all the people—Seth, Michael Hyatt, and others—who gave the proper advice on “how to blog/write/self-publish/etc, and I’ve dabbled here and there with their suggestions. Overall it’s been pretty cool to see people read my words, and occasionally have them seem to mean something to people.

But lately…

Lately, I’m just tired.

I did a Strengths Assessment in 2013, when I discovered that though I have a high drive to collect information, my drive to create things—Tweets, blogs, books, songs, etc.—is not so high.

My nature works against my aspirations.

It’s hard work.

A dear, dear friend of mine told me the other day, “The truth is, I haven’t read your blog lately, because you’ve been a bit boring; I miss the times when you used to make me cry.”

They are right (this post isn’t about them; it’s about me). I’ve been a bit off. Writing doesn’t feel like the release and exercise in self-expression that it should be.

I guess I’m better at producing quantity, but it feels like more of a chore now.

This space is supposed to be about “Faith, Creativity, and Collaborative Leadership”. Lately, it seems that whatever is happening to me faith-wise is too subtle to name and describe (or that it’s simply to “small” and boring to relate). Creatively, I feel a little bit lost, as I’m in an “in between”. It seems that I’m slowly leaving music behind, but there’s really not anything else yet. There are sporadic sermons and Sunday creative endeavors, but not nearly enough to be engaging, and the books and blog posts… well, we’ve been through that haven’t we?

As far as leadership goes… hmmmmm… I feel less like a “leader” than ever. Someone once said that if you call yourself a leader but no one is following you, you’re just going for a walk.

What if you don’t even feel like you’re walking? What if you feel like you’re just crawling? Do leaders crawl? 

I can name dozens and dozens of men and women who are infinitely better leaders than I am, and mostly I’m left treading water to try and just “get things done” and see one or two people occasionally take steps to following Jesus more closely.

So what’s the point? Nothing really. It may be just an effort to write my “word quota” for the day/week.

I suppose I’ll get up tomorrow and write again.

 

My First Lesson in Creative Sermon Prep

I am an unapologetic geek when it comes to certain things. For instance, when I got called for jury duty, I spent half the day marveling at the privilege of participating in “trial by peers”, and thinking about how unique this experience was to the rest of the world.

I know, it’s that bad.

Well, I got picked, and we heard our (short,civil) trial and began our deliberation.

(As an introvert, this is where it got awkward for me: putting me in a room full of people I don’t really know and then asking me to work and speak with them for hours on end… ugh.)

There was an older gentleman there, and during a break he started talking about how he’d worked in newspapers (remember those), and how he was a news junky. Then he asked us a question:

“Do you guys know how to find out what’s really going on in the United States?”

Let’s face it, we knew that we were not supposed to say “Yes.” So we all shook our heads.

He said, “You find out what’s going on in the United States by reading the news from Europe. Want to know how to find out what’s going on in Europe?”

“Sure.”

“You read the Russian news.”

He then lead us all around the world: Russia, Asia, etc. (I can’t remember the entire sequence, but you get the point.)

The point he was trying to make was that only when you got a little objectivity could you really see what was going on in a country. The best way to find out about a “thing” is not necessarily to read about the thing from people who know it best, but to read about it from people who aren’t really as connected to it. 

I think it’s a little like that with sermon prep.

I know there’s lots of websites out there that help with sermon prep, but I think a little more objectivity is required.

So to think about teaching the Bible, I go to “Europe”: which (for me) means

I collect and distill ideas and stories into Evernote, and then tag them and store them until they are needed.

Since I feel like the gospel touches all of life, it’s not always a huge chore to connect our inability to walk in a straight line to discipleship, or Nine Inch Nail’s record The Downward Spiral to the story of Samson.

Or, I suppose, to connect jury duty to sermon prep.

Sunday Spine

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, and it’s really great: practical productive ideas on creating from a long-time practicer. She talks about the need for every creative work to have a “spine”, something which knits the whole work together. It answers the question, “What am I trying to say?” with ruthless clarity and conciseness.

What’s interesting to me is that the spine is not necessarily the same thing as what the audience/public/congregation sees or hears or experiences. That’s the story; the spine belongs to the creator or team of creators that orchestrate it.

For those of us who work on Sunday, I think we have the opportunity to think about spines as well. We already know our story (and it’s a good one); but we don’t always think about our particular spines. In my context, a spine may be anything that holds a set of songs together besides the obvious (a journey towards God). For better or for worse, this past Sunday my “spine” was a musical one: it was the concept of a power trio. Could I (a) have no acoustic guitar; (b) play slide in open tuning; (c) re-arrange some familiar songs to have a heavier, bluesier feel to them; and (d) do all of this without it becoming distracting or prideful?

In regards to the spine, “What am I trying to say?”

I am trying to say that worship music can be bluesy and soulful and still congregational. 

That was my thinking, but a spine can be just about anything: it may be a stylistic approach to the songs; it may be a progression of musical keys; it may be a subtle facet of spirituality—meditation or contemplation, say—that’s not overtly being discussed but that I’ve been working with.

Now, here’s the deal: First, in Sunday worship “business”, spines are not necessary. We’ve been handed a story to tell, and it’s up to us to tell it clearly and compellingly. In a sense, we don’t need spines.

(I hope I don’t need to tell you that spines should never detract or distract from the story. People shouldn’t notice that all your songs were in the key of A; they should notice this God that we believe in.)

But spines enrich our stories. They give us the opportunity to make our Sunday stories multi-layered and rich.

They also infuse our creative lives with fresh wind.

(I daresay they make it fun.)

What some of us need is a dose of creative energy, a breathe of fresh air to engage our thinking and give us the strength and focus to run another leg of the ministry race that we’re in. Ultimately, I think that spines are a useful tool to keep us engage over a period of time with the work we do.

(By the way, I also use the concept of a “spine” when I’m developing a sermon; it governs what stays in and what goes out. In this sense, sermon prep for me is like poetry. It’s about editing down to the essentials and trusting that what is left over after the process is sufficient and essential.)

What spine can you insert into your work this week? What would give you energy?

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Actually, Cover Bands DO Change the World…

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

One of the great slogans in the Seth Godin/Linchpin world (which I actually enjoy poking around in) is, “Cover bands don’t change the world.”

It’s a call to be unique to seek to strike out to do something bold and new in the world, to be disruptive, to reach for something that’s never been done.

It’s also obviously a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who may be a feeling slightly more conservative or iterative. Folks who are not as “disruptive.”

(It’s also an insult to cover bands, but who’s counting?)

As usual, the truth behind the slogan is a bit more cloudy, because in a sense cover bands have changed the world, and actually continue to do so, primarily because many of the most iconic and world-changing bands in rock history started out as cover bands.

Beatles? Cover band.

Stones? Covered blues.

The Who? They called their versions of Motown songs they covered, “Maximum R&B”.

The Band? Started out playing rockabilly covers in honkey tonks all over the midwest.

James Brown? yup.

(Now, I get that these artists are all “old guy” bands, but I’m taking the approach that the verdict is still out on how much Arcade Fire, The National, Coldplay, etc. are going to change rock and roll. That being said, I know the Black Keys at least know blues really deeply, and I’ve heard at least a couple covers from them.)

Now,I get what Seth is saying: you really do need to find your own unique voice. But here’s the deal: all these artists who later changed the world were cover artists for a significant and formative time in their career.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m not just being contrarian. Being in a cover band has its advantages, and in fact provides critical experience for working your craft.

Because when you’re in a cover band, you get to learn

You get to learn what makes a great song…

You get to learn how to work in a group with others…

You get to learn how to work a crowd…

What gear works in a bar, versus in your bedroom…

What outfit looks ridiculous on you…

Don’t get me wrong: aspiring to something great is absolutely critical and something to be encouraged.

But before you change the world you might want to be good at your craft. Lots of bands start out wanting to change the world, but their ambition greatly (and almost tragically) outstrips their ability.

So maybe you’re in a “cover band” right now…

… Maybe the organization you’re in isn’t as wildly creative as you’d like;

… Maybe the position you’re in isn’t the perfect fit;

… Maybe your platform isn’t in front of the “right people” yet.

If this is the case, than here’s what you do:

  • You get better. 
  • You dig in and learn. 
  • You figure out how to with others (particularly a drummer who doesn’t keep time well and a singer who doesn’t always sing on pitch).
  • You learn what “excellence” looks and feels (tastes and sounds?) like. 

Your “cover band moments” are not wasted. They can be the crucible, the workshop that helps you develop and hone your craft for the moment when the world comes calling, and needs you to give something to it.

… Now go practice.

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Do All The Work in Your Head

I was watching the finale of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where they were in Brooklyn, NY.

Anthony ended up at Brooklyn Fare, which looked like one of the most unique restaurant experiences I’ve seen in a long time.

Mostly, because there are only 18 seats.

At one point, Anthony Bourdain looks at his friend Eric Ripert and says, “All the hard work for this took place in the chef’s head.”

Amazing food; 18 seats.

They know how many portions to produce, and when to serve them. Some of the biggest variables in the restaurant business, handled immediately.

In the chef’s head.

Way ahead of time.

Sometimes, when you want to do something amazing, the best way to start is in your head. 

  • What variables can you control?
  • What waste can you eliminate?

If you know ahead of time precisely how you will shape the experience, you can get about the substance of what you want to create: in Brooklyn Fare’s case it’s the food, but it can be anything…

  • the book
  • the worship gathering
  • the melody
  • the life

Control what you can control, so you’re free to delight people.