Good Words, Bad Words, No Words

This is a note I sent to our artist community at Hope. If anybody has any good thoughts, I'd be most interested and grateful.

I'm speaking at the Trinity Arts Conference at the University of Dallas, June 15-18. The theme of the conference is "All Things." My own talk is titled: "All Things: In particular the Small Things (Especially Words)." My goal is to talk about the importance and virtue of encouragement. If I had to distill one or two things that I thought was most important over the last five to ten years in my position as arts pastor, I would say it is this:

"Artists are made or broken by the words of encouragement they received along the way, or barely received, or never received; that it's not just what we say to each other, it's how we say it, how often we say it, how often we forget or refrain from saying it. Saying what? Saying words of encouragement. Why do we need encouragement? Because we are constantly threatened by fear, the fears inside our hearts and the fears all around us, the fears that threaten us to stop and give up or settle for the path of least resistance. And it is only God's courage that can help us overcome our fears. And so He calls us to en-courage each other. Writes St. Paul, 'But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness' (Heb. 3:13). Without encouragement--to forestall the entropic effects of fear--there's little chance any of us will ever achieve our fullest potential."

What I'd love to get help on is the following. Can you share with me:

1. Words of encouragement you've received along the way that you remember being really important to you as an artist.
2. Words of discouragement that hurt you in your development as an artist.
3. A good movie, play, song, art piece that illustrates the power of encouraging words.

Thanks so much!

ps: At some point this week I hope to jot down my impressions of the C. S. Lewis conference this past weekend in Austin; or at least tell about my friendly altercation with Frederica Matthewes-Green.

(PHOTO: Walter Wangerin interview, Festival of Faith & Writing, April 2006. Both Wangerin and Richard Foster sport the very rad and holy grey-haired ponytails. Click to enlarge.)


Sørina Higgins said…
This is an excellent question. As Christians, we ought to spur one another on in love, godliness, and creative excellence. As teachers, we must nurture our students in their creative efforts, feeding each little endeavor with the stuff of love and support. Every word must tend towards the strengthening of their understanding and skill. As artists, we should seek to develop creative communities of cheerful, careful, specific critique.

I have been blessed with many such instances. I have a friend who is my partner in writing. She is full of great joy and enthusiasm, and never fails to gush with words of praise. When it comes down to it, her scrutiny of my poetry is sharp, keen, cutting, and accurate—but always delivered with enormous love and sweetness. Her exclamation points are worth more than many an “A” or an acceptance letter. And several other friends are e-mail encouragers; we send our work back and forth and write suggestions and acclamations. I am sure my writing would shrivel if it were not for these good people and their good words.

Not all has been sunshine and roses. In my first year of college, I was so inspired by my literature class that I decided to be an English major. I rushed to tell my prof, figuring that any professor would be tickled pink to know she’d motivated a student to pursue her field. I know I am, now, when I student leaves one of my writing or music classes determined to become a musician or writer! But no… the only thing this teacher said was “I don’t know about that. You can’t spell!”
Thanks to Microsoft Word spell checker, I did and do and can and will.

Sometimes, however, “discouraging” or challenging words can motivate artists to work harder and better. We must be of the right temperament to handle such criticism, however. I had a poetry prof this past summer who had been in the military—and it showed. He used a very confronting tutorial style, writing notes that, with but a few well- (or ill-) chosen words, tore our dearest poems to shreds. In the middle of the term, he wrote a note saying that nothing I had written so far “did it” for him, and that all he could suggest was to try something totally different. Well, after several emotional days of thinking he meant I should just give up, I tried all kinds of different methods, forms, subject matters… to no avail. Then Providence reached in a blessed me through that crusty old professor. I had handed in some poems before receiving that note, but he had not read them—they had crossed in the mail, so to speak. Lo and behold, he liked those poems, and dished out some rare praise! But this is to say that both his criticism and his encouragement together motivated me to greater efforts of creation, and I thank him.
Sørina Higgins said…
I can't wait to see your comments on the C. S. Lewis conference. Was there any discussion relating to Till We Have Faces? That book, arguably his best, is serious overlooked.
Sharon said…
Well, you asked for "good" movies, so I'm not sure this qualifies, but I had a pastor once upon a time who loved the movie Rudy, primarily because of the scene where Rudy's buddy buys him a Notre Dame letterman's jacket and tells him, "you were born to wear that jacket."

I recently watched Born into Brothels. The effects of encouraging the children in their photography were striking.

In thinking about movies in general (again, not sure what you consider good, or what I do sometimes), it seems like a common dramatic pattern that right before the protagonist is about to give up on the particular endeavor (even life) someone comes along and says, you can do it, or I'll do it with you, thus motivating the protag to success. Or the protagonist strikes out against one more discouragement, motivated to prove everyone wrong in his success.

Also, I'm thinking of The Station Agent. I can't think of a particular line but I felt that movie portrayed the importance of community, of showing up. And encouragement is a function of community, sometimes the genesis and oh-so-hopefully the result.

Anyway, some random thoughts.

(Also, you're probably familiar Michael Card's thoughts on the subject.)

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