Day 1: 30-day Writing & Art-making Challenge

"Art is a high calling—fears are coincidental. Coincidental, sneaky and disruptive, we might add, disguising themselves variously as laziness, resistance to deadlines, irritation with materials or surroundings, distraction over the achievements of others—indeed as anything that keeps you from giving your work your best shot." ~David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

On December 13, 2002, I wrote a letter to one of our artists in residence at Hope Chapel. Matt Moorehead was a poet and very gifted. He was one of those people who absorbed new languages seemingly effortlessly--Spanish, French, German, Arabic. One week in Mexico, and he was fluent enough to run for mayor of Monterey. He could recite reams of poetry off the top of his head. Matt was the occasion for confession of sin for many of us: “Lord, forgive me for being jealous of Matt.” He was also a gentle, kind soul with a clever sense of humor. “Lord, forgive me for being jealous of Matt’s perfect memory and his gentleness, kindness and clever sense of humor.”

But at the time of my letter he was experiencing a crippling writer's block. In his original application to the residency program he'd stated:

"I want to develop endurance and discipline to write when not ‘inspired’, and discernment and humility to know when to leave the words alone . . . . I want to learn a deeper patience in my art."

I had promised to push him beyond his “feelings.” He needed to get into the habit of writing when he least felt like writing—when it wasn't "easy"—not the right time or mood—and to trust that, as I would often say, "something begets something." So I prescribed an antidote to his writer's lethargy: a 30-day writing challenge. Here is my letter:

Dear Matthew,

This is your thirty-day writing challenge. You may respond to each topic however you wish. The topics are your titles. Some are restrictive, some as open-ended as the Texas sky. The most important thing, however, is to have fun. Do not stress out. Write what comes, for however long as it comes. You’re free to revise as much as you want on the day of the writing, but once you’ve crossed over into the next day you have to move on. Your starting date is today, December 13, 2002. You conclude on January 12, 2003.

We’ll find a fun way to celebrate the conclusion of the thirty days. Enjoy.


Your friendly neighborhood arts pastor,


1. Why I’ve Written Hardly Anything This Fall: a Socio-Psychological Analysis
2. My lunch at Romeo’s
3. Red apples
4. “Now that is foul and nasty!”
5. 10
6. “Clark plays the guitar”
7. Depression
8. G. W. Bush
9. Dryer machines
10. “Go away”
11. Of belly buttons
12. Coming and going
13. All about my father
14. “Now this is funny”
15. The opposite of Haiku
16. Tony Hyden
17. The SAT
18. Flying
19. “If I were perfectly honest”
20. Styrofoam
21. My hair
22. Southerners vs. Yankees
23. Coffee
24. The virtues of cloth napkins
25. This is what I write about when I write with my left hand
26. A review of the movie . . .
27. A 30-word poem
28. An ode to self-obsessed poets
29. “So you see, I was a trapeze artist once.”
30. What I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch from my thirty-day writing challenge

Needless to say we had a great deal of fun. It was far from easy, but the experiment yielded juicy bits of writing. I would undertake a similar month-long writing challenge myself in the Spring.

And now, on September 1, 2008, I undertake a new one.

I told Phaedra last night: "Phaedra, the only way I'm going to overcome this B-Monster inertia to write my book is if I stop waiting for the perfect time to write and just start writing. Tomorrow morning I’m jumping off the writer’s cliff--for 30 days. I'm ready. If I don't jump now I'll find new ways to distract myself. This book is like a fire in my bones. But the more I delay writing, the harder it will get to begin. So I'm done strategizing. I'm writing—even if it’s dumb."

Then, not wanting to be the only dumb one around, I said, "Why don't you jump with me? Make art for 30 days. Don't worry about finishing anything. Don't try to get it perfect. The goal will simply be to make something. Si?"

“Si,” she said, being the suave bilinguist that she is.

So here we are: Day 1. The only two rules I've given myself are:

Rule 1: I have to write at least 250 words per day. That'll be easy most days. But on the day when I have wall-to-wall appointments, a toilet to fix, bills to pay, phone calls to return, naps to take and a grumpy attitude to ward off, that's when I'll be grateful for only 250 words.

Rule 2: Don't worry. Just write. Have fun. Trust that something begets something.

So this is it. I don't yet know if I'll be posting every entry on the blog. We've banned internet use on our sabbaths, so that rules out at least one day. I may be embarrassed by what I write and be less than inclined to post it. But that might also be good for my character. We'll see.

And to all you artists of every kind--writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, filmmakers, dancers, designers, etc--if you find yourself stuck or itching to create but paralyzed by all kinds of excuses, then we invite you to join us if you can.
The point is very simply: to make something. It's not to make something great. It's not to accomplish a whole lot. It's not to finish an actual piece of work or to wait for the muse to descend. It's to trust that you have plenty of fodder stored up in your mind and imagination and heart, and that with a diligent commitment to make something, more somethings will come and those in turn more will arouse and beckon other somethings. In the words of the authors of Art & Fear:

“You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision.”

And, dear friend, know that out of the ferment of activity, much of it likely rubbish, something really good may come that may never have come if you didn't take the leap of faith.

So punt your “inner critic” to oblivion. Give yourself permission to make ridiculous gobbledegoop. Ask a few friends to join you. Play around with new forms—if you’re a folksy singer-songwriter, try writing a rap song; if you’re a meticulous printmaker, grab a whole bunch of random stuff out of your garage and give yourself one hour to make a lighthearted sculpture on your lawn. Pray. Take yourself un-seriously. Consider this a spiritual exercise along with all the good it'll do your artistic muscles.
And make sure you plan a small celebration on day 30 when you look back over everything you’ve made and know that you’ve participated in the playful, creative life of God and of his Kingdom.

PS: Here is an example of a 100-day drawing challenge that my friend Samantha Wedelich undertook. I quite love her work.
“Tolstoy, in the Age Before Typewriters, re-wrote War & Peace eight times and was still revising galley proofs as it finally rolled onto the press.”


Rosie Perera said…
Thank you, David! This is very timely. I'm heading off to Galiano Island tomorrow morning for a week's writing blitz, to begin a book I'm writing on anticipating and growing through -- not merely going throug -- the loss of a pet. I will take your two rules with me and follow them. No Internet out there, so that won't be a distraction. But I'm sure I'll find other excuses to not write, even when my chief purpose for being there is to write.
I think my favorite is #25
This comment has been removed by the author.
God is so good to bring me here and to this post and to the work of the artist mentioned as well. good for my soul. and just what the Father ordered - a season of discipline.

I will do my 30-day challenge in my primary medium, dance choreography. and i can't wait for the celebration after 30-days.
erin said…
I'm in... an excuse to get rolling on the blogging thing anyways... Writing and I have had an adverse relationship for the last year or so... but it is what I am made for.

Find me working it out here:

I have had this blog for weeks and have done nothing with it. So here goes...
Hey, I'm pretty excited to see all this commotion taking place in the creativity department. Andy Crouch would be proud of us all. We're making culture!

I almost blew it yesterday, Day 2. I was bombed tired. It was 10PM and I'd yet to write anything. So I sat on my couch, pulled out my artsy fartsy journal, and started writing about a 40-year vision to re-haul evangelical ecclesiology in the art department. I thought, "No point starting small, not tonight. Tomorrow perhaps. Let's think big--seminaries, philanthropic societies, thinkers, writers, doers, managers, lay persons, civil servants, denominational heads, Bono."

Whether it's a cogent plan I don't know. But I wrote. And that's my job right now.

If you know anybody else who might benefit from a swift, grace-based kick in the creative pants, go ahead and invite them in. We'll make September the "I'm going to create something no matter what" month.

Phaedra came away from her drawing experiment late last night all grumbly and grousy. "It's dumb!" she said, giving me a dirty look even though I'd combed my wet hair down into a pasty, 50s look. "I can't make art!" I said, "Phaedra, you have to give yourself permission to make really bad art. Your drawing tonight isn't the final word. Just remember, your inner creative gal is pretty happy that movement is actually happening." "Yeah, but grr! rahh! sigh! long sighhhh! nah! grumble, grumble, grumble!" she responded.

We got in bed, reached for our respective magazines. I turned to her and said, "Phaedra, I love you. Tomorrow is a new day. You're awesome. Now stop grumbling or I'm going to tickle you with my claw hand." She smiled--just a tiny bit.

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