The Pains and Joys of Creation: Thoughts from Anne Bradstreet and J.R.R. Tolkien
I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love picking up the most random of hobbies, practicing it until I feel I am adequate at it, and then hopping to the next hobby that I can “conquer.” At one point in my hobby-hopping career, while I was in college, I wanted to paint a very special and specific painting. It doesn’t matter what that painting was, as much as it matters that the image in my head never quite seemed to find its way to the canvas. I added extra texture, extra clouds, “happy little trees”; all these attempts to perfect my painting resulted in it becoming even more muddled. I set it aside to mull over my potential next steps, and I left it in my room for the next week.
My contemplation had an unexpected result: I started hating that painting. The more I looked at it, the more it mocked me. It felt as though that painting existed to prove my inadequacy. I didn’t think I’d ever seen something so ugly, something that demonstrated such a lack of talent. After the week was over, that painting went exactly where it belonged: the dumpster.
Creation can be both a joyful and a heartbreaking effort. We derive joy from seeing our ideas come to life and being able to share our abilities with others. We rejoice in the idea that others may share in our love and appreciation for our craft. But creation comes with downfalls as well. Our handiwork reveals our own imperfections, and it lies open to ridicule and criticism from whoever comes in contact with it. It can be heartbreaking to read our lines or see our art and realize how incomplete it is, and worse, that we have no way of crafting it to the perfection our imaginations crave. We are simply left to hoard it to ourselves or to send it out, blemished and defective.
So why do we continue creating when we are met with the heartbreak of our own imperfections?
I pondered that in college after I had bidden my own creation goodbye. That semester I learned about two writers who had insights into our roles on earth as creators. Their ideas, and the accompanying emotions, have stuck with me to this day. These two very different writers, Anne Bradstreet and J.R.R. Tolkien, offer some clues in their works as to how to answer our question.
Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan poet of the 17th century, gives us a unique perspective on creation. Not only was she a talented and prolific writer, but she also gave birth to and raised eight children. She compared these two types of creation in her poem, “The Author to Her Book.” Read through this poem and see if the emotions feel familiar to you:
Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, expos’d to publick view,
Made thee in raggs, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judg).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy Visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I wash’d thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joynts to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobling then is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun Cloth, i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ’mongst Vulgars mayst thou roam.
In Criticks hands, beware thou dost not come;
And take thy way where yet thou art not known,
If for thy Father askt, say, thou hadst none:
And for thy Mother, she alas is poor,
Which caus’d her thus to send thee out of door.
Anne Bradstreet details the painful feeling of having your imperfect brainchild snatched away and ridiculed by onlookers. Her own poems were taken by her brother to England where he published them without her knowledge. Bradstreet expresses the horror and shame she felt when her unfinished, unpolished, imperfect works were presented to the public. Her analogy of being embarrassed by an unimposing and feeble child seems harsh when read literally. Bradstreet truly loved her own children and portrays in the poem the love and concern of a mother’s heart, but it is in reading the poem for its true meaning that these harsh words make sense. In understanding the analogy that she makes, we are able to form a clear and recognizable picture for anyone who has created: no matter how hard you may scrub, stretch, cover, or hide your works, they will never reach the perfection you desire.
If that is what creating is like for artists, then why create at all? Why are we compelled to create? Why do we continue to do something that we will never perfect? Why do we put effort into something that will consistently bring us pain?
The answers to these questions may lie less in the purpose of creating and more in the fabric of our being.
In 1947, nearly 300 years after Bradstreet confessed her anxiety over her work, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote an essay titled “On Fairy Stories.” He discusses the types and origins of fairy stories and argues for the continued reading of Fantasy as an avenue of sub-creation. His explanation of that concept provides a helpful perspective on our questions.
Tolkien divides creation into two types: primary creation and sub-creation. God is the primary Creator: He made the universe out of nothing and crafted a beautiful redemption story for His fallen people. We are the sub-creators. Everything we make is crafted from His creation, so our sub-creation is only a shadow of His primary creation.
Tolkien believed that “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” This theory presents a beautiful reason for our desire to make: we create because we were made in the image of the Creator.
Our imperfect creations are our attempts to emulate God’s creation. We are driven to create by an inward desire to produce as the Creator produced the world. Yet we are met with a significant problem: God’s works are perfect and ours are imperfect. So that brings us back to our original problem: why do we continue creating when every effort is weighed down by this burden of imperfection?
According to Tolkien, we continue creating flawed works and undergoing heartbreak because it points us to our Creator and reminds us that He alone is incapable of making flawed works. Through our inadequacies as fallen image-bearers, we behold the perfection of God and bring glory to Him. We recognize that He is the only perfect One, and we are drawn to becoming more like Him. Our “ill-form’d offspring,” our imperfect creations, are our feeble attempts to love as He has loved, to create as He has created, to share as He has shared.
The more we create, the more we give discouragement an opportunity to creep into our lives. It can be easy to disparage our works when they do not measure up to our standards. Often, we end up prematurely trashing our own works, like my ill-fated painting, because we think we are incapable of doing those works justice. But our abject handiworks glorify God by showcasing His incontestable perfection. Our joy in our achievements springs from our God-ordained ability to create, in a small part, as He has created. So, send your “children” out, blemished and defective as they are, and glory in the gift of creation that is woven into your very being.