Secrets Of Creativity: SSHHHH! Don’t Tell Anyone

Where does creativity come from? Can we develop it?

How can we write songs or produce films or create tasty meals, or grab people’s attention in sermons? Is creativity some random unpredictable thing like spinning the wheel on “Wheel of Fortune?” Is there any way to cultivate it or develop it?

First of all, we create because we have been created in the image of the Master Creator.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. GE 1.27

Part of being created in God’s image is that humans are creators; we are made to create. It’s in our DNA. Obviously, we don’t create things out of nothing, like God did. But when we create we are “taking dominion” over the earth as God commanded:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” GE 1.26

To “have dominion” over the earth includes taking the raw material of the world and making stuff out of it. To take wood and stone and ore from the ground and create movies and airplanes and decorative icing on cookies.

“When we talk about dominion, it’s helpful to think of it this way: As God’s image bearers in creation, we were intended to act as His representatives. We were designed, in a very real way, to show the world what God is like. So when God gave us the command to rule over the earth, the expectation was to do so in a way that reflected His character.” –The Gospel Project

So when we create, we show the world what God is like. We are designed to create. So how can we cultivate this creativity?

I was an art education major in college and got my masters in painting. I also played guitar in rock bands from the time I was 14 to 24 or so and wrote songs for the band. When Jesus saved me, I quit the band for various reasons, but kept writing songs which I would perform in various venues like coffee houses. I also began writing worship songs to try to serve my church. I eventually became a pastor, and attempted to apply creativity to the messages I preached. And about 10 years I picked up painting again.

So whether painting or preaching or songwriting, I have pursued creativity. Here are some things I have learned over the years.

Because every gift we have is from God, we have nothing to be proud about when we create something.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. JA 1.17

Every spiritual gift and every “natural” gift is from God.

For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? 1 CO 4.7

These verses are about spiritual gifts, but every gift is from God. For example in the OT God gifted Bezalel with all kinds of artistic gifts:

Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. EX 35.30-33

God gave Bezalel all kinds of skill to create designs, work with gold, silver and bronze, cut stones, carve wood and “every skilled craft.” GOD gave him those gifts. Bez had nothing to be proud about.

Because God gives us every gift we have, from intelligence to athletic gifts to writing or cooking, we have no reason to boast. We have every reason to praise and thank God for being so generous with us.

God desires us to use and develop the gifts and talents he gives us.

In the parable of the Talents (MT 25:14-30), a master gives 3 servants differing amounts of talents (money). The first 2 take their talents, put them to work and earn more talents. The third servant buries his talent, much to his shame.

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. MT 25:24-29

God gives us gifts, but we need to develop them. To “sow” them. Cultivate them. That’s where the following tips come in.

The most important thing we need is diligence.

In fact, I would say that diligence is every bit as important as having talent. There are multitudes of talented people who never develop their gifts because of a lack of diligence. The Bible has much to say about diligence:

A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich. PR 10:4

The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor. PR 12.24

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. PR 6.6-8

So often we wait for a “flash of inspiration,” or some brilliant insight that will suddenly inspire the next Mona Lisa. But that rarely comes. I once read that an artist should think of himself or herself like that highway worker who just goes out every day and puts asphalt on the road. He doesn’t wait for a flash of inspiration; he just goes out and does it, day after day.

The way to overcome writer’s block is to just start putting some words down on the page. Or pick up that guitar and start playing chords and singing.  Just get some paint on the canvas, like that asphalt on the highway.

Once I was on a plane with my friend Steve Cook, who along with his wife Vikki are great songwriters. He was writing in a journal. I asked him what he was writing and he said he was just writing song titles. One title after another. Because if you hit upon a strong title, it goes a long way to launching the rest of the song. The title is often the main line in the chorus, and if you have a strong chorus, that also goes a long way to building a strong song.

So I used Steve’s idea when trying to write a song based on Psalm 145 about the greatness of the Lord. I began writing title after title. I wrote “How Great You Are” – no, already used. I wrote titles like “You Are Great,” “Praise You For Your Greatness,” title after title. Then, about three fourths of the way down the page I wrote, “Greater Than We Can Imagine.” I liked it! That was much more creative than the other titles I had written. That became the title of a song, and the first line in the chorus.

I can’t say enough about the importance of diligence. Just keep at it. I can’t tell you how many times I would work on a song for a couple hours and nothing would happen. But later, I would be working on a different song and I would remember the chords I had used a couple weeks before and they would work perfectly.

Thomas Edison said, “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

To develop the light bulb, Edison tried over 1500 different filaments before he found the right elements that would glow and not burn out quickly.

“One per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Don’t be discouraged by failure. I have written lots of songs that weren’t that good, and have painted many paintings that I never hung on walls. But if you keep plugging away, you will get better. Don’t pursue greatness, pursue diligence. Don’t worry about being successful, try to be faithful. Just try to develop the talent God gave you.

A couple other tips:

Whatever your talent, expose yourself to lots of influences.

If you are a songwriter, listen to lots of music. Listen to classical music, broadway musicals, jazz. If you are a painter, look at lots of art.

Here’s another one:

Copy others

Shhhhh! Don’t tell anyone I said this. In his book, “Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,” Austin Kleon says:

“Start copying what you love. Copy copy copy copy. At the end of the copy you will find your self.”

I’ve done this for years. If you’re hitting a blank wall for a song idea, take a song you like and copy it. Only change it enough that no one will know you copied it. I once used the exact framework, line by line, of the verses in “How Great Thou Art” for the verses in a song, “Glorious,” then wrote completely different music. “Glorious” is a fast song and the melody is completely different than the song I “stole” the shape of the verses from.

I have intentionally imitated songs by others. I have tried to imitate the feel or rhythm and at times have imitated musical phrases – but again, change them so I don’t plagiarize. Every artist, songwriter, designer or cook is influenced by others. So “steal like an artist” – be influenced. Imitate someone else. Only change it enough that no one will know you “stole” it.

And if God chooses to bless you – if you achieve any success, don’t forget where your talent came from. And not only your talent, but even your diligence comes from God. So don’t forget to thank the Giver of every good gift for the gifts and blessings he gives you.

Remember the words of Charles Spurgeon:

“A journey of a thousand miles is begun with a step. Beware of despising small beginnings. Some men never arrive at usefulness because they are not satisfied to begin in a small way, and proceed by a step at a time.”

Mark Altrogge

I’m a pastor at Saving Grace Church in Indiana, PA. I’m married to Kristi, have 5 kids, and a growing number of grandkids. I enjoy songwriting, oil painting and coffee, not necessarily in that order.

3 comments

  • Thank you for these words of wisdom. I just thought my songwriting ability had dried up because I hadn’t been working on it
    I guess it did but now I know what to do to get it started again
    I’ll be getting right on it
    Thanks again. By theway, you were one of my early inspirations when I was writing in the ’90’s.

    • Thank you Katherine! I am grateful you were encouraged . And thank you for your encouragement to me!

  • Thank you so much! I am really enjoying reading the books you’ve sent me. I can learn a lot.

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