What can I bring?” I asked my friend Shannon as we made plans for dinner at her home.
“Something for dessert would be fantastic,” she replied.
I had a kitchen full of fresh fruit after a recent farmers market delivery, so I knew just the thing. I showed up two nights later with a homemade peach pie sporting a carefully braided lattice top. My husband, Steve, trailed behind with a half-gallon carton of vanilla bean ice cream.
When those same friends came for supper at our house a few weeks later, I served pumpkin pie fresh from the oven with whipped topping melted down the sides. As we were scraping the last crumbs from our plates, Shannon said, “You have to show me how you make your crust.” So we planned a baking session.
On a beautiful October day, Shannon mixed frozen cherries in sugar and chopped tart Granny Smith apples while I cut Crisco into flour, baking powder, and salt with a fork. I rolled out four crusts, two for the pans and two for the tops. I’m a messy baker, so flour fell to the floor, covered the refrigerator handle, and even stuck to my clothes. After dumping in the fillings, covering the tops, and fluting the edges, I carefully placed the pies in the oven.
While the pies baked, Shannon showed me how to make a pineapple upside-down cake. As she arranged pineapple slices in the cake pan, her husband walked in from the garage.
“Look at these,” she said, turning on the oven light and carefully opening the door.
“Those look amazing,” Blaine said. “You guys should open your own bakery.”
Shannon and I laughed because we had said the same thing to each other just minutes earlier.
“Wouldn’t it be awesome,” I said. “I do love to bake!”
“But would I like baking so much if I had to?”
“Yeah, when it’s your job, you’d probably get tired of it,” Blaine said.
MORE THAN A GIG
This isn’t the first time I’ve been tempted to take the creative work I enjoy and make a job out of it. In our gig-economy where everyone has at least one side hustle they’re hoping to flip into an overnight success, I’ve had visions of becoming a seamstress (after I successfully made some pillows and curtains), a musician (after learning to play the guitar), a website designer (after creating my own author website), and many others.
I don’t limit my entrepreneurial inclinations to myself, either. Any time I see a friend’s exceptional photos, or taste their amazing cookies, or read a particularly well-written letter, I encourage them to take it to the next level. Start an Etsy shop. Create a photography business. Set up a booth.
For some of us, having another person see the things we ‘just do’ as legitimate gifts and talents that could earn us a living and support our families is the nudge we need to get serious about the calling God has placed on our lives. But often, the creative work we do throughout our lives isn’t about monetization or building our brand. It’s about being human. It’s about bearing the image of our Creator Who makes and remakes because it’s part of His nature. In the quiet spaces of life where we aren’t taking selfies and hustling for our break, we produce and make and create because it lifts our souls and makes us feel more alive. And rather than turn every creative interest into a new money-making venture, often the better choice—the wiser choice—is to continue to do the creative work without the pressure of making it big.
NO MASTERY, NO ART
I remember so clearly the conversation I had with my watercolor instructor, Peggy, about what it would take to really ‘make it’ as a painter. “You have real talent,” she told me, after a few weeks of taking her group lessons. In that instant, I began to imagine my work on the walls of friends’ homes, my first gallery showing, and my professional art studio in the spare bedroom. “If you really want to make it as an artist,” Peggy continued, “you need to paint every day.” I felt my shoulders sink.
Every day? How could I paint every day? I was already working full time, writing every day (another creative pursuit I eventually did turn into a career), reading every day, getting out of bed every day, feeding the dog every day, and making sure I showered every day. I barely had enough time to see friends, volunteer at church, and visit my family as it was. How could I add another daily commitment and still be a functioning human?
Still, I tried. For a few months, I tried painting most days, while also continuing to attend weekly painting classes. But when Peggy’s husband died unexpectedly and she stopped offering the group lessons, my painting dwindled. Without the accountability of those weekly gatherings, I rarely pulled out the paints and paper. I’m never going to be a real painter, I told myself eventually. And I quit painting.
On the one hand, my decision not to be a painter was a nod toward becoming a writer—a vocation I’ve felt called to nearly all my life. While I could never commit to painting every day, I’ve been a daily (or near-daily) writer for years.
On the other hand, I still really liked painting. In fact, I’ve always liked art of all kinds: drawing, sculpting, mixed media collaging, paper folding. All of it. When I gave it up because I knew I couldn’t commit to a big-time art career, I missed it.
So I started to wonder, should I really limit my creative endeavors to only those things I can master? And can I still honor God with my creativity when I’m only dabbling?
CHOOSING WHAT TO MASTER
If there’s anything I’ve learned about the creative life, it’s that limits feel bad but are actually good. What constrains us helps us become more creative. Sure, imagination has no boundaries, and in most cases, if we can dream it, we can make it happen. But without budgets or schedules or, in some cases, actual canvases or baking dishes or walls with literal dimensions, how will we ever begin?
When it comes to constraints, though, perhaps a better question is: How will we continue? With so many limits on our time and energy and creativity, regardless of how many interests we have or how talented we are, we can’t master everything.
While I committed myself to painting for many months before recognizing I would probably never master it, I learned quickly that I’d never be a virtuoso guitar player. I bought the instrument when I was leading weekly Sunday school classes for kindergartners. They loved to sing, and they loved instruments even more. With just a few lessons, I could strum my way through dozens of children’s choruses, and I even wrote a few of my own. But when I tried to transfer my talent to the church worship team, I just didn’t have what it takes. And in fact, I didn’t even want to try.
Writing, however, was a different story. From the time I was 8 years old, I wrote stories and poems. In high school, I entered writing contests and wrote articles for our school yearbook. In college, I was a writer, a columnist, and an editor for the university’s weekly newspaper, and from there I became a journalist. Even when I realized newspaper reporting wasn’t for me, I still knew that writing was a creative outlet I wanted to master. I worked jobs that would give me time and energy to write on the side, and I worked hard at my craft. I penned stories and essays in the evenings, sending them off to magazines and journals until eventually I started being published. Over time, I even became a full-time writer, using my creative gifts in a number of writerly ways.
As I think of my calling to write, I think of Bezalel and Oholiab, mentioned in Exodus 35 as the Tabernacle was being built. Moses says that God chose these men to work on the tapestries and tools of the Tabernacle because “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. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer” (Exodus 35:31-33, 35). These weren’t guys who took a couple classes on the weekend; these were masters who had given their lives to their art.
Choosing to master writing has meant choosing not to master lots of other things—things I would have enjoyed and possibly could have made a living at just as well. It’s a choice I’ve made over and over again throughout my life. Choosing what we will devote our significant time, resources, and energy to gives us an outlet for glorifying God in a focused, in-depth way. But to truly live out our creative calling as image bearers, we can’t master every pursuit. In all those other areas, we need to learn how to dabble.
LEARNING TO DABBLE
I’m never going to open a bakery, but I enjoy making pies for friends and family. I’m never going to be an interior designer, but I love picking out colors for the guest bedroom and my home office. I’ll never work for a Madison Avenue Advertising Agency, but I can use my simple design skills in my own writing work.
Mastery allows us to take our specific creative callings to the next level, but dabbling serves as a daily reminder that all of life is an opportunity to bear the image of our Creator. Spending a few seconds artfully arranging the vegetables on our plates, taking the time to add throw pillows and a blanket to our bed in the morning, planting bright flowers in the pot outside our door, even pairing a shirt and skirt together because I like the way the colors and textures blend—it’s all creative. It all matters.
Living creatively in all the nooks and crannies of my day also helps me live better because it slows me down and demands that I pay attention. It keeps me aware that “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” (James 1:17).
Dabbling also comes with a certain freedom that mastery knows nothing of. When we dabble, when we take time for creating and making even when we know we can’t master it, we’re not trying to pack an auditorium or make the best-seller list. In fact, the dabbler doesn’t care how big her audience is, or even if there’s an audience at all.
CREATING FOR A SMALLER AUDIENCE
Sometimes, our work as creators is simply for ourselves. No one else will probably even see the way I arranged the fall decorations in my office, but I will. And not a day goes by that I don’t look at them and smile.
Other times, our audience is our family or friends. I don’t think receiving a 5-star review at an award-winning pie shop would have given me more pleasure than hearing my husband say that mine is the best cherry pie he’s ever eaten. It was the same pleasure I felt when my stepsons picked up the placecards I designed for Thanksgiving and read the personal notes of gratitude I’d written about each one of them.
Sometimes, we may not even know how our creations touched someone. For instance, I didn’t know until 25 years after the fact that the poem I’d written in high school for my friend Amy upon the death of her dad had held such a special place in her heart. Long after I’d forgotten even writing it, she told me how much the effort and the words had meant to her then—and even now. She still has the handwritten verses tucked away in a storage bin.
The greatest audience we create for, though, is an audience of One: Our creative Father, who may not endow us to be masters like Bezalel and Oholiab, but designs us with our own special gifts, talents, and desires nonetheless. We are His ‘poiēma’—His creative masterpiece—as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10, and He has created us to do our good work in the world for Him.
I’ll probably never actually open a pie shop, though Blaine and Steve have agreed to eat any pie I’m willing to make. I’ll also never be a professional artist, though I do occasionally pull out the sketch pad and watercolor paints again. And I’m not as good at either as I’d like, which feels disappointing sometimes—though not baking or painting at all seems like a much worse fate. Mostly, I’m thankful that even if my creative pursuits fall short of mastery, they allow me to live in a way that reflects God’s image in me.
When I’m creating, I know my Creator is pleased.
Originally published in The Joyful Life Spring 2021 issue.