I like keeping things clean. I doubt anyone would say much against a generalized desire for cleanliness, but the rub comes when clean is really just a substitute for right or even for perfect. No mess. No mistakes.
Hardly anything in the real world actually works that way. Creativity certainly doesn’t. I was reminded of the messiness of creativity a couple days ago while I was reading Proverbs.
Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean,
but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
Proverbs 14: 4
Do you want a clean barn? Don’t have any animals. But the bounty of the harvest and the beauty of the barn are mutually exclusive. You can’t have them both.
Creating means course corrections and do-overs. It means mistakes and failures and fall-on-your-face moments. At least if you're doing it right.
But isn't doing it right the same as doing it perfectly? Not really. Doing something perfectly almost always comes from having already done it before, from doing only what you are sure you know how to do. Never making a mistake means that you’re probably not trying something you’ve never tried.
The reality is: Creativity is almost always messy.
That’s kind of a nice thing to say, and an even nicer thing to imagine… The artist at work, her studio and her smock all covered in mess, and even the mess is a little pretty, made up of Pollock-esque dots of every imaginable color. But I don’t think that’s what Proverbs is talking about. Oxen don’t make pretty messes.
Real messes are a little ugly, and the ugliest mess I’ve ever seen is my internal one. Yes, messier than the creative catastrophes, the failures, and the flatlines is the internal mess that gets made when my work gets real, when I decide I want to make the soil into something, when the dust gets stirred up and the rain turns everything to mud.
I think I’ve been tending a clean barn and an empty field for a little while now. It’s easier, but I don’t have much to show for it. Now it’s time to get an ox. It’s time to get messy. It’s time to drag some heavy ideas from here to there. It’s time to make the earth shake a little. It’s time to plow up some new ground in my work and in my heart.
It means I’m going to have to feed the ox, giving it stuff that’s of substance. It means we’ll need to work hard and rest well. And it means that the hay in the barn is going to get trampled, and things are going to get broken, and I’ll definitely need to shovel some… stuff. But it means there are abundant crops to come.