In the beginning, Adam’s first job was to care for the Garden of Eden and to use his God-given creativity to name the animals.
You could say humans were created to create.
Authors understand that, but the chaos of life can squelch our creativity. Sometimes we feel like we’re drowning in a sea of doubt. How do we connect with God and continue to pursue creativity, even when life feels chaotic?
How do we get unstuck and move forward to fulfill the purpose God has created us for?
To find out, I interviewed Allen Arnold, who is passionate about awakening people’s hearts to actively pursue creativity with God. He is an author, speaker, and Executive Producer of Content for Wild at Heart—the ministry founded by New York Times bestselling author John Eldredge. He is the author of three acclaimed books, The Story of With, Chaos Can’t, and Waves of Creativity.
What is the main roadblock writers face in their creativity?
Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: You’ve worked with many authors. What do you see as the number one roadblock regarding creativity?
Allen Arnold: I started Thomas Nelson Fiction; and while I was the fiction publisher there, I had a chance to publish over 500 novels for hundreds of writers, from first-time authors to New York Times bestsellers.
Over the years, I observed that the writers who went the distance were the ones who chose to co-create with God. Authors who tried to come up with the next idea in their own strength or brilliance ended up burning out.
They felt the pressure of having to produce a new book every six months; and because they were working from their own strength, they ran out of new things to say.
As the publisher, I wanted to help authors maximize their creativity by spending more time with the Creator who gave them the desire to create. God has limitless creativity, but our creativity suffers when we detach from him and try to be creative by ourselves.
What does it mean to co-create with God?
Thomas: What do you mean by co-creating with God?
Allen: Co-creating with God is entering into what makes you come alive.
God infused each of us with unique interests, passions, talents, and desires. Even if we’re all in the same industry, we each have a unique variation, voice, view of the world, and a unique draw.
The more we get in touch with what makes us come alive, the more we can discover how to pursue that in its fullness, rather than in a one-dimensional way. We do that through knowing God and spending time with him.
Most believers who pursue creativity with good desires try to do things for God. They approach their creativity as an offering and say, “I’ll give it my best, and I hope God likes it.” Those creative works never shine as bright as the works people create with God.
When people actively and intimately enter the creative process with God, they experience co-creation.
Wherever my idea stops, God’s idea continues. It’s a seamless path, and it’s beautiful when you see it play out. I get to see people tapping into Jeremiah 33:3, where God says, “Call to Me, and I will answer you. I will tell you of great things, things beyond what you can imagine, things you could never have known.”
When you pursue co-creation with God, he’ll show you things beyond your imagination, things beyond your ability to see, and new ways to solve a problem.
On the other hand, when we say, “I think I’ve got the drill down. I know how to do this. I’ve done it before, and I can do it with my eyes closed because I’m an expert,” that’s when the danger sign should be flashing.
What does it look like for a writer with a blank screen to co-create with God?
Thomas: What does it look like to co-create with God if I have a blank Scrivener document on my screen?
Allen: Co-creating starts before you sit down with the blank document. It begins with a lifestyle of expectancy.
When you wake up, you say, “Father God, here I am. What are we going to do today? How are we going to enter these challenges and ideas creatively today? Give me eyes to see as you see. Give me thoughts that are your thoughts and not mine only. Invite me to a co-creating process today.”
Expectancy starts before we’re sitting at a blank screen or canvas. It starts with a curiosity about God. Consider your internal life and what God may be doing:
- What theme am I wrestling with in my life journey right now?
- What idea can I not quit thinking about?
- If I was with a group of people, what would I be asking them about this topic?
- What am I drawn to when I walk into a bookstore or go to a movie?
- What are those recurring themes and ideas that draw you?
Curiosity can lead you to discover how those themes tie into the journey God has you on. Your curiosity, the ideas and things you can’t quit thinking about, are the doorway you enter with God.
After you’ve identified some themes, ask:
- In my current journey, how am I wrestling with that theme?
- What do I want to know?
- What stumps me?
- Where do I keep hungering for more?
With those questions in mind, you can enter into your art with God and a mindset of curiosity. It’s personal and intimate. It’s hardwired into your journey, so it’s unique to you.
After God allows you to see themes in your unique way, ask him to help you understand the desires of the people you’re writing for. Ask God to show you your reader’s need, their curiosity, and their questions.
Entering into your art with God entails the following:
- Expectancy: Expect God to show up.
- Curiosity: Explore the path of curiosity with God.
- Co-creation: Begin co-creating with God when you do your art.
When I wrote my first book, The Story of With, I got into this playful routine with God where I sensed him saying, “Write the protagonist into a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter to the point where you have no idea how she’s going to get out of it. Then, we’ll figure it out together.”
Perhaps a day or a week later, I would suddenly sense God showing the way forward through a song, conversation, or Scripture.
It was an intimate process of co-authorship where I was writing beyond my ability to know what came next, and God was helping me discover it in my life and my writing.
It’s like a dance because both partners are intimately involved.
Thomas: You’re applying the greatest commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
The first step is loving God, and the next is loving your neighbor. When you explore what your audience wants, you love your neighbor.
If you want people to read your book, they need to want to read the book. You can’t make people want to read your book. If you hope an audience reads your book, you have to write what they want to read.
Allen: Right. You start by asking how the idea ties to your journey. “How does this concept make my heart beat faster?”
But the moment you decide you’re creating something you want others to read, buy, or spend time with, there is a shift. You then have to ask different questions.
- How can I shape that theme to be the most practical for others?
- How can I craft it to address their pain point?
- How can I write to fulfill the promise that their life will be different after reading it?
Thomas: It’s an attitude and an approach. You pray, ask questions, and leave room for silence.
You come up with ideas in the shower because it’s a silent place. You’re giving yourself room to experience silence.
Allen: When writers are stuck, I advise them to live more before they write more.
Feeling stuck on the canvas or screen is often a reflection of a life that’s stuck in the status quo. The answer isn’t “just keep writing more words.” You need to live a little more. Let God give you some answers through your life so your creativity can come out on the page.
Getting Unstuck in Nonfiction
Thomas: That’s particularly true for nonfiction writers.
If you want people to take seriously the ideas you present in your book, you need to test your ideas to find out if they actually help people. If you haven’t tested the idea, don’t put it in a book.
How can you disciple strangers (readers) if you haven’t discipled your own friends? How do you know your teaching is any good?
Allen: Most of my learning has come from testing ideas and topics on an audience. I’ll speak at events, in small groups, and in one-on-one coaching calls. During that time, I researched and read the great writers of history on that topic.
Then, after I’ve spoken on the topic for two years, I’ll have the humility to cut a story I liked because it caused the audience to zone out. As I speak, I can see people leaning in to listen when I mention certain things, so I’ll note that and maximize it.
Over time, your content gets tested in the real world in real time, and that’s far better than trying to write alone in your study and hoping people like it.
Getting Unstuck in Fiction
Thomas: For fiction, it’s a bit different.
Isaac Asimov wrote an excellent essay on creativity called “The Eureka Phenomenon.” It’s primarily about how many scientific discoveries happened when the researcher was doing something else.
Perhaps the famous incident was when Archimedes discovered the principle of buoyancy while he was in the bath; and then he shouted, “Eureka!”
The Asimov essay includes a dozen examples of major scientific breakthroughs that didn’t happen while the scientist was laboring but when they were taking a break doing something else.
Asimov applied that principle to his writing. He was one of the most prolific novelists of the 20th century and probably the most prolific in science fiction.
He said if he ever had writers block, he’d take a walk or see a mindless movie. And without fail, when he returned from the movie or walk, he’d have fresh ideas to move the story forward.
Allen: Speaking of fiction, I’ve recently been fascinated by the concept of the hero’s journey, which is mostly what writers use for screenplays or novels.
You began by talking about Eden. I think the story model God created was different than the hero’s journey. As I’ve looked into this, I’ve come to believe the hero’s journey is actually an Ecclesiastes journey, not an Eden journey.
Ecclesiastes versus Eden
An Ecclesiastes journey means everyone is off searching for something. They’re called into the unknown; but by the end of the hero’s journey, while they may have attained the elixir, the gold, the girl, or the victory, it’s only a short-term victory. If the camera kept rolling, the character would still be largely the same person in the next scene.
In movie sequels, the characters don’t change much. They just have the next adventure. In that sense, it flows like an Ecclesiastes story where nothing’s new under the sun.
The Eden storytelling model focuses on the fact that God created us for intimacy with him. If we started telling stories that focused more on that desire and what the adventures were supposed to be, I think it would result in less predictable stories by novelists and screenwriters.
We can identify with the hero’s journey because it’s so familiar to our experience. But the real question is, “Does it feel real because we’re in a fallen world and we’ve substituted an unfulfilling hero’s journey story for how the real adventure should have gone in an unfallen world?”
The Hero’s Journey from Different Worldviews
Thomas: Hollywood has been trying to get away from the hero’s journey in the last couple of years. What you just expressed is very much coming out of woke Hollywood. But they’re finding that movies that don’t follow the hero’s journey aren’t working.
In the true hero’s journey, the hero is transformed by the end of the story.
Think of Pippen from Lord of The Rings. In Return to the King, Pippen is more mature than he was in Fellowship of the Ring. He’s gained character and courage, and he’s finally useful to the plot.
The hero’s journey shows us that we can make decisions that make a difference. When you get away from that theme, as Hollywood does, you end up with uninteresting, passive protagonists. Events happen around them, but they’re not making decisions that make a difference.
It’s a disempowering narrative because the character becomes a victim of fate. The theme becomes that people are washed along in the tides of history, and nothing they do really matters. It’s depressing. That doesn’t sound like Eden to me.
Allen: You’re describing a move away from the hero’s journey where the protagonist has no sense of God in their worldview. That’s not what I’m aiming for.
Current movies reflect what the world is like, but the problem is that they reflect a world without God. The story is dark, hopeless, and often passive.
In Eden, Adam’s biggest problem was his passivity. He was passive when it came time to choose whether to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He just followed Eve.
The real journey is never going to be passive.
Pippen’s transformation in Lord of the Rings worked well because of Tolkien’s worldview. I think there is a way to return to a story structure reflecting what could have been, and Hollywood’s not doing it well.
The hero’s journey is a good model. But I think if we ask God what a story could look like if we weren’t following a predictable model but were instead following God in the story, the story could end up being full of life and surprises.
Thomas: Adam was not a very interesting character. He’s not the protagonist in his own story. He’s not even the relationship character.
God is the protagonist of the narrative in the Garden of Eden. If anyone is a secondary protagonist, it’s Eve, not Adam. Eve is making decisions. Obviously, Adam was with her. He technically made decisions, and theologically he was responsible. But he’s not the one protagging the story, as we would say in a novel workshop.
Going back to your Ecclesiastes story, I see Solomon making decisions. He’s doing deeds and making the world respond to him. He’s changing the world. He built a temple where there wasn’t one. He restored a time of peace to a nation torn by war for 60 years. Throughout his life, he learned that much of it was meaningless, but he protagged his story.
Allen: But Solomon didn’t seem to find ultimate satisfaction in the end. I agree that Adam is not an interesting protagonist though.
However, in Genesis 1:1, “in the beginning,” we see God as the Creator. In the next verse, we see the Spirit enter the empty void where there is lack and nothing. And in Genesis 1:3, creation begins.
If creatives are the sons and daughters of our creator God, we can be co-creators with our father and bring story, ideas, beauty, and life into the empty void of this world.
If we do that with God actively as we co-create with him, we can bring a spark of eternity into works that otherwise would be somewhat meaningless and forgettable.
The answer to our sometimes meaningless, chaotic world isn’t to run away or shut down. I hate to hear writers say, “I’ll get back to my creativity when things calm down.” When I hear that, I always think, no, no, no. That’s the worst thing.
The best thing you can do is enter the chaos and transform it through your stories, art, and beauty, just as God did in Genesis.
Good As the Antagonist
Thomas: Many authors try to bring God into their novels, and I’ve spent some time thinking about why that doesn’t work for most novelists.
It worked for C.S. Lewis in Narnia, but why doesn’t it work for most novelists? Readers love Aslan, but they don’t like God in more modern books.
I think people like Aslan because he is the antagonist. Most of the time, when the children in Narnia want something, Aslan gets in their way because he wants something different.
At one point, he even attacks the children. In the horse and his boy, Aslan attacks Avis and scratches her back. At other times, Aslan is doing his own thing, and the children have no idea what he’s doing.
The fact that he is not safe or tame is a key part of Alan’s character. It makes him interesting.
In another example, Mary Poppins was “practically perfect in every way,” so the only way to make her character interesting is to make her the antagonist.
Mary Poppins wants the opposite of what Mr. Banks wants. Mr. Banks wants an ordered life. If this practically perfect nanny wanted to help him have an ordered life, the story wouldn’t work. But the fact that she wants more chaos and interaction with his unruly children makes her the antagonist, and the story works better.
I think that modern Christianity is uncomfortable with the idea of God as the antagonist. We want God to be Santa Claus.
Going back to Narnia, we want him to be Father Christmas, who helps the children and gives a sword and horn to keep them safe and a vial to heal the injured. But Father Christmas is not an interesting character in the Narnia stories. It’s a fun little vignette, but he’s not nearly as interesting as Aslan, who is helping in some ways but hindering in others.
Allen: Would you say we have tried to tame God because we’re uncomfortable with the wildness of God?
If so, I can see how that plays out in the stories and songs of the church. We are trying to make God safe and palatable. We want a God who gives us what we want.
Thomas: I think that’s part of it.
On a deeper level, though, we don’t have a good theology of suffering. We see suffering as something to be avoided, whereas God often sees suffering as something to draw us closer to him.
C.S. Lewis has his character Susan go through a really difficult time, which is Aslan’s way of trying to bring her back to Narnia. It demonstrates that God can use suffering for our good.
Allen: That reminds me of when Lewis’s character Eustace went to the dragon island and became a dragon. That produced suffering and hardship, but it was the turning point for Eustace’s transformation.
Thomas: Exactly. We live in a broken world with ambient suffering of thorns and thistles. As a result of the fall, God cursed the ground, which means we suffer while we work.
But there are also personal sins, which are the things that we do to disobey God. The Narnia stories show the children disobeying from time to time, and they suffer the consequences. Lewis allowed his characters to sin and suffer as a result.
That is a scary thing for a modern writer to do. It’s scary to allow the protagonist to sin and force them to suffer because of it. In modern stories, the antagonist usually sins against the protagonist. The villain does evil to the hero.
But in the Narnia books, for the most part, the villains aren’t really the ones harming the heroes. The heroes are harming themselves.
It was Edmund’s fault that he fell. The White Witch tempted him, but he chose to betray his siblings. Furthermore, his reconciliation had nothing to do with defeating the White Witch. He was fully reconciled when the White Witch was at the peak of her power.
It wasn’t about defeating her because she wasn’t the problem. The problem was inside Edmund’s own heart.
What advice do you have for writers who feel alone in their creativity?
Thomas: Creativity can be a lonely endeavor. Lewis had his group of Inklings. What would you say to the writer who feels like they’re the only one who gets it?
Allen: The greatest command is to love God and love others. We must hold on to that in our writing.
When you actively co-create with God, you’re not alone. You may feel alone, but you’re not; and you must get past your feelings. Claim the reality that you’re writing with God.
When you do, the measure of your success shifts from the daily word count to whether you created with God. Did you experience him actively?
As you create with and for others, you need a small, wild, creative, Bohemian fellowship of friends who can pull you up when you’re down. They can pull us back down to Earth when we’re too ego driven.
They don’t even have to be writers. You might have a group of creatives made up of a painter, a chef, a barista, and a coach. Regardless, find a fellowship of people who love to create with God and regularly pour into each other.
What does it mean to pour into a fellow creative?
Thomas: What does it mean to pour into someone or to be poured into?
Allen: It means you spend time with two or three fellow creatives and talk about the things that bring you life.
I’ve recently enjoyed and benefited from reading Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, so I’m sharing what I’ve learned with the people in my group. We ask each other questions based on the book.
One writer in our group recently told me, “I feel like I’ve lost my voice, and I don’t know what I need to say anymore or how to say it.” Another writer has confided that the increasing chaos in the world is draining her. Her tank feels empty, and she doesn’t feel creative for the first time in her life.
Those conversations about life, writing, and creativity foster relationships, growth, and creativity. Sometimes you just need somebody who believes in you to talk you off the ledge.
That’s how you pour into people.
It’s important to find a community of people who understand that creating with God is beautiful and that the world needs more of it. It doesn’t matter how you get together or communicate. It can be via email, text, voicemail, Zoom, or in person.
Thomas: Meeting in person is really important. There’s something about physical touch that is key. Even in a church, you raise an elder by laying hands on them. I don’t understand why that’s important, but I know it is.
There’s also something special about making the sacrifice to drive to a location. It can be inconvenient, but the community is more valuable than the inconveniences required to foster it.
Allen: We all intuitively feel the need to be poured into. When you’re part of a community, you give and receive. Your meetings are for each other, and like any good relationship, sometimes you give more than you get. But you have to be in it for the long haul.
Thomas: Helping others is sometimes more encouraging than actually being encouraged.
Many authors want to write an encouraging book, but it’s important to consider how you’re encouraged in real life. Usually, encouragement comes from a small group setting of friends or creatives.
Sometimes the most encouraging moments are when you blessed someone with your words or just listened. It can make both parties feel better.
Feeding Your Creative Life
Another element of community is cultivating an intellectual diet that feeds your work.
For example, professional athletes have a diet designed to help them with their sport. A wrestler or powerlifter wants to be big and strong, so their diet will be different than a marathon runner who wants to be lean and fast. Both athletes follow some of the same dietary principles, but they also feed their bodies more of the nutrients needed for their particular sport.
If you want to write a book, you need to be reading in a genre that feeds your writing. You need to be familiar with the conversation around the books in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing fiction, you need to know what tropes readers expect.
But you also need to read books on craft and communication.
Allen: I agree. If you don’t have time to read, especially on the topics you’re writing about, you’re simply too busy.
You have to be a reader who finds time to write.
Read in your genre and on your topic, but also read books that focus on who God is, how he created the world and why. It will give you a sense of the greater reason we’re all here.
However you begin your day, spend your first moments with God. Some people call it a quiet time or devotional time, but it’s not always quiet. That time energizes my soul. It sets everything else in motion and keeps things in their proper place.
Studying craft is super important for writers. You have to know your craft. But the problem is, there’s a lot of well-crafted crap out there that has nothing to say.
Knowing the craft is necessary, but it isn’t enough to help you excel. Union with God is the goal. The creative work that arises from that union is what can change the world.
One of the problems with immersing yourself in current writing trends is that your writing may start to sound too similar to other works.
You certainly need to know what’s out there, but some of the best creativity comes from a person who risked creating something new and unproven.
At writers conferences, writers always ask editors, “What’s trending right now? What do you want to see more of?”
The problem with that question is that it fosters rear-view-mirror publishing. It looks back at what has worked in the past.
But before The Shack was published, a book like that didn’t work. Before Narnia, Narnia didn’t work. If everyone tries to tap into the hot trend, their books will seem derivative.
I encourage writers to say, “God has created me in a unique way. I’ve practiced the discipline and craft of writing. I read a lot, and I’m in union with God. Now, I want to bring something new into the world that might be hard to define at first.” It may take time to catch on or gain traction; but when it does, it will be the very thing editors will want more of at future writers conferences.
Frank Peretti is a great example. When he wrote This Present Darkness, there was no demand for that type of novel. When he first published it, bookstores returned the book. About a year later, Amy Grant started mentioning his book during her concerts; and suddenly people started reading it. Then editors said, “We need more books like this on spiritual warfare and supernatural suspense.”
You have to know what’s happening in the world. But to be the forerunner, you must also follow the beat of the drum nobody else has heard yet.
Your Writing Goals Determine Your Writing Path
Thomas: Another important distinction is to understand what your goal is. Why are you writing?
If you want to provide for your family with income from your writing, trying to write a once-in-a-generation bestseller is not a good strategy for paying the bills.
While Frank Peretti’s book took off, tens of thousands of authors wrote books that didn’t sell well.
Meanwhile, other authors wrote books that people wanted to read. The income they made selling those books allowed them to put food on the table and put their kids through college.
If you’re only going to swing for home runs, you have to be okay with a lot of strikeouts; and you must find another way to feed your family.
Many of the authors who had home runs had income from a source unrelated to selling books.
I wouldn’t encourage that home-run strategy if you’re trying to provide for your family with writing. There are more lottery winners than authors with huge new hits that no one saw coming.
Allen: Certainly, writers should not bet the farm on a book. If you can’t pay the mortgage, you have to write to the market demand.
I’m saying there is a different path. Frank Peretti worked at a ski shop, and he and his wife lived in a mobile home. He wasn’t swinging for the fences, hoping the book would make him rich. He was just writing what God put on his heart, and it worked.
His goal was to write where God led, and he wasn’t counting on it to pay the bills.
Another path is to have a full-time job, so you can write what you’re passionate about without the pressure of needing your book to sell well so you can pay the bills. Authors sometimes work full time at another job, so they can write the thing they were put on this earth to write.
Both paths are viable and good.
I’m personally more interested in the people who take the road less traveled and write books they simply must write because God called them to. I prefer that approach because those books seem to stand the test of time, whereas the others are a bit predictable and forgettable, even if they do pay the bills.
Thomas: By the same token, you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re paying the bills with your books and not trying to create a classic, enduring hit. Not every book has to be a classic. Not every sermon has to be unforgettable.
If you’re writing the best books you can, that’s okay.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes, “Plant your seed in the morning and keep busy all afternoon for you don’t know if profit will come from one activity or another, or maybe both” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).
Planting is a high-risk, high-reward activity. If the weather is good and things grow, you’ll have a harvest. But if the weather’s bad or weeds choke the crop, you may get nothing.
Still, you stay busy all afternoon. If you’re a cobbler, you have a reliable income from making shoes in the afternoon; but it won’t make you rich.
If you are going to swing for the fences with your writing, you need an income-generating activity that will pay your bills.
Allen: I agree.
I have a freelance coaching job where I help people shape their manuscripts, write back-cover copy, and get their books finished. That’s my job. It helps a lot of people, but it’s not my passion book. Still, my revenue from coaching people pays my bills.
I hope people find time to write the book they’re passionate about, even if it doesn’t sell well in the first few years. I want to see them finish that book so that they experience co-creating with God.
Find a way to pay the bills; and write the book you were uniquely put on this earth to write, even if you don’t see the fruit of it while you’re alive.
Thomas: Writing base-hit books helps you improve your craft so that you’ll be more skilled when you swing for the fences.
Jerry Jenkins talks about being interviewed after his book Left Behind had sold millions of copies. Journalists asked how he became an overnight success, and he had to tell them that Left Behind was his 125th book!
I don’t think he saw Left Behind as his magnum opus. He just kept writing books.
What have you written about creativity?
Thomas: You’ve been writing about creativity for quite some time. Tell us about your books.
Allen: My first book is The Story of With. It’s an allegory with a few teaching moments that help readers understand how to pursue what they love actively and intimately with God.
People have described it as a combination of Alice in Wonderland and The Matrix. It’s a surreal, fantastical story that allows you to see the wildness and creativity of God and what you are called to step into. It helps people with their creativity, regardless of what type of art they pursue.
My second book is Chaos Can’t: Overcome What Comes Against You in This Shaken World. It’s about why we’re so plagued with chaos and why it’s antagonistic to our creativity.
Rather than fear chaos, we can use our God-given creativity to push back the chaos with beauty, life, and order. It’s encouraging for people who feel burnt out by chaos but still want to create.
I also have a free daily email with encouragement about God and creativity. It explores facets of your creativity through the lens of what God is inviting you into, and it’s very short. People can sign up for that on my website WithAllen.com.
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