Megan Hustad‘s memoir of a childhood as the daughter of evangelical missionaries, More Than Conquerors, brings her insightful mind to bear on more than Christian theology and the usual themes found in a Bildungsroman. In a conversation recounted near the end of the book, Hustad’s father shares his belief that the universe privileges incarnation. “Ask a creative person and they will tell you: those paintings needed to be made. They all but demanded, Make me.”
Hustad expands on that notion by quoting the writer Dorothy Sayers:
The creature [has a] violent urge to be created…That a work of creation struggles and insistently demands to be brought into being is a fact that no genuine artists would think of denying…you will know what you have to do. You won’t choose it: it will choose you.
The idea that a life force drives a work of art—aligned with Dylan Thomas‘ famous line, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower”—is an ancient one that still compels and intrigues. I find author Philip Pullman‘s metaphor particularly useful:
For me, the most important responsibility is to serve the story, to serve my imagination, and not expect the story or my imagination to serve me, or my principles, or my opinions. This is the point where responsibility takes the form of service, freely and fairly entered into. When I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride. I honour the contract between us.
And as the servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate or guess where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier—by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out…
And I have to be prepared for a certain willfulness and eccentricity in my employer—all the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who’s blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I wouldn’t want to change a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story…
No matter how foolish it seems, the story—the imagination—knows best.
Theologian and poet Rowan Williams adds to these ideas:
The ‘presence’ in art is not some looming romantic genius in the background, but a presence within what is made which generates difference, self-questioning, in the perceiving subject. It makes us present to ourselves in a fresh way, and so engages us in dialogue with ourselves as well as with the object and with the artist and with what the artist is responding to…
You have to find what you must obey, artistically…Imagination produces not a self-contained mental construct but a vision that escapes control.
My friend Linda Crawford refers to this generative force field as the through line. A concept first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski as a way for actors to approach characterization throughout a play, the through line is also a term that addresses the essence of the generating imagination, the envisioning process. It is mysterious, and yes, it is as close to mystical as our contemporary world can graze. But what a ride when we are chosen, when we are in service to something tirelessly chaotic, uncertain and engaging.