An Interview on Creativity with Tosca Lee
Today, I’m continuing my series of posts about faith, creativity, and beauty. Today, you will get to hear from the unique perspective of Tosca Lee.
After all, just yesterday, she tweeted:
Joss Whedon for president.
— Tosca Lee (@ToscaLee) November 1, 2012
Tosca Lee is a New York Times best-selling novelist whose works include the critically acclaimed Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, and The Books of Mortals series (Forbidden, Mortal, Sovereign) with best-selling author Ted Dekker. Iscariot, Tosca’s highly-anticipated novel about the infamous betrayer of Christ will release February 2013. She is best known for her exploration of maligned characters, lyrical prose and meticulous research. Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College and has also studied at Oxford University. A former first runner-up to Mrs. United States and lifelong world adventure-traveler, Tosca makes her home in the Midwest.
I invited Tosca to spend some time interacting with the ideas you will read below. I think it will provoke you to think through some important issues about how we live out our lives of faith and engage with the ideas of creativity and beauty.
PN: Your background has caused you to travel through several arenas where beauty is a key concept. World traveling, beauty pageants, and writing. How do you define what is beautiful?
I think what is beautiful differs all the time depending on what is going on with us. A moment can be beautiful. Something previously not experienced is beautiful. Compassion and empathy are beautiful in difficult times. But I think the greatest moment of beauty is when we feel—for whatever reason—that for a moment we had meaning. That we felt clarity or revelation. That we knew something about the essence of God.
PN: You have been a writer for many years. When did it start? What triggered your desire to create stories?
I actually meant to be a classical ballerina for many years until injuries obscured that path. I had been writing compulsively for a long time, but it wasn’t until college that I actually realized I wanted to write (novels, in my case). Of course, that was completely egoic. I didn’t know the first thing about what taking that journey myself really meant or what it was to co-create a story with my reader. And it really is a mutual journey between author and reader.
PN: “Evocative” is a word that has been associated with your writing. How does it connect with helping others progress in their faith?
I’m not sure, because I don’t really think of it that way. For me, evocative work is just about stirring a soul—whether it’s with emotion or a sense of place. We were all created to be that way, to be emotional, to be moved, to create and express. We were created in the image of the most creative Being in the universe; it’s in our DNA.
PN: Writing is often a solitary journey. How do you know when something beautiful has been accomplished?
Those rare moments when I actually sit back, exhale and think, “Ah, this is good” are rare. They do happen, but most of the time my nose is so close to what I’m doing, all I can think is, “This is crap. It’s a disaster. Yup. My career is definitely over.” And then somehow it all turns out. That fact, in itself, is a thing of beauty!
My upcoming book is the story of Judas, written in first person. It took me about a year and a half to research, and almost three years overall. Iscariot releases February 5, 2013.
PN: In our modern culture, much of what we call art is expressed as music. What are some of the unnoticed ways that creativity can be expressed through the church and with our faith?
I don’t really think of expressing creativity through church and faith, or through any channel. For me, that’s like thinking of breathing through church and with faith. Art and creativity are a part of us. They just are. Whether it’s dance or writing, or cooking, or gardening, or decorating or the way you arrange your work desk.
PN: What is the role of discipline (or work ethic) when it comes to beauty and creativity?
Achieving a certain level of craft requires a lot of hours. This is different than raw beauty or sheer creativity. Turn on some music and a child will begin to dance in a raw expression. But if we’re talking about craft, it just takes time.
I know artists who are extremely disciplined. They’re wired that way. They get up at a certain hour and work until a certain hour. I have tried to do this, have worked with people like that and can do it for a time, but in the end I’m miserably undisciplined and terrible at most routine. The only thing that gets me through is a certain amount of obsession
PN: Are there biblical guidelines or principles that we need to observe when engaging in art? Are there any parts that should be off-limits in expressing our faith?
I’m not sure. As a life-long artist of one form or another, I’ve wondered about this off and on. I’ve shied away from getting pedantic about it, because I think most of our hang-ups tend to really just be our own. If we try to get “faith” right, or not offend anyone, we’ll never do anything. I’m sure not everyone would agree with me, but I lean quite liberal when it comes to expression. Jesus’ art was lived out in his life and, truth be told, he managed to offend a lot of people.
PN: How blatant should be the faith of a believer in their art? Should every painting include a “sacred image” and every story lead to an evangelistic plea?
Please, no. God is so much bigger than sacred images.
PN: Are there such things as “creatives”? I guess I’m just wondering if there is any hope for people like me.
Yup. I fear you are one of them, Philip. It’s in your DNA, so you might as well give in. ☺
Seriously, any time we don’t feel or believe we are “creative,” I really think we’re just blocked by fear, self-consciousness (which is a form of fear), perfectionism (which is also a form of fear) or resistance of some kind. And we all deal with fear and resistance every day.
PN: Beauty is a concept that seems to be embraced by artisans and sometimes ignored by theologians. What does the academy need to learn from the artists?
That is a really good point. Because I think the church or at least church culture has developed, in varying degrees, a fear of beauty. That it’s secular or fleshly or somehow dangerously uncontrolled. But the Spirit is wild! God is a wild God. A beauty-loving God. No wonder David danced like a wild man and Jesus partied at weddings (and made wine in jars probably designated for ritually-clean water, ironically enough). When God created, he created extravagantly. When he saves, he saves profusely. Jesus and the woman with the nard… that was by every account of society a lascivious jaw-dropper. A sinful woman, uncovered hair, touching a man who wasn’t her husband. But from another angle—Jesus’ angle—it was extravagant beauty and a raw expression of love.
So what’s our big hangup? What people will think of us? That we’ll make a mistake? (We will.) Fear of retribution, punishment, or even of ourselves? Fear of our own gifts? We’re so used to exercising fearful caution I don’t think any one of us knows what we’re truly capable of. One of these days we’re going to have to get over ourselves.
PN: OK. So what do artists need to learn from the theologians?
Is there really a separation of artists and theologians? Theology—and I love theology—is a very fine art.
We’re all trying to seek, know, and experience the divine—whether through study or art, prayer or relationship. We’re all seeking it–whether we even know it or not. We are all the same.
PN: How do you remain in a posture so that God is the inspiration of your work rather than creation becoming your muse?
Creation is just a process, not a source. Sometimes we hear that source loudly. Sometimes faintly. But it’s there, and we do hear it. And it spans a wider spectrum than I think we used to listening for.
PN: How can the church better engage the artists and arts community in their city?
See God in the arts. But not just the arts, but in architecture. Landscaping. Hairdos. The crazy shoes of teenagers. The way people park their cars. The hopscotch grids of kids. God isn’t confined to canvas or a digital recording.