Today’s guest is Tyler Watson author of the blogs The Space Between my Ears and The Space Between the Arts. Tyler puts into words what I feel but am not able to explain: to myself or other people. He has this strange ability to give form, structure and voice to things I find hidden in my heart. When I first started editing this interview I started out by italicizing all my favorite parts but I had to stop because I was getting completely out of control. There is just so much in here about the beauty of written word, the necessity of dialogue for growth and the wild enormity of God. Tyler thanks for visiting and joining the Creatives.
1) We knew each other back in college but I didn’t know that you were such an amazing writer until recently when I found your blog. What’s your history with writing? Have you always liked writing or is it something you discovered recently?
Thanks for the compliment – that is very generous. I’ve been writing seriously since early high school when I became enamored with the lyrics of some of my favorite bands. Early on it was Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Michael Stipe (R.E.M.), and Scott Hunter (Poor Old Lu). I had fantasies of fronting a band that would open for Pearl Jam one day. So I started writing bad poetry. Mostly navel-gazing self-involved stuff, yet it got me started. Enjoying writing stuck despite the fact my singing never developed and the rock star dreams went away. High school assignments forced me to write a bunch and I had a terrific English teacher – Mrs. Fritz – in two different grade levels. She instilled in me a love of reading and showed me how to make arguments on paper. In college I took a couple of creative writing courses, which I enjoyed greatly. I sometimes wish I stuck with that field of study further as I would love to write more fiction. From college I went to seminary and since theology is literally “God-talk,” we had to deal with words all the time. Nearly every assignment involved writing something, usually a multi-page paper. The amount of work helped me create and shape arguments greatly. After seminary I took a position as a pastor, which required me to preach every Sunday for a season. Much of my creative writing for twenty months was meant to be heard and not read. Beyond writing for the ear rather than the eye, however, writing sermons is not all that different than writing academic papers, short stories, or poetry. Good sermons deal with complex issues like an academic paper, have a narrative flow like a piece of fiction, and pay attention to the kinds of worlds words can create like a poem.
2) What is it that makes writing appeal to you as an artistic medium? Is it something you can describe?
Selfishly, I enjoy writing because the discipline helps me figure out what I really think about a topic. On another level, I enjoy writing because I like to read so much. By writing I get to be a part of a conversation with people I may never meet. I get to interact with their ideas and add a bit of mine to the mix. I’ve always enjoyed the process of creation. My medium of choice has simply changed over the years. When I was a kid it was drawing and painting, in high school it was songwriting and poetry, now I enjoy other types of writing and photography.
3) You are in your own words “slowly becoming an ordained pastor in the Covenant Church”. How does that relate to your writing?
I haven’t really thought about that question before aside from ordination classes and their written assignments. I view my ordination as a part of my vocation, to be a pastor. In my church denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, we have to take classes and work in congregations in order for the denomination to ordain us. Serving people in congregations is especially helpful in becoming a better writer because different people learn and grow in different ways. Communicating in one manner won’t work for everyone. Some people like clear lists of ideas and others prefer ambiguous stories. Also, at its best, being in ministry opens my eyes to God’s grandness, as well as humanity’s cracked beauty.
4) I think sometimes religious people (from many different faiths) sometimes think that there is “religious art” and “non-religious art”. One of my favorite authors Madeline L’engle said, “There is no Christian art vs. non-Christian art. There is just good art and bad art” What do you think about the subject?
I really had to think about this one. I think L’engle is on to something, but I don’t think it’s so cut and dry. The danger of labeling something, “Christian art,” is that it often limits the audience to either those who are Christians already or those whom the artist is apparently trying to convert. This limiting unfortunately happens to and frustrates Christian artists who aren’t making “religious” art, i.e., art that serves specific religious purposes. I’m thinking of writers like J.R.R. Tolkein, Flannery O’Connor, or musicians like Sufjan Stevens. In that sense, L’engle is right that a good – however one defines good – piece of art should not be reduced to the worldview of the artist. Great art resonates deeply within people even if they may not ascribe to the same religion or philosophy of the artist. On the other hand, most artists are trying to make some kind of argument in their work, trying to show the audience a different way of seeing the world, and to deny that element of the art is to greatly misinterpret it. People listen to and are moved by Bach’s music, which was written primarily for the Church, even if they never attend a worship service. But to deny that Bach’s music is trying to make some argument about who God is, misses the point to an extent. Calling something, “Christian art,” usually places limits on it. We see, however, in cases like Bach’s works, where the label, “Christian art,” expands that art’s horizons, it tells us more about the music. So a piece of art, I believe cannot be reduced to its arguments, nor can its arguments be ignored.
5) One thing I really love about your work is the way you organize academic ideas in understandable ways without dumbing them down. Is that a goal you have in your writing or just part of your natural expression.
It is absolutely a goal of mine and something I’ve tried to make a discipline so that it becomes more natural. It’s helpful to hear that my intention is coming across. The fact is that I love and can easily get lost in academic, esoteric, jargony discussions. These kinds of discussions cause most normal peoples’ eyes to glaze over. At the same time, I’ve been a part of many conversations about exciting and life-giving matters in the academy that made me think, “The rest of the Church needs to know these things and be involved in these conversations.” So much of what I see in popular Christian writing is pretty thin and doesn’t reflect the richness of this conversation that has been going on for thousands of years. The Christian faith is just so interesting, which isn’t a common view in American society. Most of the time Christianity is seen as prosaic, boxed-in thinking. I think that has to do with the fact that a lot of Christian writers and preachers try to reduce the faith down to a set of rules or a few easily-manageable points rather than guiding people to see the expansiveness and mysteriousness of the Christian story. The God we read about in the Bible is big and surprising and irreducible. Many of the authors I read in seminary embrace this expansiveness, but have difficulty explaining their ideas to people who aren’t as educated as they are. My favorite theological writers explore deep matters at a level that honors those matters’ complexity while doing so in accessible language. I want to follow in their footsteps. I believe everyone is a theologian because everyone has some ideas about who or what God is or isn’t. I think we are better served when more people join the conversation.
6) What is your process like when you start to write something? Do you sketch out what you want a message to convey or describe? Or do you throw it all on the page and see what happens?
It’s an ad hoc and usually sloppy process. I’ll chew on an idea for a blog post or a sermon for a while in my head and when shapes emerge, I begin writing. I often neglect the exercise of outlining, which gets me in trouble. I end up throwing ideas on the page and then rearranging and editing from there. That means I’m not that efficient of a writer and that is evidenced in how I’ll publish several posts in a flurry and then go silent for weeks. I have many unfinished drafts sitting in my blog. I chuck whole paragraphs and sections at a time because at the moment of writing, it made sense to me, but when I read what I wrote, it has little connection with the whole of the piece. I don’t know how many sermons I complained to my wife about, saying, “I don’t think this is going to come together,” when it finally did in the end, usually because I radically rearranged the paragraphs. I’m slowly learning to become better at creating outlines. For years I hated outlines because I thought they were set in stone. I’d write an outline, start work on the piece, and then grow frustrated when it wasn’t working, but I felt trapped by the outline. I saw Orson Scott Card, author of Ender’s Game, speak and he said he always writes with outlines, but if the story goes in a different direction than the outline, he’ll change the outline. I thought, “You can do that?” Since then, I’ve tried to outline more, which means getting those initial shapes out of my head before I start writing paragraphs. Results have been poor since old habits are hard to break.
7) I am notoriously into blogs and have been for a while. How and why did you decide to start blogging?
I’m curious as to how one becomes notoriously into blogs. Do the authorities know about this? Are there pictures of you up on the walls of Post Offices? (Note from Emily-It's easy to become notorious at anything. You just self proclaim!) I started blogging six or seven years ago. I think it was peer pressure, you know, most of the cool kids were doing it. A lot of my friends in seminary were blogging about what they were learning and I enjoyed the opportunity to have written discussions about those matters.
Originally they were one and the same because I would write about whatever I was thinking about at the time. There was a time when I was writing more reviews and I noticed comments were declining rapidly since I was often writing about things people had not seen or read and therefore had nothing to add to the conversation. I didn’t want my blog to become only a place for reviews, so I started a second blog. If there is a something that engages in more theological or political reflection on a piece of art, I usually post it on both blogs, like my reflection on There Will Be Blood for Lent in 2008.
9) Who are you inspirations as an artist (art or non/art)?
This is hard to limit to just a few names. I’m inspired by curious people, people who are always learning. In that sense, my parents have been a big inspiration. Currently, three living theologians also stand out to me: Miroslav Volf, William Willimon, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Volf says the great thing about theology is the field of study is wide open, we get to learn about anything – all one has to do is look at any area of life and ask, what does God have to say about this? Willimon reminds me that the Bible is surprising and challenging. Usually we ask of a biblical passage, how does this apply to my life? That’s moving in the wrong direction. Rather, we should be asking, how does my life fit into this bigger story, or how is this passage trying to convert me? Kärkkäinen inspires me because while he has strong and clear views, he first asks of any other person or view, what can I learn from them, where do we agree? I’ve noticed we tend to look for areas of disagreement first and Kärkkäinen challenges me toward humility. I currently love the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, although I have to be careful with him. Sometimes I read his amazing prose and think, I’ll never be able to write another sentence again. I actually draw a lot of professional inspiration from Marilynne Robinson’s character John Ames in her novel Gilead. He manages to be learned without losing a sense of wonder and mystery. I’m also inspired by people who look for beauty and justice in this world and who believe those things are worth defending. It may be cliche, but I really do find inspiration in Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa (especially her struggles of faith). I find their commitment to Jesus and his purposes encouraging. And then there are movies. Good Lord, how I love movies – way too many to name. After watching a Wes Anderson film, I want to write.
10) What drives you as an artist?
Lately I would say it is communication. There is always an element of self-expression in art, but if all I wanted to do was express myself, I don’t think others would be interested, nor should they be. I think art is about connecting with people, which means communication. And I don’t mean that I have something to say and the world needs to hear it. I mean communication as a two-way street, in which one person offers some view of the world expressed in whatever artistic medium and another receives it, chews on it, and offers their response. Blogging is fun because readers can leave comments.
11) Please finish the following sentence. “When I finish a piece and hit the publish button I feel…”
A mix of relief and anxiety. I love the feeling of finishing something and getting it out there. I really like that sense that I crafted something that says what I really want it to say. But I’m also anxious because I wonder how people will respond. The topics that interest me most, after all, are core matters for most people and we all have strong views on them. I’m also anxious because I’ve found no amount of proofreading is ever enough. I don’t know how many typos I find after publishing a blog post.
Tyler, I have the same typo angst as you! Thank you for taking the time to stop by and share your thoughts, I’ll be chewing on many of them for a while.