Adorning the Dark by Andrew Peterson is one of those books that feels like you just had an enlightening conversation with a wise friend. I lost myself in the conversation and time flew. Before I knew it, it was over, yet I felt full and happy and inspired. Something about the way Peterson writes just pulled me in and made me feel like we were hanging out on the couch talking about creativity, songwriting, and life in general. That’s kind of what Adorning the Dark is.
Peterson writes: “…this book is a glimpse into my own faltering journey as a songwriter, storyteller, and Christian. It’s a love song, if you will, about the life God has given me.” That “faltering journey,” as he calls it, made for one of the best books on the creative life that I’ve read.
Scared and Sacred
Adorning the Dark takes us back to Peterson’s beginnings as a young songwriter and poet and walks us through what he has learned over the years living not just a creative life, but a creative life as a Christian. He talks about his early days with a Tascam recorder in high school and borrowing $3,000 from his grandmother to record his first independent CD in Nashville. Yes, a physical CD. He walks us through early tours, family life, and on through to today.
I really enjoyed how he weaves his journey as an artist and life in general into his thoughts on creativity. Peterson writes about the creative spark that can come in so many ways. Chords, melodies, and lyrics come during walks in the woods or sitting in a soybean field. Ultimately, it’s all a form of worship. Yet, it can be overwhelming and perhaps a little prideful to think that we can create something that honors a big God. On top of that, artists of all types tend to build their identity on being “a creative.”
Peterson says in those scary moments when we’re looking at a blank page we may ask ourselves, “Who do I think I am anyway?” He writes:
Stop a moment and look around. This is our Father’s world. We are sacred, you and I. And that’s the answer to the question that started this chapter: Who do I think I am, anyway? We need not look anywhere but to the eyes of our Savior for our true identity, an identity which is profoundly complex, unfathomable, deep as the sea, and yet can be boiled down to one little word: beloved. That’s it. And that’s why it’s so silly (and perilous) to use your gifting to clothe yourself with meaning. Those clothes will never quite fit.
Behold The Lamb
Peterson also spends time discussing the creative community. A big part of that comes from the idea he had years ago to do a Christmas tour with songs that don’t sound like typical Christmas songs. It’s kind of a concept Christmas tour. I give him extra points for mentioning Queensryche and Tesla concept albums. I feel like I’m one of the few who will get those references.
In the process of putting that tour together, he brought together all kinds of friends and artists, and continues to do so. He remembers one year that he got sick the night before a show at the famous Ryman Theater. Peterson looked around at the musicians backstage and realized it would be fine whether he was there or not. He writes:
I ended up being able to sing that night, but that year and every year since my enjoyment of the show was amplified by the simple truth that it’s not my show at all. I’m pleasantly expendable, delightfully unnecessary.
We’re not invited into this because God needs us, but because he wants us. In the words of Laura Story, all creation’s revealing his majesty. We’re invited to join with all nature in manifold witness to his great faithfulness—and since creation is going to declare it either way, we might as well jump in with our halffinished songs and join the chorus.
They Won’t Create Themselves
As Peterson weaves and flows through the years, there are multiple times when the conversation returns to the work of being creative. Yes, it’s work. It’s practice. It’s failing and trying again and again.
One of the reasons I resonate so much with Adorning the Dark is because I can still remember sitting in my room late at night in the 90s with a 4-track recorder, a drum machine, and a guitar working on songs for hours. Sometimes the band I was in didn’t like the songs that took me hours to hash out. Ultimately and thankfully, very few people have ever heard any of that teenage angst. Yet, I wouldn’t change anything, because I learned something valuable in those hours. It was work, and there was something satisfying and mysterious in the process.
Peterson writes about the work and the struggle and the process:
If you wait until the conditions are perfect, you’ll never write a thing. It’s always a matter of the will. The songs won’t create themselves, and neither will the books, the recipes, the blueprints, or the gardens.
House Buying and Beekeeping
I also appreciate how Peterson includes regular life throughout Adorning the Dark. He talks about his family, the story of buying their house and property, and how they renovated. He builds a stone wall with a fancy archway. He’s a beekeeper. In all of those things, this prolific recording artist and author isn’t performing some secret day to day rituals or practices the rest of us don’t know.
I don’t know how many books on the creative life you’ve read, but there’s often a cliquish sense of otherness or elitism. As in, “I’m a creative, and to even begin to understand my words, you have to join this exclusive group and be a creative too.” There’s nothing pretentious in Adorning the Dark. I love how Peterson includes songwriters, poets, writers, painters, and also pastors and teachers writing sermons and lessons. It all feels like a friend sharing his tips and wisdom with you. Peterson writes:
So when I teach, I try to offer a handful of principles that I believe are helpful for cultivating a writing life, principles that can be applied broadly to several disciplines. See, I don’t think the artist’s life should be exclusive to artists. People who make their living in the arts aren’t any more interesting than everybody else. I used to think, arrogantly, that once I was a Real Author or a Professional Musician, people would be impressed. I’m here to tell you they really, really aren’t—not for long, at least. Hearing your own song on the radio is one of the coolest experiences in the world, and so is seeing your book on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. But after the thrill fades, you’re still just plain old you.
Ultimately, Adorning the Dark is about how we (as in everyone) can use our God-given creativity to bring light and truth into the world. It was joy to read. You can pick up a copy here.
You can listen to Andrew Peterson talk about Adorning the Dark, spirituality, and other good stuff with Jared Wilson here.