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Wrestling with a masterpiece

by | Nov 20, 2019 | Arts & Culture, Community | 0 comments

A writer crumples under the weight of Handel’s Messiah, until …

By Jessi Uran 

What on earth was I thinking? I can’t write this.

I stared at the computer screen for what seemed like the 50th time in three weeks. I’d scribbled research notes on three different pages and formed five different outlines, only to fill a garbage can with what I emphatically told my husband was “mediocre rubbish, not worthy of a garbage can.” (Dramatic much?)

Writer’s block is not uncommon for me. But this was different. It was less of a block and more of an unscalable, cement wall. The task was simple, really: Write about Handel’s Messiah. I could take it any direction I wanted and write in whatever form. There were no expectations, no criteria. Just a deadline.

Autographed composition draft of ‘Amen Chorus’ from British Library Treasures

Not only did my father used to play Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season on our family’s living room stereo, but I also had heard it performed live last year, in the annual concert by the Rockford Choral Union. Listening to the product of their countless hours of practice and dedication had left an indelible mark. To begin, there seemed no more festive way to usher in the season of Advent than in the reverent architecture of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Experiencing history in this way, with people young and old, and hearing the scriptural account in such grandeur was awe-inspiring.

The concert left me with a conviction: In a somewhat disciplinary way, I need to carve time to sit, listen and behold the wonder of Immanuel. At Christmas, ironically, the act of sitting and listening often gets lost in all the things there are to do. Deep joy came from spending an afternoon doing nothing other than marveling corporately at the story of the Savior.

And then a moment of … what?! During a Part 2 tenor solo from Lamentations — “Behold, and see if there be any sorrow” — a woman up the aisle from me decided to clip all 10 fingernails. At the same instant, a man four rows up raised his hands in complete rapture. I judged Madame Fingernails immediately, but days later I began to wonder: How many awe-deserving things do I treat just as flippantly?

All of this musing swirled uncategorized for the past year, until at our writers meeting a few weeks ago we tossed around the idea of a Thanksgiving-week piece about George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. My reaction was the equivalent of a grade school, “Ooh, me! Ooh, pick me, pick me!”

When they did, I had already started formulating it.

“Fantastic! There are a couple of different directions I might go. I’m so excited!”

• • •

Weeks later, nothing. I walked away from the computer and put on another pot of coffee. As if caffeine will make the writing flow. If that were the case, I’d have written an entire issue of The New Yorker by now. I could still hear my writing mentor’s words over the phone when I expressed the nervousness taking over: “Don’t freak out about this. You don’t have to actually write Handel’s Messiah. You are just going to write about it. Don’t overthink it.”

Wise words. Deaf ears. Seven drafts and two weeks later, there I sat. Freaking out and overthinking were about the only things I was accomplishing. The more I tried to convey the glory of the piece … the more I tried to attain the level of sanctity or the loftiness of topics like art and beauty … the further paralyzed I became.

Handel wrote the entire oratorio in 24 days. 24 DAYS! You’ve been at one article longer than that! What is WRONG with you?!

I glanced at my notes, hoping maybe to catch a spark, anything that could produce the spectacle I had built in my mind. The top page of my research, in bold letters, expressed Handel’s description of his artistic process in 1741.

“I felt as though I saw all of heaven opened up before me.”

I threw my pen down.

Good for you, Handel. Good. For. You. Because I’ve shown up here every day and have done the work but all I see opened before me is a blank Word document with a blinking cursor and a pile of dishes in the sink.

• • • 

“Looks like you’re being too hard on yourself.”

My husband kissed my furrowed brow and carried our daughter upstairs to bed. He was right, of course. My 4-year-old never has thoughts that she isn’t hitting the mark. In fact, days before she had run to me with a drawing of a rainbow and flowers and proclaimed, “Look! It’s my masterpiece!”

I grabbed a fifth-grade level library book titled, The Life of Handel. I had checked it out with my daughter in a last-ditch effort for inspiration. As I turned each page and read about Handel’s childhood, his schooling, relationships and work, the realization hit me.

He was just a man.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

He was just a man! True, he was prolific and talented, but in my mind’s eye I had built him up as a saint, an artist who heard directly from the pipeline of heaven. My writing would need to emulate this, I thought. But in these pages of his everyday life? Not everything he touched turned to gold. So, if Handel didn’t put the Midas pressure on himself … why should I?

As this realization sunk deeper into my mind that night, pieces began to move. Words started to form. Light began to shine. So I typed the first thing I didn’t feel like throwing away all month. Just a few phrases, really, not nearly enough for an article. But it was a start.

Oh Lord. This I see.

Your Holiness desired to dwell amidst our sinfulness.

Perfect amidst the imperfect.

Whole amidst the broken.

We could not pave the way for you with any merit of our own. But nothing kept you at arm’s length, waiting until we attained something. You came down because you knew we could attain nothing.

This is what we celebrate and this why over all the world choirs sing.

Because on our own, we are just men and women.

But under the banner of risen Messiah …

We are pure as gold.

• • •

I closed the computer and went to bed. The next morning, my deadline still waited. But it seemed less weighty.

I know I am not alone in this battle of letting perfect be the enemy of good. It’s especially easy to succumb to worldly pressures at Christmas season: “Bring your best or bring it not at all!” But in the face of that, the true story of the redeemed is the opposite kind of cry. We hear the heart of our Savior call:

Bring me what you have and worry not about the rest.

So I did the work of editing and rewriting, but now with less self-loathing —entrusting the author and perfector of my faith to take what I had, and do with it what he wanted.

Handel said of Messiah, “I do not wish to entertain them, but to make them better.”

Two hundred seventy-eight years later, with dishes still in the sink, a writer wrestled with it all and was made better in a way she did not expect.

• • •

The Rockford Choral Union will perform Handel’s Messiah Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Six people from First Free are taking part. Here’s a closer look, and our interview with Conductor Michael Beert.

Featured image illustration by Nathan McDonald, based on painting by Philip Mercier.