Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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City on a Hill

June 17, 2024

Amy Grimes

The Cultivating Artist is a column that seeks to encourage and empower fellow makers. The work of an artist—that reach toward something beautiful—can feel daunting, especially at the beginning. Negative thoughts threaten to steal away sparkling possibilities. I’ve learned that by dwelling on thoughts that are lovely and true, I can fight discouragement and keep moving forward one brush stroke at a time. I want to help you fight and persevere in your work too. Here, I’ll be coming alongside you with encouragement and stories from my own life, reminding you that you’re not alone.

I’d never been to a conference for writers and illustrators before, and I was so excited to hear that one was going to be held just up the road from me at the local high school. My husband read about it; he told me the conference would last two days and agents would be available for meetings at the end of the second day. If I paid extra, I could share my writing and artwork with them to get valuable feedback. I paid the extra fee and began selecting the illustrations and stories I wanted to present to the two agents I had booked meetings with.

The enormous school building buzzed with activity. Writers and illustrators had traveled from all over to attend, and I felt my smallness in the big crowd. A kind volunteer pointed me toward a table where I grabbed a name tag and a folder full of information. I looked through it and found the classroom numbers that corresponded to the sessions I’d signed up for. After two days of listening to inspiring speakers and meeting other creatives, I felt much more at ease and looked forward to my time with the agents. 

As I walked up to the table where the first agent sat, she smiled encouragingly and shook my hand. I only had fifteen minutes, so I launched right in, talking to her about my work. She flipped through the two books I’d written and illustrated, and the portfolio that displayed samples of my best artwork. She kindly handed me her card and told me to give her a call. 

When our time was up, another friendly volunteer ushered me across the room to a table where I waited for the next agent to arrive. Once she sat down and introduced herself, I handed her my two picture books and started to tell her about my work. Before I could get more than a couple words out, she cut me off. “Shh!” Startled, I sat in silence and studied her face as she continued looking through my book, her expression becoming more of a scowl with every passing moment. I wondered what she could be thinking … I’d never seen anyone look at my books that way. Most people smiled. What was she seeing there on the pages that could make her frown like that? I couldn’t guess. 

When she finally looked up, she held my gaze with an air of hostility. “What is this supposed to mean?” she demanded, pointing to my book, Lucilla and the Snarly Skein

“Oh, well … when the little girl in the story tries to untangle the enormous knot even after her mom tells her it’s too much for her, that’s like when you have a big problem that you can’t make any sense of—the kind that only God can untangle. And when she keeps trying to untie it, she just gets more and more tangled up in it. You know that feeling? When you get all tied up in knots over a problem or circumstance you’re powerless to fix or understand?”

The agent glared and said, “I’ve got a problem with the fact that the little girl doesn’t save herself. She doesn’t do anything.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “She does do something. She cries out, ‘Can anyone untie this horrible knot?’ [1] Sometimes that’s all you can do, you know? And then the Woodland King—the one who understands all things, who even commands the stars—He unties her.”

“And The Woodland King represents … ” she pressed.

“He represents God,” I responded. 

“This is a dangerous story,” the agent said. “I would never represent a story like this.”

“But don’t you think it would be comforting for children to know that there’s someone who hears them and cares about them?” I asked.

“I don’t work with people like you, and I don’t know anyone who would want to,” she said.

I walked to my car in a daze. For as long as I could remember, my artwork and stories had felt like a wonderful place of safety. I could push them out in front of me while I stayed quietly hidden behind them. But after receiving such disorienting feedback, my artwork and stories felt exposing. Sharing them had brought hostility. Even though it was just one person’s hostility, I felt a sense of being out in the open, surrounded and harshly inspected. What if sharing my work with the world endangered my beloved hiddenness? I was afraid. I thought about the verse in Scripture where Jesus compared His followers to a city on a hill (Matthew 5:14). I didn’t want to be on a hill! I wanted to be hidden.

Ever since childhood, I’d enjoyed the feeling of being hidden. I dreaded being called on in class, hated walking up to the front to collect my paper when the teacher called my name, and avoided anything that put me in a position to be focused on and inspected. But here I was, an artist and writer—two things that had given me an audience. Why had I done this to myself? Maybe I needed to re-think my line of work.

But then it hit me—even as I’d shared a story about God’s faithfulness and strength, I myself had lost sight of it—lost sight of Him. Wasn’t He, in fact, my hiding place? I’d walked into that meeting confident in the wrong things, and that’s why the agent’s antagonism had knocked me down so easily, so thoroughly. 

Sometimes a sudden stab of fear is a gift because it exposes what I’m trusting in. I’ve found that if my hopes are built on other people’s approval, my own work and creativity, or anything other than God, I’m easily knocked down. But in Him, I’m steady. If I’d remembered Him, the agent would have still been unkind to me, but I’d have been more resilient. I’d have even had room to feel compassion toward her. There’s always room for compassion toward others when I’m operating from a place of safety. 

I love the description of the house in Suzanna Clarke’s book Piranesi. “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.” [2] That so exactly captures what God is like. Courage comes from knowing who God is. In Him, I have the capacity to shine like a city on a hill. It’s really His light shining, after all. As I considered this, my courage grew. Even though in a moment I had forgotten God’s faithfulness, He restored my peace when I turned to Him. He is so gracious to do that! 

Psalm 84:5–6 (ESV) says, “How blessed is the man whose strength is in [Y]ou; in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca [“weeping”] they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.”

When I draw my strength from God, I find myself in a place of plenty even in times of harsh criticism.

Blessings to you, dear artists and readers. Whatever you’re working on, remember the Lord. You’re safe in Him. You’re hidden in Him. You have all you need to take your next step courageously and with great compassion. 

[1] Amy Grimes, Lucilla and the Snarly Skein (self-published, 2017)

[2] Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020)

The featured artwork is courtesy of Amy Grimes and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.

The featured image of “Lamplight in Glen Eyrie with Oaks” is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and used with her glad permission for Cultivating. 


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