The subtle truth of solitude is that it unites us with everyone else. The reality of creativity is that when we are most alone, we are most together.
Despite its many deconstructions, there’s a certain appeal to the bohemian ideal of a solitary artists, scrawling alone in a garret, or walking along on the moor, crafting great art in the lonely expanses of their imagination. Artists have done that. Other artists have emulated that. What’s even better is when you can get a community of solitary artists.
Actually, there’s something to be said for that.
Jenna St. Hilaire strikes at something uniquely human about the creative process when she writes:
Should my book be published, it could feel a little weird to just have my name on the cover. Yes, I wrote the prose—every line of it. I structured the novel and designed the characters. But so much of the worldbuilding, the nuances and the concepts, have been shaped in conversation with Mom and my sister Beth, who therefore deserve some acknowledgement.
Those who are known for creating—for putting hundreds and thousands of solitary hours into art—do so in concert with family and friends and fellow artists who hear the original idea and say things like "Oh, I love that! Had you thought about [insert suggestion here]?" The others’ creation is perhaps indirect, but it is still creation.
In times gone by, I might step away from my story document and return to find that my sisters had stopped by to help me write it. I’d know because all of my characters would be having a fistfight.
Forgive me for wittering on about this, but I’ve been pondering it. Creativity is solitary. Creativity is communal. I think this is something that we know and do without thinking. It just happens. The difficulty, of course, is trying to articulate these things—to understand what it is we do.
I talk spontaneously with my wife about character difficulties, plot suggestions, and the story grows under her care, with her contributions. The work remains my own, but she is a part of it.
When, however, Jenna’s sisters would add helpful fistfights to her manuscripts, or I would add helpful metamorphoses and explosions to my brother’s manuscripts (it’s all part of having siblings, folks), those additions would end up on the cutting floor.* They were intrusions into solitude—good-humoured intrusions, I grant you, but not helpful for the act of creativity.
I think it comes to this. Creativity is part of being human. Being human is “being We.” We cannot exist in isolation; we define ourselves in relation to everyone else. I am an individual because I am not everyone else. You are my brother, my sister, because you are not me.
When I create art of any sort, I create from myself. Yet I reaches to Thou, and who I am in the solitude of my imagination is connected and entangled with everyone and everything else. Creativity and originality both arise from discourse, togetherness. As Jenna writes, the writing is “shaped in conversation.” I think that’s a beautiful metaphor for what actually happens.
The ethic of exclusion is the primacy of solitude in the life of an artist. Because we are continually defined through others and shaped through conversation, we need the harrowing of solitude to allow us to create. In solitude, we are stripped of our framework and our references; as Nouwen put it, “In solitude, I lose my scaffolding.” Everything we’ve built around us to define ourselves is gone, and we are left with ourselves and with silence. We can let our imagination speak—enriched as it is through shaping conversation—and discover what has been built beneath the scaffold.
In the end, if I have not written—myself, by myself, as myself—then I it is not mine. But if I have not written with Thou, I have not written at all.
*Occasionally, I’ll do this to my own writing now. That probably surprises no one.