healing the world

In response to Jenna St. Hilaire, Artist’s Guilt

The question of the ethical rightness of creative solitude is something I struggle with on a regular basis. This is a big world with a lot of problems, a lot of needs. A lot of needs, more than any one person can ever fulfil. So what on earth am I doing at my computer, spending hours and days agonizing over commas?

The ethic of exclusion is a question that haunts thinking writers. It may—I’m not sure—haunt in particular writers who write from within a persuasion of faith. It’s certainly intriguing, and perhaps telling, that Mike Duran recent posted an article that might as well have been part of this discussion. In it, he raises some of the same salient points I was trying to raise, only he says them better than I did.

I honestly didn’t read his article first. Otherwise I would have just quoted him and said, “Yeah, that.” So he can observe that “solitude is a necessary component of the writing life. But it is also one of its greatest hazards.” We idolize the Romantic image of the writer seeking inspiration in solitude on a mountaintop. But, Duran says, the more one writes the more help one gets. And quite, frankly, the more help one needs. Communication, after all, implies—demands, rather—more than one person. “You see, I can find inspiration on the mountaintop. But I cannot get a hug there.”

Mike balances neatly the writer’s need for people to Not Touch Me, Please, and the I-can’t-meet-this-deadline-need-hug-need-hug syndrome—common to many, if not all, artistic types. He comes down a bit more squarely on the communal and plural aspects of writing than I do, and some Jung-happy critics may later attribute that to personality types. I don’t know.

But I think that, reaching through Mike Duran’s post through my theory of the ethic of exclusion, we do run inevitably into Jenna’s central question. How can we possibly justify seeking solitude, and writing in solitude, in face of so much pain and need around us? How, in other words, can the solitary pursuit of writing possibly help to heal the world?

Writing, Jenna suggests, flows out of faith. The stories we believe will inevitably influence and shape the stories we tell—whether we reiterate and confirm them, or deconstruct and challenge then. And there is room in faith for both.

Jenna rejects—and I think rightly—the suggestion that, well, writing can be our vocation and then we can just give from the proceeds to helpful charities, and that’s how we’ll help our neighbour. Not that there’s anything actually wrong with doing that, but, she says, the ease of that can lull us into a bland placidity. And a lack of critical judgement that begins to believe all the claims of lives saved made in the average support letter.

The question is not token philanthropy, but genuine, radical commitment to healing the world—to which we each have something unique and irreplaceable to give. The ethic of exclusion does not, however, rule this out. In fact, I would argue that for exclusion to be ethical, it must be a conscious part an individual’s role in healing the world.

Because I believe my role to be—at least in part—that of a Teller of Tales, then I must seek solitude and exclusion to fulfil that role well. Solitude strengthens the heart and feeds the imagination, so that when a writer comes down from the mountaintop, they can give hugs as well as receive them. And they can write, giving utterance to the heavenly vision seen in solitude through a break in the clouds.

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