Don’t Buy the Lie That Creative Greatness Comes From Loneliness

I am still learning what it means to live in a community. Maybe it’s growing up in an army officer / preacher’s family, and moving a lot. Maybe it’s a fear of being known. It could also be that sometimes, I have believed a lie about the creative life.

The lie is that creating is a solitary, lonely activity.

The lie is that it’s something you do alone, or that the only truly great works come out of loneliness and isolation. You know the myth – the backroom Jackson Pollock, brilliant and surly. Be careful – this image is bad news. It will take you down a deep valley like a bad pair of binoculars.

I know a lot of fellow creatives who, while they might not admit it publicly, make life choices that tell me they believe some version of this bad vision for life, namely that it’s better to channel your thoughts and feelings through your work, rather than live them out in relationship.

The truth is that all great creative work lives in a community bound by time and space.

Creativity happens in community. It is formed by the lives and relationships and opinions of a group of people with unique challenges and unique joys.

The great ones all had a community. Mozart had lovers and friends and frenemies and enemies. He had bosses and a hometown and a doctor.

Even the mythology of the lonely 20th century artist, like Hemingway, is false. As a young man he hung with a group of fellow creatives. As an old man he had friends in all sorts of low places.

Besides, Hemingway died poorly in the end anyway, so that’s not a good model to follow. Perhaps he fell victim to the lies.

The life of creative isolation trades on defeat and glory, both of which are destructive.

The myth of the lonely creative trades on the lie of fame, or self-glory – that you’re the center of the universe and that everyone should and one day will love you. It also trades on the opposite idea, of self-defeat – that you’re not worthy of being known or loved.

But yet we as artists do try to follow it. We pretend that community isn’t necessary to the work.

The opposite is true. You can only understand a great work when you understand its context – its time and space.

The truth is that the great ones lived in community.

Sure, they may have done their work by themselves, but they lived in community.

They may have shown their ambivalence about community through their work, but don’t believe that it was all negative.

There were great joys in their towns and relationships, too. It’s just that often times it’s the struggles that form good art, so what we know about today are the problems more than the joys. But it doesn’t mean the community itself, as a way of life, was bad.

It’s the very flawed nature of community that allows great art to flourish.

The combination of safety and limitation, of understanding and misunderstanding, creates the lack of peace that is the basis for great creative work.

If you create, don’t succumb to the bad vision that you’re better off, or that your work is better off, alone. Creativity is best lived in the rhythms of the flawed people with whom you live your life, in the place  where your own flaws can be known. These flaws are actually what allows creativity to flourish.

So- live in the community you’re already in. Or if you’re moving, say as a student to a new school, find a community. Get to know the flawed people around you, and let people know your flaws. Allow your opinions and thoughts and feelings to fuel someone else’s creativity. Don’t choose the illusion of fame over the reality of relationships.

Community isn’t just good for you like castor oil – it’s the kitchen in which the ingredients of your great work, and the great works of others, come together.


About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).