Creativity and Companionship


Every time I open a new book, the first page I flip to is the acknowledgments. There’s an unguarded intimacy there — a writer speaks more freely and personally than in the main body of the text, and it’s easier to get a sense of who they are as a person. But the main reason I read books in this order is that I want to see and bear witness to the dedicated community that helped birth this project into being.

Writing, and all creative work, can feel really lonely. Most of the time it’s just you and your blinking cursor, you and your guitar, you and your editing software. But, of course, we’re never really alone.

The acknowledgements (or the liner notes or the speech on the opening night of the gallery show) make room for our collaborators, our agents and editors, our beta readers, our closest friends who continually talk us through our doubts and creative blocks. They also make room for our families, who give us time and space to work on big projects, for that first teacher who saw our potential and believed in us, for that kind venue owner who offered us our first paying gig.

The wide scope of the acknowledgements reminds us, too, that all of our creative work is part of an ongoing conversation, one that began long before we were born and will continue long after we’re gone. We carry all of our influences with us — all the artists and filmmakers, writers and musicians — who took a bold step forward in their work, the ones whose footprints we’re honored to walk in. “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Ulysses in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s eponymous poem. So, too, are we.

I admit that when I think of St. Ignatius, I think of him alone in the cave at Manresa, wrestling with the angels like Jacob did, battling his scruples and seeking a new direction for his life. It’s a romantic image, not unlike that of the writer hunched over the scribble-covered page in a secluded garret — the visionary saint composing his revolutionary Spiritual Exercises in complete isolation. But it’s an image that’s not exactly accurate.

Ignatius had frequent interactions with others while he lived in the cave, people who encouraged him, people he encouraged. He was part of a faith community, attending Mass and confession regularly. (His confessor deserves a lot of credit for helping to free Ignatius of his scruples and self-isolating tendencies.)

Although the Exercises were innovative enough to draw the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, Jesuit scholars have pointed out that they build on spiritual works that came before them. And, of course, like all of Ignatius’ work, the Exercises are inspired by the two books he read while convalescing from his leg injury, one on the life of Christ and one on the lives of the saints — these are the texts that led Ignatius to conversion, the ones he carried in his heart for the rest of his life.

“Ignatius Convalesces at Loyola,” by Albert Chevallier-Tayler in St. Ignatius Church of the Sacred Heart in Wimbledon, England. (© Jesuit Institute)

The Exercises themselves are designed to be communal in nature — not a solo quest to be undertaken alone, but a retreat to be given by a guide who tailors them to each person’s individual needs. Then, too, there’s the fact that Ignatius gathered companions, that when he sought to found a new order in the church, he did it with friends by his side and supporters behind him. The name he chose, the Society of Jesus, reflects the centrality of that sense of community.

There’s a time and a place for working alone, for honoring the vision that only we can bring to fruition. But creativity is also always a conversation — first and foremost with God, but also with others. God models this companionship for us, always in sacred communion in the three persons of the Trinity.

Our Triune God is beautifully depicted in Andrei Rublev’s beloved 15th-century icon. While modeled on the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre, the icon is also considered a representation the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The three figures sit around a four-sided table, one of them making an inviting gesture. In our spiritual lives and in our creative lives, there is room for us at the communal table.

Lately, as I’ve been working on various projects large and small, I’ve been trying to keep the acknowledgements in mind, trying to remember that I’m not alone, trying to imagine that all the people who have inspired me and encouraged me along the way are gathered around my computer screen with me.

“No man is an island,” John Donne tells us. Neither is any artist, any writer, any creator. Let’s not just write our acknowledgements — let’s live them, too, holding them close as we paint and write and compose.

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