A mind too active is no mind at all. -Theodore Roethke
Solitude. Simple as that. Thinkers and artists across history have credited their most powerful ideas to time spent alone. Keats and Whitman were both tremendous walkers, sometimes covering over ten miles a day with themselves and their lonely thoughts. Virginia Woolf is probably best remembered for her idea that women deserve and historically haven’t had a room of one’s own to work in, which is unfortunate as she had much else to say; the fact that it was the room of one’s own comment that stuck must mean it resonates with some aspect of truth. Rilke and his mentor, Rodin, bordered on reclusively; May Sarton expressed her need for room and quiet and loneliness throughout her career; Einstein loved nothing more than drifting on his little sailboat, alone. Anecdotes abound, across genres and time. Our best ideas come to us in the shower, while driving, in the earliest moments of the day before we’ve stepped into our roles.
It’s a further secret because it’s taken for granted, known but not acted on, lamented constantly, as in “If only I had the time to…..”
Solitude is not a thing that comes to us, but a thing we take. The “secret” to solitude and creativity is part stubbornness, part self-respect, and part willingness to fail.
Toni Morrison wrote her earliest novels while working full time as an editor and raising small children on her own. Chandler woke at four or five and sat in his garage to get a few hours of work in before the “workday” interrupted. None of us have more than 24 blessed hours in a day, and it’s not “time management” that makes some folks more creative or productive than others. We are, all of us, working artists. What it is, I think, is a certain reverence for solitude. It’s a kind of Sabbath cultivation, and the stick-to-it-iveness to keep it holy. Louise Erdrich actually suggested it was easiest for her to write with small children in the house. Perhaps living with constant interruption kept her attuned to the few moments that fell her way like breadcrumbs. Maybe she learned that solitude isn’t about time or place at all, but an act of paying attention.
Do not give in to the idea that you need time, space, and solitude to be the artist you want to be. First of all, this is never going to happen. You’re waiting for Godot. If you insist on waiting until the kids leave the house, or you’re able to retire, or you have a month alone in a cabin in the woods, you will probably never even begin. Secondly, the very idea of it is a myth. If you waited for that blessed quiet house, the cabin with no connection to the internet or telephone, you probably wouldn’t spend 12 hours a day writing (or painting, or sculpting) anyway. You’d spend it lonely and uninspired. We all live in the world with it’s bells and whistles. We live with others and their needs to be fed, clothed, listened to. We do not exist in isolation.
And this is a very, very good thing. Annie Dillard told young writers to never, ever get themselves into a position of having nothing to do but read and write all day long; you will inevitably fall into a depression. Instead, she encourages dedicating yourself to something other than yourself, the largest thing you can conceive of. Maybe this will be your career as a lawyer or pastry chef. Maybe it will be to your children. Dedicate your life to god, if you possibly can.
By that dedication, you immediately deflate the myth of solitude and step instead into the truth of solitude. The truth involves a deep attention to reality and, a brutal kind of honesty. Solitude knows that there are only 24 hours in a given day, that much of it will be spent sleeping and eating. It also knows that we have to pay rent and buy groceries. It acknowledges the world referred to on the nightly news and considers it fairly deeply. And it honors the relationships we have in our lives, to our families, to our friends, to our very environment.
If solitude sounds an awful lot like Buddhist mindfulness, all the better. Awareness, from moment to moment, is what solitude is all about.
Cultivating awareness opens our lives to experience and revelation, which is probably where inspiration comes from. It generates respect for the times we are busy, and an awareness of the times we actually do have time; awareness lets us take advantage of fifteen minutes before breakfast to read a poem. It takes it’s lunch hour at the public library or a museum or a park once in a while. It positively relishes the times the children are asleep, and the house is full of their measured breathing, not really quiet at all, and not for very long.
The Honesty of solitude recognizes that the great retreat is never going to happen; that we’re probably not going to write something along the lines of War and Peace in the next six months; that we probably never will, but we still want to write. There is a measure of ego-deflation involved. But I don’t think of it, really, as a loss. It may lose pipedreams and illusions, and all of its excuses toward procrastination and why we haven’t succeeded yet. What it gains is immeasurably more precious. An abundance of time. A commitment worth keeping. An open mind and a much more powerful, efficient, way of moving all day long.
If we accept that we never really finish anything in this life, that no work is ever complete or perfect; if we accept that we can’t predict or influence the final outcome, let alone manifest a beautiful work of art out of thin air; than suddenly we are given the freedom and the power to concentrate on the effort, on the dailyness of the art and the life. We’re given permission to create less than stunning work, and to enjoy ourselves thoroughly.
Allow me to be unabashedly existentialist for a moment. Human beings are unique – so far as we know – in their ability to think of themselves as a subject. We are able to imagine ourselves, as we sit reading this page, as we step up and walk through a doorway, as we fall asleep at night. We are able not only to think, but to be aware of ourselves thinking. Solitude is maintaining an awareness of that objectivity, a paying attention to the way we think and move through the world, and an equal paying attention to the things we think and feel. The existential truth of the matter is that we are always, ultimately, alone. We will never be fully understood by anyone else or truly be able to feel what another feels. There is a part of us, no matter what we are doing or who we are with, that stands apart. That piece of us is solitude. Honoring it, giving it a little respect, allows us to be much more present to our lives. And turns us into much more creative beings.
I’m guessing that Erdrich found those times when she was home with small children so productive because she was so deeply aware, so closely paying attention. In paying attention to a vulnerable being who needed to sleep and eat and be changed on a fairly constant basis, who needed protection from hot stoves and electrical outlets, who embraced simple toys with wonder and amazement and fell into her arms with love, trust, and deep appreciation, she became a more knowledgeable and prescient human being. She noticed more. She noticed more of the world, but she also noticed the odd thoughts that crossed her mind as she scrubbed at dirty casseroles and took the time to write them down. She paid attention to what made the child sing, or cry, or fall asleep, and might have ruminated over those things for others and her self, as well. She became a being open to wonder.
Now, let me come back to the secret of creativity. It is solitude. As much as I have been deprecating the idea of time and retreat in an artists life, I’d like to suggest that mindful attention and involvement in our lives might give us more time to be alone. An artist is aware of those moments and is committed to using them well. The truth is that we all have time, fifteen minutes, an hour in the evening, but we fail to see how such small times could amount to anything like art. Solitude, awareness, makes a commitment to try anyway. Once we start paying attention to those times, we are more likely to realize how much time we waste on unimportant things; we might be inspired to turn the t.v. off one night a week, or keep a notebook in the car for the times the kids aren’t done at exactly 4:30 or you find yourself with 15 minutes to kill between appointments.
Solitude is not a thing that comes to us, but a thing we take. The “secret” to solitude and creativity is part stubbornness, part self-respect, and part willingness to fail. It is not a change in the circumstances in our lives, but in our way of relating to those circumstances. Solitude is a way of being.
It is stubbornness and commitment. We know, as artists, that we want to have time to sketch or to write the short story we’ve daydreamed of for 30 years. Solitude commits to finding a way, and pushes it’s foot in the door of our very busy lives. It is stubborn in that it claims some self-importance: I do not, in fact, need to vacuum right now; I’d much rather be reading poetry.
It is self-respect, self-nurturance, self-awareness. It’s a profoundly countercultural activity. It suggests we should pay attention to our own thoughts and realize there might really be something there. It suggests we turn away from business to cultivate an hour or two of lazy daydreaming. It demands that time for ourselves is just as important as the time we spend on other people.
And solitude is also a willingness to fail. This comes back to the honesty and humility of the thing. It gives up on the idea of composing Paradise Lost once things calm down at work; but it takes up the idea of writing a screenplay Saturday mornings. It lets go of the need to have a perfect finished project and gives itself five minutes or half an hour in which to try. It knows, after all, that five more minutes will come again tomorrow, and if this stanza is garbage, there is no reason we can’t try again.
We know we can’t be perfect parents, or live forever, or find a cure for cancer when we failed chemistry in the 10th grade. We ought also to know that poems aren’t made of ideals, paintings aren’t born in half an hour; we ought to give ourselves the aloneness to try, to fail, to wonder, and to hurt. At least it will make us more conscious human beings. That can’t be a bad thing.
*Looking at your calendar for the week ahead, find and mark an hour you can take for yourself. You might want to use this for writing. It would be just as well spent not working, though. Our inspiration comes from wondering, playing, and paying attention. We don’t create in a vaccuum. You will have more and better ideas the more and better you spend some time alone, doing whatever you feel like doing.
If you sincerely cannot find an hour in your schedule, you need to do some serious evaluating of your lifestyle.
*Wake up fifteen minutes early for a week. Better, for 30 days. They say 28 days is the time needed for a habit or change to take effect. For those fifteen minutes, do not work, do not go online, do not interact with family or roommates. Do anything you like. Journal, walk, listen to music. This is an idiot’s guide to meditation: give yourself 15 minutes without interruption or distraction, and pay attention to what you are doing. Meditation changes lives. It’s been vaunted by every major religion and school of thought. It might make you a better person.
*Remind yourself throughout the day to pay attention to yourself: what are you thinking, how do you feel, what do you look like, sitting there? What bothers you? What brings you joy? Imagine the attention we give, the time we spend wondering about, a person we’ve fallen head over heels for. We imagine them working, walking, talking throughout the day. We wonder if they prefer your blue shirt or the black. We try to imagine what she’s thinking, what she wants, where she spent the last fifteen years of her life. What would happen if you gave this same quality of attention to your creativity, your own heart and mind? Try it. You might find that you actually get tense listening to the news in the morning and would prefer to listen to classical music, or nothing at all. You might notice you really love the tree outside the office window. You might pay attention to what you eat, what you think, and how you feel.
*Take a 20 minute walk, alone. Allow it to change your consciousness.