Why writers need solitude

Writing takes extraordinary persistence and concentration. In Nine Gates: entering the mind of poetry, Jane Hirshfield notes:

Here, as elsewhere in life, attentiveness only deepens what it regards.

From consecration to flow

For Hirshfield concentration is a type of consecration:

By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical — a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, a mind thought “too deep for tears.”

There is a sense of touching the numinous when we get into flow as writers, or in any art. In A Sense of the Mysterious, Alan Lightman describes the state of flow as a mixture of excitement and weightlessness, as though ‘my head was lifting off my shoulders’. A state of exhilaration that is ‘without ego’. And he likens it to being in a round-bottomed boat on the ocean in a sudden gale:

It feels like a great hand has suddenly grabbed hold and flung you across the surface like a skimming stone. It’s called planing.

One Sunday morning, he woke up and:

I tiptoed out of my bedroom, almost reverently, afraid to disturb whatever strange magic was going on in my head, and I went to the kitchen. There, I sat down at my ramshackle kitchen table. I got out the pages of my calculations, by now curling and stained. A tiny bit of daylight was starting to seep through the window.

And so he solved the problem he was working on. And he goes on to to make the point that at the time he was alone and that this was essential to what happened.

Although I was oblivious to myself, my body, and everything around me, the fact is I was completely alone. I don’t think any other person in the world would have been able to help me at that moment. And I didn’t want any help. I had all of these sensations and revelations going on in my head, and being alone with all that was an essential part of it.

Flowing alone

When we find ourselves in flow we can be overtaken by huge bursts of creativity that pour out of us in such a way that when we look back we wonder who the writer was. We find ourselves reaching for images, compressing emotion into language, constructing sentences that lead one to another with ease and elegance. As we attend deeply, unaware of anything else, we make meaning.

Some writers can do this anywhere and some of us can do it in unexpected places some of the time. I’ve had experiences of being so far inside what I’m writing that a whole train carriage can slip away from my immediate consciousness and I’m in danger of missing even the most familiar of stops.

But to have sustained, deep periods of flow often requires solitude and many notable writers agree. Susan Sontag opined:

One can never be alone enough to write,

Alone not lonely

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

Some writers are deeply lonely. Virginia Woolf wrote poignantly about a gnawing sense of loneliness, not in solitude, but in company. And in his (recorded) acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ernest Hemingway says:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. … For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

Flow is not this sense of suffering, whether alone or with others, but a sense of entering another state of mind.

Writing in Upstream, Mary Oliver puts it like this:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

And she goes on:

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.

Craving that roofless place eternity

Flow in solitude can feel risky. It leaves us wide open with only our own resources to fall back on, but it is also a fertile state.

The artist Agnes Martin said in an interview that:

The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.

But this craving of solitude in which to work was never inward-looking or ego-fuelled.

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself.

Solitude is a state where we can become self-forgetful and where surprising leaps of imagination and creativity take place.

Craving the distinctive

Whilst allowing us to forget ourselves as much our distractions, solitude also allows us to develop a distinctive voice as writers. This is how Nietzsche puts it in Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality:

That is why I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody.

Eugène Delacroix counselled writers to ‘Seek solitude.’ Elizabeth Bishop was also a proponent of solitude for honing the creative voice, as was the artist, Louise Bourgeois:

After the tremendous effort you put in here, solitude, even prolonged solitude, can only be of very great benefit. Your work may well be more arduous than it was in the studio, but it will also be more personal.

And writing about solitude as the ground of imagination Keats’s claimed:

… my Solitude is sublime. […] The roaring of the wind is my wife and the Stars through the window pane are my Children.

Of solitude and connection

Solitude —

  • frees us of distractions, especially if we are willing to turn off our phones.
  • allows us to find and maintain a state of flow.
  • allows us to develop distinctive voices as writers, which is not to say any of us are ‘self-made’ or without influence, but that we also need to step back to see what our contribution might be.
  • makes us confront ourselves and then forget ourselves so that we return to the world as a different story.

Most of all, solitude is about renewing our connections — to the world and to others. It is not an act of running away, but of grounding ourselves.

When we embrace solitude, the self-forgetting of flow puts us beyond the clutches of pride. We more often emerge with work that we hardly feel we can take credit for. We tap into something living rather than become individualistic creators.

Similarly, solitude puts us beyond despair. In the cacophony of everyday life we can so easily become jaded and exhausted. In this state we do poor work and get increasingly despairing.

Solitude offers another way. As Wendell Berry sums it up in What are People For?:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my new suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store