In order to be open to creativity, one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude.
One must overcome the fear of being alone…
I write outside.
As in, I write on the outsides.
I write as someone who regularly feels out of place, out of touch, out on the fringes – sometimes literally and oftentimes figuratively.
I write there, on the outsides, because that is where I spent most of my life.
Long before becoming a writer, I carried a sense of nervousness and unease that was there inside me wherever I went…
Home, school, church, sleepovers – everywhere I went, there I was.
It was a kind of vague anxious energy that gave me an agitated temperament because I was perpetually in fear-of-missing-out or else afraid of being included – confusing I know, and which was why I could only assume there was some inherent defect within myself.
Only once I began to write did I slowly realize this frustration and discomfort was not something simply to be avoided but could actually be an important part of myself.
Before we get there, though, let’s explore my wonder years some more…
I cannot recall a time in my life when I did not somehow feel at odds with other people around me, with my surroundings, or most of all with myself.
As a writer, one doesn’t belong anywhere.
Fiction writers are even more outside the pale, on the edge of society.
Because people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local…
And to do that, one needs distance.
- As a child, the word to describe me would likely have been shy.
I blushed when I spoke; was extremely self-conscious about combing my hair; and preferred the company of the cats and dogs on the farm at home.
At this age, I looked forward every winter to re-watching socially awkward Rudolph and that dentist elf who join together and somehow come upon a whole society of social rejects: the Island of Misfit Toys.
- As an adolescent, the word to describe me would have been introverted. I felt nervous going to school; intensely uncomfortable about my acne; surprising no one, I sought comfort reading books in private corners or in my bedroom.
Is it any surprise I enjoyed Batman so much? Sure, every superhero is an outsider in some respect (Superman is an alien to Earth altogether), but Batman made brooding alone on rooftops look admirable.
I now can see more clearly how Bruce Wayne would seriously benefit from PTSD therapy – but back then, I loved the idea of how even adults could still dress-up and be moody.
- As a young adult, the word to describe me was withdrawn.
I struggled with my still-undiagnosed depression; experimented with self-medicating using drugs and alcohol; and was generally relieved to avoid interactions whenever possible.
This was the time when my favourite media gave more realistic depictions of outcasts, usually involving people struggling through the formative period of life at highschool.
As a self-identified geeky freak (or freaky geek?), these stories reflect the angst and dissatisfaction I harboured inside myself …
- As an adult, the words to describe me would be reclusive… loner… solitary.
I regularly spend whole weeks talking to only a few people; abstaining from social media; otherwise relishing each and every opportunity to be left alone.
Again, I recognized parts of myself in some of the characters from television and movies. These included the ‘monsters’ who deliberately secluded themselves away from the outside world, like Beast (Beauty and the Beast), Shrek or the Grinch. As well, there were the asocial recluses who were mysterious and yet important to the story, like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Merlin and Willy Wonka.
Of course, I sometimes see parts of the scared child, the awkward teen and the wistful young adult still with me – yet my entire perspective has changed for the better, due in no small part to my writing.
Like I said at the beginning, I came to see my solitary tendencies with less shame and more appreciation as a quality that helps me write.
The condition of not belonging is, of course, common among those of us who feel the impulse to write.
Ursula Le Guin
But my inspiration to write came first from the written words in books.
Within this world of ink on paper, most of the stories I enjoyed and remember best feature characters living as outcasts to their respective time and place.
Some of my favourites?
The Outsiders (by S.E. Hinton) – a small-town divided by two cliques, and a young kid navigating dangerous turf wars.
The Chrysalids (by John Wyndham) – a post-apocalyptic society plagued by mutations, and youth just trying to fit in.
The Legends of Drizzt (by R.A. Salvatore) – a fantasy series of an Elf living in exile from their homeland and facing discrimination as they search for a new home.
The Great Gatsby (by F. Scott Fitzgerald) – a mysterious millionaire always alone at their own party, trying to reconnect with a past love.
Artists are driven by tension between desire to communicate and desire to hide.
There are lots of examples of outsiders in literature because stories are often about a fish-out-of-water or about a stranger-coming-to-town.
But another explanation for the prevalence of these characters could be because of just how many authors were themselves also loners.
- Charlotte Bronte was a legendary loner, famous for seeking out solitude.
- Agatha Christie became more reclusive as her own fame grew, declining photographs and public outings.
- JD Salinger was so private that he was aggressively anti-social, no doubt reflecting his character Holden Caulfield’s frustration for all those goddamn phonies.
- Harper Lee constantly declined interview requests and seemed most akin to her character Boo Radley, the heroic loner.
- Madeleine L’Engle spent much of her childhood reading and thinking alone, remarking how she feels that she couldn’t have written her books if she had been happy and successful with her peers.
- Emily Dickinson was another famous shut-in, rarely leaving her family property and communicating with outsiders through a closed door or baskets lowered from upstairs windows.
- Octavia Butler lived as a self-proclaimed asocial hermit, beginning as an outsider in her youth and battling depression even after publishing and winning many awards.
The artistic perks of living life as a wallflower is quite obvious upon consideration: social distance offers up distinct points of view toward events happening all around us – from the way people act and talk to the way things look and feel. Writing on the outside simultaneously reveals what is commonly overlooked and forgoes what society thinks is most important or trendy or fashionable.
It is no secret that writing requires long hours of quiet concentration, done usually alone and without much collaboration (at least during the early stages of creation).
So it makes sense that hermits, or hermit-like qualities, make for good artists:
- We listen and observe more than we talk.
- We reflect and think more than we act.
- We enjoy privacy and self-reflection.
- We prefer fewer, more meaningful interactions.
I also know first-hand how an unpopular social life is very advantageous for writing, helping keep schedules clear to meet deadlines and to read daily.
And as someone who actively ignores social media and news media, I better recognize my own intuition as an artist when free from the overbearing noise of the outside world.
Creativity flourishes in solitude.
With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.
Coming back to the beginning of this post, since becoming a writer I have a newfound appreciation for my natural tendency towards being alone.
Adam Haslett at LitHub said it well:
“One of the paradoxes of writing is that in order to fulfill the urge to communicate something to others, you end up spending huge amounts of time on your own.
In the case of a book, it adds up to years of solitude, some of it satisfying, even pleasurable, much of it wretched and menaced by doubt.
The irony being that one of the reasons many writers have the urge to communicate to begin with is that they’ve experienced loneliness earlier in life and writing seems like a means to overcome it, to connect with others.
A solitude imposed in youth becomes chosen in adulthood.
What was a source of shame becomes a condition of work.
You remove yourself from the world in order to get closer to it.“
Or in other words, I realized through writing how much I enjoy my solitary self.
Nor do I mean I accept my hermit-ness simply as a means to an end, as in, embracing my solitude in order to make better art.
What I mean is that I have begun to accept myself and my personality without apology and without trying to rationalize it for someone else.
I think some writers, like Octavia, really tried embracing their hermit disposition as the way to enrich their own existence… and I think that is why it helps us make good art.
Every day I am working at trying to leave behind my regrets and guilt about living contentedly as an introvert, as a sensitive bookworm, as a hermit with a typewriter.
At the very least, my decision to write in solitude means I am in good company…
Thanks for reading.