The artistic value of hermiting and the need for isolation has been an ongoing theme on this blog, so of course I was intrigued reading Tony Perrottet‘s essay in the Sunday New York Times Book Review about writers, isolation—self-inflicted and otherwise—and the discipline needed to work. (Curiously, the piece is titled Serving the Sentence in the print version, Why Writers Belong Behind Bars online.)
Perrottet, author of The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe, researched the life of that legendary “sinner”, the Marquis de Sade, and came to the conclusion that, based on output, “prison was the best thing that ever happened to the Marquis de Sade. Other writers should be so lucky…By 1788, after only 11 years behind bars, Sade had churned out 8 novels and story collections, 16 historical novellas, 2 volumes of essays, a diary and some 20 plays. Whatever you make of Sade’s oeuvre, you have to envy his productivity.”
Other writers found their own way of creating isolation and inviting productivity. Annie Dillard pushed her desk away from the windows looking out on a verdant forest in Cape Cod to face a blank wall. Her warning: “Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” John Cheever worked in a dark basement of his New York apartment building. Edna Ferber of Algonquin Round Table fame looked onto the “blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse.”
Blank walls don’t serve the same purpose for a visual artist that they might for a writer. The eye needs to be fed, and sometimes it can be delighted by a twig’s shape or a pebble’s surface. But the demons of distraction for artists are still real, and as for writers they are ubiquitous, clever and constantly morphing. The 21st century has made it possible for them to find us whenever and wherever we may be working:
Being chained to the desk, as the expression goes, is no longer a guarantee of productivity. Who can stick with the blank page when the click of a mouse opens up a cocktail party of chattering friends, a world-class library, an endless shopping mall, a game center, a music festival and even a multiplex? At once-remote literary colonies, writers can now be spotted wandering the fields with their smartphones, searching for reception so they can shoot off a quick Facebook update. These days, Walden Pond would have Wi-Fi, and Thoreau might spend his days watching cute wildlife videos on YouTube. And God knows what X-rated Web sites the Marquis de Sade would have unearthed.
Jonathan Franzen has famously described how he wrote The Corrections wearing “earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold”, and for his latest novel, Freedom, he shut down his Ethernet port with Super Glue.
Honoré de Balzac had no ports to plug up, but he found other ways of staying focused on his work:
[Balzac] felt that the most effective spur to productivity was abject poverty. As a best-selling writer in his early 30s, Balzac looked back fondly upon his younger days as a bohemian, living in a garret and gnawing on a diet of bread, nuts, fruit and water. (“I loved my prison,” he wrote, “for I had chosen it myself.”) Even when successful, he would wake at midnight, symbolically don the habit of a medieval monk, and write for eight hours straight, fueled by pots of coffee. His biographer Graham Robb suggests that Balzac went so far as to deliberately run up debts to force himself to churn out the pages. Given the dwindling amounts writers are paid these days, the fear of bankruptcy—the modern debtor’s prison—remains an inspiration to us all.
Some artists thrive by living and/or working in artist buildings and by being part of lively communities of like-minded folk. Others need isolation, lots of it, and seek it with a spiritual hunger. Maybe it is just figuring out what works for you, be it a blank wall, the spur of poverty or a disabled Internet. For me, it is just quiet. Lots of it.