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Door into my zone of privacy, my studio

I know, it is easy to feel a bit of smuggish pleasure when an above-the-fold article in the Sunday New York Times articulates just what you have been saying for years.* Certainly I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us in that phalanx (metaphorical only!) who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of an upcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.

From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak. And given the current spike in interest in Steve Jobs and Apple, this telling of the story is important:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

I am looking forward to reading the book. And for a few more converts—or at least more respect—for the hermet’s life.

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*Here are a few previous posts on Slow Muse that touch on the value of solitude:

Stand Alone: More on Solitude

Scaling Solitude

A Translucent Network of Minimal Surprises

Sages of Silence and Fear

Breath Me, Light

In the Hive, and Out

Silence’s Non-Narrative

Seasonal Surrender

Being Schooled

The Intimate Interrupter

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The lone wise one, from the caves at Ajanta, India

I increasingly apply a sliding scale to assess most situations. It is one way of skirting the tendency in contemporary dialogue to Manichaean, black and white with nothing in between, either/or thinking. This is similar to how Asperger’s Syndrome is now being evaluated—you can have a little of it, or you can have a lot, and the range can be quite dramatic. This is very different from the old virginity test—you either are or you aren’t. Fewer and fewer things in life are that determinable.

A good example is solitude. I have written many times here about how solitude feeds, nourishes and enriches my artistic practice. For some of us it is a luxury to have the space and time to be alone. My time alone in the studio is life sustaining.

But the spectrum on solitude is broad. Even for some artists and writers, the time one must spend alone working is just too demanding.

From a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by Terry Teachout, The Playwright’s Dilemma:

You’ve probably never thought about it before unless you happen to write for a living, but professional writers are doomed to spend most of their waking hours sitting by themselves at a desk, staring at a blank computer screen and waiting for lightning to strike. It’s a lonely business, which explains why a few authors choose to collaborate instead of flying solo. Moss Hart, who wrote his best plays in partnership with George S. Kaufman, explained his decision to write with a partner in “Act One,” his 1959 autobiography: “The hardest part of writing by far is the seeming exclusion from all humankind while work is under way, for the writer at work cannot be gregarious…. Collaboration cuts this loneliness in half. When one is at a low point of discouragement, the very presence in the room of another human being, even though he too may be sunk in the same state of gloom, very often gives that dash of valor to the spirit that allows confidence to return and work to resume.”

Then there is the span of issues that exist well beyond the domain of art making. At one end are the monks who engage in isolated retreats that can last for years, achieving a heightened mental state that can now be documented with neurofeedback. At the other end is the nightmare of forced solitary confinement for incarcerated individuals. Atul Gawande‘s Hellhole, published in the New Yorker a few years back, tracks the long history of research into isolation from Harry Harlow‘s infamous studies of monkeys denied their mothers to the profound damage suffered by inmates placed in supermaxes for prolonged periods. Gawande also outlines the loss of mental functioning that all humans experience when there is no human contact. “Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.”

As Paul Tillich said, “Language… has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”

So what does this spectrum of solitude really mean about us and what is optimal for humans? Some culture critics have claimed that society has veered into a solitude-denying state of hyperconnectivity through the Facebook/Twitter/Google+/LinkedIn/texting portal and it is negatively affecting the way we think, interact and live. Too soon to tell? Who knows. But I don’t think the lesson here is just that old saw about a need for moderation. Seems to me there is much more to this story. Like so many things in our culture that can now be had in frightening excess quickly, too much or too little of solitude or sociality is an ongoing—and daily—balancing act.


The view of Coolidge Point near Manchester Massachusetts and home to my friend Laurel, a hermit artist extraordinaire. Being a 21st century Thoreauian is a singular stance.

More on the theme of isolation, solitude, quiet (see the earlier post Where it Works.) Online artists and friends Walt Pascoe, Luke Storms and Holly Friesen directed me to an essay that appeared two years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Learning titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz. Tracing the concept of solitude from Ancient Greece through Romanticism, Modernism and now Postmodernism, Deresiewicz illuminates a rich history of how time alone has been viewed. During certain periods, such as the Romantic age, it was highly valued. At other times, like our current era, not so much.

Deresiewicz captures the essence of our time in a word:

Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

Say it isn’t so, Joe. I value the qualities of sincerity and authenticity, and most art that I respond to has a strong relationship with both of those concepts. But Deresiewicz is naming something that has shifted significantly in the last ten years in so many aspects of our lives.

As an artist, the visibility-first approach to art making and marketing is something many of us find deeply disturbing. I’m not shunning the value of visibility for anyone who is a maker. We need audiences to read our poetry, look at our paintings, listen to our music. And when the Internet can help us find those who are receptive, that’s a plus. But is visibility the grounding for the contemporary self? Is it possible to do your work with sincerity and authenticity and still have a high Klout score? These are questions I’m not sure can be answered just yet.

Deresiewicz’s essay is worth the read in its entirety and full of insights on a number of themes including generational differences, cities, suburbs, friendship, cultural history. But here are just a few other passages that speak most directly to my own solitude-seeking, hermit-hearted self:

* * *
And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity.

* * *
To hold oneself apart from society…is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion”.

* * *
No real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

* * *
The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company…But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

Silence and solitude, as great teachers have always advised, open us up to new layers of consciousness. This week the layer I have been in features a cast of animals, each bringing its own meaning and significance.

A few days ago I opened the door of my studio and was overwhelmed by the smell of skunk. Being trespassed upon without warning can feel like its own small violation, but I felt more respect than discomfort. For a four legged, not necessarily at home in the industrial landscape that is South Boston, to find its way into my studio… Well that’s just plain heroic.

The next day at dusk my husband David and I sat on an isolated bench in the sanctuary near my home. As soon as the light faded, three or four raccoons appeared. We stayed and watched their self-absorbed scavenging beneath the bushes along the pond’s edge. Our presence there was effortlessly disregarded. We were, after all, the interlopers into their ‘hood who could be overlooked as long as we sat still.

This week I read through my dream journal, and it was full of images of animals–sometimes with starring roles and sometimes just lurking under foot. But as I reconnected with these dream sequences, the power of these animal presences brought me deeper into four legged respect.

I am acutely aware these days of how much we shove down, choose to ignore, refuse to see or feel. Being pragmatic, committed to putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, requires a specialized version of selective neglect. Meanwhile so much is going on, in us as well as around us, that we simply chose not to pay attention to. I need and want more receptivity, more sensitivity, not less.

The legendary symbolism of skunks and raccoons, Native American and otherwise, brought another layer of meaning to my encounters this week. This account rang true for me:

Of course a chunk of animal symbolism of the skunk deals with the pungent odor of its spray let off when it’s threatened.

Just think what a remarkable defense mechanism: Nonviolent, passive, effective. The skunk sends a message to would-be predators: “Nothing personal, just back off and nobody gets hurt.”

This unique method of self-protection and the way a skunk handles its predators is symbolic of:
· Defense
· Prudence
· Protection
· Confidence
· Awareness
· Pacification
· Effectiveness
· Good judgement

We would all do well to take this animal symbolism from the skunk: Do no harm. Indeed, as a totem animal, the skunk asks us to defend ourselves effectively, without causing further conflict.

Interestingly, the skunk would prefer to be even less assertive. You see, it takes over a week to reproduce its stinky juices after using them (their glands are only good for about 4 sprays). Ergo, the skunk is 100% sure it must spray before doing so as this defense tool is a commodity in the wild – not to be wasted on false alarms.

In recognizing this, we see the skunk is the ultimate pacifist, and by adopting its peace-loving ways we may obtain the carefree lifestyle this creature enjoys.

Carefree indeed, the skunk has very few predators because most of the animal kingdom recognize its tell-tale markings and know from wildlife scuttlebutt the skunk is not to be fooled with. As such, the skunk goes about its business with aplomb, and has an innocent quality that few wild creatures have the luxury of exhibiting.

Other animal symbolism of the skunk include:
· Introspection
· Innocence
· Assurance
· Patience
· Silence
· Peace

Those with the skunk as their animal totem are naturally buoyant. They go through life with a calm assurance, and exude a peaceful energy that is extremely attractive to others.

Call upon the spirit of the skunk when you need quality judgment in a situation – particularly if you’re in a stressful state, or someone is pushing your buttons. The skunk will ease you out of the situation with deft and diplomacy.

The skunk can also help calm jangled nerves, and help to center ourselves into a quiet, peaceful state.

Claims to portentious meaning are not quite as generous for the raccoon as they are for the skunk. A number of traditions refer to the symbolism of disguise, to misleading appearances and the masking of truth. On a more positive note, reference is also made to the raccoon’s legendary ability to thrive in a variety of environments and situations.

I feel schooled by the four leggeds, and grateful for it.

I received a book in the mail as a gift from a friend* I haven’t seen for some time: Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, by Thich Nhat Hanh. As is often the way these things go, I opened it up to a few passages that had deep resonance for me. While I have many friends who are seriously walking the Buddhist path, my interest and knowledge is more of the sideline variety. But as is the case with most mystical writing, wisdom can speak to anyone regardless of context or commitment.

The book features the teachings of Master Linji, a 9th century Zen teacher. He used the term “the businessless person” to describe the person with nothing to do. “As I see it, there isn’t so much to do. Just be ordinary–put on your robes, eat your food, and pass the time doing nothing.” What a thought. That’s about as far from American consciousness as it goes.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s overview of Master Linji’s message:

Insight can’t be found in sutras, commentaries, or Dharma talks. Liberation and awakened understanding can’t be found by devoting ourselves to the study of the Buddhist scriptures. This is like hoping to find fresh water in dry bones. Returning to the present moment, using our clear mind which exists right here and now, we can be in touch with liberation and enlightenment, as well as the Buddha and all his disciples as living realities right in this moment.

But the following extract is the passage that speaks most poignantly to me. For any artist, the question–the project–is everything. To rethink the concept of a question as something that does not require an answer but has the capacity to destroy obstacles and shift everything–“tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us”–is a humbling thought.

In school, when we want to ask a question, we remain seated and put up our hand. We use our head, our intellect, to ask a question in order to get a bit of knowledge in return. But Zen isn’t like that. Here our aim isn’t to find out and store up knowledge about Buddhism; it’s to ask the right question, the question that has the capacity to destroy our obstacles. If we don’t have that question, it’s better not to come forward. Our question should be something that can tear apart the veil of ignorance and liberate us. Maybe it can teach our teacher and the whole community, too.

That’s a project for a life time.

*Thank you to Andria Klarer–seeker, mystic, friend.

A few words on solitude, discipline and the nature of being interrupted, by Mary Oliver:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone
rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits.
Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought
which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without
interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until
it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily
have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart–to pace, to chew pencils, to
scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from
another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that
whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing into
the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone
the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday
is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only
to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

It is this internal force–this intimate interrupter–whose tracks I would
follow. The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place,
its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that?
But that the self can interrupt the self–and does–is a dark and more
curious matter.

–From Blue Pastures

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Mary Oliver, poet

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