Writers, Solitude, and Creativity

“Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius…” – Edward Gibbon

Writers sometimes live solitary lives in remote places so they can devote more time to their work.

Writers sometimes live simple solitary lives in remote places so they can devote more time to their work. Yet there are times when solitude is just a state of mind. (Image: public domain)

The widespread self-publishing phenomenon is new, and while there are plenty of older people such as myself involved – or soon to be involved – a majority of new writers are young. A great many of these new or wannabe authors are too young to have the usual underpinnings acquired by writers in the traditional publishing paradigm. With that system, seeing their work in print often took many years, so struggling writers had plenty of time to learn the more philosophical aspects of their profession. Those aspects deepen writers giving their work more intellectual penetration, emotional depth, intensity, and sophistication.

In this post, I want to highlight one key concept that is perhaps poorly understood by today’s huge crop of youthful authors. The Gibbon quote that heads up the post is a clue.

Writing has always been a solitary activity. You cannot write while socializing with your friends or spending time with your family. Nor can you write while working on the factory floor or at your desk in the office. At least not without getting yourself fired. This being the case, many writers have made the necessity of solitariness into a virtue. They have surrounded being alone with a kind of mystique and use the term “solitude” in ways that non-writers do not. Philosophers and intellectuals share the writer’s need for solitude. To get their respective tasks done, the practitioners of all three professions need to think. In the collective hands of these people, the term “solitude” is no longer just a word for being alone. It has been elevated into an entire philosophy. For those most devoted to their work, it has become a way of life.

Solitude as an idea is used by many writers to signify what one creativity researcher has called the “sacred time and sacred space” within which all creative people think and get their work done. “Solitude” is a concise way of describing – not just being alone – but also a state of mind.

Creative writers use the concept of solitude as a tool. Thinking about solitude pushes out thoughts of family, friends, creditors, enemies, our day-to-day troubles, and puts us in the right frame of mind for intellectual work. Time alone is useless if we cannot stop thinking about other people, or our own worrisome troubles. The human brain is a biological computer processor. The issue here is what the computer types call “processor time.” Other people and life’s inevitable worries tend to eat up our processor time. As much as we may love them, family and friends often do chatter endlessly, or simply demand our time and attention. Worries drag our minds away from our work. This sets up a “denial of use” scenario that stops creative individuals from using their primary resource – their brains. Therefore, the need for solitude is the need to reserve some processor time for creative projects.

Those who talk, or write, about solitude a lot do not necessarily live isolated lives: they simply value, and strive for, a fair amount of time alone in which to think and work. They use the idea of solitude to generate the mental time and space they need. There are plenty of examples.

One of my favourites is the German-born Swiss author Hermann Hesse. He was the first writer to undergo Jungian analysis and popularized Jung’s concept of individuation in his most famous novels. For generations, these remarkable books have inspired young people to work towards full self-realization. The novel Steppenwolf, from which the rock band took its name, is one of these. Damian, the first of the post-analysis novels, is the perfect place to start understanding the concept of individuation.

Hesse was a notable advocate of solitude. He (rather ruthlessly) farmed his four children out to friends and relatives, and moved from Basil to live in a small mountain village in Switzerland’s Italian canton. He wrote frequently and with deep feeling about how solitary he was in his rustic home. Yet that home was for many years a small apartment building! He often had friends visiting from the city, and carefully cultivated new friendships among local intellectuals and creative artists. His “solitude” was largely a state of mind. It was during the ten years he lived this way that he wrote almost all the novels for which he later won the Nobel Prize.

Another favourite is Thomas Merton, the famous Christian monk. Merton felt called to leave mainstream life and walk a more spiritual road. He too was a great one for depicting how solitary his existence was – all the while hosting a steady stream of visitors at his “hermit’s” hut and befriending a large family in a town near his monastery. He dropped in at their home so often that he became something of a nuisance. Once, while in hospital, he even fell in love with a young nurse! As we saw with Hermann Hesse, his solitude was more a state of mind than an actuality. Yet, through this “solitary” period, he wrote many of his most famous works.

The need for solitude is literal, but clearly, there is power in the mere notion of being solitary. The key to understanding this is to avoid looking only at externals, at lifestyles. It is by taking the interior, “spiritual” view, that one understands the power of solitude as an idea. As we see with Hesse and Merton, for some writers being a “solitary” person is part of their sense of identity. Whether or not they are actually solitary, they nonetheless see themselves that way. Time spent with others diminishes in intensity and importance. Time spent alone grows in significance, for it is during the solitary time that they get their work done, the work that defines, enhances, and fulfills them in ways their ordinary day-to-day lives simply cannot.

These days, being “a loner” is suspect, but history has shown the truth of Gibbon’s words. Those who spend time alone reach the greatest intellectual and artistic heights for the obvious reason that there is no other way of getting there.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

3 thoughts on “Writers, Solitude, and Creativity”

  1. I get the impression you’re say young writers are not worthy as they don’t know “solitude”. At what age is too young to know “solitude”? Lets look at an Orphan; I’d say some Orphans would know solitude, or perhaps: Memorias de una Prostituta. Now this story, in English: Memories of a Prostitute, was about a young women from Brazil, that went to Spain to earn money for her children to have a better life. All cases are different and there are many young people with stories. An eighteen year old girl growing up in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro will have a story, lets face it. Although, she probably won’t have access to education, a computer or time.

    Thanks for your thoughts,

  2. The solitude you speak of may be described as loneliness, isolation, even deprivation. It is a kind of suffering that life can inflict upon anyone, young or old. I am talking about solitude strictly within the boundaries of art and philosophy. My point is that, today, young writers can be published instantly. They do not face a long apprenticeship spent struggling to find an agent or a publisher. In the past, that appenticeship, that preparation gave time for young writers to explore what it means to be a writer, to learn about how other writers live, to comprehend how other writers see themselves, how they go about their work, and so on. All of this, before the young writer broke into print and became a full-fledged author themselves. Today’s young writers emerge as published authors while still raw recruits. They are not unworthy; they are unprepared. With this post, I hope to provide some small piece of what the hasty rush to publication has omitted. I want to highlight one of the ways in which some authors have chosen to define their identities as writers. I want to share the unique concept of solitude so often used by experienced writers of stature.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. As a 32 year old, I suppose I still consider myself young as far as a writer goes but I must say, I don’t consider myself a writer, really. Although, I have found myself typing away in a South American apartment, in Brazil, Argentina and Colombia very often over the past few years. I’m not sure what it takes to call yourself a writer? I suppose, it’s easy to call yourself a writer these days and this is probably part of your point. Once again, I appreciate your post and I’m just putting my hand up for the other youngsters out there who feel the need to type. I think you’ve made things clearer now.


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