The Creative Power Of Solitude
This is the five year anniversary of No Missing Tools, my first book, a reflection on creativity in the digital age. This is a short extract on the role of solitude in helping us be more creative.
In my late teens I had the habit of driving out to Cape Solander (Gweagal land), a quiet, rocky point on the southern coast of Sydney. I went there to play guitar and write songs. From the end of the road, it was a ten-minute walk through the low scrub, to a flat, stool-like rock, where I would open up my guitar case, get out my notebook and work, with only the sea breeze and Pacific ocean view to accompany me.
One of my friends, a saxophonist who subsequently went on to play on over a hundred albums, had a similar habit, which he practised on a bit of the coast only a few miles from my favourite location. In one conversation, we agreed that being alone in a beautiful place was powerfully motivating. I said, “It’s really inspiring” and my friend replied “Yes, and it’s really hard.”
When you sing or play an instrument in a room, the physical space supports your sound, as the notes bounce around off every surface. The technical term for this is reverb and it’s part of the reason why most of us sound better when we sing in the shower. But, playing in a vast open space, you don’t have that support. Your sound becomes very pure and very thin. You have to work a lot harder to get a big, solid tone.
Also, as musicians we are often hardwired for feedback, for the adoration of a crowd, or at least the respect of our fellow musicians. Musicians work hard on crafting their sound and their image, choosing the right amplifiers, microphones, clothes, and even hairstyles. But, out there on the edge of a vast stretch of blue ocean, stripped of things that normally help you look and sound good, you feel very small and very alone.
Creative work is often tough and frequently involves solitude. This can be at odds with what inspired us to get into creative work in the first place. When I started playing electric guitar, it soon became obvious being on stage helped me get noticed by girls who otherwise wouldn’t pay me any attention. Music was a gateway to parties (or at least better quality parties) and good times.
But, you soon start to face choices. Party or practice? Fame might delay the choice. But, in any professional creative field, life has a way of sorting out those with a professional attitude from those who just want to party, and a professional attitude requires solitude.
Everything interesting I have done in my life — playing guitar, composing music, taking photos, academic writing, public speaking, even cooking—proceeds from solitude.
Solitude is essential for fostering new ideas and for developing the skills required to execute them. Whatever creative work you engage in, at some stage you have to spend not just minutes and seconds, but hours, days, maybe even weeks, in solitude; drafting, creating, editing, and reworking your projects.
Solitude is not the same thing as loneliness. Solitude is a state of mind, a way of being in relation to your work. You are responding from deep within your own way of seeing the world and with your own motivations. Loneliness is a sense of isolation, disconnection from others and also more importantly, from our motivation.
“Language has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone, and the word solitude to express the glory of being alone.”
– Paul Tillich
Solitude breeds creativity and freedom; loneliness feeds on anger and resentment. Although we most often experience solitude when we are alone, the mindset of solitude is one we can find ourselves in, even when we are in a crowded room, like an office, train, or theatre.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters To A Young Poet, used the image of a child at play to describe the nature of solitude. Picture a child, lost in their play world, moving toys around and creating stories in their mind, even if they are surrounded by adults.
This kind of solitude is a safe place, where the creative soul can explore ideas without being subject to what Rilke called “…conventions, prejudices, and false ideas.” It is within solitude that we are most in tune with our creative motivations and most able to sustain our inspiration.
“Life’s creative solutions require alone time. Solitude is required for the unconscious to process and unravel problems. Others inspire us, information feeds us, practice improves our performance, but we need quiet time to figure things out, to emerge with new discoveries, to unearth original answers.”
– Ester Buchholz
Solitude is an integral part of creative work, but often gets confused with loneliness. However, loneliness is an inherently hostile stance towards the world, whereas solitude is one of receptivity, hospitality. In loneliness our ideas become weaponised; we see this all the time from online hate. But in solitude ideas are tools; resources we pick up, consider, and select.
“When we feel lonely we have such a need to be liked and loved that we are hypersensitive to the many signals in our environment and easily become hostile towards anyone we perceive as rejecting us. But once we have found the centre of our life in our heart and accepted our aloneness, not as a fate, but as a vocation, we are able to offer freedom to others.”
– Henri Nouwen
This is an extract from No Missing Tools: Creativity in an Age of Abundance, my book, which was published on this day five years ago. You can find paperback and kindle versions of the book on Amazon, and I still have a few signed paperback copies and the limited edition cloth hardcover versions here on the store.