Solitude and creativity

In August challenge, Creativity
August 16, 2009

Was supposed to have lunch with a friend today but unfortunately they weren’t able to make it so instead I took myself off to Highgate Woods, where I sat happily alone for a few hours reading. It’s yet another place within a 20-minute drive of where I live but which I have never visited.

At least I think I haven’t visited before. I might conceivably have been taken there by my parents when I was small. In fact, my dad said to me the other day ‘I think we took you to Silchester when you were a baby, you know’. D’oh! But: a) I don’t remember it so surely it still counts, b) why were they taking a baby to an archaeological site?, and c) I find it interesting that children do a lot more ‘activities’ than adults, and part of the point of all this is to bring back that child-like life pattern.

Obviously adults do activities in that we go to meetings and buy groceries and arrange for car repairs. But we don’t tend – I think – to plan ‘outings’ for ourselves like we do for children. We don’t have the time, of course, but even on weekends I don’t think most people go: “Something educational on Saturday morning, then something relaxing in the afternoon, some running around outdoors on Sunday morning, and then a getting-to-know-nature thing in the afternoon.” Or whatever.

As if to prove this point, Highgate Wood was far more full of families than of adult-only groups. What do adults do? Why do they only come to the woods when they have small children? I think maybe most adults feel like an activity somehow doesn’t ‘count’ if you don’t spend money. I’d never say to a friend ‘hey, let’s go to the park and chat’, but always ‘let’s have coffee’ or ‘let’s have lunch’. Maybe that’s just me!  But I don’t think so… When was the last time you invited a friend over to play around with paints and felt-tips together? I wonder why not… playing with paints and felt-tips is fun!

This wasn’t what I was intending to write about at all. I was intending to write about solitude. But maybe it’s all connected.

I’m giving a talk in a couple of months at the School of Life on the topic “How To Spend Time Alone“. This is sort of hilarious to me, because until a few years ago I *hated* spending time alone. I was the kind of person who loved to have a full full full diary and whose idea of heaven was having 20 people round for lunch. Seriously.

But then… somehow I began to change. When I was 25 I started to go away by myself for two or three days, usually to a nice Cathedral town, stay in a bed-and-breakfast, wander around, read and think. I found a kind of peace in those visits. Something in me would start to unwind on the second day, when I realised that no one knew what I was doing, that I didn’t have to tell anyone where I was going, that my time was entirely my own.

I’ve lived alone for nearly seven years now, and while I’ve had my moments of loneliness – and I don’t say that I want to live alone forever – it’s been a very valuable experience. You find out who you are when you’re alone, and although that’s sometimes distressing mostly it’s good. There’s a core of stillness to almost all of us, and it’s very good to check in with it every once in a while.

I’ve been reading Anthony Storr’s ‘Solitude’ in preparation for giving that School of Life talk – it’s the kind of book which has an insight on every page that is so brilliant you have to put the book down for a few moments to think about it.

Today I was reading about solitude and the imagination. We are all alone in our imaginations – I mean that no one else is inside our heads. When we daydream, no one else can see what we’re thinking of. But it’s all too easy to allow our heads to be filled up with the things other people are saying and thinking and doing.

Storr says:

“man is so constituted that he possesses an inner world of the imagination which is different from, though connected to, the world of external reality. It is the discrepancy between the two worlds which motivates creative imagination. People who realize their creative potential are constantly bridging the gap between inner and outer.”

In other words, what’s good about people is that we live both in our heads and in the world. What’s out there affects what’s in here. But we can imagine something inside our heads too – a bridge, a novel, a vaccine for polio – and make it happen in the outside world. Creativity is a constant passing from the place where we are alone to the place where we’re not and back again.

He also says:

“It seems probable that there is always an element of play in creative living. When this playful element disappears, joy goes with it, and so does any sense of being able to innovate. Creative people not infrequently experience periods of despair in which their ability to create anything new seems to have deserted them. This is often because a particular piece of work has become invested with such overwhelming importance that it is no longer possible to play with it.”

To which all I can say is: yes, that’s it exactly.

What is play? It is that linking of the internal fantasy world with the external real world. Children do this effortlessly: “This box is a fire engine and I’m a fireman!” “The carpet is the sea, daddy, and the bed is an island, let’s swim there!” It’s neither forgetting entirely about the real world (which we call hallucination) or forgetting entirely about fantasy, which Storr calls “becoming over-compliant with external reality” – becoming entirely conformist, in fact. And when we grow up, unfortunately, we often start to become ‘over-compliant with external reality’, even to the extent that we feel it’s only acceptable to do ‘proper’ things with our friends, things that involve spending money, rather than just playing together.

It’s funny that, having just finished a novel, I chose this project instead of, say “see a friend every day for 31 days”, or “read a novel every day for 31 days” or whatever one might think would replenish one’s creativity. Though I’ve had some wonderful outings with friends, I’ve gone on a lot of my visits alone – and I think that’s just what I needed. A sense of finding my inner playfulness again after a long struggle to finish a book.

In other words: I went to Highgate Woods today entirely alone, and sat alone, and read alone, and came home and made dinner alone and I find that my brain is starting to become inspired and playful again.

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