In the World But Not of It

 

Olympic Peninsula, coastal forest

Some of my friends–especially those with children–envy the quiet time I have to myself. One friend sank into the cushions of my bamboo chair and listened to the rain drum like fingertips against my attic ceiling. “It must be so nice,” she said. “All this time to write.” No voices. No one competing for my attention.

But other friends–those without children but in relationships–worry about the same quiet time. “It’s not good to be alone so much,” they say, with puckered brows, drawn faces.

So how much is too much?

Writing, by its very nature, is a solitary activity. It’s also deeply engaging. But a life devoted to it removes me from the world. The hours spent in my room alone could have been hours at a bar or a movie theater or a pool hall.

I’m guessing that Jeffrey Eugenides, based on his New Yorker post “Posthumous”, would probably say this is a good thing.*

More quiet in which to develop your voice. Less influence from the outside world–a world defined by trends and commodification  and all those other evils antithetical to the artistic process.

Supposedly.

I agree that it’s vital for artists to have solitude and the freedom of private space–Virginia Woolf’s appeal for “a room of one’s own.” Choreographers need a studio where they can lock the doors, pull the curtains. Composers, painters, writers–we all require private space. But Woolf also passionately argued that the novelist must be “terribly exposed to life.”

I’ve lived a lot of my life in empty rooms. So believe me when I tell you: it ain’t enough.

Not even close.

Artists, philosophers, gamers–all us brainy and/or nerd types–we have to get out of our own heads sometimes. And I think Eugenides got it half right. What he missed is that influence is inevitable, whether you’re cloistered in a Vermont farmhouse or settled in the thick of it, in an urban condo. There’s no avoiding influence. We’re human beings, and we absorb the world around us. The things we read. The lives we encounter.

We can’t help it.

At the end of the day, I think both groups of my friends are right. And I think the Mormons have something going for them when they teach their children to be “in the world but not of it.” Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged us “in the midst of the crowd [to] keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Shutting out the world to create art is an idea that baffles me. It not only looks counterproductive–it’s plain impossible. Better to set aside that time to be alone, in my own room. And then to go out and be “terribly exposed to life,” raw and full of feeling and alert to every shift in the wind. While still grasping the clarity and determination and vision that I found in my room alone.

I’m still learning how to do this. In certain company, it’s easier than among others. But it’s possible.

And for a fully lived life, and art that is alive with that experience, it’s vital.

*http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/12/jeffrey-eugenides-advice-to-young-writers.html

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