“You have to make up your mind to be alone in many ways. We like sympathy and we like to be in company. It is easier than going it alone. But alone one gets acquainted with himself, grows up and on, not stopping with the crowd. It costs to do this.”
— Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
I’ve been on both sides of the fence – craving alone time to create and needing some social element to do the same. I can’t say I have a good answer to the problem an artist faces on this front, but I can think about it, right?
Should you feel guilty for wanting to be alone to catch up on everything floating around in your head? Sometimes that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Solitude is a beautiful, rare thing.
Life happens. I’m a husband and father to a beautiful family that I love, but that beautiful family causes a lot of stress when it comes to my creative career.
I love to draw and paint. I love to write, and sitting and think about how I can make the world a better place through my creativity and the creativity of the people I guide and coach.
Unfortunately, I never seem to have a moment alone anymore. I’ve tried waking up hours earlier than my family, but the slightest creak of a floorboard or gurgle of the coffee pot wakes my son up, ready to tackle the day. Then my daughter starts crying, my wife yells at me to come get her, I finally start cooking breakfast, and nothing seems to get done.
I’ve also tried staying up late. When I do that, I hear Gordon Ramsay yelling at the top of his lungs at the chefs in his kitchen. And my infant daughter sleeps in a Pack-n-Play in our bedroom, so refuge in there isn’t an option, either.
Finding time for myself with a family is difficult. And artists need solitude. An artist needs to avoid distraction.
An artist needs to be alone.
“Sometimes we balk at embarking on an enterprise because we’re afraid of being alone. We feel comfortable with the tribe around us; it makes us nervous going off into the woods on our own.
Here’s the trick: We’re never alone. As soon as we step outside the campfire glow, our Muse lights on our shoulder like a butterfly.”
— Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
When I sit down to write in silence before the boy wakes up (on my lucky days), I tend to get a lot more done. The silence of the morning, sitting in the dark with my lap desk and the glow of the screen is where I summon my muse.
She doesn’t always show up, but I have the ritual. Dead silence, a cup of hot coffee, and a keyboard in front of me. No internet, no phone calls, no texting, nothing. Only me and a blank screen.
The same holds true when I go to work. My best days are when the shop is empty – so I go in when nobody else is there. I go to work extra early before anyone else shows up, and I keep the lights off.
I try to remember to put my headphones on when everyone else starts showing up. If only I could remember to do that every time. Maybe I should start closing myself off a bit more? But a knock on the door or tap on the shoulder can pull me right out of whatever flow I start to fall into. I can’t win for losing.
Pay the price.
There’s an obvious social cost of being a creative professional. You have to shut people out to get work done.
You have to shut out the people you care the most about sometimes. I love my family with every fiber of my being, but I have to do creative work.
So I pay the price. I pay the price of being grumpy when I can’t get things done because of distractions. I pay the price of closing myself off so I can open up on a blank page with words or art. I pay the price of studying in silence while everyone else enjoys a nice group dinner.
And I get a return on that investment. I have earned my growth. I have earned the respect of my peers by paying a steep social price with my family and friends. I work whenever I can because I have to. I expect more from myself than anyone else could, and I pay for it.
There is a time for the tribe.
Your family time is an opportunity to gather material, tinder for the bonfire. Use the stories you hear from your wife to make creative connections. Friendly conversations can spawn new ideas for that next article.
Use that tinder to build your bonfire in solitude. If the quality of your material is good enough, the light and warmth will draw a crowd. Of course, invite your peers to gather around your fire, they’ll let you know if it’s keeping them warm. Group critiques can be brutal, but it’s a time for the tribe to give you feedback.
Remember to separate yourself from your work when you bring your work out of solitude and to the public. An artist isn’t her art, but the art is a reflection of the artist. You pour yourself into it and let it go. This is the only way to survive, like a parent letting their children explore the world on their own.
Cherish the silence.
As an artist, you have to be alone in your mind to create. Tune the family and coworkers out, go into your cave and smear paint on the walls like prehistoric Homo Sapiens.
Get to know yourself, discover your own limits, then bring it back to the world. And learn from professional critiques. Learn from the interactions people have with your work. But don’t attach yourself so much to your work that a negative remark of it damages your ability to continue creating.
And finally, cherish the silence of solitude.