Writers and artists require solitude. Lots of it. Free of distractions, noise, and confusion, in a place where the imagination can roam freely and creativity flourish. We can take that as a truism.
Where then, might community fit into the writer’s life?
Let me approach this question by using the analogy of two starkly different views of marriage. First, that of Tertullian (160-220 A.D). “How wonderful the bond between two believers, with a single hope, a single desire, a single observance… There is no separation between them in spirit or flesh; in fact they are truly two in one flesh, and where the flesh is one, one is the spirit.” Here is a community of two that seemingly annihilates individuality.
The second view is from twentieth-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke,
“It is a question in marriage… not of creating a quick community of spirit by tearing down and destroying all boundaries, then merging with one another body and spirit, but rather a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude…. All companionship can consist only in the strengthening of two neighboring solitudes, whereas everything that one is wont to call giving oneself is by nature harmful to companionship: for when a person abandons himself, he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.”
Rilke’s claim will resonate with most writers and, indeed, most artists. A writer needs time alone to develop his or her craft, indeed, is called to solitude. And he or she has obligations to that calling. Yet, Rilke’s view is too stark. It presents us with a false alternative: that of solitude vs. community. The real trick is to balance them, in whatever proportion works best for those involved. Rilke even implies this, without perhaps realizing it, when he says each person appoints another the guardian of his solitude. Even when withdrawing from social engagement, one has some dependence on another, or others.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau describes his two-year withdrawal from society, during which he lived alone in the woods to better write, think, observe and take detailed notes of the natural world, and live by means of his own resourcefulness. That period of solitude resulted in one of America’s classic works of literature. And yet, Thoreau didn’t really spend all his time alone. He walked into town on occasion to see his family, to share Sunday dinners. Friends such as Bronson Alcott, Ellery Channing, and Ralph Waldo Emerson stopped by his cabin from time to time to visit. Curious townspeople, including children, sometimes stopped by to inquire into what he was up to. He welcomed them and freely talked about his philosophy of life. He encouraged their questions. He interacted with and was very much dependent on a community of others. So while Thoreau gravitated to solitude, indeed, craved it, he was no recluse, no hermit; he sought out the company of others.
Amidst the busyness and noise of modern life, periods of quiet and solitude are, I believe, the greater need for most writers: a quiet corner in a library; a writing studio in the basement; a cabin in the woods; camping in the mountains or desert; a quiet spiritual retreat. Inspiration descends and imagination flourishes during prolonged periods of seclusion. That’s when we get our work done. But too much solitude can drive one crazy. We need the occasional company of others, even if only once a day, for a meal or a chat. Someone to bounce ideas off, to share stories with, with whom to discuss obstacles to one’s art, or just to meet new, stimulating, and creative people.
There are different kinds of writing communities. Many are informal, formed by a small group of people in a given locale to support and critique one another’s work. Some are virtual communities. Fortunately, there are also institutions that foster writers’ and artists’ needs for solitude, with a dash of communal life thrown in. Writers’ residencies, for example, provide time and space for creative work, unencumbered by the normal distractions of life, and mostly free of scheduled events (save for, perhaps, a daily communal meal and occasional social event). Institutions such as the Yaddo, Millay, and McDowell colonies, and the Ucross Foundation offer long-term residencies for creative artists. Most welcome authors and artists of all types and viewpoints. Others have a specific focus. The Collegeville Institute, for example, affords space to writers of faith, broadly construed, who share central spiritual concerns. Orion Magazine at Breadloaf supports environmental writers. Others provide time and space for women writers; yet others, minority artists.
Let us bear in mind, however, that a writer’s residency is a gift that is not possible without a community of people who make it happen: the residency program staff, the cooks and servers, the maintenance workers, donors, and the accountants who keep the financial ledgers in order. The writer tends not to meet most of these people, but together they form a larger, sometimes shadow community on which the writer depends.
Most important of all for the writer—apart from solitude—is the association with other writers, with whom one interacts on occasion, shares ideas for where to send manuscripts and editors to contact, provides mutual encouragement and critique of manuscripts, and gives consolation for discouragements and celebrates successes. In some cases these associations develop into strong and lifelong bonds of friendship.
In the writing life, there is a time for solitude, and a time for drawing together; a time for reflection, and a time for sharing; a time for seclusion and austerity, and a time for wine and conviviality. Both solitude and community feed our artistic spirits.
Author’s note: I am indebted to my colleague Laura Dassow Walls for the information on Thoreau.