By Joey Phoenix
Images by Timothy Donovan Photography unless otherwise marked
“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence.” - Adrienne Rich
Why is it that creative people often have such intimate relationships with feelings of isolation and loneliness? It's probably because the urge to create can usually only be dealt with by the solitary act of the creative process itself.
Basically, we have to make things, and for them to be good we probably need to make them on our own, and sometimes it takes a while. Sure, we can recruit people to collaborate with us, but any artist knows that the bulk of the work isn't done with people around.
The journey of the creative is one that is often taken mostly alone, and we must learn to embrace the silence from time to time to give birth to the art that is within us.
But silence can be terrifying. Silence can be mean. Silence can be unpredictable.
The process of transformation of nothingness into something-ness is often painful. It deposits a sticky residue on our hearts and minds that leaves us feeling separate from those around us, so much so that once we’ve returned to the tedium and the noise of living we often struggle to re-enter the sacred space bolstered by our imaginations. The fear of silence blocks us. We are uncertain of what it will show us.
Silence is big and powerful, and more importantly, it’s open. When we leave ourselves open to inspiration it will find us, it will fly in on fiery wings, but it often brings friends. Inspiration is often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, the sensation of “what’s the point.” Existential dread is birthed in silence, but so is the most profound of art. You must wade through one to reach the other.
To make great art, we have to access parts of ourselves that aren’t necessarily visible to everyone else. We have to confront our demons and sort through the miasma of our thoughts to come up with things never seen before. Then we must emerge to eat, drink, and gain more mental fodder for the next project. There must be a balancing point between emptiness and saturation, as complete emptiness leads to burnout, and saturation leads to massive creative blocks.
Both of which are quite unpleasant.
Filling the Creative Void
The Greek philosopher/physicist (philosophysicist?) Parmenides once postulated that a vacuum in nature cannot exist, a phrase that has been more commonly expressed as “nature abhors a vacuum” (Thank you, Aristotle). Unfilled voids, whether in the depth of space or in the hollows of our conscious mind, are by necessity begging to filled by something. Anything. You leave it open, something will be there to fill it.
But let’s look at the opposite for a moment. Imagine a room stacked floor to ceiling with stuff. Books, printing presses, skateboards, elephants, plates with bits of food left on them, empty takeaway cups that once contained iced coffee, anything. Fill the room. Make it messy, make it impossible to walk through. Don’t clear any sort of path. Does it make you feel anxious? Do you want to leave the room? Well, you may want to stay and pet an elephant, but one thing is for certain, you don’t want to put anymore stuff in the room. Once you put it down you may never see it again.
For some reason or another, the creative persona has often been associated with clutter verging on madness. Order in chaos has been the MO of many a brilliant mind, and having a workspace that’s untidy (or in many cases, including mine, a workspace that has obviously been hit by a tornado recently) can actually help rather than hinder the creative process.
So if the environment isn’t the problem, what is?
It’s not the external environment that necessarily blocks creativity, it’s the internal one. When the chaos on the outside seeps into the depths of your working mind, problems begin to occur.
Instead of running off to clean your office/studio/bedroom/wherever you work (really, don’t bother), you need to instead focus on creating internal space where creative lightning can strike.
But how can you create the sacred space for inspiration without falling victim to the crippling affects of loneliness?
Therein lies the dilemma. You have to teach yourself balance.
Seeking a Certain Kind of Solitude
As citizens of the 21st century, we are perpetually afflicted with the reality of noise. You can be deep in the woods of the Appalachian Trail and be plagued by planes flying overhead, the hum of nearby power lines, and the cackling of nearby hikers. We are rarely (if ever) truly alone, and the world is never truly quiet.
But to create, you don’t need complete isolation or absolute silence. Instead, you ought to search for something David Hendy refers to as ‘the subtle tapestry of sound”:
“A rough-and-ready quiet, then — that subtle tapestry of sound where no single noise obliterates all others – is usually better for us than utter noiselessness. When cities pedestrianize, it’s not to impose silence. It’s to liberate all those delicate murmurings once smothered by traffic: footsteps, clocks, bells, conversation, laughter. Even young Thoreau went to Walden Pond not to hear less but to hear more: ‘a whippoorwill on the ridge pole, a blue-jay screaming beneath the window… pitch-pines rubbing and creaking against the shingles.’”
So often we have tricked ourselves into thinking that the solitude required for creation is one that requires complete cut-off from outside inputs. We believe that we need to toil away without access to external stimuli for days, weeks, months to give birth to genius in the manner of Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – a quirky inventor who spent several days locked in his shed to restore and transform an old racing car into a magical flying machine.
While this mentality may seem admirable, the isolation of this method isn’t sustainable. To preserve your mental health, you need to come up for air sometimes. Spending too much time pulling from your creative well without giving it enough time to fill back up can lead to feelings of abject despair. At the same time, letting your mind be overtaken by noise can have the same effect.
Loneliness As a Driving Force for Creativity
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an acute inner restlessness, an empty space in my heart I’ve desperately wanted to FILL, an underlying sense of isolation that can only be satiated by creating something out of nothing. -Zara Barrie
The deepest desire of the human heart is to experience connection, because so often the pervading reality is that we are terribly disconnected. Creatives cope with this by making art, which is why so many of us claim that we create our best work when we’re unhappy. Our unhappiness drives us to seek solace in our work, to pour out our souls into the canvas or onto the page, to go deeper into ourselves to seek out the answers we so desperately crave. It is loneliness that gives us the strength we need to face the void of silence, and to let it be filled by whatever inspiration is available.
“We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.” - Henry James
So while we should embrace the loneliness that allows our inner fountain of inspiration of loneliness to flourish, we shouldn’t isolate ourselves to the brink of unhappiness. History has praised the artist-loner, the one who has thrown aside relationships in the pursuit of making great art. “They sacrificed so much,” history says, “and just look what they accomplished!”
At what cost? Many times at the cost of mental health and financial stability, which may seem like a romantic notion, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Knowing When to Seek Community
If the crux of our desire to create comes from the pervasive need for community and connection, why is it that so many of us impose self-enforced isolation on ourselves? This is simply because for several millennia society has seemingly expected it of us.
Now more than ever artists are able to be a part of a community that supports them and their work. We all need someone to look us in the eye and say “I know just how you feel, I’ve been there too.” We all need to realize that yes, it’s ok to hide in our studios sometime to create the things that come into our mind’s eye, but that it’s also ok to meet up with other like-minded individuals for a beer or coffee and discuss what the experience was like.
One of the most beautiful sentences in English, the one that leaves us feeling like we’re not facing everything completely alone is simply, “Me too.”
So when the urge comes to you at 4:00 AM to cover yourself in paint and roll on an canvas or write epic poetry or bind books or compose the most beautiful melody the world has ever heard or whatever, listen to the call. Then afterwards, walk into the world to find the humans who will celebrate with you. It’s what your soul needs.