On Needing Solitude and Community
The paradox of outstanding writing
Most human excellence derives from paradox. Cicero wrote that he was never less alone than when he was by himself, and never busier than when he had nothing to do. In archery, you aim, but you must forget aiming before you release the arrow. The Bhagavad Gita commands us to work, to do our sacred dharma, but strangely informs us that we have no right to the fruits of that work. The Bible tells us “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). We never learn more than when we teach.
In writing, paradox abounds. The creation comes from within, from the deep recesses of the writer’s soul, heart and mind, reachable only by the writer. But the thinking and feeling do not remain inside. The words are brought forth into the world, the exterior – a Titanic that can only raise itself to the surface. The words exist outside the writer.
This interior-exterior tension extends further. For many years, I have kept a journal. For several of those years, I wrote down hardly any of my own thoughts or feelings; my journals are filled with quotes and poems I love. I would not commit myself to writing much down because I did not believe that my thoughts and feelings were fully baked yet…and I had this curious, odd, debilitating notion that only fully formed thoughts deserved to exist in writing outside of me. I hated the image of me going back into old journals and reading silly ideas from my past. I believed I should be smart enough to think to the point of writing down only the best, most elegant, most beautiful, most trenchant ideas. Now I see this less as tension and more as harmony. I write down new ideas, silly ideas, half-baked ideas, ideas dropped on the floor, and seriously bad ideas so that they can ripen into more mature ideas. The baking comes from the interplay of thinking, writing, editing, thinking more, feeling, having friends react to the writing, feeling some more, revising, pondering, wondering, and writing again. This process isn’t a paradox, I learned, it’s the creative process itself.
This interior-exterior paradox of writing has even more shades as we peer closer. The writer needs solitude and silence to probe those interior crypts. The poet May Sarton wrote fiercely about this need in her book dedicated to this subject, Journal of a Solitude.
“I often feel exhausted, but it is not my work that tires (work is a rest); it is the effort of pushing away the lives and needs of others before I can come to the work with any freshness and zeal.
“It would be a real deprivation to have no phone here, but on the other hand how devastating a voice can be!...When it comes to the important things one is always alone, and it may be that the virtue or possible insight I get from being so obviously alone – being physically and in every way absolutely alone much of the time – is a way into the universal state of man. The way in which one handles this absolute aloneness is the way one grows up, is the great psychic journey of everyman.”
We want to believe this seductive and charming allure of the writer in shrouded solitude, chipping away for years, searching, scrambling, wrenching, tearing, fighting for every last right word. That is the story we tell ourselves, and maybe we believe.
Even in a book dedicated to solitude, Sarton reaches out – as she knows she must. Her journal writing evolves as she faces the world. Her dying friend evokes some of the hardest moments of the book – despondent and piercing echoes of a man in the extremity, and the suffering of his soul in a fate unsought, undesired and unstoppable. There is no escape for her friend – and no avoiding the sadness imparted on Sarton’s soul and words.
Later, amidst ravings about the need for solitude and silence, she reflects on the other – the reality outside.
“[I]f one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud, something like revelation takes place. Something is “given,” and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying the self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy.”
This other is her world – nature, friends, cats, travels, house – in a word, her community. She does not use that word and yet in the backdrop of solitude, it is there with and for her. It is as necessary as solitude.
Like solitude, community is almost always present in the struggle of creation – not simply as the audience to receive the creation, but as an underlying active participant in the strain of creation. But it isn’t something we think of as part of the writing process--nor do authors speak of it as frequently as solitude. We find community at work in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien meeting with their fellow Inklings at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford. We find community at work on Ernest Hemingway’s famous fishing boat Pilar. We find community at work in Craig Mod’s beautiful modern paean to walking in Japan, Kissa by Kissa.
I am learning to see, welcome and embrace this paradox of needing both community and solitude in my writing endeavors. As with the messy process of my journal writing, I see less tension in this paradox and more harmony.
Solitude to Think and Feel
I try to arrive in my office, sit my butt down, and write every day. It is difficult. This daily solitude allows me to listen to myself. It gives me space and time to reach into my inner depths and witness my own evolving self. These hours are filled with writing, scribbling, tea drinking, revising, feeling, reacting, and musing. I cherish them.
A Community for Nourishment and Exploration
For more than 18 months, I have been graced with a beautiful community in my life – Foster. In days of old, a community was a place, and that place and the people in it uniquely mixed in such a way to try to succor all the needs of place and people. I think we humans yearn for that community, but in this online era, those days seem increasingly distant. Today, we chop our lives into slivers, and place each small sliver in a “community” – a business “community,” a meditation “community,” a book club “community” and so on. I, at least, find this approach to community unnatural, unsatisfying and unnerving. It is not the way we are meant to be.
Foster is my community – where we look after the place and all the human needs of the people in it. It is not simply my “writing” community. It uplifts my entire being – mind, heart and soul. The members care for each other in a deep, unspeakably touching way. It is rare and beautiful in this modern age, and I treasure it.
In one memorable exchange, I asked Foster members for feedback on a writing class. I asked because while the class’s approach made me squirm – it didn’t feel like “Russell Smith” – I’d felt subtly building pressure over the months to “post on LinkedIn daily”, “niche down”, “be an expert one year ahead of the audience rather than a real expert.” A few Foster members gently, kindly, but directly urged me to explore and believe in my own hesitation around that approach. For example:
“if you want your writing to be more alive and unique and reflective of your deeper self, the constraints and epistemic certainty of XYZ's approach will confine your spirit and feel like a prison.”
My soul and mind needed to hear that message. I appreciated this sagacious community. Those reactions have guided and made an enormous difference in my writing in 2022. Late this year, I explored a topic I needed to examine about my family life. I didn’t know whether anyone else would read it or enjoy it. I simply knew the topic spoke to my aliveness as a unique human. To my overwhelming joy, readers loved the essay. One reader wrote back, “I am made better reading you.” What else can I ask for? I’m grateful to my Foster friends for encouraging me to trust the path of aliveness and joy.
In January, the Foster community embarks on Season Two: The Art of Modern Writing to enhance and embolden us as writers and humans. I can’t wait, because I know it will embrace this wondrous, mysterious paradox of community and solitude – and ennoble participants in embracing the paradox too. I hope you will join me – join us – for a beautiful Season Two experience.