Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The value of solitude

On Sunday, January 13th the New York Times ran a very interesting article about the value of working alone. In The Rise of the New Groupthink author Susan Cain discusses the need for solitude when tackling creative problems: Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. "Without great solitude, no serious work is possible," Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.

As someone who has spent a fair amount of time "in solitary confinement" wrestling plot and character to serve the themes of the plays I write, or planning the classes and workshops I teach, I agree that the best creative work often happens alone. I think that is one of the reasons many people have great creative insights and solve thorny problems in the shower: they are alone with their thoughts. No need to make an uncrystallized idea comprehensible to your shampoo bottle or loofah!

In today's world, where we we are hyper-connected, it seems almost heretical to demand the solitude, time, and space needed to create. And though Virginia Woolf was addressing a different set of circumstances when she said a woman needs "a room of one's own" to write, it is still true. Cain's article explains much better than I can the whys and hows of the importance of solitude to creativity and problem-solving.

Even when I am engaged in work that is highly collaborative, like performing in a play, I need to take time to do my homework in order to fully create my character. What I discover while working alone is an essential part of the process of creating the larger work. I need to have something to share with the other actors, to bring to the table. And I can't get everything I need while exploring the script with them in the rehearsal room. Working alone, sitting with my thoughts, uninterrupted, not needing to come to a hasty conclusion because of someone else's timetable is the best way for me to get the nuts 'n bolts work done.
So next time you feel the urge to unplug, disconnect, put the "outside world" on hold while you accomplish a goal, take a deep breath, and just do it!

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