“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
- John Donne
Solitude can be vital to the creative process. It’s the place where, in the words of Ingmar Bergman, you are “thrown back on yourself,” exploring the vastness of inner worlds and imagination. One can easily imagine the genius of the great composers blooming in the quiet, uninterrupted nights of their old music rooms. But, as any artist knows, there can be times when staring into the abyss becomes an all-consuming nightmare. This is perhaps the strangest paradox of creatives; aloneness is their best friend, until it becomes their worst enemy.
A 2014 Harvard study into the effects of leaving people in isolation revealed that many people, when stripped of external stimuli, fall into downward spirals of self-defeating thought patterns. In fact, when the study asked participants to spend 6 to 15 minutes in complete solitude, a large majority opted to self-administer electric shocks rather than be alone with their thoughts.
With the rise of technology leading to an unprecedented increase in bedroom producers and musicians working from home, isolation has the potential to become even more of a challenging horizon for the arts community, and with global studies showing artists to have over three times the regular rates of depression and anxiety, it’s worth navigating the fine line between necessary creative solitude, and getting lost in the void.
For many artists, creating in solitude is entirely healthy, they’re content with their own company, but for others, the void can sometimes become an unhealthy reality. For the times when isolation becomes deafening, the key may lie in finding a balance between the closet and the community.
Stop, Collaborate and Listen
Last year, the NZ Music Commission brought Australian psychologist Chris Stevens to Auckland to present an illuminating seminar titled ‘Surviving the Music Industry’. At one point in the night, Chris turned his attention to the myth of the introverted creative. He suggested that “the introverted, isolated creative withers, and his art quickly becomes irrelevant and arcane.”
His solution? Networking, collaboration, and generosity.
Stevens suggests that holding on tightly to our creative process sometimes robs us of the richness of sharing it with others. Sharing your art with other creatives is a terrifying prospect at the best of times, but it may provide an opportunity for some helpful advice, an objective perspective, or that extra magic that only an outside opinion can offer.
Sylvia Mosiany suggests that sometimes “creators need to be in contact with other people since no one person has the solutions to everything. Working with others helps strengthen ideas.”
Think of it this way: art is a conversation. An idea speaks to the artist, and they try and communicate it to the outside world. Collaboration is the art of adding more voices into the mix to create a dialogue that’s far more compelling that an introverted, one-sided commentary.
Start in Private, Finish in Public.
Back in 1926, the social psychologist and economist Graham Wallas published his groundbreaking book The Art of Thought. In it the proposed a four-staged process for the creative act:
Preparation: An all-immersive research and development stage, where the creative problem is explored from all angles, both consciously and unconsciously.
Incubation: Where, armed with information from your preparation, you enter a period of unconscious processing, exerting no effort and letting your mind wander through the problem.
Illumination: The ‘A-ha!’ moment, where creative inspiration strikes.
While the first three stages of Wallas’ process seem to favour a degree of isolation (try day-dreaming in a crowded pub), he ends his process with a fourth stage; Verification, where your inspired solution or work of art is then brought before others for affirmation, improvement and even critique.
It seems that Wallas was suggesting that our creativity can sometimes risk losing its objectivity when totally completed in isolation. With the four stages, he provides a great framework for doing the hard yards behind closed doors, but getting across the finish line with some company. The trick is not to avoid solitude – after all, it’s in the self-seeking quiet that the creative spark shines – but, to open a few windows once the muse has arrived.
Lean on your Community
Once you’ve stepped out of the dark studio, community is often the breath of fresh air you need the most - if only for the company or the affirmation of a hard day’s work. When you’ve spent long days locked inside searching for that perfect bridge, it may just be a quiet drink with a few friends that provides the refueling of your creative tank. These faithful friends aren’t usually found hanging around your bedroom, or even working the same schedule as you, but finding an intentional way to fold community time into your schedule can often be just the thing for your mental health.
I’ll leave the final word to Joe Faris, one of the producers in our community, and the brainchild behind Ezra Vine’s ‘Celeste’:
How do you stay sane working alone?
Take walks, call a friend, bring people into your environment so you’re not always by yourself, collaborate.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a bedroom producer?
Don’t do what everybody else is doing and don’t try to do it all by yourself. Having people around you to work with can free you up to be good at one job instead of ten jobs. It’s a huge ask to be writing a great melody, while balancing the low end, while coming up with a perfect bass part, while running your Instagram, while booking the next tour.
Being an artist can be a lonely job, how do you combat isolation?
I have a studio in Kingsland at Parachute Studios, so I’m no longer isolated, but I worked that way for a good 5 years or so and I can’t count the times I nearly quit just because there was no-one there to help you through a sticky melody or to tell you when your groove sucks and you need to trash it and make a better one. Energy gets low when you’re solo. Don’t be solo.