A Little Solitude Is A Powerful Thing: A Room Of One's Own, Even For A Week

Portrait of Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Viginia Woolf, one of my favorite writers. Image via Wikipedia

Silence. Solitude. Space.

These are three of the most prized commodities anyone creative — hell, anyone — can enjoy. In a culture packed with buzzing, beeping distractions, one that races all the time at top speed and scoffs at those slowpokes who dawdle, having a calm, quiet, private physical space to oneself, with only the hum of the fridge, the rumble (in New York today) of the snowplow or the wind in the trees is a great luxury.

We tend to pity those who live alone, imagining them sad and dreary, pining for company and amusement. Many who live solo, in fact, deeply prize their privacy and quiet.

I’ve been on my own for a whole week, my partner away on business. I’ll join him tomorrow, but oooooh the luxury of not having to clean up or cook or tidy up or be civilized for a while. Feels good to be feral.

Last night I devoured an entire book, “Drive”, by Daniel Pink. Turned off the TV, wasn’t enjoying lively conversation, wasn’t worried about dinner. Just read non-stop, gulping it down.

As many know, it was Virginia Woolf, lecturing to university women, who suggested that every woman needs her own money and a room of her own in order to create.

She’s right. A woman seen to be ignoring the needs of her loved ones is often considered a selfish, wretched demon, no matter how divided she feels between what new work she needs to create and what she has already chosen — family — to create. It’s no wonder some of the world’s most highly creative women eschew marriage and motherhood to get on with their own work, uninterrupted, unharried, undistracted by the jammy hands and dirty socks of people they might adore but whose relentless needs also take up a lot of time and energy.

One of my favorite women creators, whose invention — ironically — helps check the health of newborn babies, was someone who never married, Columbia University physician Dr. Virginia Apgar, for whom the test is named. Her dream, as a devoted amateur aviatrix, was to fly under the George Washington Bridge.

Read any issue of any women’s magazine aimed at those with partners and children, and you’ll find an article on carving out a bit of time and space for yourself. A woman wanting to be alone, like Greta Garbo, is seen as a little odd.

Maybe she’s just…thinking.

Appointment Radio, On Today — Studio 360

Cover of "Creative Mind"
Cover of Creative Mind

Have you heard of — or heard — Studio 360? It’s broadcast on 145 local stations, (listed on their website), and is hosted by Kurt Andersen, a former magazine editor and author, whose voracious notion of culture informs the material. I live near New York City so I’ll listen to it today on WNYC, 93.9, where my dial is always tuned anyway, at 11:00 a.m.

I know, I know, the whole idea of “appointment” media is so old-school. Podcasts are it. Not for me. I love the idea of hunkering down for an uninterrupted hour, at a set time, to focus completely on an intelligently-chosen and interestingly-presented set of ideas and arguments. Today, at 1:00 pm., for example, you can hear the show at WGCU in Fort Myers, FL and at 3:00 p.m. on WKCC in Kankakee, IL and KAJX in Aspen or KPUB in Flagstaff.

For years, it was broadcast here at 10:00 a.m. Saturdays and my weekend began with it. I grew up in a family of people who earned their living from their creativity: my father made documentary films and television series; my mother was a broadcaster and journalist and my stepmother wrote and edited television scripts. So I grew up knowing — unlike the common fantasy that you wake up divinely inspired all the time — that being creative is sometimes sloggingly hard work, and earning a decent living from it, is even more challenging in a larger culture that worships at the shrine of Wall Street.

The show’s motto is “Inside the Creative Mind”, and every week — from cartoonists to film-makers to musicians to playwrights — it delves into every aspect of culture. Not, thank God, pop culture, although that also gets the occasional nod. Studio 360 instead heads into deeper, sometimes darker territory, thanks to Andersen and his producers, who come from Kansas, Chicago and Copenhagen, among other places.

It’s ironic how little attention we pay — in a “knowledge economy” — to where ideas come from, how they develop and what we do with them. I love this show for reminding us of the centrality of creativity.

Garrets Don't Work

Williams Attic
Image by tantrum_dan via Flickr

I was flattered to be interviewed recently by Meredith Resnick, whose blog focuses on writers’ process and creativity. I told her I think writers who hole up in a garret, in a world where self-promotion is (for better for worse) essential to commercial success, are toast. But so are people who focus primarily or exclusively on “fame” instead of trying — and sometimes failing, as we all do — to produce something of value.

If you’re interested, the Q and A is here.

Why Success Is Like an Iceberg

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, USA
Image via Wikipedia

I went to the Museum of Modern Art today. I live near New York City and, for my mental health, try to take a hooky day once a week to surgically detach from the computer so my brain doesn’t just feel like a cow at the milking machine. I don’t really love MOMA: I’m not wild about much modern art, there are always way too many tourists, and people race through the galleries rushing toward…the bathroom? the store? So many people don’t even look at the art.

But a show of theatrical drawings and paintings left a powerful impression — as so many of them were for productions that, de facto, were not productions because they were never produced. No one, other than those who commissioned them, saw them. The cynic may say, “So what? The artists got paid.” But the point of art, or creation, is to share it with an audience, isn’t it?

And what amazing talent was devoted to the backdrops and sets for these unsung, unseen plays and musicals and ballets: Marc Chagall, Ben Shahn, Georg Grosz, Robert Delaunay. I wonder if they went home fed up and worn out from being hired to work on things no one ever got the chance to appreciate. Or, as working artists, if it paid the rent or bought some new clothes, it was just one more bit of welcome income.

It made me see these legendary artists in a whole new light. They, too, (as I have and many of my friends and colleagues have, in various media) worked hard on some projects that died a premature death, only now brought to light thanks to a curator’s decision to share them with a wider public.

I think success, whatever the medium, is like an iceberg. We focus all our attention, our praise or scorn, only on the visible, gleaming final 10 percent — never the invisible 90 percent, the efforts that didn’t work, the ideas that didn’t sell, lying beneath it, as much as part of the mass as that which we do know about. We only see a tiny bit of what anyone really produces. It may not be their best, or most innovative work, just what sold at that moment.

I recently attended a conference where graphic designer Michael Bierut explained the development of signage for a children’s museum. He projected photos of his sketchbooks so we could watch the progression and refinement of his ideas. It was so lovely, and so unusual, to share the intimacy of process. Writer Anne Hull, a much admired feature writer at The Washington Post, once shared early drafts of a story with some of us attending the Nieman writers’ conference, a brave move. It was helpful and inspiring to see how many self-flagellating drafts she put her copy through. By the time most of us read it, who knew?

I always want to peer behind the curtain. I used to write a lot about ballet, and have sat in on class for the Royal Danish Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. I’ve seen, and appreciated seeing, the underlying sweat and effort, not just the spotlit perfection of opening night. I want to see and hear about the ideas that didn’t make it, and why not. Failure is relative, and success is impossible without it. Our failures are crucial to our success(es), no matter how quickly they come. No one never fails.

But we often keep our failures hidden, discussion of them taboo.