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Solitude and Community

April 28, 2011 | Westbeth Center for the Arts | New York City

With Lewis Hyde, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, Shin Kyung-Sook, and Cheryl Young; curated by Joshua Wolf Shenk and Dr. M. Gerard Fromm

LISTEN | Download the mp3

Art-making demands quiet, solitude—perhaps even loneliness. Yet, the literary imagination also thrives in community. How do writers negotiate these competing needs, for the pure aloneness in which a singular voice may emerge and for the solace and creativity of conversation and exchange? Listen in on a workshop in which individual artists come together with representatives of creative communities to conceive and articulate the path to harmonious negotiation of these dual needs. Moderated by the essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk and Dr. M. Gerard Fromm, Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research at the Austen Riggs Center.

The following statement was issued by participants at the conclusion of this workshop.

How do artists reconcile solitude and community? To start, we recognize the tension. Our quiet, private moments of creation are inextricably connected to a social reality. Without grasping this paradox, we risk missing the fruits of solitude and community alike. We must brave the forbidding open spaces in our own imagination. We must also plunge headlong into total relatedness. For the artist, there is no middle way. We must encounter the extremes.

How can we be alone? We can remove ourselves from distractions. Put our phones in the sock drawer. Find a cabin in the woods. We may need total silence. We may need the hum of a coffee shop. We may need our loved ones in the next room, or in the next town. We may need to pretend that they have died, that we have been left all alone to testify.

We must be patient. Our honest voices, so long muffled on crowded subway trains, or hushed by anxious critics, may be shy and slow to emerge. When we get the space we crave, we may fall into depression. We may find the tension unbearable. With patience, and diligence, release will come. It may come in an explosion. It may hiss from us through a steady valve. It may feel more like surrender than triumph; more capitulation than mastery. We may feel like the truck driver of Gary Snyder’s poem, the one who rises earlier than students of Zen, and who finds, in the end:

Thirty miles of dust

There is no other life.

How can we find community? We might take a class—or teach one. We might meet every Monday for breakfast, or every third Wednesday via Skype, to read our work aloud, or just to just gossip. We might go to a residency. We should be clear about what we want from our fellows—clear on what we can give.

We should remember our heroes were not alone. Even Emily Dickinson had her correspondents. Joseph Heller had Robert Gottleib. C.S. Lewis had J.R.R. Tolkien, and vice-versa. Pablo Picasso required the diligent services of two servants and his tireless wife just to persuade him to rise from bed. Many collaborators, co-conspirators have been forgotten by history, or deliberately neglected, but we cannot neglect the dynamics of mutuality that pervade all our great works of art.

How can we connect solitude and community?

We might imagine it as a circle. If we push honestly and vigorously into solitude, we may find the truth that allows us to come into relation with others. And if we come into honest relation with others, we may find the fortitude and courage to go out further on our own. We must learn to negotiate the extremes—the vertigo of falling headlong into total relatedness and the vast open space of our interior, where the strangest and clearest images rise up before us, to be seen through like water.

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