The Art of Being Alone

New York Magazine recently ran an article titled How to Spend Time Alone, in which a collection of writers muse about the pleasure of solitude in the midst of Manhattan’s masses.  As rare as it is for anyone to be physically alone in New York City, it is still possible to feel alone on the subway or when asking for a table for one.  In fact, perhaps because of the city’s crowds, these moments of perceived solitude are simultaneously delicious and awkward.  No one wants to look like they are alone, but most people need time away from others in order to decompress and think. 

The article contains some ideas about where to find this time alone: wear headphones so that no one talks to you, check into a hotel, go to a bar when it is too early for most people to drink, head up to the top of the Empire State Building at 2:00 a.m., etc. 

 Almost alone at the UICA Theater in Grand Rapids

Almost alone at the UICA Theater in Grand Rapids

Most of the ideas are things I could have thought of on my own, but what I find interesting is the fact that there are enough people seeking a break from the frenzy of togetherness (without the embarrassment of being seen alone) to justify such an article. 

The cliché of the loner artist is a tired one, and many artists don’t fit neatly into it, but this craving for solitude is especially common among creative people.  Ideas need a gestation period in order to develop fully, and the womb-like safety of isolation allows for that growth.  The many talented writers and artists who withdrew from society (Thoreau, Dickinson, Van Gogh, etc.) are evidence for this, as are the many artists who wrote about the value of solitude. Picasso is often quoted as saying, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”  And, indeed, it is hard to imagine a large committee coming up with the principles of cubism and voting to put them into action.*

 Pablo Picasso,  Girl Before a Mirror,  1932, Oil on canvas

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, Oil on canvas

 Pablo Picasso,  La Lecture,  1932, Oil on canvas

Pablo Picasso, La Lecture, 1932, Oil on canvas

As the article in New York Magazine makes clear, however, there is stigma in being seen alone.  The loner artist cliché is romantic, in theory, but few of us actually want to be mistaken for one of these rarefied hermits.  Two of the writers for the magazine, identical twins and collaborative artists Kirk Mueller and Nate Mueller, wrote their own separate accounts (the full versions of which are available here) of the experience of eating alone in a restaurant, something they had never done before.  Kirk’s account is telling in that his experience made him anxious at first but then, as he sat there alone, he began to think creatively.  He wrote:

The place was completely full, so I sat at the bar; I don’t think I would like sitting alone at a table, which feels very much like you’re waiting for someone else to come. I asked for kimchee ramen with chicken, and as I sat there waiting for my food to come, I realized I had to entertain myself. So I took out my phone and started skimming an article until it struck me that it looks weird to be alone at the bar on your phone; it felt like people were watching me. So I put the phone away and started people-watching myself, focusing on all these minute details. I made up stories about the people I saw eating, and I’d look at people on dates and watch their micro-expressions, the way they laughed at jokes. (Is the one person more into it than the other?) It was fun, and I ended up staying for about 45 minutes.

When the check came, I realized that nobody was judging me for eating ramen alone. Everyone’s wrapped up in their own lives. And I actually enjoyed being in the moment and noticing things I had never noticed before. I definitely would like to do it again – maybe a couple of times a year.
— Kirk Mueller

Once Mueller put away his phone and started looking around, his next impulse was to begin creating stories about the people around him.  Maybe this isn’t surprising; Mueller is already an artist and presumably a naturally creative person.  He and his brother are creative in almost every aspect of their lives.  But would he have come up with those same stories about the people around him if he had stayed on his phone or become wrapped up in a conversation of his own?

The great French artist Delacroix was a resolute believer in the value of solitude, and he wrote about the topic in his diary.  He also wrote about the problem of distractions.  Being a man of the nineteenth century he didn’t write about using his phone as a distraction, as both of the Mueller twins did, but his thoughts on the topic are all the more relevant today when distraction is only one swipe of the finger away.  Delacroix wrote:

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordained life will bring, of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses which other people’s society entails, of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.
— Eugene Delacroix
 Eugene Delacroix,  Orphan Girl at the Cemetery,  c. 1823-1824, Oil on canvas

Eugene Delacroix, Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, c. 1823-1824, Oil on canvas

The emptiness that drives us to seek distraction is something we have to experience temporarily before we can enter the fertile grounds of creative solitude.  Both the fear of appearing to be alone and the boredom of having no one to talk to can block us from entering this place of productive seclusion.  Technology, social media, and crowded city spaces also conspire to stop us from entering it.  Nevertheless, given how many great artists have sought out private spaces to think and create, it seems that this is a challenge worth taking on.

*Picasso did work alongside other artists, most notably Braque, who were interested in the same ideas, but some of his most generative work was done in solitude.