June of 2016 found me lying on a twin-sized daybed on the third floor of an unfinished house in Marquette, Nebraska—a village of 230 whose sole purpose seemed to be the two-step monoculture of corn and soy. Flies slipped through the shoddy screens to explore every available surface. I had pointed a fan directly at myself in an attempt to abate the ninety-degree heat. The room had no real ceiling, just sheets of Styrofoam resting on wood beams, beyond which I could see the rafters in the attic, and in one corner, if I looked up at just the right angle, I could see beyond walls to the blue sky. Half the wood flooring was covered with raw squares of plywood. A hole in the floor allowed me, if I pressed my eye to the opening, to view the bed in the room below mine. At night, the light from the hallway intruded. Privacy was an impossibility. Everyone could hear me tell my boyfriend over the phone, “This place is so weird.”
This was Art Farm. I found myself there almost by accident. In the whirl of applying for jobs and fellowships for post-MFA life, I had included a handful of funded residencies, to which I applied both because I thought I was supposed to and because the idea of escaping from my mundane and hectic everyday life to focus on writing was romantically appealing.
At the beginning, I tried to embrace the sparseness of Art Farm—the alien landscape, the heat that lay on the earth like the hand of an angry god, the rustic living arrangements. Maybe something beautiful would come from the nothingness. I thought of Art Farm as a kind of vision quest, where personal agonies ripped the curtain between consciousness and subconsciousness and the wellspring of creativity would lie before me for the taking.
But a week in, unable to nap in the afternoon heat, I realized that I was discouraged. Discouraged by the loneliness, the heat, the flies, the landscape without anywhere to walk, my fellow artists who I tried, tried talking to. I thought about how I had to drive into town to be around people and air conditioning and normal life. I decided that I needed regular life to steel me against the aloneness of writing, to fuel my creativity, to prop me up for the long, lonely hours at a desk.
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Residencies are highly competitive among writers and other artists, who see them as a refuge, a place apart from everyday life. The idea is you’ll be able to be more productive in a magical place where you can create for weeks on end, without interruption. Composer and writer Jan Swafford wrote about his experience at numerous residencies for Slate in an attempt to illuminate what it’s like to actually be in a sought-after place like Yaddo or MacDowell: “So all day you make art. You are alone with your words or notes or images, your heart and soul and whatnot.” Who doesn’t want that? It sounds perfect. Even now, even after the disaster that was Art Farm, I can easily imagine myself in a castle in Scotland writing all day long.
Of course, artists were not the first to retreat from society to be alone with their work, with their heart and soul and whatnot. Every religion has its ascetics. Some early Christians left human society altogether, living as hermits. Monasteries and nunneries are less extreme expressions of the same principle. Even common believers may take refuge in temporary retreats.
And what of science and other studies? Academia is seen as occupying a privileged space disconnected from everyday life— the “Ivory Tower” even connotes a physical separation. Besides being considered elitist, academics’ research is assumed to be isolated from the practical problems of regular on-the-ground life.
But to what extent do isolation and solitude actually breed creativity or purity or deeper thought?
Colin Wilson’s 1956 book, The Outsider, asserts that creative geniuses (van Gogh, Nietzsche, Kafka) more often than not live as outsiders—separate from everyday life and alienated from their peers. This idea still prevails in Western society: The Outsider has never been out of print, and numerous other books (Quiet) and articles (“Outside Advantage: Can Social Rejection Fuel Creative Thought?”) have focused on the alienation and isolation prevalent in the life of creative types. But there are also those who challenge the idea. A 1995 paper in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth: Toward a Contextual View of Creativity,” argued that individuals can never be entirely separated from social and historical contexts and that “creativity can be sparked by interactions.”
For me, the whole point of Art Farm was the chance to write as much as possible with as few distractions as possible. Biting horseflies are a distraction, I assure you. I began toying with the idea of leaving early. That meant giving up, admitting defeat, not being able to hack it. Damn it, though—I’d given the place a fair chance. I’d been there a week, during which I’d struggled against the isolation, the nothingness, the sparseness, the insect infestations . . . and what I discovered was that the Art Farm’s particular variety of monasticism was not for me.
My boyfriend was flying into Omaha the following weekend, when my two-week Art Farm residency would be at an end. The plan was for me to pick him up at the airport and we’d road trip back to Pittsburgh together. I drove to Omaha a week early and checked into a La Quinta. I felt guilty when I left, but it didn’t take long for that guilt to dissipate. I was still devoting a week to my writing, I reasoned, just in an air-conditioned hotel room. In addition to writing at a small desk connected to the wall, I read and napped and did exercise videos—venturing out only for food. In essence, I attempted to turn all the somethingness of a city (albeit a Nebraskan city) into the nothingness of Art Farm, only without the physical discomfort. It was my own version of a writing residency.
I was physically comfortable in Omaha, but I still felt a deeper discomfort. It took me a couple days to realize that it was loneliness. I had not been touched in a week and a half. And I was in Omaha. A place I did not understand. (No one else seemed to, either. I asked everyone I came in contact with: do you like it here? They shrugged their shoulders or said not really.)
I’d taken long trips before, but they were usually with, or to visit, someone I knew. I’d moved to a new city alone, but I was creating a space, building a life. I’d spent a summer in Florence, but I felt connected to the landscape and all the new people around me. In Omaha, I had none of that.
Mind you, I did come back with writing that a trusted reader said was “jumping off the page.” But maybe the difficulty of my surroundings wasn’t necessary for that. In fact, the chapter my reader liked best was the one I wrote back at home, immersed again in everyday life. “I want you to always write like this,” she said.
Solitude and breaks from normal life are important for creative people. But maybe a residency’s intense period of seclusion doesn’t need to be the only model. What if an hour or a weekend stolen from an otherwise full life were more productive?
In other words, rather than needing to be completely isolated or completely immersed in society, maybe we need both: periods of solitude and periods of close contact with the society of others. Even Buddha came back to a life of sorts, to teach others detachment. Scientists who don’t apply theory to real-world situations have only untested ideas and possibilities.
Thoreau, the American poster boy for isolated living, wasn’t actually alone at Walden Pond. He lived within a twenty-minute walk of his home—a walk he made multiple times a week, Kathryn Schulz says, “lured by his mother’s cookies or the chance to dine with friends.” What’s wrong with Thoreau’s needing both solitude and connection? Sure, he misled readers to think that he was in complete isolation, that he did not, in fact, need others, but that’s a matter for scholars to parse out. Besides, I don’t know about Thoreau, how he felt about his shiftiness, but my conscience is clear. I was hot, bored, bitten, itchy, unable to work. So I left.
A word on comfort. Amazing things can come from physical and emotional and mental discomfort. But comfort is good, too. The comfort of a full life, a pleasant space to live and work in, the love and support of others. A comfortable bed that doesn’t hurt your back. A room of one’s own, preferably with finished walls and air conditioning and pest control. Maybe the ordinary aggravation and stresses of everyday life are enough for a writer of my type. Maybe a little solitude, alone with my thoughts at my desk, or in my car, or in a crowd, is enough.