Fortress of Solitude

Julienne Isaacs’s own Fortress of Solitude

Maybe every writer occasionally romanticizes isolation as a catchall remedy for clogged creativity valves.

This summer, bogged down with writer’s block, I removed myself from the city and escaped into the wilderness. Or, more correctly, into a cabin in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park, situated by a stark, lonely lake large enough to swallow a hundred Walden Ponds.

Two weeks alone in the middle of the woods; I fantasized about it ad nauseum. How I’d finally work through all those neglected drafts, hone them into their final forms. How I’d be able to sharpen my writing voice, surrounded by nothing but fresh air and silence.

But here’s what the Whiteshell-cum-Walden taught me: the idealized Fortress of Solitude is not a habitable dwelling, much less a space conducive to writing. It can actually be unbearably lonely. And there are so, so many mosquitos.

My mistake? I was drawing on classic texts from the Isolation Literature corpus—Thoreau, Wallace, Dillard—as how-to guides to getting work done. Problematically, these texts often posit the Writer as some kind of creative outpost, to be distinguished from the rest of the community. It can provide a useful narrative strategy, but the idea that writers work better when they are divorced from society is moribund.

Writers have long been divided on this point—whether or not isolation is a desirable state, whether it lights creative fires or douses them. The answer is necessarily different for everyone.

As a point of order, it’s important to distinguish the writer’s day-to-day need for solitude (while writing) from the myth of the writer’s need for isolation (for extended periods), but in popular syntax the two often get lumped into the same ball of wax.

In an essay in The Atlantic, journalist Joe Fassler argues that artists need solitude in order to do their work, to express the “too much humanity” that overflows every human person, which is the writer’s task to transcribe:

Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can’t run away from yourself. You can’t run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you’re working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

Many Canadian writers are not lacking for the option to physically retreat into this kind of artistic solitude. Rural poets, as poet Molly Peacock asserts in The Puritan, can benefit from isolation, and are able to develop a productive, slow-burning strangeness: “There is still a sense of certain Canadian poets writing in quite a bit of isolation,” she says. “This allows a kind of eccentricity to develop. Not in Toronto but in the rest of the country. The poets who are not writing in urban areas seem to have a sense that the artwork can unfold in a slower way.”

But the writer’s need for physical space and the need to be alone at least as long as it takes to transcribe a thought onto the page have to be distinguished from this still-pervasive myth of the maverick artist, who will do more authentic work if she can do it in a Fortress of Solitude, cut off from the community so as to objectively comment on it.

Maybe this cultural preoccupation with writer-as-outlier stems from the myth of the writer’s essential “otherness” from the general population. As Joyce Carol Oates argued 40 years ago, “Everyone is an artist: he is involved in the effort of creating artifacts of one kind or another which, ultimately, add up to civilization. Conversely, the artist is a perfectly normal and socially functioning individual, though the romantic tradition would have him as tragically eccentric.”

Follow the logic: if the writer is truly other, she has no need for the community. In fact, she can do her work better if she separates herself from it.

Living Deep in the Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude

Lev Grossman was defeated by his Fortress of Solitude

Back when Thoreau was roaming Walden’s woodland cloisters of trees and brooks, he believed that he was cutting himself off from civilization.

“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life,” he wrote.

But living ‘Spartan-like’ in his cabin, he wasn’t cut off from much. As he had no need to stay connected via social media, daily digital news updates, or email, and as he continued to correspond through letters, he was no more limited than his contemporaries in his isolation.

In my cabin in the woods, a generous 24×24 compared to Thoreau’s 10×15, I worked hard at “living deep”—Walden-style. But five days in, already shaky from community withdrawal, I began contemplating jumping ship for the safety of the city. In a text message I walked a quarter-mile to retrieve, swatting at black flies the entire way, a friend wrote, You might find there is satisfaction in simply seeing a plan through. My resolve to stay wavered and held, but the myth of the Fortress of Solitude was crumbling around me.

I’d convinced myself that only if left completely alone could I silence all the voices distracting me and focus on the work of writing. But I’d forgotten that sometimes the distractions themselves spark new ideas. I’d forgotten about the value of the collaborative process in shepherding a work through its final stages. In cutting off any access to other voices, I’d cut off my creative life support.

In a Buzzfeed article entitled “How Not to Write Your First Novel,” the American bestselling author Lev Grossman details his own (failed) experiment in isolation as a baccalaureate intent on writing the Great American Novel somewhere in the rural grandeur of the West:

I genuinely believed that the creative life was the apex of human existence, and that to work at an ordinary office job was a betrayal of that life, and I had to pursue that life at all costs. I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path. And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn’t need other people. Other people were a distraction.

Ultimately, broke and half-insane with loneliness, Grossman cut short his planned year-long retreat from the world at an already unbearably long six months: “I had finally reached the tipping point where the misery of living alone in Maine outweighed the misery of having to admit to myself that it wasn’t working, that I did need other human beings, and that I wasn’t a genius after all.”

The deeper into it you slide, the more isolation quickly loses its gloss and exposes sharp edges set to tear. In the Fortress of Solitude, I found that whole mornings, afternoons, evenings, passed completely alone, began to stack up in piles that tottered and tipped, threatening to throw my inner life off-kilter. The countable short-term tends to pass in bite-sized chunks, but the long-term stretches forever outward. No other voices existed to form boundaries for the limitless sprawl of my own inner monologue.

Some ideas require conversation and cross-pollination in order to grow. And some ideas, left unchecked by reasonable critique, grow beyond all rational proportion.

Rather than subscribing to prescriptive notions about the best conditions for writing, each writer must try to find the balance that works for her or himself, the sweet spot between isolation and overexposure—the compromise that will result in the greatest productivity.

There are plenty of creative compromises that rely on a productive mix of communal engagement and solitude: well-designed writer’s retreats, for example, maximize periods of solitude while bookending individual work with workshops or communal events. Writers’ collectives or guilds, at their best, offer resources to writers for whom solitude is the preferred mode, while also facilitating conversations with the larger community.

Obviously, each writer’s disposition lends itself to preferred working habits. Some writers can handle long stretches of creative isolation. Some would rather drown in the lake.

Why not “debunker” the Fortress of Solitude, and place it within shouting distance of other human dwellings? Even if many writers—myself included—need  a measure of silence and solitude to write a first draft, it takes the proverbial village to make that draft into something worth reading.


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