Why I am a Hermit (When I’m not on Twitter, Facebook or the Blogosphere)

I wish, for the sake of the discussion, I could tell you that my daily schedule is as follows:

5:00am: Wake up. Hike to a neighboring mountain summit where I write by hand for seven hours with nothing but trees and lakes and triple rainbows in view.

Noon: Return to an empty house where I eat my lunch while reading Dickinson and Thoreau. I occasionally chuckle to myself, marveling at their ability to create in isolation.

1:00pm: Nap

3:00pm: Hike to a neighboring stream where I write until dinner, at which point I catch fish with a fishing pole made out of a beech tree branch, loose thread unraveling from the inseam of my jeans and a paperclip.

8:00pm: After contemplating the sunset and the numerous constellations for which I have made up names, I go to sleep and dream about the next great novel I will write.

But a wonderful wife, four fun kids with their baseball and their ballet, friends, and church keep me from becoming a recluse. Also to my disadvantage: the fact that I have no paperclips in the house.

There is something idealistic about the artist creating alone. Perhaps this stereotype is what fuels my muse so strongly late at night, when the house is quiet, when everyone is sleeping, and for the first time all day the only thing I can hear are the voices in my head.

I think I crave solitude because that’s when the production happens, that’s when the creation takes place, that’s when the part of life I enjoy nearly as much as anything else is allowed to happen. Stories are imagined and told when I am alone, not when I’m Tweeting or coaching baseball or chatting with friends at a backyard barbeque.

* * * * *

Jen’s infamous Tweet that got this discussion started went something like this:

@jenluit One can’t write (or create) without having a communal experience

I’m still not sure that I agree with that statement. “Can’t” is a word that gets my hackles up. My craving for solitude (and infamous inability to work in a team environment) reject “communal experiences.” Yet as much as it pains me to admit it, my own life seems a perfect proof of that little phrase:

In the mornings my social media exploits serve to jostle my mind into position, much like a dog’s endless turnings before finally lying down.

The beautiful feeling of solitude I get late at night would not feel so necessary if not for the days overstuffed with life.

Often, day after day of writing in solitude eventually launches me to a café where I write, absorbing Over the Rhine through my headphones, my fingers racing…and I’m surrounded by the silly, irrelevant activity of strangers.

I guess what I’m trying to say is,

I want to be alone, but on my own terms.

What about you? Solitude or community?

For part one of this debate argument discussion, check out Jennifer Luitwieler’s “Community or Isolation”

For part two, visit Kristin Tennant at Halfway to Normal for “Living Stories Together, Writing Alone”

(Be sure to tune in here tomorrow to share your most-read blog post of May. No cash prizes this month: only fame and glory).

47 Replies to “Why I am a Hermit (When I’m not on Twitter, Facebook or the Blogosphere)”

      1. No way. I wrote once about “shoulds” and how they kill our desire. You’ll run when you’re ready to run. No guilt from me, man.

  1. “The beautiful feeling of solitude I get late at night would not feel so necessary if not for the days overstuffed with life.” – Nailed it! I’m also a busy father who is involved in church, small group, friends’ lives, etc. and I crave solitude a lot. When I was single, I struggled with loneliness. I think I have both grown as a person, but life definitely changed my perspective on alone time as well. Great response post!

    1. It’s all these darn little people in my house!

      Whenever my wife goes to her mom’s house and takes the kids, leaving me at home for an extended period of time, the first 24 hours are great. After that I start wasting more time than I ever thought humanly possible.

  2. I spend a lot of time dreaming of more time to myself, and sometimes, when I don’t make that space, I find myself quite testy with others. But usually, I’m with you, Shawn. I find myself refortified by my time with people, and then I find great pleasure and energy when I write alone.

  3. Two things: (other than that I love this post)

    First–I remember something Pat Conroy said about writing–he said he spends 8 hours working a day–four hours reading and four hours writing. This sounds like a beautiful set up to me, but my initial response was something like, “What a freakin’ luxury…some people have the greatest life. Eight hours ALONE a day???”

    Second–I’m rereading -Bird by Bird- right now and I think Lamott would argue for writing in communities. There’s a great chapter (“Looking Around”) where she basically discusses the responsibility/calling of the writer to create cathartic moments for readers. She writes, “Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what’s going on.” Unless I’m communicating something about chipmunks, falling leaves, or moonlight…this almost requires one to be “in the mix.” I’d prefer not to be, frankly, but …maybe this is the thing. Writers have this heightened sense of…well, everything, which makes the observance of much of life overwhelming… and that makes solitude a calming, safe place.

    1. That Pat Conroy sounds like smart man.

      You sound like a smart person as well, since Bird By Bird is one of my favorite books of all time. And you’re right – Anne (notice the first name basis), in spite of hermitess traits, does seem to emphasize community quite a lot. Her fiction also does this, talking a lot about the lonely individual surrounded by community.

  4. You described me very well here. I want solitude when I want it, and I want communion with others when I want it, and I don’t want either when I don’t want them. Which makes me a hard person to live with. I definitely agree that each one necessitates the other. I need my time with friends to talk and experience life and be understood and be misunderstood (and the same online), and that drives me then to write, to describe and capture those experiences and also to fill in the gaps they leave in a full experience of life.

  5. I have fantasized about those luxurious days alone. But that’s not was I was given, so apparently, the noise of a family of seven is best for me.

    I was just thinking that I have more online friends than I do real life friends. My online friends are more likely to be that supportive community than my real life ones — simply because I can find writers easily, whereas in real life, I have to pretend, sometimes, to be interested in their lives.

    I catch myself, even with people around me, being so caught up in my story or my article that I’m not mentally engaged. I suppose if I stopped doing this, my real life friendships would improve, huh?

    1. This whole concept of an online writing community has become very real to me in the last year, since I started blogging.

      As far as being distracted…that is the number one thing my wife and I spend time “discussing” – my distractedness.

  6. Great thoughts, Shawn!!!

    I learn best in the community of me, myself and I : )

    I can take an idea and run with it on my own … but I have trouble coming up with new ideas outside of interacting with others, learning from their experiences and being challenged by the uniqueness God has placed in them.

  7. how do you even function after seeing a triple rainbow? I think I would literally liquify at the mere sight of it!

  8. Ok. Now I’m ready. When I wrote that an artist “can’t” create in a void, what I mean is that we live in a world of distractions, even of the best sort. Even your above post shows that while you may spend time writing alone your life is peopled with…people. Even at the cafe, you are surrounded by others, and I have a hard time believing that the writer in you is not observing their behaviors, mannerisms.

    I meant that our solitary creating time is still informed by those we engage with, by choice or otherwise. Even Dickinson and Thoreau lived lives of human interaction, though at periods they were more reclusive than at other times they still had people around them, loving them, encouraging them, challenging them.

    So, it seems we are saying the same thing: we want to be alone on our own terms, and sometimes for different reasons. Besides, our relationships, our perspective of the world, is what gives us the ingredients for our stories.

    1. That’s kind of where I was coming with in my response on Twitter today that there is no such thing as a void. Even if I moved into the mountains and lived alone, there would still be human influence, if only in the books I took with me or the planes that flew overhead. In a true void we would have no sensory experience, and in that type of void I can agree that no creation would take place…except by God. Which makes him or her so amazing.

  9. Tremendous! Most writers need a degree of isolation; however, it varies from writer to writer. Some writers required more solitude (e.g. H.D.Thoreau, R.W.Emerson, Ezra Pound…etc.) while others thrived on the sharpening that comes from community (e.g. C.S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde…etc.) Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    P.S. I’m noticing a LOT of runners are also bloggers….coincidence???

  10. I need solitude, but I find myself questioning the quality of the solitude I seek. I feel a little guilty that I live in a place surrounded by natural beauty (Tioga County, PA) yet my hour of quiet is often spent right here on this computer at my kitchen table, gazing out at my small suburban back yard. But this is therapy too, the luxury of being able to take a few minutes to parse a thought, to think about something important, especially after eight hours of only dealing with crisis after crisis, which is how I make a living. I guess the seven day stretch I just worked, dealing with multiple fatalities and near fatalities, makes me consider seriously that periods of solitude are critical to my own well being.My writing comes out of quiet, and my writing helps me put things in perspective so they don’t haunt my sleep.

  11. I thrive off of community. I gain joy, inspiration, love, and meaning from others and what they pour into my life.

    But solitude is a like a furnace of tranformation where everything that community pours into me is purified and crafted through meditation and silence.

    I need both solitude and community for either of them to be beneficial.

    P.S. I’m not a runner. I loathe running.

    1. Even though you thrive off of community, I find the fact that you are not a runner thought-provoking and brilliant.

  12. For the first time in years I am living alone and at times I think I am enjoying it too much. While I do like spending time with my friends, there are times when I say no to a get together just to stay home alone. I have a drawer full of ideas for blog posts but I do have trouble sitting down to just write and not get distracted by my dogs or the birds outside or whatever!

  13. I love how you started this, and how your “dream day” made me feel. You see, when I was in college I desperately *wanted* to be the sort of person who would hike alone up a mountain and write in my journal all day—it’s an idealistic stereotype, for sure. But the reality is that the thought of a whole day like that gives me hives! Part of “growing up” has involved accepting that part of who I am.

    As you know, I spend a good portion of every day alone—I’m a freelance writer, so it’s part of the gig! And when I don’t have that time alone, I do get grumpy. But right now, for instance, I’m sitting on my front porch, where I can see neighbors working in their yards, people walking dogs, students biking to campus. Even if I’m not interacting with them I am connected to their stories, which feeds my imagination and my stories.

  14. I agree with “can’t” because I only get inspired through community. If I’m not inspired, then there’s nothing to create.

    But I also agree with you that solitude is the only environment that I can really be creative in.

    So I guess I need to be around people just long enough to get inspired and then I’m outta’ there!

  15. While I can see your problem with “can’t” (I balk at absolutes myself), I will say that I’m better off creating with people than on my own. I think it’s primarily due to my creative background being primarily in music. That’s a place where my most creative moments DEFINITELY happen in a group. When I really started to focus on writing as well, a lot of those tendencies came with me. It’s rare that I don’t bounce an idea off of someone before I start writing about it.

    1. You’re just friends of those other two girls. You’re opinion is negated by that fact. Sorry, Alise!

      In other news, that is a fascinating thought, that different types of art facilitate different creative processes, some more or less solitary than others.

  16. Two books I’ve found very helpful, talking about the varying need for solitude in different humans.

    1. The Introvert Advantage
    2. Introverts in the Church

    1. Thanks Dave. Good to see you over here. I’ll have to look into those books. The Introvert Advantage sounds interesting.

  17. Great thoughts, Shawn! I’m tweaking your words: I want to be in community, but on my own terms.

    I love sharing my life with others. I’d much rather hike, watch a movie, eat, go to a show, drink coffee with someone else than do it alone. I could read and write for hours by myself (really, the only way I can properly do these things) but then I’m antsy, craving interaction.

    At the same time, I don’t want to be around people ALL the time. I’m exhausted after interacting with patients and families all day. There has to be a buffer of silence before I am fit to talk to friends and family.

  18. I need a bit of both when I write – too much of either messes me up though.

  19. I often joke that I wish I could take a month off, live in a cabin alone, and do nothing but drink coffee and write and read all the stuff in my “to read” pile. But no, I’d probably go crazy after a week and a half… and I’m definitely an introvert!

    Finding the balance between the two is hard. I suppose you just have to know your limits and needs, and do your best to take care of that. As for me… I’ll be around people and enjoy it, but too much socializing and I get drained and cranky. :)

    Great post! I enjoyed eavesdropping on this debate on Twitter and seeing the follow-ups from all three of you!

  20. I have a friend who did his PhD thesis on how internet communities do function as real communities.

    You may also be interested in the work of Henri Nouwen who notes that solitude is congruent with community. He makes the distinction between being lonely and aloneness. The aloneness of solitude still keeps us in touch with the core of community found in our relationship with God.

  21. A familiar tension. I crave both. I love working in both. But when I’m truly engaging in community, I cannot write. And when I’m by myself for more than a few hours, I need social interaction or I fall apart.

  22. Hey Shawn!

    I was just wondering last night why it is that just as I get settled into bed, my writing voice becomes VERY loud. I love the solitude of nighttime, when the only threat of interruption is my own, with not another soul to bother my creative thoughts. I really resonated with this line: “The beautiful feeling of solitude I get late at night would not feel so necessary if not for the days overstuffed with life”. As an introvert, I find that writing late at night is a comforting way to dump all of that energy that accumulates during a busy day with four busy kids!

  23. Hey Shawn!

    I was just wondering last night why it is that just as I get settled into bed, my writing voice becomes VERY loud. I love the solitude of nighttime, when the only threat of interruption is my own, with not another soul to bother my creative thoughts. I really resonated with this line: “The beautiful feeling of solitude I get late at night would not feel so necessary if not for the days overstuffed with life”. As an introvert, I find that writing late at night is a comforting way to dump all of that energy that accumulates during a busy day with four busy kids!

  24. Sorry for the double post. Darn sluggish Internet & impatient posting finger.

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