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A private process

The most creative thinking occurs during time spent alone, not from collaboration.

Last Wednesday night, I was alone.

Ostensibly, the mere fact of being by myself was nothing notable. Even though colleges inherently have a higher density of people than most places, students—myself included—are often alone: in Reg cubicles, in our rooms, in transit.

But this alone had a different quality to it—I felt locked into my own world, my energies shaped by the issues of the task at hand. It was my first time working at Midway Studios by myself. I was finishing up an art project for my Visual Language class, with nothing but the music from my iPod seeping into my mind and the fragments of artwork strewn about to keep me company. It was a kind of “alone-ness” that stuck with me, that forced me to acknowledge a troubling fact that’s been slowly creeping into my consciousness: Creatively, I’ve experienced a drastic downturn since coming to college. In high school, I would go to class during the day and go home and write or draw liberally in the privacy of my own space. And it wasn’t until this night at the studio that I realized that this decrease in creative productivity might be related—even beyond the obvious fact that I have a lot of other obligations occupying my time now—to the amount of time I dedicate to actually being alone.

Everything creative I produced in high school was done independently. Occasionally, I would ask a few close friends for their feedback on various projects—after I had already finished them. That’s not to say, though, that I haven’t written or drawn in college. In fact, I’ve written quite a lot, and now that I’m taking my first art course here, I’ve also completed a few pieces of artwork. Somehow, though, it’s not quite the same. Here, there’s the constant pressure that I’m writing or painting for someone else, and often there really is another set of eyes, or many sets of eyes, watching me and offering feedback as I work. When there’s so much pressure, I find myself resistant to even starting something new. I recently created and tried to maintain a public blog—after years of writing anonymously on various private online journals—and I just couldn’t keep it up.

Since then, I’ve begun to wonder whether college is both an initiation into independence and interdependence, into a kind of social fabric that takes hold of one’s attention and doesn’t let go. A particular statement, the first line of a recent New York Times article (“The Rise of the New Groupthink”) keeps coming back to me: “Solitude is out of fashion.”

Solitude is out of fashion.

I’m struck by just how well that statement encapsulates the culture and the mentality of our time. Consider, for one, just how often “must work well in groups” appears in the list of requirements for a job opening in pretty much every field imaginable. In the classroom, external critique is increasingly encouraged during the process of writing and creating something, rather than being offered only post-completion. On the Internet, any comment can be “liked” or “up-voted,” or conversely ridiculed and “down-voted.” Post a new profile picture, but nobody’s commented? The message is clear: It’s probably poorly shot, unattractively posed, or just plain boring. Next time, then, you’ll find a better one—more vivid colors, a more flattering angle, a more outrageous facial expression. We live in a culture of nonstop external critique; it’s become vital for us to know whether or not each joke we tell or comment we make is worthy of public admiration, and that, in turn, shapes what we’re producing. And this is a great tool—to a certain extent.

The idea implied by all this focus on collaborative skills is that we can accomplish greater things in greater frequency when we work together. The product, when there’s more feedback during the actual creative process, is somehow inherently better. That’s why tools like brainstorming sessions and group meetings exist. But the problem is that, as the Times piece points out, “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

When there’s external critique involved in the process, it’s more likely that the product will have greater appeal to a wider audience. But I have to ask myself: Is that always what I want? One of the most celebrated poets of all time, Emily Dickinson, was radically private—not in the sense that she was a social recluse (a common misconception), but with regard to her creative process. Aside from a few of her very closest confidants, Dickinson’s work was rarely read or critiqued by anyone but herself. In her prolific career, she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, fewer than a dozen of which were published while she was alive. What emerged from Dickinson’s posthumously published body of work was the most inimitable voice of a generation, largely untouched by public perception.

So whether it’s a work of art or simply a problem that calls for an innovative solution, there’s something about creative tasks that just calls out for solitude. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about public opinions of my work—sometimes, when I’m stuck, an outside perspective will be just the thing I need. But when I’m deep in the process of working out a thorny issue that demands all of my creative focus? I just don’t want to hear it.

Emily Wang is a second-year in the College majoring in English.

  • David Crespo

    There was a new book out last month on this very topic called Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. (http://www.dianasenechal.com/book.html)

    That it wasn’t mentioned at all in Susan Cain’s article makes me wonder whether she considers the author a competitor. Reasonably so, I guess: there are only so many books about solitude in education any one person is willing buy.

    • David Crespo

      “Willing to buy,” I meant.