An Etude to Solitude : Artists Find the Freedom to Go It Alone Generates New Creativity and Ambition

Susan Christian is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Terry Black joked that his ideal mate would be “a woman who travels a lot.”

“We could have a deliriously happy relationship 2 days a week, and then she would be out of town on business trips the other 5,” the Costa Mesa screenwriter said, tongue somewhat in cheek.

He is not alone in his need to be alone.

Newport Beach author Doug Muir can become so enmeshed in his fiction that he neglects friendships. Laguna Nigel poet Susan Hecht enjoys spending secluded weekends hiking in the mountains. Laguna Beach musician Ronald Ravenscroft cited “the inclination to remove one’s self from society” when he is composing.


Whether painting with watercolors or words, creative people share a need for what cannot be shared: solitude. Without it, no great book would have ever been written or sculpture ever sculpted.

Yet pop psychology reveres social interaction almost to the exclusion of equally vital roads to self-fulfillment, Oxford University psychiatrist Anthony Storr complained in his recently released book, “Solitude.”

“Current wisdom assumes that man is a social being who needs the companionship and affection of other human beings from cradle to grave,” the book begins. “It is widely believed that interpersonal relationships of an intimate kind are the chief source of happiness.”

However, Storr noted, many creative geniuses throughout history have led rewarding lives absent of marriage: composer Ludwig van Beethoven, artist Francisco Goya y Lucientes, writer Franz Kafka, physicist Sir Isaac Newton and philosopher Rene Descartes.

“One might argue that people who have no abiding interests other than their spouses and families are as limited intellectually as those who have neither spouse nor children may be emotionally,” he wrote.

The retired professor said in an interview that “our culture has made us feel guilty if we like to be alone.

“We do need interaction with others, but many aspects of one’s self are only discovered in solitude. When we’re with other people, we tend to lose ourselves, to overadjust.”

“Creative people draw inward,” said Black, 34, who wrote the 1988 movie “Dead Heat,” starring Treat Williams. “As a result, you look to your own ideas and examine them more closely than an extroverted person might; any little spark gets attention and has opportunity to flourish. If you are too extroverted, your attention is diffused by all your contacts, and you don’t have that pinpointed focus a creative person has.”

Although a bachelor whose “creativity springs from solitude,” Black said, “I don’t eliminate the possibility of marriage, if the right girl comes along. She would have to be someone who could sympathize with a writer’s odd personal habits. If you know anybody who qualifies, send her my way.”

Married and the father of three, Storr did not hail single life as an intellectual virtue. But he repeatedly stressed in his book his belief that the modern mind-set places far too much importance on matrimony as the ultimate goal.

“Even with the divorce rate as high as it is, we still have this romantic notion that marriage is the happy ending--but it’s really not all that big of a deal,” Storr laughed in the interview.

He attributed this 20th-Century obsession with wedlock to psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s “emphasis on sex as the source of fulfillment.”

“Virtually all the great philosophers in the Western world since the Greeks have been unmarried,” he said. “And the Victorians thought it was rather admirable if you were strong enough and courageous enough to live on your own.

“But today we glorify marriage, as if there were something wrong with not being married. I think that’s very hard on people because not everybody’s suited to marriage. Not everybody needs it or wants it.”

Artist Nixson Borah discovered “a new-found freedom” in the dissolution of his long marriage. Bachelorhood, he said, has allowed him to pursue creative outlets formerly unfeasible--including a move to his downtown Los Angeles loft after living for 25 years in Fullerton.

“I couldn’t have raised my family in this loft,” said the 50-year-old father of two adult children. “We needed a house with doors to shut so that all of us could have our separate spaces.”

“I love the jingle of city life--the pace, the energy, the art openings and concerts to go to. I see the contrasts of our society--Skid Row and skyscrapers--much more vividly than I was conscious of when living in suburbia,” said Borah, who commutes four times a week to teach at Fullerton College.

Muir, 56, a film editor until he began writing suspense novels in 1985, said he could not have afforded his midlife career change were he responsible for a wife and children.

“I tell my students, while you’re still single, get out there and take a gamble,” said Muir, who teaches at Irvine Valley College. “Write that book while you have the freedom to take financial risks; you might not ever get the chance to do it again.”

Rather than viewing her single status as facilitating her writing, Hecht has found that she consumes more time socializing than she did when married.

“People who are married will stay home at night, but when you live alone you’re more apt to want to go out,” the 40-year-old poet said. “So I’m not sure that being married impinged upon my writing; I think it’s always been me.”

Even when married, Hecht sought out large doses of solitude: “I’m probably alone more than a lot of people are and like it more. During my 30s, I devoted some time to validating my need for solitude--I let myself feel OK about it. I was brought up with the attitude that just sitting around and thinking was lazy and unprofitable.

“But I’ve come to realize that creative people have to spend a lot of time daydreaming and looking like they’re doing nothing--that is indeed part of the process.”

Like Hecht, creative people in general take deep pleasure in their own company and thoughts, Storr said. Often they develop their streak of emotional independence while children.

“Quite a number of famous writers were for some reason isolated in childhood, which set them off on the path of using their imagination more than the average,” Storr said. He named Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling as examples of writers who passed much of their young lives in a world apart from their peers.

“I began painting at age 3 because I had severe asthma that made recreational activities difficult,” Borah said. “I wouldn’t wish asthma on any child, but at least it led me to be creative.”

Singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes, who was raised in Anaheim and is acclaimed for her unusual and delicate voice, recalled that she “was not very present in high school.”

“They were pleasant years, but something much more important was occupying my inner life,” she said. “I was planning my breakaway and just watching the clock.

“I have a memory of walking to the bus stop every morning at 6, to get to Montessori in Santa Ana by 6:45, and thinking, ‘If I were to meet these people sometime again in my life, they would never know me. If I left right now, they would never even notice.’ ”

Now a Los Angeles resident, the Grammy-winning musician said she has recognized a common thread running through performing artists from the county: “I’ve talked to a lot of people who grew up in Orange County: (musicians) Jackson Browne, the Dirt Band, the Righteous Brothers, (comedians) Steve Martin, Pat Paulsen, (actress) Diane Keaton. They all say that their vision of the world and of their work developed in the privacy of their rooms.

“In those days, there were no art museums of any note in Orange County, no predominate ghettos, no real cultural celebration. Those of us who wanted to see a Van Gogh or experience a ballet had to go to the libraries. If you could read about it in a book, you could imagine it to be true. But you couldn’t see it first hand, like a person raised in Greenwich Village could.

“So our work was influenced by nobody or nothing, except our imaginations. We had no grand masters. The people who came out of that era are highly individualistic.”

A self-described “basic high school nerd,” Black today has no regrets about his gawky adolescence. “I turned to writing as an escape,” the Pittsburgh native said. “Now that I am grown up, sort of, I find that I have become more adept at making friends--yet the writing skills I developed as a lonely teen-ager don’t go away. So I can have my cake and eat it, too.”

Like Black, most creative people appreciate the social and private side to their personalities.

“Just because an artist shuts the studio door when he’s painting, it doesn’t mean that he’s unconnected to the world,” Borah said. “The artists I know are very socially active.”

“A writer has to experience life--to travel, to interact, to get out and scrape the underbelly of society,” said Muir, author of “Tides of War,” “American Reich” and “Red Star Run.”

But when the time comes to sit down and write about those experiences, Muir added, “it’s just me and my computer.”

“For most people, interacting with colleagues at the office is a necessary part of their work,” said composer Ravenscroft, 34, whose violin concerto was performed last year by the Pacific Symphony. “Composing, however, is done in complete quiet. During creative times, I’m sensitive to the slightest sound; the buzzing of the refrigerator can drive me insane.”

Creativity at its best occurs only in total solitude, Borah agreed. “Other people’s judgments come later, when the work is finished. But if outside voices are telling you what to do while you are creating, you cannot hear your own inner voice.”

“I think the reason there are so many bad movies and bad television shows is that film and TV are very much collaborative mediums,” said Black, who is writing a science-fiction movie for Disney.

“When a movie is based on a book, you always hear the complaint that the book was better,” he said. “That’s because a book comes from one person, whereas a movie comes from the consensus of a committee.”

Benefits of solitude apply not only to those who possess artistic talent, Storr said, but to all people--married or single.

“Everybody needs a hobby or a passionate interest to call their own,” he said. “Everybody needs something to which they can turn, no matter what happens--for there is always an element of uncertainty in interpersonal relationships.”