In The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch’s narrator, a star of the theatre in supernova, tells us that he has been writing over the course of several “wonderful empty solitary days, such as I remember yearning for”. He has at last obtained the removal of his person from the theatre, from city life, from regular contact with other souls. So desperate for solitude, he laments that the coastal path near his place of self-imposed exile permits motor cars, celebrates that the “rocky coast attracts, thank God, no trippers with their ‘kiddies’”, and is joyous that he may now eat food without the distraction of dinner guests – and yet, noting that a nearby tower attracts the occasional tourist, he is inexplicably “loathe to put up a notice saying Private”. This self-styled Robinson Crusoe, seeking isolation and an island of his own while wondering why he receives no letters and missing his father, remains in some ineffable way attached to humanity.
Sometime in my mid-twenties, I decided that I too wanted a certain kind of isolation, which I thought of as freedom. Being unattached to others meant fewer distractions; working only the minimum required hours at my day job freed up my time; saying no to offers of days out, ridding my life of possessions, and rarely accessing social media kept my commitments to a minimum. The end goal of all of this was to streamline my attention toward only those things I thought of as worthwhile: reading and writing. Pessoa tells us that “literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life”, and I found this to hold true in reverse as well: ignoring life is a good way to enjoy literature, or at least to read much more of it.
I had begun studying toward a degree in English Literature, which had me reading great works, as well as venturing into philosophy and Classical studies. I was impressed by the value of what these writers and thinkers before me had done, overwhelmed by the grandeur of their achievements, and suddenly aware of how far behind I was not only in achieving anything myself but in simply learning what those intellectuals had already revealed. My schooling had not been fantastic and my home life was rarely stable, and I had drifted through two incomplete years of higher education (first in carpentry, thinking I should get a “proper” job, then at an art school, knowing I was creative but not yet knowing I was a writer). When I began to comprehend the vastness of the cultural ocean I hoped to swim, I started following the dictum of Jane Eyre’s conscience: “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” And, for a while, this worked quite well.
For a while.
“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.”
The problem, as I discovered, was that the less time I spent in communion with the world around, the world of tangible things and practical, contextual application of theories, the less depth my reading had. It was only able to fulfil me on one level, that of the mind. I was more able than ever to critically evaluate literature, to place books in a context of literary movement or history and to evaluate the methods of the writer. But literature became cold to me. It became a task, an ever expanding list of things to be read and ticked off in an effort to impress some hypothetical judge of my cultural education. It was as if the inner daemon of Socrates was, in me, not an ethical conscience but a critical voice telling me, “Read more, you haven’t read enough.” So my desire to read and write had become a race against myself and lacked emotional depth or connection to external life.
And then there was the loneliness. Henry Thoreau, as he writes in Walden, found it “wholesome to be alone ... I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude”. But even he, seeking the simplicity of a quiet life in nature, kept three chairs in his hideaway cabin, “one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society”. In forgetting or refusing to set out those extra chairs, I had denied myself the companionship so necessary for personal growth and for development as a writer.
“Solitude is indeed dangerous for a working intelligence. We need to have around us people who think and speak. When we are alone for a long time we people the void with phantoms.”
(Guy de Maupassant)
My writing suffered and did so in ways not apparent to me until I began stepping out of my isolation. I was writing essentially the same character (intellectual loner, often bitter toward the world), the same type of setting (grey, wet weather, anonymous cities, book-filled apartments), and in the same style of writing (the ethos of modernism and the representational techniques of realism). Part of my revisiting certain ideas and themes was to do with not feeling I’d fully realised my goals or examined the subject in each previous work. Kazuo Ishiguro required the first three of his books to fully expand his notion of self-deception in memory. More importantly, however, I was not writing anything that wandered too far from this particular sphere of interest because I didn’t know anything else. My life experience, to a large extent, was coming from books, which on its own is never enough to inform a rich, interesting work of fiction. It is subject to a kind of information loss – imagine a population bottleneck in which inbreeding is rife and genetic diversity can only decrease. A book is taken from life, and a second book written off the back of the first one contains slightly less life than is in the first, and each subsequent book has less to say. Without its author living life and bringing new information from the world to his or her work, the work becomes recycled and stale.
For many varied reasons, few of which are relevant enough for me to divulge here, I decided to travel. One primary motivating factor that is of interest to this discussion can be expressed best in something the French writer Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary: “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” Finally coming face to face with my inability to produce original work while remaining in the same situation I had been in for almost a decade, and encouraged by my horizon-seeking partner who was desperate to divagate her way around the world, I chose to go roving. I set off seeking new colours, new faces, new languages, new customs, new stories, and ultimately new words with which to describe all of these.
In the last twelve months, I have travelled both bodily and in spirit, exploring ultima Thules of the mind and of the real world. This has led me to where I am currently writing from, Guanajuato city in Mexico. As I write, I can see the sprawling landscape of variously coloured buildings pressing together along the rising and falling slopes of the surrounding mountains; I can smell wood smoke, incense, street food (depending on the direction of the breeze, spicy tamales or esquites), lime, and various garden smells of herbs and flowers; I can hear, seemingly, everything – cars driving, horns honking, children playing, neighbours talking, Spanish everywhere, maybe two or three words I recognise, the buzz of the unidentified orange wasps zipping in and out of the window, music, bass thumping, water running somewhere, birds on the roof, and the unending cacophony of dogs. Always the sound of dogs barking. There is a high number of street dogs here, one of which sleeps outside our bedroom window in the day and barks himself hoarse at night.
Schopenhauer believed that the level of noise one could tolerate was in inverse proportion to one’s intellect. I used to believe this too (though I could see that this was perhaps a bit of self-justification on the part of the irritable philosopher). But this misleadingly broad idea hides its own failing, that it ignores the variety of ways to use the mind as well as the variety of ways to approach life, the intellect being just one of them. To write is to feel as well as think; a decent case can even be made to say that emotion is the defining characteristic of a novelist as opposed to an essayist or philosopher (assuming a particular definition for “emotion”). After all, ideas baldly presented as such do not make a story. One particular kind of bad writing is the overly didactic, which cares more about communicating a worldview or argument than it does about entertaining its reader, keeping her hooked through the old-as-time techniques of storytelling. A philosopher presents to us a way of approaching the world; a novelist shows us how it feels to approach the world in such a way. Keats even went so far as to write, in a letter to his brother, “Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced.”
In order to write well, rich experience is inextricable from contemplative solitude. The first must be sought for the raw materials out of which stories are formed, the second cultivated in order to create something of worth from that unprocessed matter. This is how I work now, the way that I write, and this is why I am travelling. I have made for myself a small space in our compact apartment where I can sit, read, think, and write reflectively. But when I am not sitting there, I am out in the world, living. My writing space is where I return to after exploring my surroundings and meeting new people, for periods of brief yet focused writing. Solitude is no longer something from which I sometimes emerge, forced by necessity of food, visits to the doctor and family, or inevitable loneliness; now it is something I am occasionally pushed into by the need for deep concentration.