On solitude


May 21, 2011, Spalding University

One of the valuable features of a brief-residence MFA program is that its rhythms encourage work habits that help a graduate to continue writing after graduation.

During their four semesters working with a mentor, every student learns to budget time in the context of everyday life, the ordinary demands of family life, work, play, friends, and community.

All of those demands await the graduate of any MFA program, but those who have succeeded in a brief-residency program have already had a great deal of experience navigating the waters of the writing life. They are also experienced in keeping up important contacts with their peers, over distance, and have laid the foundations for nourishing friendships among mutually encouraging writers. At Spalding, our alums are encouraging to come “home,” to take post-graduate courses or residencies and to travel with the group to exciting places abroad.

Certainly I have accepted the necessity of solitude in the writing life. I’m pretty good at getting my writing done, and I’ve never missed a book deadline. Yet, recently, I learned that there was solitude and Solitude. By that I mean, that I not only need to clear time at home for my writing, but sometimes it helps to leave home, friends, family for a deeper solitude.

I courted this sort of experience recently when I stayed at a dedicated writer’s retreat house in Fairhope, Alabama. I’m not talking about a retreat with other writers, though I understand that that can be a fine way to get a lot done and to recharge one’s batteries. My situation was one of greater isolation. There were no other writers sleeping in nearby rooms and ready to shop-talk over dinner and leading lives comfortably parallel to mine.

The isolation, I found, drove me deeper into myself. Uncradled by home, I had to sustain my sense of identity in a more stark and challenging way. It was a bit frightening, and it took a day or so to get used to the enveloping silence. But now my schedule was really my own: I wasn’t accommodating the demands of daily life anymore. I wasn’t fitting my writing into my life.

I was living to write. I ate and prepared food only when I wanted. I slept and took walks according to the dictates of my work, not to fit in with the routines of others. I became my own person in a unique way.

And I found that it benefited my writing. Almost literally, I could feel myself getting my own feet under me as a person. I became more stable, confident, and hopeful. Truly free of interruption, my focus as a writer became clear and sharp. I turned out the desired number of pages on my next novel The Fountain of St. James Court. At one point, I overworked, and then made no progress the next day. I learned (again) something of my human limits as a productive writer, and I gained respect for the self that needed rest and a reasonable work quota, some TLC.

Lest this sound too bleak, let me say that I learned to love my immediate surroundings: the large, ragged camellia hedge, prolific with red, pink, striped, white blossoms, around my little Spanish house and the mocking birds that sang and sang their virtuosi inventions. I wrote during the mornings and into the afternoons; then I took walks in the delightful town with flowers at every corner and a bluff and park at the edge of Mobile Bay. Often I was invited out to dinner and visited with Roy (after his day’s work with the Mobile Register) and Nancy Hoffman and their friends, or I enjoyed sharing the suppers with new and hospitable friends. I invited a Spalding student over from near-by Mobile one evening, and I saw a Mardi Gras parade with Nancy and her friends. After such outings, I came home to reading and attended a minimum of email. Every evening was different. While I was not utterly alone, there was a quantitative and qualitative difference in the degree of personal solitude and writerly dedication that I experienced in being isolated and far from home.

I’m telling you about this experience because it was something of a wonder to me. Both the riskiness of solitude and its fruits surprised me in a profound way. The solitude meant enough to me that I thought I should share it with you. Write on!

♦ Sena Jeter Naslund

One thought on “On solitude

  1. Sena: I am so encouraged by your comments on Solitude. Thomas Merton insisted that the truly authentic self is discovered only when one experiences real solitude. I think you two are onto something essential for writers. Thanks, Jim Wayne

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