Could isolation lead to increased creativity?
“Without great solitude, no serious work is possible”.
These words, uttered by the great Spanish painter, printmaker and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) are hewn with a sentiment that’s nothing short of bravado. Behind this undaunted veneer, however, lies one central premise: can isolation fuel or stymie creativity?
The world of art, music and literature are littered with examples that have all been inspired by time spent by one’s self. Isolation, loneliness and unsociability are by their very nature all intertwined – all are a catalyst for retreating to a safe place and avoiding the outside world, and all its myriad problems. There’s also a distinction to be drawn between being forced into isolation, and doing so of one’s own volition.
At the heart of it though is the intended or unintentional withdrawal from society, friends or loved ones in order to discover one’s true self and express this creatively.
It’s an epithet given to most artists and creatives that they are melancholy recluses, pursuing the belief that isolation boosts productivity. This inclination to displaying anti-social behaviour is true to a certain extent. A study by Julie Bowker, a psychologist from the University of Buffalo, in 2018 on Personality and Individual Differences, found that shy individuals who preferred to isolate were indulging in “a relatively benign form of withdrawal,” but suggested that it “may be better characterized as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal.” Her research found that people withdraw for three main reasons: fear and anxiety; a dislike to social interaction; unsociable.
The first group were the more likely to bring their fears and anxieties with them into their withdrawal, which stifled creativity. However, the last group positively embraced their solitude. Bowker’s study of 295 people was able to link solitude with positive outcomes: “They may get just enough peer interaction so that when they are alone, they are able to enjoy that solitude. They’re able to think creatively and develop new ideas, like an artist in a studio or the academic in his or her office.”
“There’s more to life than books you know….”
Nowhere has isolation been described with such visceral power than through literature. Indeed, it may have all started in the Bible with the story that Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, only to give Satan the signal insult when the old devil tried to tempt him. However, isolation and solitude have often been rendered more prosaically, and been the inspiration for many of our cultural touchstones.
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one such example. Written from the perspective of Esther Greenwood, Plath’s protagonist is a bright college student who is prescribed electroconvulsive treatment following a bout of worsening mental health. This violent act only leads to a worsening of her condition, and it’s spectre haunts Greenwood throughout the novel despite an apparent recovery. It was inspired by Plath’s own experiences with electro shock therapy, and the accompanying alienation and isolation she suffered as a result of it.
Mental illness often rides tandem with isolation. These themes are explored in Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 memoir Girl Interrupted, later made famous by James Mangold’s 1999 film starring Winona Ryder and Angeline Jolie. Ryder’s character Susanna is sent to a psychiatric hospital, Claymoore, where she stays for eight years. Kaysen’s description of the hospital is more like a prison, which is reinforced by the lack of family figures or visitors in the book at this time.
Take Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, or even Jeffery’s Archer’s The Prison Diaries (or, on second thoughts…): Both of these works show that merely choosing to isolate itself isn’t the driver of creativity in the same way that being isolated can be. Another inspiring example of this is Anne Frank. Her diary documenting the trials of living in a secret annexe with her family in Amsterdam while hiding from the Nazis, is a testament to her resilience of being cloistered and cut off from the world. That it is non-fiction only makes her account more redolent.
ISOLATION = CREATIVITY?
Isolation. It certainly gets a bad rep, not least from the prisoners who are sent there. It also doesn’t sit well with mental health issues either, as the link between isolation and loneliness informs us. It’s also the main subtext that drives the narrative of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Widely heralded as the genus of the science-fiction genre, Shelley’s classic tale of the doctor that creates a living being in his own form, which is ultimately rejected by humanity. Yet all of the characters in the book who are isolated within the book find themselves, whether intentionally or not, suffering in one way or another. Shelley, then, is trying to suggest in her book that isolation is a force for destruction in itself.
It’s something to be mindful of when considering that humans are a social animal, who crave connections, relationships, company and love. There’s no doubt either that it is hugely beneficial and enjoyable to cooperate and collaborate with others. With the right approach however, seclusion can be approached in a functional fashion that has tangible results.
Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing says: “If we look at the practical benefits of isolation on creativity, we can see that if you design an environment to work effectively while isolated, you are less likely to be distracted and will find it easier to get into creative flow than an environment not designed by you, and with people who can interrupt that flow around. Many creative producers block out large areas of their calendars to focus deeply on creating their best work without the outside noise and influence of others. And the challenging places that isolation can take you can provide a burst of inspiration for great creative work.”
The “challenging” places that Lee mentions alludes to that fact that isolation can take many forms. While some choose to sequester themselves in the pursuit of creativity, what about when it is foisted upon an individual? The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is one such account by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. As the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine in France, Bauby was living a wonderful life until he suffered a stroke, which lapsed into a coma. He woke up 20 days after the stroke, physically paralysed but still mentally aware. The book is a hugely fascinating read, documenting his gradual realisation of his condition and time spent in hospital bed. While the description of his thoughts, actions, dreams and experiences are all engaging, it is perhaps how his memoir was written that is most notable. Bauby’s stroke and subsequent awareness meant that he was now in a state known as “Locked In syndrome”. However, using partner-assisted scanning (the choosing of letters by physical signals), he wrote the book by blinking his left eye to tell his transcriber which letter to write down next.
Bauby’s determination echoes that of another “Locked In” creative, the French hip-hop artist and producer Pone, who developed motor neurone disease. While his descent into a vegetative state was swift, Pone sought out advanced ways and means to communicate with his family, by using technology to track his eye movements. Not only did he write a self-published book, ALS for Dummies, but he also wrote and released an entire album inspired by Kate Bush. Using the music program Ableton Live, he was able to make Kate & Me by splicing beats and sampling vocals and sounds that allowed him to produce a whole album.
These real-life examples show how isolation serves to embolden the human spirit, rather than treat it as something to meekly succumb to.
It stands to reason that spending time in solitude is not a productive trait in itself. However, to employ the creative voice that lives within us all, and be able to express it through writing, drawing or playing an instrument… This is truly the way to turn isolation into an inspiring and worthwhile pursuit.