Writing and the Solitary Life

I had the good fortune recently to come across an interview with acclaimed novelist Marilynne Robinson that ran in the Fall 2008 issue of the Paris Review. I had heard of Robinson’s work, especially her 2004 novel, Gilead, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize, but I’d never read any of it. This interview not only made me very eager to do so, but also inspired me as a writer and introvert. I was especially charmed by the description of her preferred habit of dress when in writing mode, as “…a pair of loose pants and a sweatshirt,” since I am also a believer in the idea of comfortable clothing as a means to creative insight.

But what struck me most about Robinson’s exchange with interviewer Sarah Fay was her account of the importance solitude holds in her life and writing:

…I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer…

Although I’m an unrepentant introvert, I have to admit that the level of solitude Robinson describes would not suit me. At certain points in my life I have spent long stretches of time “without hearing another human voice,” but it’s never felt entirely comfortable. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a large family that rarely afforded me that type of isolation, but also never left me alone with my fears and anxieties, that I would find extreme solitude difficult rather than enriching, as Robinson seems to do. In fact, what I most prefer is to be left to my own devices, but to be within earshot of someone else doing their own thing (luckily, my husband has the same kind of preference). Silence is wonderful, but the thought of being alone for days on end fills me with dread.

That’s why I’m so fascinated by how Robinson seems to revel in that solitary state. She proclaims the benefits of solitude in a way I’ve rarely heard before, and I can see why it is so important to her even though I can’t fully understand it. But even if I can’t imagine myself benefiting from that type of profound solitude, I think it’s at least necessary for me (and probably most other writers and creative thinkers as well) to experience it in smaller doses. Like cultivating an ability to sleep for brief periods of time and then return to work refreshed (a talent I would also like to have), Robinson has inspired me to do more to cultivate my capacity for deep solitude — to be able to lose myself in it, to walk around within it, like some kind of magic circle, and then be able to return to my relatively more social life. It’s strange for me to think about needing to practice solitude, because it usually comes so easily for me, but I think the kind of solitude Robinson is describing isn’t a default state, but a purposeful one. Not a retreat, but a mode of being that enables a writer to do her best work. That sounds like a great place to be.

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3 Responses to “Writing and the Solitary Life”

  1. Patti said:

    I relate powerfully to the quote you posted from Marilynne Robinson…I’m very much like her in the amount of solitude I crave and find comfortable. I do, however, recognize that, for me, too much solitude is not healthy, so I have to make an effort sometimes to get out into the world. I just wish I was doing something more constructive with my solitude, like Robinson is!

  2. Milena said:

    …is describing isn’t a default state, but a purposeful one. Not a retreat, but a mode of being that enables a writer to do her best work. That sounds like a great place to be.

    As long as it works for you then it is a great place to be. You may tap it for whatever it gives to you. I had a friend who just went and spent 5 weeks in a little cabin set in some nowhere mountain in the middle of Colorado. It took her hours to drive there, and find the place she had rented for herself alone as a retreat in which to purposely foment her writing muse. Apparently it worked. She completed a manuscript.

    I don’t write myself, just dally. And I do so with a jumping, laughing, playful toddler distracting me every second minute. That’s probably why I only dally… 😉

    Thought provoking post and as I’ve never read Ms. Robinson either you have now peaked my interest. Thank you.

    I like your blog too!

  3. spectatrix said:


    I didn’t mention it in my post, because I was focusing more on how solitude might affect one’s writing, but I think solitude can be productive in many other ways. I’ve definitely found it to be helpful when I’ve needed to make sense of a situation, or simply to recover my own mental equilibrium. But that’s not to say that solitude has to be productive; sometimes it’s just a pleasure 🙂


    I totally agree; it’s all about what works for each person. I think I tend to idealize the type of solitude Marilynne Robinson describes (and that your friend found in the mountains) precisely because it’s not the kind I am most likely to partake of. I share my life with my wonderful husband, and friends and family, and wouldn’t have it any other way. I think this post was mostly about me reminding myself that solitude can help me accomplish certain things, and it might be good to make more room for it in my life whenever I can 🙂