In 2006, then-struggling American indie folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon left North Carolina with a broken heart and retreated to his father’s remote cabin in Northwestern Wisconsin. There, he recorded the songs that would become Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, playing all the instruments himself. In isolation, Vernon says, he was able to “excavate” and “dig out” his work: “To be still amongst it was really the meditation that spawned the record”.
Artists, musicians, and some of the greatest thinkers in history – Spinoza, Descartes, Newton, Nietzsche, Locke – have created significant works in solitude. Joseph Campbell spent five years holed up in a cabin, reading the works of these men and many others, before writing The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Not all of what’s created in remote cabins advances our collective thinking, of course. I doubt the design and layout of a particular cabin has anything to do with what emerges, but you are welcome to view Ted Kaczynski’s 10 x 12 Montana cabin in Washington, D.C.’s interactive “Newseum“. Last year, the Unabomber objected to this public display of his retreat from his Colorado prison cell.
Solitude is not only for creation. In 2004, I left my home in Atlanta and moved to Cape Cod for six months, after ending a 12-year relationship and the future I hoped would be mine. Although I created nothing other than the furnishing of my father’s cottage from thrift store finds, it was a significant period of my life, though not a happy one. I read a lot of books on grief and spent the majority of time feeling lost, afraid, and deeply sad. I was there to mend, but ultimately, the time only provided the distance and disconnectedness that I needed to sever myself from the old life.
In a comment on my Tuesday blog about happiness, Amy Balog wrote about “the base camp of your heart” and the need to know the “wisest and most-knowing place in our soul”. The fact that I require space and quiet in order to even hear my heart’s base camp doesn’t mean I’m mentally clumsy. I suspect the same is true for most of us.
Three months in a remote cabin isn’t always feasible, of course. So what about solitude through being alone and unplugged, even in your own home, even for a day . . . even for an hour? A true mini-sabbatical. In our hyper-connected world, we’re hardly ever alone. Many people think being unplugged is having their cellphone on vibrate.
More than 160 years ago, Henry David Thoreau emerged after living two years alone in the woods around Walden Pond and said he “never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” Would he have been able to accomplish his works today, when solitude seems almost impossible to achieve?
The late British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott popularized the phrase “the capacity to be alone” in the 1950s, to describe a pivotal stage of emotional development. In a February piece in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Neil Swidey writes: “Yet today we’re seeing this capacity weakened, whether we’re in public places known for contemplation, like churches and libraries, or whether we’re just sitting by ourselves at home, losing the fight to resist answering our BlackBerries (just ask our new president) or checking our laptops for Facebook updates.”
Career columnist Penelope Trunk announced yesterday that she’s marrying a farmer and moving to his farm in rural Wisconsin “in the absolute middle of nowhere”, surrounded by soil, “where life is slow, and rhythmic”. Even with a strong internet connection, she’s in for a big change. Maybe the sex will be better – she’ll write about it either way. She always does. Maybe the increased solitude will result in something new – in her writing or for her company, Brazen Careerist.
When was the last time you were truly alone and unplugged?