You Might Be Alone

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

There is a romanticized image of the lonely artist, the tortured soul who courageously clings to a solitary vision while remaining misunderstood by the ignorant masses. Ayn (“Ayn the Pain”) Rand created an entire long-winded novel, The Fountainhead, around this image. The lonely artist is often portrayed in movies and television, usually with society coming to its senses just in time for a happy ending.

Of course, there is some truth to the lonely artist stereotype. This is mostly because creative work tends to be a solitary undertaking, and you have to spend a lot of time on it if you hope to be any good, so you should be prepared to spend a lot of time working alone.

Photo of pelican swimming across a lake
Be prepared to swim alone if you live a creative life

I recently watched a pair of films that form something of a match set, The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973). I’m not generally a horror movie fan, but I have fond memories of these films from childhood and, frankly, they’re not very frightening to my grown-up self. In The Night Stalker, Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, a reporter investigating a series of mysterious deaths in Las Vegas. Kolchak solves the mystery, but he becomes increasingly isolated from the authorities and his own editor, all of whom remain trapped in conventional thinking. In the end, he has the truth but is entirely alone in a run-down hotel room. The plot of The Night Strangler is very similar, but I find it more interesting because of the way it recalls the previous movie. McGavin’s Kolchak character urges his editor (played in both films by the delightful Simon Oakland), “Let’s not play that stupid game again.” Kolchak goes through life with an open mind that allows for creative problem-solving. Still, society remains as stubborn as always, and Kolchak is shunned from the local power structure. He is not entirely alone in the end this time, but drives off into the night with the lonely editor who defended him. (The Kolchak movies led to a short-lived TV series and were a big inspiration for Chris Carter when he created The X-Files.)

Of course, there are real-life examples of the lonely artist, and they don’t always have happy endings. Louis Sullivan, who provided some of the real-life inspiration for The Fountainhead, was a Chicago-based architect active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sullivan designed some of the early skyscrapers and had a vision for a uniquely American style of architecture. Guided by the belief that “form follows function,” Sullivan rejected the Euro-centric practice of architectural ornamentation without purpose, but instead incorporated ornamentation into his designs that expressed the overall theme of the structure. Sullivan biographer Hugh Morrison wrote that Sullivan’s “greatest achievement was in his emancipation of architectural thinking from the dead forms of the past and his demonstration of the possibility of the development of new forms directly out of the nature of the problems at hand.” Sullivan’s creativity was ignited by the idealism of the French Revolution and the technological ambitions of the Industrial Revolution.

Sullivan’s vision was ahead of its time. Profit-oriented business owners and a nation wary after the 1893 depression embraced the traditional European Beaux-Arts style of architecture. Sullivan faced a long decline of poverty and alcoholism until he died alone in 1924. He is remembered as a great architect, sometimes called the “father of modernism,” and left us the legacy of his best known pupil, Frank Lloyd Wright. But future praise offered Sullivan no comfort in the bitter end.

Photo of Roux Library at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida
Part of Louis Sullivan’s legacy – the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, seen here at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, FLorida

We all have moments in life when we’re engaged in what John Mellencamp called “yellin’ in the dark.” I feel that solitude when I advocate for traffic safety. Living in a car-obsessed state, even compared to an already car-obsessed nation, seems like a no-win situation sometimes. Local authorities, media, even all the ordinary citizens who are most affected by reckless drivers, refuse to acknowledge why Florida is one of the most dangerous states in the nation for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a problem easily solved (primarily through enforcement of traffic laws and better road design), but one that will never be solved as long as so many minds remain closed.

As for more traditional creative work – writing, photography, painting, etc – that can be equally solitary. Unless you’re in direct collaborations on your projects with co-writers, models, or others, you will spend most of your time working alone. More importantly, you may struggle to find others who will share, or even appreciate, your creative vision.

Some artists seek out isolation, as Emily Dickinson seems to have done most of her adult life, possibly due to depression or health issues. Dickinson published only a few poems during her lifetime. It was only after her death that her sister found Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 unpublished poems. Others are pushed into solitude. John Kennedy Toole wrote two novels, and publishers rejected both during his life. The rejection of A Confederacy of Dunces, in particular, left him “erratic” and “paranoid.” He took his own life in 1969. His persistent mother persuaded novelist Walker Percy to help her get A Confederacy of Dunces published. Toole received a posthumous Pulitzer for the work in 1981. A big award that amounted to small consolation. (In fact, Toole’s book title came from a Jonathan Swift statement on the loneliness of insight: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”)

So loneliness is often a part of creativity. Be cautious about romanticizing the life of the misunderstood genius, but be prepared for solitude if you choose to live a creative life. There are things you can do to overcome isolation: engage with friends and family when you’re not working, work in “third places” where you can be among people, or seek out like-minded creative communities in person or on social media. Even then, however, solitude may remain your companion. As another well-known architect, Rem Koolhaas, has said, “Alone can be many things. Alone can be in a car; it can be in a plane; it can be anywhere.”

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