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Isolation is The Gift

Words:

Edd Norval
March 23, 2020

In Roll The Dice, Charles Bukowski espouses the benefit of a life lived with solitary focus, of living and believing in yourself on your own terms. When he says that "isolation is the gift", he speaks of the purity of art that's possible to create when the singular focus on an objective is placed before any want or will to please. He's not the only person to think so either. So, in a time of government-imposed social distancing and isolation - what lessons are to be learned from those to whom it is their modus operandi?

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There is a notion that a great many people have of art and artists, that the choice to pursue something as pure as poetry, painting or sculpture away from anyone else is almost a spiritual choice, one where - if undergone for long enough or 'correctly' - an awakening may occur.


If there's a Venn Diagram, with the idea of a solo artistic awakening slap-bang in the middle, as per the diagram, then the larger circles flanking it would be genius and insane. This rareified atmosphere that few inhibit (and even less in real life, as opposed to romanticised and semi-fictionalised accounts) isn't all fairy dust though. There is a lot to be said for working away alone. Think of these two examples for context.


You're sitting at home and working on a new design project, an album cover for a band that you're certain are about to break. It's a great opportunity and the work you've produced so far has impressed both you and them. Then, not far from deadline day, you're friend calls and suggests a beer that night. It still leaves you a few hours to work for that day - so why not?


Now, the rest of the time until then is spent in preparation of going out. Listening to the right music, picking something to wear and generally getting yourself in the frame-of-mind that is required for a 'couple of drinks'. The album cover is almost a distant memory for today (and possibly tomorrow too...)

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If the semi-freelance lifestyle above isn't recognisable, this one may well be. Example Two. You're working in a cool advertising agency and you're latest ideas for an esteemed client have been getting some nods around the studio. You're invited to a meeting by the creative director, a man too old to still be wearing baseball caps, yet insists on doing so. You take the few ideas you have and explain them in a sort of pitch. You're selling something without actually selling anything. Yet.


Once you start to talk, people start to agree. Heads bob around the table and you're making people feel all warm and fuzzy like they've struck gold. You too start to feel warm and fuzzy. The idea, they tell you, is so good, that they're going to pitch one of them to the client. The idea, they tell you, is perfect. Except for a few minor changes that, when they start being announced to the table, you realise are actually nothing like your own. Sure, it's yours by a kind of half-baked sense of ownership, but it isn't really yours. Anyway, the meeting last week said you're all a team.


It's in these kind of moments, although very different on the outside, that we see what Charles Bukowski meant when he said that "isolation is the gift". In both cases, you're doing alright on your own. Not to say that being a hermit or anti-social is in any way the way. But, it is a way. At least if something doesn't work, it's yourself to blame. That in itself is freeing.


You have sole authorship. That's why a lot of writers and artists choose to hole themselves up when creating soon-to-be-great works. There are no distractions (example one), but also no one with whom to water-down your ideas (example two), diluting something that in your own hand carried the kind of artistic passion and fury that led you here in the first place.

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Picture Jackson Pollock maniacally dancing around one of his raw canvases, splashing trauma, ecstasy and agony out through his paintbrush. When you look at one of his 'splatter' paintings, you feel the loneliness, the isolation. These are introspective and immersive cerebral works of art, not open and accessible pop-art pieces the likes of which Andy Warhol and other salesmen.


The state-of-mind Pollock found himself in, and the state you did in the two examples, is known in psychology as 'flow'. The phrase, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi before becoming a phenomenon when he released the eponymous book, is a short way of saying something quite complex. Basically, it's like a state of semi-conscious, yet never more conscious concentration. You are YOU 2.0 - the best version you've ever been. The outside world has a knack for breaking your flow states. You don't want this.


Living through a global pandemic of this scale is unprecedented, as are the measures taken to help contain and eradicate it. Two of those are social distancing and self-isolation, a way to limit the possibly fatal spread of the contagion. For us it means a lot of time on our hands. If you're reading this, you probably have at least a passive interest in creative fields and ideas. As such, this article is for you.


It's a call to say embrace this time. Don't sleep all day or waste your time playing social-media games and having 17-way calls on FaceTime. Do it. If you need more inspiration, here's a photographer and a prisoner who are indellibly and inextricably linked by a life led solo.

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Talking about its effects and the sensation, Csíkszentmihályi described it as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." It's in these states he claims we are our happiest. Isolating yourself isn't the only way to achieve it, but it's a great place to begin working towards accessing it.


Charles Bronson, the crazy prisoner immortalised in Nicolas Winding Refn's film Bronson isn't just a madman, but also a deep-thinker, particularly when it comes to the psychology of isolation and the importance of mental fortitude. Granted, he's spent most of his life in jail, a lot of that in solitary, but he hasn't allowed that to get him down. He's a cheery fellow who, besides having written autobiographies, has also penned interesting takes on how to maximise your body in such minimal confines.


He's also an artist whose lewd and crude images are endearing when we know who made them. Over time, he's come to understand the link between creativity and solitude, taking an ascetic approach to life inside prison. Whilst such conditions could turn most mad, Bronson has utilised the space as a means of ironing out mental creases and chiseling away at the many superfluous thoughts we carry around with us. Bronson, you could say, is almost always flowing.

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Photographer Alec Soth is another interesting case study. His photographs hone in on the everyday, creating "off-beat, hauntingly banal images of modern America". He's a documentarian of contemporary life and its many idiosyncrasies. His method of capturing this is as a sort of spectre, moving around, never quite in one place, never really there. For Soth, working alone is essential.


The photographer said, “The benefits are that there’s no escape – you have to work, because what else are you going to do; how are you going to justify this behavior. I think the little tinge of madness that comes from spending too much time alone can be a good thing – you can access something real. But there many dangers as well, like being super-navel-gazing or pretentious.” Ultimately though, “The psychological elements of working alone are so profound.”


Sometimes we seek others as comfort, which can easily become a crutch. It's easy to drown out your own thoughts as a means of escaping them, of running away. With the Coronavirus pandemic, these options have been as good as snatched away. The choice is thus; sink or swim. Isolation isn't a punishment, it's a gift. Now we are all in control of our surroundings, cherry-picking what works for us and discarding what doesn't. There's no need to compromise and with this, no place for excuses.


It's not everyday you're forced to stay in your house and not interact with people. Don't see it as bars on your window, but wings on your back with which to free yourself.

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