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Opinion //

Creativity in solitary hours

Honi Soit Writing Competition 2020 non-fiction shortlist.

During the last few months, shopping mall floors shined like distant lighthouses, craving footsteps like how we missed each other. Negative space filled the streets like in an Edward Hooper painting. We began to learn our home’s walls like how we used to study our loved ones’ faces. Then, we might have picked up a pen or a musical instrument or just kept on being busy working as usual.

Solitude has altered how we approach creativity. Although we may never understand the complex relationship between creativity and solitude, many have found solace in creative activities. Because the definition of creativity varies from person to person — a creative act can range from playing music to finding love.

In a pandemic though, emphasising the importance of creative pursuits seems privileged and removed from the large scale of human suffering. While it is true only the more fortunate among us have free time for hobbies — we need to realise that for many, creativity is a way to survive through this unsettling era. As we find ourselves alone at home, some of us rediscover the crucial need to express.

Creativity is important because it can help us to maintain our mental wellbeing. Arthur Cropley, Professor of Educational Psychology at University of Hamburg, suggests the playfulness, flexibility and small risking-taking in daily creative processes can improve mental health. For Corpley, a creative act can be as simple as dealing with everyday decisions in “convergent ways”. So, although creativity does not guarantee mental wellbeing, it can be a method to negotiate through an increasingly stressful life full of uncertainties.

Some dismiss creativity’s importance because they define it narrowly — but creativity is different for every person. Sure, for some, it could be composing or painting or writing. For others, it could mean exercising the body or imagination or the intellect. As the philosopher Berys Gaut qualify, creative expressions include science, business and everyday activities. Hence, creativity does not always involve the creation of a work or being artistic — its definition can be as wide-ranging as the diversity of people’s lived experiences.

Since the lockdown, many of us find ourselves in a solitary place. More than just the state of being alone, solitude is a complex condition we might never fully understand. The psychologist Danielle Knafo, when discussing solitude and creativity from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, notes “when we are alone, we are still with others; and when with others, we are still alone”.

The Danish writer, Dorthe Nors, believes solitude “heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful”. She cites the example of the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s work ethic to show how discipline and solitude can influence one’s creative output. Still, it is also safe to assume that what applies to one individual may not be suitable for another. Our understandings of the creative process and solitude, then, is highly elusive.

As a songwriter, I live the uncertainty of creativity. Sometimes, ideas would tickle my chest, then words and rhythm would fall out like tea from a cup too full. For me, the better works come when the rational brain shuts down and deeper forces — some call it the subconscious — begin to finish the work. For some, solitude makes these moments more frequent; for others, it doesn’t. As singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen said, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often… you’re married to a mystery.”

Every time a song comes to me, words wound run out like a scale descending from silence — the world would dangle in golden hues. In solitude, my memories would evoke a forgotten friend, a dissolving touch, a faded desire. Alone, I would swim through this world’s watercolours and I would drown in its multitude — the salty earth odour, the fireplace warmth of an old wood cabin, the snow on a foreign street from my travelling days — melodies would surface through the textures of my mind.

In a recent study, Estelle Michinov and Nicolas Michinov investigate psychological adjustment and creativity during the coronavirus lockdown. Their data suggest that individual personalities affect how people deal with loneliness during quarantine. For those adjusted well to solitude, social isolation can prompt personal growth and creativity. While for “emotionally unstable lonely” individuals, creativity has been less fruitful. So, we can’t formulate a universal theory of creativity and solitude because every person has a unique relationship to the world.

Despite the psychological complexity of creativity in solitude, the urge to create can be the strongest when spare time meets social distancing. In a conversation I overheard at a music instrument store, a staff said they have been selling about 150 guitars every week since the pandemic began — a huge increase in sales from before COVID-19 lockdown. While professional musicians suffer from the cancellation of gigs, many hobbyists finally found the time to learn an instrument.

Talking of guitars — for musicians, isolation can change the process and the content of creative works. In a YouTube video interview with Andy Cohen, celebrity guitarist John Mayer says that he couldn’t play music much because “there’s no joy”. This shows professionals in the creative industry can be affected by solitude. Mayer and Leon Bridges’ song ‘Inside Friend’ is about the quarantine social experience. So, we can see that the pandemic environment has altered the way creative contents are created and what they are about.

Outside of music, solitude has launched new quarantine dating sites such as OkZoomer and Quarantine Together. OkZoomer, for example, is a not-for-profit dating website based on exchanging emails with matched strangers, built by Yale undergraduates. “We were inspired by our own sadness about lost dating prospects when school shut down,” OkZoomer co-founder Ileana Valdez admits.

Solitude, aside from motivating web engineers and singer-songwriters, also stimulate some to search for love — a poignant example of everyday creativity. Every night, I stroll through the USyd Love Letters Facebook page to feel less alone — I like to imagine how anonymous posters type on devices, exposing their hearts’ naked veins with spontaneous prose. Are they still waiting for the call? Is tonight as cold as usual? As the definition of creativity is fluid, anything that involve convergent thinking is creative, even love letters.

So in our solitude, we sometimes are our best companions. Through creativity, we became better acquainted with our thoughts and potentials. As the lockdown policies begin to relax, we may soon return to the world from solitude. And for some of us, we might have learned to appreciate the time we have had to catch up with ourselves.

When we are alone in the wee small hours, legato of thoughts would jumble on pavement shadows through the moonlight curling up like tin foil tearing away. Our thoughts would tangle like soft jungle leaves, emitting sounds of jazzy drum fills. We swing our arms inside our skulls as if searching for a window in the dark, free like a lucid dreamer discovering the world within.