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How can spending time alone fuel your creativity?

When was the last time you were alone? Not sitting by yourself while texting with a friend – genuinely alone with only your thoughts to keep you company. In our perpetually connected world it’s increasingly hard to find time and space away from constant stimulation. While it’s something we all need, solitude can be particularly important for those pursuing a creative practice.

Dr Misha Myers, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts at Deakin, has found solitude to be integral to her creative process. ‘I think that to find an original expression you need to develop a deep relationship with yourself and to have that relationship with yourself you need alone time or solitude,’ Dr Myers explains.

Seeking alone time means going against the grain of our extroverted culture. ‘It feels to me like there’s less space for silence,’ Dr Myers says. ‘The boundaries between work and life and everything else are all mixed up together with technology and having phones constantly with you.’

Dr Myers considers solitude to be a practice: ‘You have to learn how to not be reactive all the time. The culture that we’re in is constantly asking us to react but we have to know what is important and what is priority. We have to pace ourselves and make some space to be creative.’

The gifts of solitude

Dr Myers often refers back to the ideas of poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke. In his book Letters to a Young Poet he advises that in order to cultivate a relationship with one’s self we should:

  1. eschew the critics
  2. avoid excessive self-criticism
  3. connect to the natural world
  4. freely plumb the self.

‘I really love those four points,’ Dr Myers explains. ‘It’s so important that you’re not just responding to the critics or constant criticism of the self which will shut down creativity immediately.’

For Dr Myers, developing a relationship with yourself is a way of finding your own voice. ‘If you want to innovate something or solve a problem differently to what has been done before you have to free yourself from habitual responses and from just repeating what others have already expressed or done or told you. You need to understand and follow your own motivations and passions. You’ve got to hold your own course. I think those elements of the creative process are really important.’

Find ways to be alone

A passion for sailing provides Dr Myers with the perfect weekly experience of solitude. ‘I sail a single-handed dinghy and it’s such an important way for me to create the conditions for that kind of time alone,’ Dr Myers says. ‘I’m cultivating this kind of deep listening to both the natural world and to myself, learning to observe, listen and respond from that deeper sense of attention. I find when I’m sailing I cannot think about work or anything else that keeps my mind restless. To keep the wind in my sails and my boat upright, I can’t have any distractions. It really forces me to stay present.’

Similarly, long walks, yoga and meditation are all important to Dr Myers’ practice. She often prefers to go to the cinema and exhibitions alone so she can think about her personal response to the art which feeds her own creativity. ‘I don’t see these necessarily as social activities,’ Dr Myers explains. ‘I really love sitting in a dark cinema by myself. I find pleasure in that.’

'I think that to find an original expression you need to develop a deep relationship with yourself and to have that relationship with yourself you need alone time or solitude.'

Dr Misha Myers,
School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

A hammock under a paperbark tree in Dr Myers’ garden provides another opportunity for creativity to bloom. ‘I’m making a space to just do nothing. I’m observing all the life that’s going on in the tree, noticing the patterns, listening to music and really hearing it rather than having it on in the background,’ she says. ‘We are so used to multitasking all the time that we’re not really allowing ourselves to fully pay attention to something.’

Dr Myers suggests starting with small amounts of alone time and working up to something more significant. ‘When I’m out sailing time stops, I forget about time and just try to stay in the present,’ she says. ‘Greek language has a word for that sense of endless time, Kairos. That’s where creative ideas and innovations suddenly happen: those moments where we are no longer caught up in the rhythms of clock time or Chronos, but can follow our own sense of timing.’

Make technology work for you

Dr Myers embraces technology but recognises that it can stifle creativity: ‘What is happening with technology is that we are letting it control us and determine certain behaviours. We need to design it and use it as a tool for our human needs and our humanness and not the other way around.’

‘Whether it’s about always being on or always feeling that we have to reach for it, technology provides an easy way to immediately avoid the challenges of solitude,’ Dr Myers says. ‘Solitude is not an easy place to be. I think as an artist you have to be ready to be in uneasy and uncomfortable places.’

Dr Myers says that if you find yourself reaching for your phone, instead you could reach for something that improves your wellbeing. ‘There are some really beautiful apps that I use for generating ideas in moments where I’m feeling stuck or like I need to shift my thinking. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies is a lovely one,’ she says. ‘He created this set of cards with Peter Schmidt in the 1970s and now it’s an app with these random questions and triggers to spark creative thinking. Creativity sometimes comes obliquely. It isn’t something you can force, but you can cultivate.’

Sometimes even playing word games can be beneficial. ‘You have to think about what are the things that are actually developing you as a human being rather than always going to social media, emails etc.’

While solitude isn’t always enjoyable, if you dedicate the time you will start to feel the long term benefits to your creative process. ‘Boredom is not a negative thing,’ Dr Myers says. ‘It’s important to creativity. You get to know your habitual responses to things by doing something again and again and again and then getting so bored with them that you do something else, something surprising. Some of my greatest inspirations and ideas have come out of boredom.’

Do you struggle to spend time alone? Learn more about introversion and extroversion here.

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Dr Misha Myers
Dr Misha Myers

Senior Lecturer in Art and Performance, School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University

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