On Not Going It Alone

August 7, 2011

Recently I had brunch with a wonderful pianist, Benita Meshulam, and we were discussing the joys of collaborating.  She has recently begun a piano duo with Allison Brewster Franzetti, also an amazing pianist. “After all these years of being lonely on stage, I have a real partner to share the experience with,” she said.  “It’s so much better not to have to always perform alone. The loneliest walk is from my dressing room to the stage, and now I don’t have to do it alone.”

Part of our cultural mythology is this vision of the artist alone, writing or sculpting or drawing  in solitude. The solitude seems to validate the experience , verify the genuineness of the self-communion.   We imagine J.D. Salinger in cranky hermit mode up inNew Hampshire, or Van Gogh in tortured self-mutilating mode in a garret.  Virginia Woolf told us that every writer needs a room of her own, and it seems so obvious that we all immediately nod in agreement.

But although Virginia Woolf had a room of her own, she also lived in a constant social whirl of friends, writers and other artists who argued with her, supported her, designed her books and  furniture, and brought her their work for publication and critique.  As anyone who reads her diaries knows, she was very seldom actually alone.  Many artists do feel the loneliness of creating in solitude, or taking the stage by themselves, and get quite self-reproachful about their dislike of creating by themselves.

But there is actually no rule that you have to lock yourself in an empty room  to create, or even create or perform or present work with others.  Starbucks sometimes seems to exist largely to serve the needs of people who can’t stand to write in a room alone.  Of course, actors and musicians and other performers have always known the joys of performing together—but writers? Photographers?  Composers? Painters?

Well, maybe you can’t write music at Starbucks with all those world instruments jingling in your ears, but you can almost always find a less lonely situation that eases that anxiety about solitude and being in the creative process by yourself.  Whether this means having a trusted other who sits and reads while you are working, or actively collaborating with other artists on a film or musical or book or mural—or duo piano performance—sometimes the presence of another human being (or non-human being—there is a reason some writers are always photographed with their dogs at their sides) is the exact missing ingredient to spur your creative process.

Sometimes all we want is an empty, quiet space to do our work, or to walk out on to a stage and face the crowd or critics by ourselves—but we don’t have to be alone with either our ideas or our audiences if it doesn’t work for us.  Collaboration can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling modes for any artist to work in—although you still might want that room of your own to go home and decompress in at the end of the day!