Loneliness and Isolation: Necessary Ingredients of Creativity?

Vincent van Gogh: Self Portrait (1887) Van Gogh Museum

(Vincent) Van Gogh likely had a cadre of mental issues, none of which were suitably diagnosed while he was alive. Yet what seemed to weigh heaviest on him was the inevitability of his loneliness. According to his letters to Theo, he felt he had one of two options: content himself with loneliness or try to countenance his loneliness with friendships thereby derailing his creativity (“lead us from the road,” as he wrote).

Aldous Huxley wrote, “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely,” and upon thinking about it even a little, it quickly becomes apparent that many of history’s creative geniuses have been deeply lonely people. There is the obvious reason for this: dedicating oneself to an artistic pursuit means one has little time for social endeavors. This is what has frustrated flamboyant, gregarious writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James, both of whom wrote about the dreadful isolation necessary to turn out great fiction. But whether it’s the mysteriously secretive writing careers of J.D. Salinger or Donna Tartt, the well-known loneliness of Joseph Conrad (“we live as we dream — alone”) or the friendship-loneliness conundrum of van Gogh, it becomes apparent that something else is at play. Loneliness is not just sufficient for creativity; it is necessary. It is almost as if one can only be truly creative when one detaches from society.

Cody C. Delistraty on how social rejection and isolation fuel metacognition and the creative process.

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