By alluding to the pen not only as a writing utensil, I subconsciously regard the word “pen” as in animals caged behind wire, hemmed in by fences. Or, in the case of humans, sequestered by thick walls, whether the impenetrable concrete of a physical prison or invisible barriers created by personality.
The sheep in this photo caught my eye, standing as sheep tend to do, ankle deep in reeking feces, munching loudly on stale hay and staring with baleful eyes at whatever looms into view. Ready to bolt en masse at the slightest sound. Yet can a sheep be part of the flock when it stands alone in the field, separated by fences garlanded with barbed wire?
Writers also struggle to graze alone, a struggle that is increasingly difficult to maneuver these days. I know, because lately my urge to see what everybody else is doing surmounts any discipline I have for my own writing and thinking. There‘s only one solution, to sever all connections – perhaps with the exception of Twitter – in the same way that a surgeon cuts off a gangrenous leg. Solitude turns out to be a gift that only I can give myself. I must wrest it away, from the relentless stream of information, pettiness, and hyperbole flooding through the computer screen every second.
Writing about his attempt to find the solitude to write, British author Paul Pickering says, “There is quiet, and then there is the sort of silence that hangs on your thoughts like a cloak of heavy wax.”(TLS, p. 16, September 4, 2015) He soon learns that the Provençal mas (house) where he’s trying to find his Muse carries an aura of power, but not of the earthly type. A neighbor tells him, “ ‘ It’s not that the place is haunted. It’s just that it is powerful and we have forgotten what it is like to be in nature. If you are working on a book or a painting you are more open to this, and it can be too much. Your head is too full.’ “
The Irish have a phrase for this in-betweenness, calling it the “thin veil,” the space between the so-called real world and the place where lie forces beyond human understanding. Pickering alludes to this place when he quotes a Catalan friend, who names this mysterious quality xiuxiuejava.
Getting to xiuxiuejava requires solitude and an openness to the things that usually hover behind walls and fences, ideas and emotions not spoken aloud. Society imposes these barricades and only the very few dare to storm them, tearing them asunder, and stomping on the wreckage for good measure. Artists and writers over the centuries, at least the ones now remembered, tended to be the souls that thumbed their noses at convention and struggled on even in the face of derision and exile. Most did not create their best work by committee. No, they sat in solitude, alone in a place, and gave themselves the freedom to do their work, unencumbered by societal expectations.
To do the work in today’s creative climate demands the same sort of self-exile, in this case away from social media, isolated like a solitary sheep munching grass in a pasture.