“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company”
June 8, 2015 4:44 AM   Subscribe

Is Social Rejection the Key to Creativity? 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.
posted by nevercalm (37 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
If you're lonely and you know it, make some art!
posted by jefflowrey at 5:02 AM on June 8, 2015 [16 favorites]

Seems to me like it works the other way around: creativity makes you less likely to fit in with the crowd and can lead to social rejection. Which gives you more time to hang out with your thoughts and work on your art; it's a cycle.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:11 AM on June 8, 2015 [14 favorites]

I'm not sure. I think that it's no coincidence that our known Western creative geniuses have usually been socially rejected and/or had mental illnesses, but what about those who were just highly creative? I imagine quite a few of them were otherwise integrated into their communities.

Also, I do not think this would apply to creatives outside if Europe or the Americas. Chinua Achebe was a prolific writer, but did not document a history of sadness.
posted by Ashen at 5:12 AM on June 8, 2015

Also, what Metroid Baby said.
posted by Ashen at 5:14 AM on June 8, 2015

I tend to feel a little uncharitable toward articles like this, which, doubtless unfairly, I imagine within a framework along the lines of:

Unstated premise: Alas, I am lonely (and/or depressed, and/or alcoholic)!
Article: However, many great geniuses throughout history have also been lonely (and/or depressed, and/or alcoholic).
Unstated conclusions: Therefore I don’t feel quite so alone (and/or really sad, and/or in need of another drink). Could it be that my loneliness (and/or depression and/or alcoholism) hints at my as-yet unrecognized genius?

Also, I found this paragraph a bit odd (emphasis mine):
Sharon H. Kim is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University who focuses on individual and group creativity. She did her undergraduate work at the Ohio State University and completed her doctorate at Cornell. She has jet-black hair and chunky black spectacles to match. In her most recent study, she found evidence that people tend to be more creative if they have been socially rejected.
As if her appearance were her most important credential. Would Mr. Delistraty have mentioned it if she was a brunette who wore contact lenses?
posted by misteraitch at 5:20 AM on June 8, 2015 [19 favorites]

What Joachim Du Bellay said :
"Qui veut voler par les mains et bouches des hommes doit demeurer longuement en sa chambre; et qui désire vivre en la mémoire de la postérité, doit, comme mort en soi-même, suer et trembler maintesfois, et, autant que nos poètes courtisans boivent , mangent et dorment à leur aise, endurer de faim, de soif et de longues vigiles. Ce sont les ailes dont les écrits des hommes volent au ciel"

> (Who wants to fly through the hands and mouths of men should spend much time in his room; and who wishes to live in the memory of posterity, must, like death itself, sweat and tremble maintesfois, and as far as our courtiers poets drink, eat and sleep at ease, endure hunger, thirst and long vigils. These are the wings of men whose writings fly sky) - [raw electronic translation]
posted by nicolin at 5:27 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Creativity stems from the ability to make original, unique connections, to bind together disparate information in a way that few are able to accomplish. “Creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way — seeing things that others cannot see,” writes neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen. Often, the only way to see what others cannot see is to experience what others cannot imagine experiencing: rejection, isolation, loneliness.

Wait, what? How does that follow?
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:46 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah it can be really tough to be lonely, but, well actually, so so much better than the alternative.

(the yammering, chattering, inane repetitive noise) :-)
posted by sammyo at 5:53 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm not convinced (famous) artists are so uniquely lonely as perhaps uniquely equipped to communicate it.
posted by meinvt at 6:08 AM on June 8, 2015 [16 favorites]

Is Social Rejection the Key to Creativity?

Say, obviously not, since there are so many more social rejects than there are artists.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:12 AM on June 8, 2015 [11 favorites]

Also "the lone genius" is so often male, because women are less frequently accorded the right to be alone. For every Virginia Woolf, right, a Doris Lessing. For every Joanna Russ, a Marge Piercy.

And really quite a lot of geniuses are gregarious - Samuel Delany seems to get around a bit, and so did Christopher Isherwood, and god knows Michel Foucault was a popular fellow. Goethe? Goethe actually went on his Italian tour at least in part to get away from his many and adoring friends so he had a bit of time to himself.

Basically, yeah, I don't think the "lone genius" idea holds water. There certainly are brilliant people who need or are forced into productive loneliness - maybe where this needs to go is "what can we learn about the type of brilliant person who is a lone genius?
posted by Frowner at 6:14 AM on June 8, 2015 [16 favorites]

I watched the film "Frank" recently and while I didn't like it, I thought it made a good point the creative disciplines tend to glorify mental illness (and loneliness) as fuel for creative work. Sure, maybe being a highly sensitive individual can lead to greater susceptibility to loneliness, anxiety, and depression. However, art also takes a LOT of hard work and focus, and mental illness can hold the artist back.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 6:17 AM on June 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

Part of the process of creativity is to find creative ways to be social!

I can be completely on my own and be perfectly content, but I also gain energy and inspiration from people around me. Creativity has nothing to do with social rejection.

What isolation does do is free up your time to practice and experiment. People have to do something, and if it is not hitting the nightclubs, it's being at home writing poetry. You have only so much of you to go around: people who have more time to be creative perfect it while the social butterflies have their potential untapped.

To me, socializing while creating is the best way to have the best of both world.
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:27 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Always with the attempts to pigeonhole "what makes a creative" as if, once this discovered, they can be bred and sold at auction to movie studios and publishing houses.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:36 AM on June 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

The thesis just seems entirely untrue to me. People with talent are shunned? No they're not. Artists are anti-social? No, they notoriously form schools and groups and constantly look over each other's shoulders. “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely,” so, Aldous, you reckon people who are exceptionally funny or clever and have a gift for self-expression never get invited to parties?
posted by Segundus at 6:47 AM on June 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

Really hope we nip the "only lonely genius" idea in the bud soon. It's just one way to create art, but really the creative process means you need inspiration, ideas, people to bounce off of. The community of artists who are into the same thing and show each otheer their crazy stuff is just as important, if not more, than the lone artist (who's really good at hiding their sources).
posted by Therapeutic Amputations at 6:49 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Damnit, what Segundus said.
posted by Therapeutic Amputations at 6:51 AM on June 8, 2015

I think this has more to do with the personality type and favourite area to express creativity than loneliness = instant genious. What might happen is that people with less active social lives can accomplish more with their time (in terms of practice and execution) than people who are socially obligated to go to a dinner party on Monday, some function on Wednesday, movies Friday and bars on Saturday.

I'm a loner, but sometimes, I need a change of setting, going out with a friend or something, but there's something inside my brain that can't be turned off. One time, I got shit from a friend because I spent most of time making drum patterns on the note app on my phone, while we were out with a friend of her and her boyfriend, who was a smug asshole and my brain started to turn off everytime he said something. Still, I need to socialize every time in a while. Maybe just not with, you know, assholes.

But in the end, the creative process in unique. A lot of creatives are loners. Others are incredibly social people for whom hell is spending one hour alone. Each gets their inspiration from different things: memories of childhood, fear, happiness, drugs, places in space and in time, and yes, loneliness. There's no universal theory for creativity.
posted by lmfsilva at 7:09 AM on June 8, 2015

I am not at all sure about this article and Kim's research focuses on a select group of college students, anecdotes and existing literature. I know very little about the day to day life of those who would be considered outstandingly creative but lonely never quite came into mind--Shakespeare, Picasso, Hemingway, The Bloomsbury Group, The Algonguin Roundtable, The Beatles, Leonard Bernstein, The Stein Salon and the list could go on and on of artists who appeared to enjoy an active social life--suicide, alcoholism, depression were a part of some of their lives but that is true of any group of people. When it comes to mathematicians, theoretical physicists logicians, some philosophers etc there may have been a greater experience of social isolation/distance. Wiring is wiring--I don't think anyone is going to accuse Glen Gould of being overly social/engaging but I seriously doubt if his or their brilliance was related to the rejections they experienced. Those who are exceedingly creative are first and foremost human and humanity comes with a mixed bag of joy, despair, isolation, engagement etc. As one poster just said--let's get off the lonely/despairing artists train--I can assure that those who muddles through life with only a scrap of creativity also have their share of the rejected, lonely and despairing. BTW--the writer (Cody C. Delistraty) of this article has black hair sometimes appears bemused/puzzled/perplexed and is given to being photographed in black and gray clothing. Not sure where he stands on the lonely artist scale. A right proper looking chap however.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:09 AM on June 8, 2015

Also, what's meant by "loneliness"? It would be interesting to know just how lonely the average person is. I mean, when Conrad is saying "we live as we dream, alone" he's not just talking about special snowflake creatives*.

There's obvious kinds of loneliness - literally not having anyone in your life to care about and who cares about you, or being separated from those people by force of circumstances. And I think that's the worst kind, the most serious and destructive kind.

But how many people are lonely in, as it were, a crowd? And why? That's the kind of loneliness that I think gets either romanticized (it's a sign that you are a special snowflake!) or pathologized (you need to volunteer at the homeless shelter! and take up CBT!).

And what degree of loneliness in a crowd is typical? If you are, for example, a provincial gay writer in post-war Britain, perhaps your loneliness isn't about being a special creative but about having artistic and social concerns that are socially unacceptable where you are.

Are some people lonely by character, and whence comes that character? I mean, I'm a lonely person with a circle of doting friends, and that's very clearly because I had an extremely socially isolated childhood and adolescence plus some YA Social Problem Novel-worthy instances of rejection and just never built certain habits of relating to people. I would not say that this makes me creative or special or even especially unhappy - I'm not sure that "loneliness" is the same as "unhappiness". "Literally not having people to care about or being sundered from them", that's being unhappy.

Van Gogh was lonely; I would bet my bottom dollar that Renoir and Degas were pretty sociable. You have to wonder how much class plays into that kind of loneliness, too - Van Gogh is poor, so he's a nutter; Renoir is a bourgeois gentleman of leisure, so his creative endeavors may be novel and eccentric but he has a refuge.

*"We Live As We Dream, Alone", by Gang of Four, is one of my favorite songs. But only when I was listening to it for probably literally the five or six hundredth time did I realize that the title/chorus is actually contradicted by the body of the song. (Dialectics from a fucking marxist band, who knew.)
posted by Frowner at 7:15 AM on June 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

Reminds me of J.F. Sebastian from Blade Runner

-Do you live in this building all by yourself?
-Yeah, I live here pretty much alone right now.
-No housing shortage around here.
-Plenty of room for everybody.
-Watch out for the water.
-Must get Ionely here, J.F.
-Not really. I make friends. They're toys. My friends are toys. I make them.
posted by chavenet at 7:53 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've always suspected that the main key to creativity is the drive to set oneself apart/amass wealth and/or prestige/attract a mate.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:56 AM on June 8, 2015

Creativity often requires solitude. It is indeed hard to write or draw or create if you are being interrupted every thirty seconds. It stands to reason therefore that there might be an overlap between people who are lonely and people who are creative. The group that is common to both is people that are alone. But there are plenty of people who would be creative if only they could get some down time and plenty of people who are lonely but who never get the chance to be alone.

Similarly some people find that an altered consciousness as when you are slightly drunk, or having the DT's or a psychotic break, or a migraine delirium, allow you to link ideas and come up with images that would otherwise not bubble up to your consciousness. But there are a number of other things that allow ideas to bubble up that don't require your brain to be in trouble. Apparently simply having thinner myelin sheathing means more cross wiring and the ability to think in unusual directions. There were an awful lot of creative people throughout history who were not alcoholics...

It puzzles me why this old trope keeps getting trotted out. My guess is not just that alcoholics are comforting themselves by equated alcoholism with creativity, but that non-creative people are comforting themselves with the sour-grapes belief that in order to create you have to be miserable.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:01 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've always suspected that the main key to creativity is the drive to set oneself apart/amass wealth and/or prestige/attract a mate.

This is true in my experience, but then again I am a Vogelkop bowerbird.
posted by theodolite at 8:04 AM on June 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

I'm not sure. I think that it's no coincidence that our known Western creative geniuses have usually been socially rejected and/or had mental illnesses, but what about those who were just highly creative? I imagine quite a few of them were otherwise integrated into their communities.

The image of the lone, solitary, slightly crazed and/or mentally ill artist is also a very specific Romantic identity not necessarily shared by other cultures and/or other time periods.
posted by suedehead at 8:10 AM on June 8, 2015

Would Mr. Delistraty have mentioned it if she was a brunette who wore contact lenses?

I doubt a man's appearance would have been mentioned at all.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:17 AM on June 8, 2015

Well, i have noticed that science fiction writers for one are universally antisocial and totally avoid things like conventions and internet forums. Isn't that right, cstross?
posted by happyroach at 8:21 AM on June 8, 2015

I'd give my creativity up for some people to hang out with on a regular basis.

I frequently go most weekends without anyone to speak to, so I pretty much bury myself into my work. If by some miracle one of the several people I contact didn't cancel on me then I'll absolutely put the work down to see them. This is rare, though.

I don't know of the loneliness is related to creativity. I remember having roughly the same amount of creativity when I had friends. There is really no one to bounce ideas off of. My feeling is that at least I can count on being able to work on something, rather than hope someone actually wants to see me.

While I try to go to meetups they don't really provide an in depth connection with others, as I'm meeting many people for the first time.

A lot of my creative works revolve around a group that's known each other for a while, and I can't help but think I've subconsciously done this; since I can't make friends the alternative is to literally conjure them up.
posted by hellojed at 8:27 AM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

MetaFilter: the yammering, chattering, inane repetitive noise
posted by Sangermaine at 8:29 AM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

The successful creative people I know are extremely sociable. The adjectives for creatives who aren't outgoing and (at least in personality) attractive -- tend be: unemployed, unproduced, unpublished, unexhibited ...
posted by MattD at 9:22 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

MattD, that's an interesting point, and I wonder if there might be some legitimate connection between "unsung" geniuses, or people only recognized after they're dead, and anti-social tendencies.

The first pioneers of a style or idea are often passed over in their own time, and maybe that's because they didn't have the social skills to succeed in their life, whereas those they influenced may be more well-adjusted. The insufferable jerk musician languishing alone and unknown today might be the widely-cited inspiration of a future generation of musicians.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:20 PM on June 8, 2015

Lotsa concern about genius, art, creativity, gender, clothes and glasses, but only one poster used the word "different" independently of Huxley's quote. I believe he was onto something, although I'd have preferred he use the term "eccentric," and I'm not sure that breeds "lonely" as much as alone. Angst be damned.
posted by issue #1 at 1:54 PM on June 8, 2015

I'd wager that what gets successfully risen to the top as "genius" has less to do with 'brooding rejected loner' and much more to do with a combination of capital and luck. Capital is key: social capital, financial capital, the means and receptive audience to get yourself out there and communicate your singular vision. Capital reinforces self-worth and drive. Having the sense that you will be listened to, that your voice will be valued, contributes to your sense that your art will go somewhere in the world. And that often ends up being the case. It's why people with tremendous capital and privilege like Jonathan Franzen end up as the ones being hailed as "geniuses". He has a book of essays called How to Be Alone, but I imagine his idea of solitude/loneliness is vastly different from, say, a socially anxious black nerd in Ohio with no friends or capital or family support who is trying to just figure out how to live day-to-day, forget communicating their genius to the world.

This might be a bit pessimistic, but I feel like most true outsiders are beaten down enough over the course of their lives to feel like getting their work "out there" is a pipe dream. They have no capital or outside reinforcement with which to have built up their vision of themselves as successful. They might create art that ends up in a drawer somewhere never to be seen or recognized.
posted by naju at 4:35 PM on June 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

Often, the only way to see what others cannot see is to experience what others cannot imagine experiencing: rejection, isolation, loneliness.

Pretty much why I have sex with Francium.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:09 PM on June 8, 2015

The successful creative people I know are extremely sociable. The adjectives for creatives who aren't outgoing and (at least in personality) attractive -- tend be: unemployed, unproduced, unpublished, unexhibited ...

That's what confirmation bias looks like.
posted by JHarris at 6:05 PM on June 8, 2015

I wrote a good new song last month, the first one in a long while.

posted by D.C. at 6:10 PM on June 8, 2015

the means and receptive audience to get yourself out there and communicate your singular vision.

At one end of this spectrum it seems clear that what genius exists is devoted to self-promotion. The field of effort doesn't matter, and people's success is considered the final measure of their genius.
posted by sneebler at 4:18 PM on June 9, 2015

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