The Pleasures of Solitude

Category: Reading

I've never been offered a fellowship before, so when I was awarded the Robert Louis Stevenson fellowship I was, of course, thrilled. The idea is: I go to France for a month, stay at Hotel Chevillon in Grez Sur Loing, and work on my second collection of poetry.

I don't know what I imagined this would be like. I thought, before I left, that I understood the meaning of 'quiet'. I suppose I pictured coffee and cafes and poems covered in buttery croissant crumbs, some background accordion music creating a tranquil soundtrack. What I was unprepared for, however, was the dazzling amount of solitude here. The village has one bakery, one restaurant, a shop, a post office and a bar which seems to cater exclusively to men who smoke. All one needs for human civilization to flourish! The streets are quiet and mostly empty yet there is a river where I feed ducks stale ends of bread, a few small ponds, and myself. Of all of this – myself feels the most strange and yet familiar.

Entire days go by without contact with other people. The big old house and the smallness of this village reminds me of being a boy. Do you remember that dizzy pleasure of being alone when you were young? I see myself on a carpet, by myself, in my own room, at peace with the parents away. No one to tell you to mow the lawn, do your homework, go outside and play. Combined with a lack of mobility – an inability to drive and the lack of anywhere really to drive to – I feel about 15 again. I can remember how those long days would become pleasant as I began to understand how much I actually enjoy writing – as a way to play, as a way to talk to myself. How I learned to distract myself with books or music, how I would get lost in some project – alphabetizing CDs or comics.

It has been decades since I've had this unique kind of space. Not a train to worry about. Not a meeting to forget or a coffee to chat over. At first, I admit, I was scared by how long it has been since I'd been properly alone. Days of nothing and everything are rare. A Boxing Day kind of feeling. It is unique for me now – a city dweller with always someplace to go, a mobile phone, a million ways to kill time.

I recently listened to an interview with Sherry Turkle, who wrote the book 'Alone Together'. At one point she said we “need to develop a capacity for solitude, otherwise you will always be lonely.” And this is what I've been doing with this fellowship. It looks like I'm reading sentimental chapters of 'Little Women' and making marks on pages, and flicking through old issues of the American Poetry Review, but really I've been learning again how to be alone. How to make friends with ducks, how to take a walk and kick fallen leaves, how to look out a window and not check for more email. And, in this environment – in becoming familiar with myself again – I've manage understand what my second collection will look and sound like. It isn't exciting and, frankly, I don't care to make it sound exciting. But it is good. And it is something I can take back to Edinburgh with me, something you can create without having to come all the way to France. Somewhere near you are some ducks. And here is a poem by Wendell Berry who regularly reminds me to get away from screens, which is what I'm going to do right now.

Ryan Van Winkle

Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, organiser and host of popular literary cabaret The Golden Hour, editor at Forest Publications, Reader in Residence with Edinburgh Libraries and host of our new Bookmarked podcast. Ryan won the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship for 2012, which enabled him to travel to France to work on his poetry.