Art and writing are means of self-expression. They provide an outlet to escape into another world, especially when the real world is full of chaos and cacophony. Some have become so removed from the world that they become known as “reclusive artists.”
As Susan Sontag wrote in a 1967 essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” “by silence, [the artist] frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer, antagonist, arbiter and distorter of his work.”1
Well-known writers and artists embraced this strategy of seclusion in order to dig more deeply into their work. American writers Harper Lee and Emily Dickenson are just two among others that chose a reclusive lifestyle as they worked and, often, once their work went public.
Harper Lee seemingly dropped off the map after publishing To Kill A Mockingbird. Although the book was a massive success, Lee chose to remain out of the limelight. She refused speaking engagements, claiming that “it’s better to be silent than to be a fool.”2
Emily Dickenson was a prolific writer, but was considered “eccentric” by neighbors, only speaking to them through a closed door. She almost never left her house and rarely interacted with people, yet her work is read and acclaimed to this day.
Sontag claimed that creation satisfied a “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.” Art and writing often require silence, and Dickenson and Lee embraced that silence and solitude to whittle their words into wonders.
Joseph “Joey” Franklin, associate professor of English, understands the seclusion that comes with his writing, although not by choice. The rise of a global pandemic forced artists and writers, like all people, into a mandatory seclusion from the rest of the world, thus turning most artists into involuntary recluses.
“It feels a little like working from space—all my professional communication reduced to what can be fit inside the frame of a tiny screen and be broadcast to my colleagues and students back on planet Earth,” Franklin said. “And yet, for as small and awkward and inadequate as that communication is, it feels more important than ever right now because everyone feels so much farther away than they used to.”
It feels a little like working from space—all my professional communication reduced to what can be fit inside the frame of a tiny screen and be broadcast to my colleagues and students back on planet Earth
Working from home has made Franklin appreciate how easy it used to be to stay on task. But it has also forced him to find ways of focusing on his work more intentionally.
“I used to be able to go to my office, shut the door, and get work done,” Franklin said. “I definitely have to fight for writing time now, way more than I used to. But I also didn’t think I would be able to work at home. The idea of getting any work at home used to be ridiculous to me. I didn’t have any notion that I could let the chaos go on out there, while getting work done.”
“The pandemic has created the necessity [so] that I figured out how to shut off my parent brain for a couple hours at a time and just focus on work,” said Franklin.
“As a writer, I often work in seclusion as it is, so the pandemic hasn’t had much of an effect on how I approach my writing. If anything, working from home means that I am now less isolated than I was before. I no longer write alone in my office, but ‘alone’ in my bedroom, while my boys attempt to stay on task with their homework and piano lessons and chores,” Franklin said.
For all writers and artists, Franklin advises making time to create, even when life is hectic.
“As [my kids] have figured out how to navigate the difficulties of being a student in the pandemic, it has allowed me time to figure out how to be a writer and a professional during the pandemic. Right now, I make goals each week about how much I want to write, and then try to write. If I could get three hours a day, that would be amazing. Usually it’s like three hours, a couple hours a couple times a week. The goal is [to write] every morning that I’m not teaching. Making goals has been really helpful.”
Outside of his personal writing time, Franklin has participated in collaborations with other professionals in his field despite the distance that separates him from his collogues. Franklin has participated in pre-recorded writing conference panels, worked on his book, swapped writing ideas with a colleague through Zoom, and written as a guest blogger for a major writing blog.
“Whereas in the past I have taken activities such as conference travel and readings for granted, I now appreciate more the value of social and professional interaction with colleagues in my own department and around the country,” Franklin said. “I do write in isolation, but I read and think and teach and write as part of a community of scholars and, in the absence of that regular interaction with that community, the occasional digital communion has become more important.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Humanities alumni magazine.
1. Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Studies of Radical Will, chapter 1. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969; Anchor Books, 1981; Picador USA, 2002
2. “Author has her say,” August 21, 2007, http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2007/08/21/author_has_her_say/.