Lindsay’s call to rethink lady-solitude, as inspired by “A Room of One’s Own.”
I’m at home by myself on a Friday night. I feel like I’m supposed to give you some sort of excuse as to why this is OK. “I’m tired.” Or “I don’t feel well.” Or “I have to get up pretty early tomorrow.” But I’m not tired. And I feel fine. And I have absolutely nothing to do tomorrow. Truth is, I just felt like writing this.
Sometimes there’s nothing I like more than the quiet freedom of being alone. One of my favorite things to do after a particularly stressful day at work is to make an impromptu swing by the theater near my office to see a movie by myself. I love wandering around museums alone, lingering in front of my favorite pieces for as long as I like. If I want to see a band that no one else I know likes, I’ll go to their show by myself — and having nobody to talk to between songs, I’ll listen that much more closely. Even though I do enjoy sharing these kinds of experiences with other people, sometimes it’s just a nice change of pace to be alone. But in talking to some other people about this, I’ve been met with a lot of weird responses — “I don’t know how you do it;” “I guess I’m not that brave” — that make me realize how squeamish society is when it comes to embracing solitude.
And I’ve come to think that as a society we police female solitude more strictly than its male counterpart. The stereotypes abound: a man leaves a crowded room to be by himself and he’s contemplative or tired; a woman does the same and she’s moody or cold. A man can sit somewhere alone and give off an alluring air of mystery; a woman in the same scenario is almost always interpreted through the absence of a partner. All too often when we talk about women, the distinction between “alone” and “lonely” seems to evaporate. Superficial as it is, the Clooney/Aniston tabloid dichotomy (“He’s the eternal bachelor!” “She cries herself to sleep nightly and dreams of the babies she’ll never have!”), for one thing, stands as a pretty universally recognized embodiment of this larger social dynamic.
Don’t buy it? Just check out Tanya Davis and Andrea Dorfman’s recent, Youtube-beloved short, “How To Be Alone,” followed by Russell Smith’s criticism of it. (Followed, preferably, by Jezebel’s Hortense Smith’s magnificent skewering of his criticism.) Smith (,Russell) condemns the video — which includes such overtly twee but irresistibly uplifting lines as “if you’re happy in your head then solitude is blessed and lonely is OK” — as a meditation on “pair-bonding-obsessed weepiness,” “dealing with the angst that comes after a breakup” and a “balm for the wounds of a supposedly monolithically married society.” Smith doesn’t seem to realize that his reading itself is an embodiment of the double standard. Although Davis — the only person in the video — is a woman, at no point does she distinguish that the video is directed only towards women, or that her alone-ness is meant to be read as particularly feminine or post-break-up or yearning after some goal of “pair-bonding.” Because it’s not. “How To Be Alone” is a universal address about how to escape from the grip of these sorts of conventional readings of alone-ness in favor of a more individualized cultivation of self, but Smith’s knee-jerk assumption that any woman who’s singing the praises of solitude must be doing so because she’s just been dumped or weepy about being single goes to show how narrow an understanding of female solitude most people continue to cling to.
It wasn’t until I re-read Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” a few weeks ago that I began to wonder if some of society’s general befuddlement over expressions of female solitude has wrapped up in it left-over anxiety about female creativity. As Woolf reminds us in the title of her essay, solitude is conducive — necessary, even — to creativity. She enumerates the difficulties women had in the past attaining solitude. In one of her most powerful examples, Woolf points out that when Jane Austen was writing her novels, “it was impossible for a woman to go about alone.” So Austen had to stow away to work on her manuscripts in secret, given that all her alone time had to be spent so surreptitiously. “Jane Austen was glad that a hinge creaked,” Woolf writes, “so that she might hide her manuscript before anyone came in. To Jane Austen there was something discreditable in writing Pride and Prejudice” — simply because to her society, there was something discreditable about a woman left to her own devices. And though we’d all like to think we’ve come a long way since, I think our contemporary society still finds, in many public and private circumstances, something “discreditable” about a woman alone. It’s a good thing some women disagree — if not, there’d be no Pride and Prejudice, no “A Room of One’s Own,” no “How To Be Alone.” And, as it draws late on this lovely Friday night — I certainly wouldn’t have finished writing this thing.
To me, the first step in combating the social befuddlement surrounding female solitude is — especially when talking about women — to recognize the difference between loneliness and aloneness. Lorrie Moore, speaking at the New Yorker festival last week, made this distinction with a characteristic zing: “You can’t carve solitude out of loneliness — you need people to get away from them.” The next step is, with “A Room of One’s Own” as a terrific guide, to recognize solitude as a necessary (and empowering) aspect of the creative process, and to celebrate it as such.