What Great Artists Need: Solitude

The lesson author Dorthe Nors took from Ingmar Bergman: It's not drugs, poverty, or wild lovers that make a great writer. It's discipline and time alone.
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By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus III and more.

Doug McLean

Conventional wisdom tells us pain is good for art. Genius, the logic goes, is best drunk, unhappy, destitute, scarred by war or parenting, buoyed by illegal drugs or Merck. When I talked to Dorthe Nors, author of Karate Chop, for this series, she exploded the destructive notion that artists require (or should seek out) turbulence. Looking to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, her model of discipline and creative integrity, she addressed art’s psychic difficulty and the danger of glamorizing suffering. It’s because art is painful, Nors told me, that she strives to keep an even keel—the work itself is hard enough.

Today, Nors, an award-winning Danish writer, publishes her first book in English. Championed by American writers like Junot Diaz, who’s called Nors’s work “beautiful, faceted, [and] haunting,” and featured recently in The New Yorker, Karate Chop marks the arrival of a new literary talent to American shores. The longest story in the collection is nine pages, and most are only three or four—surprising narratives that brim with associative richness. Each piece is brief, unpredictable, and thrilling as a blown-up balloon’s flight, held by the nozzle and let go.

Karate Chop is the first book in a new collaboration between the celebrated independent publisher Graywolf Press and the literary quarterly A Public Space. Nors spoke to me by phone from her home in Copenhagen. “It’s dark most of the year up here,” she said, “and we get pretty used to staring into the fire. That leaves its mark on the art—but we get more sun than Sweden, and we have more fun.”


Dorthe Nors: Very few people know that Ingmar Bergman was an amazing writer. I actually prefer reading him to seeing his movies, sometimes. The most important of his books to me is The Magic Lantern, a memoir, which is not only his autobiography—it’s an essential guide to how to live your life as an artist. I suggest all writers and artists read Ingmar Bergman because he's so articulate about what it's like. Like a mirror being held up in front of you. 

It’s in this role—as a thinker about the creative life, as a kind of mentor artist—that Bergman has been so valuable to me. He’s played such an important role in my imagination that I fictionalized him as a character in my most recent book. That was fun, because the man was cuckoo. He lived his life completely outside what an ordinary Swedish person “should” live like. The Swedes are a little embarrassed about it, because—well, he had nine children from eight women. He never did what you're supposed to, and Swedes almost always do what you're supposed to do.

But also he was an extremely disciplined artist. He had no discipline in his personal life—I do—but he had extreme discipline when it came to his art and the way he ran his life around it. 

For the last 25 years of his life, he was married to the same woman, and the chaos of his life had settled. He lived on a small island called Faro, north of Gotland, where he would plan his films, write the scripts, make the screenboards, and everything. He limited his activities: Besides working and thinking, he might go for a stroll. He would only drink buttered skim milk, and have one cookie in the afternoon—his ailing stomach couldn't take more than that. In the late afternoon or evening, he would have visitors over to go and look at a movie in his cinema. And that was his routine, every day. He didn’t try to do more.

That's pretty disciplined to me—living primarily in service to one’s art. But we also hear the other myth: that you must live yourself out.

You know the cliché: You're out on the town, you're doing drugs, you're drinking, you're running on the walls, you're pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they're not actually producing that much art. They're living the life of the artist without the work.

If you live the kind of life that Bergman does—spending long hours in solitude, working with your art—sometimes people use medicine to smooth things over. They drink or take pills or whatever they do in order to deal with the painful sides of this. But so do people who don't produce art. It's not like only artists drink to cope. Doing so doesn’t make you more interesting or creative—and it may even destroy you.

Bergman wrote down an interesting story about a young actress who was teasing him for being too controlled—that he was not wild enough, and he didn't drink enough, and he didn't do this and that enough. And he says, well, she ended up in an insane asylum without teeth in her mouth, 50 years old. That's what she got from living herself out. 

We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life. One is not a requirement for the other. What's interesting about Bergman—he shows you can use your demons to pull your way through life. You can use them for good things instead of trying to let them destroy you. He wrote a diary every day of his life, and quotes can be read in the book called Images. One entry in particular captures the idea about the link between pain and creativity:

Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.

In the Swedish original it says “människa” (Swedish) or “menneske” (Danish), the word for human being—so, there is too much “human being” in me. It’s the human condition, you could say: memories, emotion, being, pain, even the simple fact of living, breathing. Everything at once: the human experience. We all have it, even the people who don’t—or can’t—express it through art. But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.

And this can be difficult. Here, he describes it as a flowing-over feeling: of containing too much, holding too much, feeling too much. We must examine experience until it becomes painful, excessive, overwhelming—too much humanity.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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