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.

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.

He goes on: “It oozes out of me like a broken tube of toothpaste; it doesn’t want to stay within the confines of my body. A strange feeling of weight and volume. Soul volume perhaps, which rises like clouds of smoke and envelops my body.”

I first read this section on an island called Bornholm, not far from Sweden where Bergman lived. And sitting on a cliff there, I just went, aha, yes, I know what this is like.

All human beings have these moments when we feel this outpouring, our “soul volume,” as he says, being pushed out from us like toothpaste from a tube. Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression. And when I read a good text or see a good movie or enjoy a good piece of art—it is the humanity, this poured-out human experience, that I detect.

(You have to know that there’s a bit of a double-entendre in this choice of metaphor. Bergman suffered from very bad stomach problems; he had diarrhea all the time. So this line is also humorous—when humanity became too strong in him, he had to run to the loo. That form of humanity poured from him, too.)

I've often met artists who say it's good to smoke marijuana or do this or that it will do things for things for your creativity. But basically, that's just an excuse to take it. If you’ve got humanity pouring out of your veins, you don't need anything to trigger it.

And then there’s the fact that he emphasizes “solitude”—that the artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours. That’s when the work happens. You have to control the creative energy that you've got. You have to discipline yourself to fulfill it. And that work only happens alone.

Solitude, I think, heightens artistic receptivity in a way that can be challenging and painful. When you sit there, alone and working, you get thrown back on yourself. Your life and your emotions, what you think and what you feel, are constantly being thrown back on you. And then the “too much humanity” feeling is even stronger: you can't run away from yourself. You can't run away from your emotions and your memory and the material you're working on. Artistic solitude is a decision to turn and face these feelings, to sit with them for long periods of time.

It takes the courage to be there. You run into your own pettiness. Your own cowardice. You run into all kinds of ugly sides of yourself. But the things that you've experienced in your life become the writing that you do. And there's no easy way to get to it, if you want to write literary fiction.

And that's what Bergman and other Swedish writers have taught me—to stay in that painful zone, discipline myself through it to get where I want.

It’s very hard because I'm a social kind of person. I like talking to people and having fun. But you have to divide your life up. I enjoy the zone I get in when I’m courageous enough to stay with my solitude for awhile. That’s when the really good stuff comes. But the solitude of being a writer should have a warning label on it.

It’s sitting with challenging emotion—the process itself can be so difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to move on. But if I'm bored by what I'm writing, I'm pretty sure that other people will be bored by it. But sometimes you have to push yourself through all this stuff that doesn't work, because by the end of that you might get somewhere new and worthwhile. That's the hard part—pushing through the bad.

I try to remember that I’m writing all the time—even when I’m not writing. You pick up on things every moment; you’re always having the radar out. You're always examining things, storing things. But when writers don't write for too long—they become more and more annoyed, and then they become an annoying person to be around. Suddenly there's this itch—a physical itch, like you're having the flu or something.  You need to push the toothpaste out.

I went to the island where Bergman lived, two years ago, and visited the cemetery where he was buried. That was a great moment. It was raining, and no one was around. I’d brought some hot coffee in the thermos to keep me warm. And I sat down on the grave and said, "Look, Ingmar, you never drank much coffee alive because your stomach gave you so much trouble.”

So I poured out a little cup of coffee and gave it to him. And we shared a drink together.