The Art of Loneliness

Me at Badlands National Park, South Dakota, June 2019. Photo by Scott Pretorius.

The more I pursue my artistic interests—whether photography, music, filmmaking, or any of the others—the more I embrace the self-prescribed loneliness that goes with that pursuit.

Loneliness as an artist isn’t a universal truth, of course. But I find in my experience it is a fundamental one.

Pursuit of competency, excellence, and ultimately, mastery of an art—or really, anything—requires an immense amount of time and dedication. Hundreds and thousands of hours of relentless trial and error, learning and unlearning, doing and doing over, and sometimes singlemindedness that can lean into obsession. And a lot of those hours are spent alone. If not physically, then certainly mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Passionate, honest pursuit of an artform as a labor of love often means pushing aside the comfort and convenience of social interactions. It often means effectively sequestering oneself from the outside world, and often even our own social circles. Even those who support us the most—including those who are partners or collaborators on a project, such as band members—can become obstacles on the artistic path, pulling us away from our focus and vision. Not necessarily through ill-intention, but simply as distraction.

Humans are social creatures. Even the most introverted of us need social interaction, even if it’s only by quietly sharing the same space as someone who matters to us. In my own moments of introversion, I love having my girlfriend just be in the same room as I am doing her own thing while I’m working. But that need for even the most minimal and unintrusive forms of social interaction can still prove distracting for many artists. When she is with me while I’m working, especially when I’m out in the field doing photos or video work, I become acutely aware of how much time I’m actually spending working, and begin to worry about how that’s affecting her, and if I’m keeping her from doing things she would rather be doing—even though it’s always her choice to go with me. In other words, her presence becomes a distraction that can make me rush my work or be sloppy with it, because I feel like I need to just get it done for her sake.

(This is where I interject that she’s not just my girlfriend, but also my partner in several of my photographic and filmmaking pursuits, which kinda makes some of the point I’m trying to make here. Further, this isn’t me taking an opportunity to publicly complain about her, just using my own experience to illustrate what I’m talking about and what goes on in my head—this is nothing she doesn’t already know, as we’ve talked about these things quite a bit. None of this is a complaint against her or anyone else, just an observation on the reality of things, at least in my experience. Paradoxically, even when she’s being an unintentional “distraction” with her very presence, I typically enjoy working more when she’s just there; her presence is most definitely a comfort to me.)

As an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time waiting on things: the right moment, for inspiration, the right gear or tools, the right skills, the right people, or for other people to be ready, willing, and able to go along with me on my journey. The thing is that all of my most significant progression as an artist came when I stopped waiting and started doing. Instead of waiting for inspiration, I’d make myself work and inspiration would happen, if for no other reason than doing something I didn’t like would trigger an idea that I might like. Instead of waiting for the right gear or skills, I used what I had and made the most of them, maximizing the potential of my gear (sometimes eventually outgrowing it) while improving my skills through practice and experience. Instead of waiting on other people to either come along and enable me or to be ready to go on my adventures with me, I’ve moved forward on my own and done some of the things I’ve wanted and needed to as an artist, regardless of—and sometimes in spite of—my social network and obligations to it.

And sometimes, that last choice can really suck, no matter how liberating it can be.

Because it can lead to loneliness.

It can lead to making people you care about feel like you’re pushing them away or isolating yourself away from them, and perhaps cause them their own loneliness. It can mean significantly changing or even ending relationships that are otherwise healthy, functional, and meaningful. It’s a choice of self-fulfillment, which some might call selfishness, but if we aren’t fulfilling ourselves can we really ever be anything but a liability in anyone else’s world or life?

In a collaborative situation or partnerships, such as a band, this can really lead to tension and friction, and often personal heartbreak. For example, I’m in a band. The other four guys in the band are family to me, brothers in a shared adventure and with a similar end goal: to make music that we enjoy and hope others will too. We can sit around and hang out and talk about anything in the world except music, but eventually the conversation always comes back to it. Often in the form of talking about other artists, but always about ours. And while our friendships are great, where things shine are those moments when we’re playing together and things aren’t just good, but -right-. It’s magic. Any and every person in a band can tell you that they have that experience. Few of us can describe it. But that’s taking me away from the point I’m trying to make.

The guys in my band and I share a common interest with a common (loosely defined) goal. The “sharing” stops there though. We all have our own ideas of what “success” is as an artist and how to get there. We all also have individual wants and priorities. For some of us, being on stage (no matter how big or small the venue or crowd) is the priority and ultimate goal. For others, being a fulltime working musician and paying the bills that way is the goal. For others—me, specifically—the priority is just the act of creating/making the music. Sure, I love being on stage, but I get the most joy out of writing/composing/arranging songs and taking them from the demo process to the final recording.

Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with individual priorities and goals in a band environment, so long as they can come together to keep the collective effort moving forward, but they can become restrictive and limiting. We all have different influences and interests musically that we enjoy and want to pursue and bring into the band’s music. But that doesn’t always work out, and it certainly doesn’t always make sense. For instance, we’re a metal band, but some of our interests or influences wouldn’t make sense in that context, or we as a band have agreed that adding those elements into our music isn’t something we collectively want to do. Which is totally cool. But it means that sometimes an idea someone is passionate about and maybe even feels -should- be part of the band’s sound or style gets stifled. For me, it sometimes means that ideas or songs I bring to the band environment change in ways that are difficult for me to accept; it also means that sometimes what I see as my vision for the band and our music is changed in ways that cause me to feel like I’ve lost a piece of myself. The thing is, that’s not unique to me—everyone in the band deals with that. It’s part of being in the band. But it also means that other outlets have to be found (which is how side projects and solo albums happen, by and large).

Which brings us back to the loneliness.

Music I want to explore gets done on my own. Even the stuff I take to the band starts with me alone in my office with my guitar and computer, without their input until I feel I’m ready for it. Sure, we could stand around in our practice space jamming out ideas at each other until we come to a consensus on a new song idea, but that doesn’t work for me. And as a musician, I’ve grown much faster being able to sit down and do the initial work on my own than if I waited around for the other guys to pitch in their ideas. I’m sure the same is true for them as well.

The short of it here is that even in a collaborative setting, there’s a lot of loneliness and doing things on my (our) own.

In my own photo and video work, I have to consciously make the same choice to just go and do. Even if I have company on a photo trip, the hours spent going through, sorting, and editing photos after is done on my own.

There are a lot of things I’d like to do as an artist that need not just the presence of others, but their active participation in some way. I prefer to do things with other people. I’d rather take that photo/video road trip with someone than do it on my own. But more often than not, if I were to wait for someone to be ready, willing, or able to go with me, I’d never go. Or I’d never get that song written. Or that video shot. Or…. Yeah. You get the point.

My point isn’t that others hold artists back—we do it to ourselves because we crave social interaction. Art isn’t created from a void. It’s created out of the experiences of our lives, which means the people in them as well. But when it’s time to create the art that is inspired by those people and those experiences, it means retiring from the world and letting our souls out onto the canvas, the paper, the screen, the stage, the music, the whatever. Even in performative art, what you see is only what the performer wants you to see. You probably see their soul bared to the world. What you don’t see are all the hours spent alone working and practicing and getting that performance ready.

And you don’t see the loneliness that goes with that.

Most of us turn that loneliness into an art form—and it often shows in our work, if you know what to look for.

This whole ramble is cliché, I get it. There’s no shortage of “Oh, see the poor artist and what they go through to make their art for the world who takes them for granted!” in the media. And while I recognize that is probably the impact this will have on people, it’s not my intent. I just had this on my mind and thought I’d dump it here, into the electronic void. I guess there’s also that thing of worrying that I’ve made others feel unimportant or as little more than means to an end in my pursuits. It’s hard to articulate how untrue that is–the reality is that a lot of my art happens not just because of other people, but for other people. And maybe some of them will read this.

Besides all that, it was too long for a regular Facebook post.  

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