Shobha Rao: On Solitude

Lang Welcome Talk, by Shobha Rao, 2018 Grace Paley Teaching Fellow

Presented Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018


Good morning. It is my pleasure to be here with you.

I would like to talk to you today about community. But in doing so, I’d like to talk to you by speaking to its most necessary and its most elusive twin: solitude.

Community and solitude may seem unrelated, maybe even anathema, but I consider them absolutely linked. Maybe even the same.

Let me explain:

We are here today at the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, you and I, and so I would venture to guess that we are deeply committed to the life of the mind. That we consider the imagination worthy of exploring, deepening, and destabilizing. And community, certainly, is a way to do all of these things. Friends, mentors, muses. We are in New York City, and so there is no shortage of any of these. But here is something that there may be a shortage of. That we may need to fight for. And that is more important to the imagination than all the friends and mentors and muses in the world: and that is solitude.

I would like to tell you a story.

In 2014, I was contracted to write a novel. For any writer, it is a dream come true. But the only problem was, I had no idea what to write about. None. I didn’t have any characters, not a single one, I had zero ideas for a plot; I didn’t even have a vague theme. Nothing. So I contacted my editor and told her my dilemma. She thought about it for a little bit, and said, “Why don’t you write about this?” Now, it doesn’t matter what she told me, because it didn’t work. In fact, it was miserable. I wrote the novel with the premise she suggested – an excruciating and grueling process, much like pulling teeth. I turned it in, and she rejected it. Outright. She rejected it because it was a bad novel. It was awful. It had no heart; it had no heat. In other words, it didn’t come from within. Not in the least.

By now it’s 2016. Two years have gone by. And I am in a pickle. I still have no ideas. It’s as if all my creative juices have just stopped. Dried up. And there I am, sitting in my apartment in San Francisco, day after day after day, and staring at a blank screen.

So now back to the solitude.

Around this time, a friend of mine who is from South Dakota told me that his mom had recently bought a small cabin outside the Badlands National Park. Because neither he nor his mom had time to go stay there, he said to me, “Do you know anyone who might want to go out there instead? Maybe for a long weekend, a week?” I didn’t have to think about it for long. Almost immediately, I said, “I do know someone. But I would like to stay for two months.” And just as quickly, my friend said, “No, no. You can’t do that. It’s too isolated for a woman alone. For anyone alone. And certainly not for that long.”

But I was determined.

You see: I had already done to death the community portion of a creative life. I’d talked endlessly with friends. Asked for advice. Read books, gone to readings, sat in the company of people far more accomplished than myself. Now it was time for the quiet. For the true voice.

Quiet is within, certainly, but quiet is also without. Still, nothing in my life had prepared me for how profoundly quiet, how intensely isolated this cabin in South Dakota was. It was on open prairie. Miles and miles of it. The nearest town was three miles away, and it had a population of 47. Forty-seven. Out there, there were no people, no cars, nothing. For days, there was hardly any sound on that prairie. In fact, it was so quiet, so silent, so devoid of movement or sound, that a bird flying past the cabin would thrill me. And if it happened to chirp as it flew past, I would begin to weep.

In addition to the silence, there was one other thing on that prairie, and that was storm. I would look to the west – three or four or five times a week – and out of the Black Hills would come these tremendous, powerful thunderstorms. Lightening in every direction. Thunder booming from what felt like out of the earth. And because the cabin wasn’t anchored to the ground, and simply resting on a tractor trailer bed – something my friend hadn’t told me before I went to the Badlands – the 70 and 80 mile an hour winds would shake the cabin like it was a snow globe. There was no escaping the intensity of those prairie storms. Sometimes I would hide in a corner, crouching with my eyes closed, my hands over my ears. But as soon as the storm was over, the silence would return. And so that was all there was: silence and storm.

The first few days on the Badlands, I was terrified. And I was horribly alone. I had never in my life known such silence. Nor such storms. I thought at times, during those first few days, that I might go mad. Toggling as I was between the fear of silence and the fear of storms. But I didn’t. I didn’t go mad. Not that I know. Because here is what I did have: I had solitude. There was no noise. There were no people, obviously, but I also had no television, no internet, and no radio. I had nothing but my imagination.

And this led me to realize something else very quickly, and it was this: if I was to have any company out on that prairie, if I was to have any friends or mentors or muses, any whatsoever, I’d have to write them. I would have to write them into existence.

I had no other choice.

Two months later I had the first draft – which was very close to the final draft – of my novel Girls Burn Brighter.

Now, what does all this mean? What does any of this have to do with community? And how is this even relevant to you, to us, here today, in the middle of New York City?

Here is what I say:

We are here to create. We are here to think. We are here to imagine.

And nothing is as brave and as necessary for any of those things than solitude. To sit alone, to walk alone, to eat alone. To wander the halls of our minds. Alone. What we do in this aloneness is to deepen our sense of self. Our sense of what is possible. We become, in this solitude, richer. So that when we do venture out of this solitude, when we do engage with our friends and our mentors and our muses, what we bring to them is an enriched self. A more self-realized self. And so we then participate in a more meaningful community. A stronger community. And a community to which you have more to contribute, and from which you have more to gain.

Because community without solitude is just noise. And that is something we have an abundance of.

So take long walks by yourself. Memorize a poem. Walk into a museum on a whim. Sit and stare out of a window.

Weep at the flight and the call of a bird.

Thank you.


Photo credit: Christian Begeman


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