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The writer who chooses solitude finds purpose and inspiration in the absence of others

As a writer I spend much of my day alone and at times inevitably wonder about my solitude, its meaning and its consequences. Perhaps that's why I'm drawn to the journals of those for whom solitude is habitual. From one entry to the next, as thoughts and moods well up and subside, I see how it's confronted hour by hour, even minute by minute, and how it's never just one thing -- ``not merely a negative relationship. . . . not merely the absence of people," Thomas Merton wrote.

Merton's journal, ``The Sign of Jonas," records five of his early years as a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky . For Merton, solitude was essential for the journey of his soul -- the means to the perfection of prayer -- and required an active searching of imagination, thought, memory, beliefs. ``Solitude means being lonely not in a way that pleases you," he writes, ``but in a way that frightens and empties you to the extent that it means being exiled even from yourself."

The monastery was still new to him when he wrote ``The Sign of Jonas," and you can feel the sheer enthusiasm he holds for his chosen life. Even his apparently simple descriptions of the natural world can swerve into rapture, and such lightning shifts make apparent just how susceptible a solitary soul is in the world: ``While I have been writing this, the snow has stopped. Now there is a bright sky full of clouds . . . . I have not been out in it yet. Queen of heaven, I love you."

During most of the years encompassing his journal Merton dreamed of joining the Carthusians, whose hermitic life he imagined would offer a more pristine solitude than his monastery afforded him. At Gethsemani he was a solitary among a crowd of solitaries -- monks, postulants, retreatants -- for Trappist life presupposes fruitful community as well as solitude and silence. This is true down to the stone. In contemplating the simplicity of the early Cistercian monasteries, Merton notes that the monks, in building their houses of God and community, ``did not waste anything. . . . They did not use up stone and time. . . . Their churches were built around the psalms. Their cloisters were like the chant. . . . A monastery of hermits is necessarily so clumsy that it can only be an architectural monster."

Though he recognized the place of community within his solitude from the start, only in time did he comprehend its greater value. As he assumed a more prominent place within the order, he came to see his work with the community as a necessary challenge for the progress of his soul: ``I saw the poor little handful of priests and I thought of our poverty. . . . And the thought that I have wanted to withdraw myself from all this by my own choice began to appall me." ``What is my new desert?" he was eventually to ask himself. To which he answered: ``The name of it is compassion."

It's fitting, then, that in the epilogue to his journal he renders compassion's solitary aspect by recording a night on fire watch. Alone and responsible, he moves room to room, keeping guard while monks sleep in their cells. ``The fire watch," he writes, ``is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness."

The solitude of May Sarton's devising involved a house in the village of Nelson, N.H. ``Journal of a Solitude" is the record of some of the last months of her 15-year commitment to the place. She'd written of her life there before in the often-buoyant essays of ``Plant Dreaming Deep," which describe the house, the village, her neighbors, her garden, and the building of her independence, but her journal tells the more difficult, sometimes harrowing daily story of how solitude intensified all aspects of her life. ``I am alone here for the first time in weeks, to take up my `real' life again at last," she writes in her first entry . ``That is what is strange -- that friends, even . . . love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which . . . to discover what is happening or has happened." Always she insists on the dignity of her singular endeavor: ``So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever `succeed' as a writer or not."

However alone, Sarton also lived in a complex relationship with her community, and the world. ``To a great extent," she writes, ``Thoreau wished to be and succeeded in being an island apart from the main. We are going to have to outgrow the myth that this is either possible or good. One reason I felt impelled to keep this journal for a year was because I think that Plant Dreaming Deep has created the myth of a false Paradise. I want to destroy that myth." The myth is, in part, one of stability in solitude -- even when it's habitual, or perhaps especially so, it's harborless -- and Sarton attacks that myth many times in ``Journal of a Solitude." She seems to destroy it completely with one searing entry: ``I was thinking about solitude, its supreme value. Here in Nelson I have been close to suicide more than once, and more than once have been close to a mystical experience of unity with the universe. The two states resemble each other: one has no wall, one is absolutely naked and diminished to essence."

My own solitude has been housed in a handful of places over the past several years as I've moved from my family's farm in Massachusetts to the coast of Maine. It's been sheltered during a winter along a tidal river, the north wind howling across the water, snow drifting against the clapboards, the tide throwing up ice. The coldest nights involved a frozen-pipe watch. I was very new to the coast then, and easily felt frightened and emptied. Now that my solitude inhabits the cozier confines of a house in the center of a town and is accompanied by the sounds of voices, footfalls, radios, plucked harp strings, and lawn mowers, I sometimes miss that enormous, difficult setting where daily life was so clearly defined against the elements.

But solitude can dwell in the smallest of places, as French philosopher Gaston Bachelard proves in his monograph ``The Flame of a Candle," in which he charts the intricate relationship between a solitary soul and a slight, disciplined flame: ``polestar of the blank page." Bachelard's book was first published in 1961 ; by then readers and writers had long become accustomed to unwavering, abundant electric light, which spreads itself everywhere. ``The candle does not illuminate an empty room," he notes, ``it illuminates a book." One bends to think on words, then raises his or her eyes to the flame and dreams: ``The dreamer, that twin of our being, that chiaroscuro of the thinking person." It's through dream, Bachelard suggests, that thought is renewed and expanded when the gazer turns again to the page, there being no end to the imagination, though light possesses its own distinct time.

After reading his slender volume, I am left to wonder about the way thinking and dreaming inhabit my solitude, for my light and my letters both emanate from a computer screen -- the lamp of the times. It illuminates countless solitudes, not only in separate rooms but in the coffeehouses that, if Bachelard could peer into, he might think akin to Merton's monastery for hermits, for he insists solitude admits no rivals -- ``two philosopher's lamps in the same village are too many," he writes, ``one too many."

Other thoughts on the solitary state

``My kitchen linoleum is so black and shiny that I waltz while I wait for the kettle to boil. This pleasure is for the old who live alone. The others must vanish into their expected role."

Florida Scott-Maxwell , ``The Measure of My Days: One Woman's Vivid, Enduring Celebration of Life and Aging"

``What might have been silence, an unwritten page, an absence, spoke to me as clearly as if I had been there to see it. I have imagined a man who might live as the coldest scholar on earth, who followed each clue in the snow, writing a book as he went."

John Haines , ``The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-Five Years in the Alaska Wilderness"

``We require such a solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the street and in palaces. . . . But let us not be the victims of words. Society and solitude are deceptive names. It is not the circumstance of seeing more or fewer people, but the readiness of sympathy, that imports."

Ralph Waldo Emerson, ``Society and Solitude"

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