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The Elusive Art of Solitude

Young-Mason, Jeanine, EdD, RN, CS, FAAN; Column Editor:

doi: 10.1097/NUR.0000000000000441
DEPARTMENTS: Nursing and the Arts

Author Affiliation: Distinguished Professor Emerita, College of Nursing, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The author reports no conflicts of interest.

Correspondence: Jeanine Young-Mason, EdD, RN, CS, FAAN, College of Nursing, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 9 Seaview Lane, Newbury, MA 01951 (;

Man does indeed know intuitively more than he rationally understands. The question, however, is how we can gain access to the potentials of knowledge contained in the depth of us, how we can achieve increased capacities of direct intuition and enlarged awareness. —Ira Progoff1

The answer to the question might just be: recording your thoughts in a journal, notebook, or diary.

Maria Popova,* author of the website brainpickings writes, “There are no rules regarding what a writer’s journal should be. Virginia Woolf put it well when she said, ‘What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through.’”2

And of Andre Gide, she notes, “At the outset of The Journals of Andre Gide (now in public library), the 21-year-old future Nobel laureate ponders what would become a 6-decade commitment: ‘Whenever I get ready to write really sincere notes in this notebook, I shall have to undertake such a disentangling in my cluttered brain that, to stir up all that dust, I am waiting for a series of vast empty hours, a long old, a convalescence, during which my constantly reawakened curiosities will be at rest; during which my sole care will be to rediscover myself.’”

“A year later, Gide offers a meta-remark on the endeavor already underway: ‘A diary is useful during conscious, intentional, and painful spiritual evolutions. Then you want to know where you stand. An intimate diary is interesting especially when it records the awakening of ideas; or the awaking of the senses at puberty; or else when you feel yourself to be dying.’”2

“Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude—how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives.”2

Contemplating the seeds of inspiration of famous authors may entice a reader to begin the process of keeping a journal, diary, or notebook to see where it leads. Others might think: “I have no time in my life for one more duty” or “I have nothing of importance to write about.” Others might think: “I haven’t the fortitude to write about my despair… my longings… my sadness… my fears… my loneliness… my anger… my remorse. It’s already too much to endure.” But I would argue that the lived experience of “the elusive art of solitude” is a precious gift to give oneself. In those fleeting moments of writing each day, we capture memories, thoughts, feelings, dreams, and ways of being that reveal to us our innermost world and therefore have the potential of enhancing our lives in ways untold.

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free. —A. Shopenhauer

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1. Progroff Ira. At a Journal Workshop: Writing to Access the Power of the Unconscious and Evoke Creative Ability.1992. Penguin Publishing Group

*Author of brainpickings, Maria Popova, writes on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought as a record of (her) own becoming as a person—intellectually, creatively, spiritually—and an inquiry into what it means to live a good life.
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