By Caroline Eng
Solitude was a trend in the lives of the nineteenth century writers. Famous names in literature, such as Austen, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats, all had their fair share of solitary time to contemplate and write. Their lifestyles were full of quiet, even if they lived in urban areas. The world of 2016, however, is light years away from the one they inhabited.
The Romantics in particular lauded solitude as the benchmark of productive contemplation, which led to great writing. They were invested in the internal world of the writer, shutting themselves away in order to complete their masterpieces. The external contact they had with others in writing was in their letters. They used long, handwritten letters to express ideas, feelings, and experiences. This practice appears to be an extension of the act of writing in solitude. It is another way of privately accessing the self.
For college students in 2016 struggling to perfect their writing, these pockets of quiet are few and far between. College, for most, is by its nature an intensely social experience. It is impossible to go through the day without encountering classmates, roommates, and sundry other acquaintances at every turn. There is little to be had of solitary life. Furthermore, the internet-accessible world at large has all but forgotten longhand letter writing. There are faster ways to communicate.
For students living in a city, like Manhattan, a moment without other people is all but impossible. The streets are crowded with strangers and the air is full with noise. The largest expanse of natural scenery is Central Park, which students’ suburban parents warn strictly against exploring alone. Barring a real opportunity for seclusion, the only option left is to embrace the metropolis.
Fordham professor Sarah Gambito teaches her students to soak in the life around them and use it to fuel writing. She takes her creative writings students on frequent excursions, beyond the Fordham campus and into the city. She encourages them to write alone, not to collaborate with others in their work but instead to listen to the city and react honestly. She takes them to plays, yoga classes, Saks Fifth Avenue, and their own backyard of Lincoln Square. These busy places, which seem antithetical to the solitary worlds Keats and Wordsworth inhabited, allow Gambito’s students access to the same contemplative headspace. They walk the loud, crowded streets of Manhattan in a solitude all their own.
A writer’s state of mind doesn’t need endless mountains, rolling hills, or a lack of modern technology. The idea of solitude as a catalyst for creativity, while profitable in its own way, is not an ultimatum for good writing. Manhattanites and busy college students, in their cacophonous lives, can access the same euphony as the Romantic poets simply by being present in the world they live in.
Caroline Eng is a junior at Fordham College at Lincoln Center majoring in English. Fordham is home to the Tau of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.