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The Virtue of Solitude

I have just returned from a six-day writing retirement in the countryside, during which I put together the structure for the Nietzsche self-help book I am writing. For this, I rented a tiny lodge near the village of Glynde in the Sussex Downs, where I could spend time alone, focusing on this project without distraction or disturbance.

The accommodation was small but perfectly equipped for a brief period of solitary living – a desk, a chair, a bed, a toilet and a shower. There was a microwave oven too. Now, having been a chef in a former life, I am not one for eating microwave ready-meals – I don’t even have a microwave at home – but I felt it important to eliminate any and all possible demands on my time. Getting sucked into food preparation and cooking was a potential but avoidable burden on my time. And anyway, some of these ready meals seem to have improved no end since the old days, I discovered.

My routine was that each day I would get up between 6-7AM, have tea or coffee, then begin reading. I am working my way through Beyond Good and Evil again. It is often said of Nietzsche that he is one of the more accessible philosophers to read. I have even said as much myself. Having reflected, I think that this view is only true to an extent. Nietzsche can actually be very difficult to understand. This is because there is great depth in his writing. To elicit only the most superficial of interpretations from his aphorisms is an error. There is almost always a deeper significance to be divined.

A further challenge is presented by his writing personae (yes, plural!). Nietzsche uses jokes (including philosophical in-jokes), irony, sarcasm, rhetorical overstatement, puns (which work in the original German, in which he wrote, but rarely translate into English), eristic counter argument (the deliberate adoption of a viewpoint precisely opposed to one’s own) and the use of speculative hypotheses (exploring scenarios of ‘what follows if, hypothetically, X is the case?’)

One must acknowledge too, that for Nietzsche, every view is just one perspective among many. He proposes that it is conceivable that there are no objective ‘Truths’ and every perspective has prejudices, therefore the philosopher adopts as many of these perspectives as possible in order to get the most rounded and informed view of any matter. This means the reader can find what appear to be conflicting theories in Nietzsche’s writings – but, emphatically, this is no mistake on his part.

Of course, it is absolutely essential to remember that Nietzsche was a philologist by training, rather than a philosopher. Somewhat out of vogue these days, philology is the art and practice of studying and interpreting languages and literature - particularly old texts. This is a field predicated on intensely close and careful readings of the source materials, so it should be no surprise to us that Nietzsche’s writing should be rich, layered and complex. As he writes in The Genealogy of Morals:

“An aphorism, properly stamped and molded, has not been ‘deciphered’ when it has simply been read; rather, one has then to begin its exegesis, for which is required an art of exegesis”

Just the basics and some protected time to focus

Following a couple of hours’ carefulreading, taking notes as I go, I would have some granola, or something, and then start work on my own material.

It is said that there are those who like to plan their books in detail in advance and those who prefer just to start writing and let the superstructure emerge as they go. I’m sure many people find themselves at a point somewhere between these two poles and, certainly, that is the case for me.

I am strongly attracted to Stephen King’s metaphor, which he discusses in his memoir: On Writing. He describes a story as being something you ‘dig out’ gradually from your subconscious mind, like a palaeontologist excavating the fossilised skeleton of a dinosaur. At first just a single bone or perhaps, if you are lucky, a claw is visible, but over time, with careful work, the full sensational spectacle of the monster is exposed to one’s view. It is a process of discovery.

This certainly rings true for me - even writing this blog post right now is rather like that. I’m not sure where it’s going and I am surprised by what’s coming out onto the page (don’t worry, I’ll edit later). It’s just as an old work colleague of mine sometimes says: ‘I don’t know what I think until I hear the words coming out of my mouth.’

Having said all this, with a project such as the one I am undertaking, a good deal of planning cannot be avoided. I am constructing a programme of personal development as a practical distillation of a whole body of philosophical work. This needs considered organisation from the outset.

To enable this, I took plenty of A2 flipchart paper and markers on my getaway so I could sketch out the possible structures for the book in large format. This turned out to be enormously helpful, and I was able to spend the later part of the mornings experimenting, giving form to the content I have been collating over the past six months.

One question that had been vexing me over that time was where I should start with the presentation of the material I have been amassing. What would be the right manner of exposition and order of arrangement? I was anxious not to set off on the wrong foot.

My solitude is compromised by uninvited visitors

Following a light lunch from the bounteous microwave, I would head out for a walk for an hour or so, which was an excellent opportunity to let ideas percolate without the pressure of having to get something down on the page. More writing, planning and self-examination (this is a personal development book, after all) would follow in the afternoon.

Such writing retirements have quite a pedigree among creative types. Nietzsche himself spent over a decade doing precisely this, meandering between the mountains and the coast of Europe, staying in simple guesthouses and observing a regimen of solitary scribbling (no laptop, no typewriter) interspersed with hours of brisk walking. He was lucky enough to have a modest pension that enabled this perpetual retreat, and I realise that I myself, even with only a six-day sojourn from the day-to-day routine, am enjoying a real luxury - simple time to think.

During the evenings, dinner (ping!), then more reading and jotting, perhaps even taking the books to the local country pub for an hour or two, before retiring around 10pm.

I estimate that of those five full days, I spent in the region of 11-12 hours per day working on the development of the book. No TV and almost no Internet use outside of relevant research. I could not recommend the experience enough to anyone who has a project about which they are serious and need to make serious progress.

Perhaps the greatest insight I took from this trip, is that frequently there is no single solution to questions such as ‘where should I start’ and, just as in Nietzsche’s perspectivism, there can be many suitable solutions. One must consider all options and then simply have the courage to choose. It is a case of taking responsibility – a conclusion of which, I think, our old Nietzsche would heartily approve.

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