Something You Do Alone in a Room

Chelsea Ursin (Dear Young Rocker) explores loneliness and solitude.

The tattoo on my right forearm reads, “writing is something you do alone in a room” (from an excellent essay on writing called “The Talent of the Room” by Michael Ventura). When I got this ink at 21, I think my subconscious was trying really hard to tell me something that I didn’t want to admit in the front of my mind yet: Isolation gives rise to my natural creative state and I need to embrace it to make the art I want to make instead of trying to chase away the uncomfortable feeling that comes with being alone. 

Now at this point in my life, now that I’ve put out an EP I wrote for my band Banana called Die Alone pt. 2 and created an audio memoir podcast where I literally sit alone and talk to myself about loneliness and music, I can see that embracing solitude is actually what has brought me more connections to other people than running away from it and desperately trying to cling to people ever did. It’s this work that’s had people reach out to me and say they’ve been touched by it and that they feel less alone because of it. You’re never actually alone in solitude. You’re with all the others experiencing it, and creating from this place connects you to them. At this moment many of us are suddenly spending a lot more time alone and it can be a very uncomfortable adjustment. I think it’s the perfect time to experiment with embracing solitude and seeing what gifts it may bring you.

I understand the hesitation. I freak out when I know I’ll have alone time coming up. I always try to fill the hole with social media. But hey, it’s actually OK to have a hole even if it triggers your loneliness, because a hole provides a place to fill up with art and music. I also worry I won’t know what to do with myself or that being alone will make me forget how to connect with people or that it means I’ll be alone forever — that’s when I have the itch to check Instagram and see that my friends are still out there existing and doing things. These worries are OK too. But I’m here to say that you don’t need them. If you let your intuition awaken it will guide you as to what to do and I believe you won’t actually be alone, even if you are physically. 

When you’re isolated, your spirit joins with the other artists working alone in that moment and maybe even the ghosts of past artists working alone too. And when someone listens to or reads or views what you’ve created out of your isolation they are also all there with you.

As a younger person I thought being alone was just wrong. Because like many people I wanted to run away from the state I was born into and I was born alone. My childhood was spent running around in the woods by myself living out stories I wrote in my head. It was probably the most creatively productive time in my life. I wasn’t naturally connected to other people and I didn’t know how to connect at school besides having one fellow-weirdo best friend here or there. I constantly dreamed of forever leaving the solitude I was born into by putting together the perfect cool kid outfit, thinking up a clever joke and walking right up to the populars’ lunch table at just the right moment to be inducted into the fold. Then I’d be happy, then I’d be doing life right and it would be OK to feel good about myself. People with lots of people around them are good and happy and normal was the message I had received from TV and movies, and people who are alone, like me, are bad and sad and strange.

My popular kid fantasy didn’t happen. I kept my one best friend and eventually I started finding connection in listening to music by myself, and then to get deeper into that one connection I had in the world I learned to play guitar and bass so I could play along and feel even more part of the music. I imagined myself standing on stage with my favorite band, finally part of a group. I was alone in my body and my house but connected in my musical spirit. 

And that’s when I should have gotten it. 

As I tell my younger self a million times in my podcast: There is nothing wrong with spending a lot of time alone whether you chose to or circumstances do it for you. As I’ve gotten older and been therapied and self-helped and practiced mindfulness I now know to dive deeper into feelings that initially feel uncomfortable instead of turning away. I know they hold important lessons. Anxiety, sadness, loneliness: this is where intuition and inspiration come from because by exploring them and inviting them in, they lose their power over you and you also get to connect with anyone else feeling them. 

My fear of isolation and desperate search for outside connection has led me to some bad places. The worst was a yoga cult. They taught me how to hear my own deepest inner voice and despite everything else that happened I still am thankful for that. But I didn’t need them to do that. I didn’t realize that you can find connection while being physically completely alone. This is the basis of religion. And I think it’s the basis of art too.

For me, isolation lets my intuitive inner voice get louder. My intuition flourishes when it gets me alone. Being around people and social media drowns it out and makes it feel like some general nagging anxiety, a little mosquito that won’t go away. When I spend time on social media my creativity grinds to a halt. Everytime I start making something, I subconsciously think of the “likes” that posting about it will get me, and what the artists who follow me will think of it instead of what I think of it. It kills that inner voice that I need to tell me which direction to go when I make something. In our current extremely virtual world it is harder and harder to avoid this feeling.

When I write a song intuitively, I sit with an instrument and I play one note and sing a word or a line and I let it ring out and I let my intuition tell me where the next note should be and wait for it to play in my mind. When I’m writing words or producing audio I do something very similar. I let an idea appear in the air and I reach up and capture it. But if I’ve consumed social media all I hear is a jumble of other’s work and advertisements and opinions as this anxiety static. Intuition can’t cut through. I usually feel anxious and want to get up, my work feels scary to me like I won’t be able to do it and I have the urge to pick up my phone and scroll because it will turn my brain off again. When intuition first starts waking up in you, when you give it the right environment to do so it often feels like horrible anxiety. But the anxiety is just a sign you’ve been ignoring your intuition. I think of it like when you sit on your foot for too long and it goes dead and when you get up it starts tingling and hurting as it wakes up. That’s what your artistic intuition does when it’s been ignored. It’s like HEY I HAVE SO MUCH FOR YOU AND YOU’VE BEEN IGNORING ME! You might have the urge to put it back to sleep. It’s scary and overwhelming at first, but if you nurture it, it becomes familiar and calming.

On an episode of Dear Young Rocker, my friend Larz Brogan (who plays bass for Palehound) gives this advice to their younger self: “Your intuition rules all. Don’t ever stop listening to that very special part of yourself.” I couldn’t agree more. 

But know that once you let intuition do its thing you actually aren’t alone whatsoever, because it doesn’t just come from you. In that inner wisdom I think there is a collective consciousness made up of the influence of artists you love, your ancestors, and your friends. They are all there in you ready to make blue feel like the next color to choose or moon be the next word or Ab be the next chord. You may want to cling to the virtual depictions of these people, but I promise you those are no more real than their voices in your head.

Here’s an exercise to get back into your intuition: 

  • First, put social media away.
  • Grab a notebook and writing utensil.
  • Put on a favorite album, older vinyl recommended. Something with a lot of texture or dynamics is good. (For me this is Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman.)
  • Lay down and listen to the entire thing and match your breathing to the rhythms. Feel yourself rise and fall with the chord changes. If you feel antsy, congrats! Your intuition is waking up! If you need to release some energy, grab your paper and draw or write whatever is coming to you even if it’s just, “I feel uncomfortable.”
  • After it ends, let the feeling of the album linger for a moment and then pick up your notebook. Draw a line or write a word, take a deep breath, and let your intuition tell you what the next one should be. See what comes out. If you play an instrument, pick it up and make a sound. Try to hear where you want the next sound to go. Think about all the other artists who might be doing the same thing alone in this moment and cheer them on.

Remember that it is OK, whatever arises, even if it is nothing. Just letting your intuition know you’re there for it can reduce some anxiety. It’s also OK if your intuition tells you to make a snack or take a nap, or maybe tells you to try out a new artistic medium you never thought of. Follow it. Be curious. Just like in meditation it can take a while for any change to start happening. If I’ve got too much social media static in my brain it can take me a few days to let it die down before my inner voice comes back up.

Good luck on your journey, and please know I will be with you every step of the way.

Chelsea Ursin is the creator and host of the podcast Dear Young Rocker. Chelsea started the cello and bass guitar at age 12, and joined her first rock band at 15. In college she studied sound recording technology. Later she wrote a memoir titled Bass Player as the thesis for her MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College, which became the basis for Dear Young Rocker. She lives in Boston where she regularly performs with her band Banana and volunteers as a mentor and bass teacher for the Girls Rock Camp Boston.