Do you remember the scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Mr. Wonka is showing the children his “lickable wallpaper?” He points out each row of colorful fruit, excitedly explaining that oranges taste like oranges, strawberries taste like strawberries, and “snozzberries taste like snozzberries!” His voice is giddy with the revelation.
Veruca Salt then replies, snotty as ever, “Snozzberries? Who ever heard of a snozzberry?”
At this, Mr. Wonka cups her cheeks and then quietly delivers my favorite line of the movie—of any movie, really. “We are the music makers,” he tells her, “and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.
Come on. Does it get any better than that? I don’t think Mr. Wonka was necessarily talking about music here. But I do think he was talking about dreams.
The line is actually the first of a poem, “Ode” by English poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
This poem, like all good poems, makes me a little sad. Maybe it’s because along with music and dreams come words like lone and desolate; alongside maker and dreamer, we have loser and forsaker. Maybe it’s because the movers and shakers soak up the pale moon, not the warm sun. Or maybe it’s that despite all that loneliness—because of all that loneliness—they are the ones who, in the end, change the world.
Loneliness seems a terrible reward for changing the world. But it has always been required for that particular feat, hasn’t it? Maybe that’s the saddest truth of all.
Loneliness is only ever romantic in hindsight, when it’s endured long ago by someone else. For the lonely here and now, it is empty and silent and shameful. And unlike other human woes, loneliness gains no sympathy from its onlookers. How could it? The dreaded mark of loneliness is that it’s suffered alone.
But sometimes, I think, loneliness is on to something. When we feel disconnected from the crowd and withdraw into ourselves—even (hopefully) for a short time—our mind may just be doing some different, deeper work that can only be done during the long days of Lonely.
When do you do your best thinking? Your best dreaming? Your best music-making, problem-solving, relationship-repairing work? When you’re lonely. Not just alone, but lonely. Those ideas start percolating long before they’re put to paper and pen, days and weeks and months before that problem finds its solution. Those ideas start to swell, bubble by tiny bubble, when we surrender to the sentence of loneliness.
Creativity, in its myriad forms, requires more than physical solitude every now and then because creativity can’t be called forth like a dog in the occasionally idle hour. Creativity requires the ability—the learned skill—of detaching our minds from the peripheral buzz to explore the silent and sumptuous life of the imagination. Unearthing it takes time and patience and yes, loneliness. Because when we are lonely we are sadder but softer, quiet but curious, mournful but malleable. When we are lonely, we listen.
Maybe to make the music, we must sit by the desolate stream. Maybe to move the world, we must forsake what we once thought it was. Questions that wilt under a bright sun can blossom under a pale moon. Loneliness takes us there to answer them.
So if you are lonely, if you feel different, if you sense a gut-twisting gulf between yourself and Everybody Else, take heart, my world-forsaking friend. You are simply wandering for a bit—as we all must wander for a bit—along that lone sea breaker, while your might and mind conspire to change the current of the world and the canvas of your world. And change it you will, because you are the music maker. And you, the dreamer of dreams.