Writing and Solitude


I spend a lot of time alone. With my cat. I work from home. I write from home. I often exercise at home. Alone. My cat often abandons me in favour of warmer rooms and baskets of clean laundry. There can be days when I don’t see anyone other than my children, husband, and the lovely cashiers at the grocery store.

I like being alone most of the time.

I have been this way for a long time. In university I gave up the opportunity to live in a house with five great friends to live alone because I thought the activity in the house would be too much for me. It is no surprise that I eschewed office work and carved out a small niche for myself consulting… alone. I have been a consultant now for almost twenty years. Events that require more than eight hours of continuous contact with people, such as camping or visiting friends, terrify me. I have been known to bolt from them on day two, or avoid them altogether.

But oddly enough, I test right on the boundary of being an introvert and an extrovert. I like people. I need people. I love spending time with a lot of people or just a few people for short periods regularly. But then I need to refuel, and be alone, and think and dream.

So given my supposed comfort with being alone, when I began to take my writing more seriously, it was with great surprise that I found after jettisoning many of my volunteer commitments, quitting ballet, and spending a few weeks (which became a few years) working intensively on a few projects that I felt excessively alone. Perhaps I had become accustomed to the heavy social schedule of a parent of young children--the activities, the play dates, the coffee dates with the other moms, the dinner events. The first ten years of my children's life were the most social time of my life. But my children are slightly older now and my presence at every event in their day is no longer required. Thus, I had gradually slipped back into my old pre-children habits of being very alone. I had longed for this time. I had imagined it as an opportunity to spend more time working, writing and contemplating. I had spent time literally fantasizing about being alone in a cabin in the woods. Yet it seems I may have become addicted to socializing. Or maybe I was never as comfortable being alone as I thought (or I’m fine with it, just as long as I know everyone else is alone too). For someone who wants to be a fiction writer, and who writes reports for a living, this was not a good discovery.

Solitude is an inherent part of writing.

Most writing happens when one is alone, not socially engaged. One does not have to dig deep to find quotes from famous writers and other creative people about the importance of solitude.

Flaubert: “Writing is a lonely life, but the only life worth living.”
Picasso: “Without great solitude no serious work is possible.”
Kafka: “Writing is utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.”

There is no doubt that great writing requires time alone. Yet there is an odd push and pull associated with solitude that Emily Cooke captured so effectively in her essay on Susan Sontag, Vivian Gornick and Alejandra Pizarnik, three female writers who struggled with the need   for solitude to advance their writing, and their dislike of being alone(or alone a lot of the time). Sontag felt strongly that her potential for genius was stifled by her social needs. She speaks of a time in her life when she is forced to be alone.

“Remember: this could be my one chance, and the last, to be a first-rate writer. One can never be alone enough to write.”

Melanie Drane expressed this conundrum best:

“Regardless of climate conditions or place, in a writing life, two yearnings can feel both urgent and in conflict: to possess sufficient time to oneself, and to exist in community.”

She further noted that solitary confinement has been considered one of the most extreme punishments in our society and that writers need to feel true empathy with others in order to be able to write convincingly.

One of the most challenging parts of solitude is that solitude breeds solitude.

As soon as you try to clear your social calendar and starts pending time home in your pajamas, for the sake of writing, say, the number of incidental social events that you get invited to declines,  people start to think you are too busy to call, and you actually start to become socially inept and convinced that everyone hates you (okay well at least that they have moved on). People expect you to fit their schedule somewhat, and will not necessarily (or even probably) be available between the hours of 1 and 2 pm when you take a break from your writing. Being social is a muscle that you do have to flex in order to be good at it (at least for us borderline introvert/extroverts). It only takes a few weeks of relative solitude for my social ineptitude to ramp up to the status of freak show. Thus in my case it is not like I can book off a month or two to engage in solitude and then return to my social pursuits as before.

When one couples the challenges of solitude with the sobering reality that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide due to links between creativity and mental illness (and I already have a history of suicide in my immediate family), I start to become a little less sanguine about excessive solitude.

But what to do? How does one find that balance between solitude and social time without the angst that seemed to plague Sontag?

There are no easy answers.

In his work on the habits of successful screenwriters by Karl Iglesias spoke to screenwriter Leslie Dixon who talked about the challenges of finding this balance.

“In order to do the job really well, you must spend prolonged periods of time in total isolation. I loved it for the first few years where I had total control of my time without anybody telling me what to do. But I still haven’t figured out how to strike a balance between spending enough time by myself to produce a better grade of work versus not becoming a hermit.”

In her article, the Solitude of Writers, Lin Stepp observes that writers need to accustom themselves to productive solitude, which is different from loneliness, and that women in particular, due to their need for praise, have a hard time valuing their own work without outside affirmation. Moreover she notes that in our modern society we have become accustomed to avoiding solitude at all costs and surrounding ourselves with distractions, such as the internet, cell phones, friends and television. Yet she observes,

“You have to view your private writing time as important and essential – and you have to protect that time. Furthermore, you have to see yourself – and your   work – as worth that protected time.”

But now I have edits to do, so I am going to have to acquaint or reacquaint myself with the pleasures of solitude. Writer, Deryn Collier,   wrote an inspiring and funny post about carving out that time for writing--calling November NO-vember and outlining all of the things that she would not do while editing her latest novel. I think I need to take a page out of Deryn's book (not literally, although I wouldn't mind doing that too).

I will definitely give up mopping and selling popcorn. But I do have a ticket for the Mountain Ladies Extravaganza.

        Photo Credit:         h.koppdelaney         via Compfight http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/