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Musings on Solitude



Solitude: a state or situation in which you are alone usually because you want to be. (Source: Merriam-Webster online dictionary)

A writer’s life is, by definition, solitary. Even those who live with spouses, children, and menageries need to take time apart to write. A few years ago, I attended at talk at R. J. Julia Booksellers by Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. and the mother of five children. She described how she would retreat to the attic to write and how her husband (who, I suspect, may be up for canonization) periodically sent her off to a hotel for a writing weekend while he stayed home with the kids.

Some writers leave home each day because they have day jobs. Poet Wallace Stevens worked as an attorney at a Hartford-based insurance company. Anthony Trollope famously wrote for three hours every morning before heading off to his job at the Post Office where he introduced the red pillar boxes still seen all over Britain. Whether they adored their coworkers or spent the workday waiting for the moment when they could scurry home to peace and quiet, I don’t know.

I inhabit the other end of the spectrum. Instead of five children, I live with five cats. For the past twenty years, I’ve worked at home, assisted by the occasional part-time file clerk. I can literally go for days without seeing or speaking with other humans. The vast majority of my human contacts fall into a few categories, in decreasing order of frequency: electronic communications; telephone conversations; chats with strangers as I run errands and go about my life; church; social occasions with family and friends; appointments (hair, veterinarian, doctor) and other self-arranged outings; occasional meetings with clients.

The busy writers with crowded households and professional lives probably look at my solitary world and think, “Oh, that sounds heavenly!” For about three days, I suspect. Some of us are made for heavily-peopled worlds, and others are not. The famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test characterizes as extroverts those who are recharged by contact with others, while introverts are those who recharge by being alone. I have never doubted that I land toward the introvert end of the scale.

Except that if I’m not careful, excess can turn virtue into vice.

As solitary types do, I take frequent stock of my situation. With no small people clamoring for me to make them snacks, drive them to soccer, or do whatever else it is that one does for them, I have the luxury of introspection as I make my to-do lists. Normally, this is fine. Right now, though, my world feels unusually singular. One of my closest friends has just moved across the country. One of my relatives is essentially estranged from the family. Adding up minutes spent, most of my conversations in the past two weeks have been with providers of internet and phone services. Most of my confidantes live in other time zones. As I fixed dinner Friday night, I was extremely conscious of how silent the house was.

But isn’t this good for a writer? Isn’t this how it’s supposed to be? Shouldn’t this mean that (after finishing errands and billable work and housework) I have a great big swath of writing time in which I can finish my novel, concoct stories, indulge my creative impulses?

Solitude, by definition, implies choice: we are by ourselves because this is what we have chosen, whether for an hour or as a way of life. The dictionary contrasts this with words such as isolation or seclusion, noting that while seclusion may involve a voluntary withdrawal, isolation is often involuntary.

In her 1955 classic, Gift From the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh—mother of five, wife of celebrity Charles Lindbergh, aviation pioneer, writer—spoke of the importance of solitude for women in general, not just writers. She also considered, though, the contrast between her solitary week in a cottage on the island of Captiva and the following week when her sister visited. In the chapter entitled, “Argonauta,” she described one day where they tended to the cottage, walked on the beach, retreated to separate rooms to write, talked, and rested, characterizing it as “a natural balance of physical, intellectual and social life.”

It sounds so easy. For writers, solitude is a must. All we need is to balance that with appropriate physical and social life, such as exercise and good conversation, and we’ll have a delightful and creative life. Simple.

Except that even Ms. Lindbergh didn’t live that way all the time. She spent most of her life in one spotlight or another. The day she described was a single experience, not her regular routine. At the end of her time on Captiva, she returned to Connecticut, to her family and her profession and the ongoing spotlight. Granted, she didn’t have the choice to remain on the island, but it’s clear from other passages in the book that she wouldn’t have wanted to: while she valued time to herself, she also valued the relationships waiting at home even with all the demands they included.

You’d think that, as someone who has lived and worked alone for decades, I’d have mastered solitude. Most of the time, that’s true. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that unending solitude makes for uninteresting writing. There’s a reason so many writers devote so much time to their characters’ physical feelings: that’s what we know best. I don’t know how the desert smells, but I know how it feels to stretch after a lengthy writing session in my recliner. I’ve never stood on the deck of a ship surrounded by miles of water, but I can describe the burning in my nose that comes before tears. If we don’t get out—of our environments, our bodies, our heads—our writing risks becoming smaller and smaller.

What to do, then? Those who have plenty of solitude may want less, while those with heavily-populated lives want more. For the latter group—and I can only speak from observation here, not experience—the answers seem to involve less sleep and/or firmer boundaries. Several years ago at a Mark My Words event, I recall David Baldacci saying that when he was writing his first book, he would write from 10:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. before getting a few hours of sleep so he could spend his days practicing law. Anthony Trollope paid a servant an extra £5 per year to wake him up with a cup of coffee. Maeve Binchy encouraged writers to claim five hours a week for their writing by promising their partners that they would be great fun for the other 163 hours of the week.

But what of those writers who have more solitude than they want—the ones for whom solitude tends toward isolation? The obvious answer would seem to be the internet, but I encourage these writers to think beyond the screen. In “Coming to Your Senses,” Janet Fitch tells of a conversation with a five-year-old who had no interest in going to the zoo to see an elephant because he’d already seen one on television. She urges writers to explore with all their senses, which is some of the best advice on writing I’ve ever encountered and which those of us whose research is web-based (present company included) routinely forget to do.

So in that vein, if you’d like a bit less solitude, my best suggestion is to step outside your residence and into the world of other people. If you’re fortunate enough to live near a bookstore or library that hosts author events, attend an author’s reading. (Not only will they be thrilled to have you there, but you’ll immediately have something in common with everyone in attendance, making conversation easier.) With summer coming, local concerts of all types are everywhere, many of which are outside so that you can pack a picnic (and bug spray) and enjoy the music while nibbling a tangy pasta salad or sipping wine. Go to a baseball game, whether major league or Little League.

If the idea of attending an event alone is too daunting, start smaller. Go to a coffee shop or diner or other non-intimidating place where you can have lunch and watch the people around you, and promise yourself that you will speak to at least one person in addition to your server. Sign up for a writing conference or workshop where you’ll be surrounded by other writers, many of whom have also come alone. Take a walk in a picturesque or unusual part of town. One way or another, go out into the world and experience it first-hand.

Wandering into the world alone can sometimes facilitate interactions. Several years ago, I was at Tanglewood on a Saturday evening for a concert. Having arrived early, I stopped into the Tent Club for a glass of wine. The hostess asked if I had a reservation. I explained that I was here for a glass of wine, not dinner. Just as she was saying that she could not admit me without a reservation, a man at a nearby table invited me to join him. He was sitting with his adult son and his son’s friend. We had a delightful conversation about everything from the Festival of Contemporary Music to the sights they’d seen, from the fact that he and I were both lawyers to my novel-in-progress (yes, the same one I’m editing now). When the bell rang to announce the concert, we went off to our separate seats in the Shed, and that was that. Would he have issued that invitation if I hadn’t been alone? Perhaps, but somehow, it seems unlikely.

These aren’t one-size-fits-all suggestions. Different people have different reasons for being solitary. Some have mobility impairments. Others live in remote areas, far from any bookstore or coffee shop or concert. For some, the restrictions might be financial. (Note: author events are often free, and you don’t have to buy the book if you don’t want to). And some folks are just plain shy. Maybe someone reading this post will share some ideas to fit those situations. I hope so. Because even though I just told you to get out of the house, the truth is that I’ve met some dear friends online, people with whom I text, email, talk on the phone, and visit in person. The relationships began on a screen, but through time and effort on both sides, they grew.

Solitude is a balancing act that requires practice and adjustment. Here’s to finding your specific balance!


5 thoughts on “Musings on Solitude

  1. Is solitude a bad thing? NO! When I look at my weekly calendar and see the “blank” days, I’m happy to have those clean squares. That’s my time. Whether I indulge in my favorite hobby or walking the dog, or going to the gym (which I need to do more of) those things become my routine and I’m perfectly happy.

    I will admit, though, I helped my daughter set up her tent at a craft fair last weekend and “people watching” became the highlight of the day. Spending the day at a neighborhood craft fair was better than sitting in the San Francisco airport, which I’d always thought had more “people” variety and anywhere else in the world. I was deadly wrong, and every one of those passersby could be a story into itself!


    • I agree completely about those blank squares on the calendar – they are precious to me.

      The craft fair sounds like a great venue for people-watching. Can’t wait to see how you weave some of those folks into your writing!


  2. Hi Joe, what I was trying to convey to all you writers out there is I was leading very uneventful life in my own bubble on my own. I was very apprehensive about being a volunteer, but chose the Hospice as my husband had been in there. It’s very humbling to be there and see other people who are ill but always cheerful (mostly) Talking to them you get to see live from a different perspective, and learn all sorts of things. I can honestly say I get more out of it, than I give. I try to write but not very good, but I know that helping others has helped and given me inspiration and plenty of ideas
    Chrish X


    • Chrish, thanks so much for sharing your experience. Volunteering is a wonderful way to get out of solitude and into other people’s lives. I can only imagine how much it means to these people that you’re spending time with them, especially those who may not have a lot of visitors or who may just need someone to talk to. The fact that their stories and your experiences may give you ideas for your writing is the icing on that cake.


  3. Pingback: Staying Awake | P. Jo Anne Burgh

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