Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Dreaded Solitude of Writing

Off Skiathos - Porter Anderson
Evening off Skiathos – Porter Anderson

 

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

It’s right there on the Beeb:

This week Robert [McCrum] contemplates the loneliness of writers, and the things they give up to spend hours in their rooms with only their novel for company.

Ah, yes, the fabled “loneliness of writers.”

Where the pleasures of solitude are sometimes indistinguishable from the perils of isolation.

It’s thanks to one of my favorite colleagues, Sheila Bounford in the UK, that I’ve found this BBC Radio 4 “Sins of Literature” broadcast from Monday, 29 minutes in duration. It’s particularly well-edited, a quiet colloquy among high-profile writers, a nicely scripted narrative, light on the music, easy on the ear. To a person, these folks are glad company. And together they bring into focus one of those persistent assumptions about writing we rarely stop to question.

This episode is called Thou Shalt Not Hidenot, it implies, without risking those “perils of isolation.”

“It’s only one paradox of literary life,” host Robert McCrum tells us in his intro, “that the writer is only fully free in prison, sitting alone at a desk.”

Robert McCrum
Robert McCrum

To be fair, McCrum’s use of the word “prison” is keyed on a quote from the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka about his solitary confinement for two years. Soyinka wrote and translated while a political prisoner. That sort of heroic achievement of creativity under oppression is beyond anything but our applause.

What does concern me, however—and what I bring to you today with Bounford’s help—is a question of why, when we speak of the act of writing, do we so frequently talk of working alone as punitive? And these tones of deprivation: “the things [writers] give up?”

McCrum is correct that “holding a novel in your head is no laughing matter. The right kind of isolation can focus the creative frenzy.” But then he jumps right to what he describes as novelist Will Self’s “love-hate relationship with the demands of his vocation.”

Will Self
Will Self

And then we hear Self, author of, among others, the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella, released in the States by Grove Press in January.

Self talks about something a lot more interesting than loneliness in writing. He highlights what it’s like being on the sharp end of his own expectations.

People say, “Are you very disciplined?” And I just look at them incredulously. Because how could you not be?…It feels so like discipline that it feels external.  I wake up in the morning and it’s like there’s a regimental sergeant-major standing in the room.

Umbrella by Will SelfSelf then caricatures that regimental sergeant-major with National Theatre gusto, drawing the question precisely:

I look around, often at my peers and often at young people who are aiming at this [career of writing], and I think, “Do you have what it takes in this sense? Do you have a willingness to be there alone, in an existential sense? Do you really want to be there alone?

…I know other writers are maybe more clubbable than me and maybe that helps them, [maybe] they find a comity there of some kind, and I never have, never. And so maybe it’s something that I feel. But on the other hand, I don’t see those other writers writing enough.

Self’s question:

Do you have that willingness to cultivate that autonomous sergeant-major? That’s the paradox. People think [when contemplating a writing career], “Well, I’ll be free, I’ll be able to go out for a walk when I want to. (But) you can’t go out for a walk when you want to, And after so long of not going out for a walk when you want to, you love Big Brother. You no longer want to go out for a walk when you thought you wanted to.

Paul Auster
Paul Auster

Paul Auster, author of The New York Trilogy, might envy our friend and author James Scott Bell, who frequently hails us all on Twitter from a Los Angeles Starbucks he uses as his writing studio.

Auster talks austerity, and ruefully, in the BBC program:

There are writers who can write in cafés…there are writers who can write on airplanes and trains. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always needed to separate myself from anybody and be alone in a room.

We also hear from Auster’s wife, Siri Hustvedt, author of What I Loved She seems wedded not only to Auster but also to his need for privacy when working. She goes for the Woolf reference:

I need solitude. I can’t write with all kinds  of other people around me. I feel one needs a room of one’s own, this is a very important concept to me. You can lock the door, close off the rest of the world. Otherwise, it’s difficult.

Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt

Auster and Hustvedt also agree that they have to work in silence and they seem especially alarmed at the idea of having music of any kind playing as they work. Hustvedt is quite eloquent in describing the rhythms of her textual work, itself: music would be completely disruptive of her process.

Solitude and sonics: sound is an element of one’s writing ambiance that always seems to prompt intense reaction in writers, as London author Roz Morris has demonstrated with her long-running Undercover Soundtrack series of author guests posts.

For example, on the show, novelist Alexander McCall Smith is unapologetic in describing for McCrum how he deliberately uses music to trigger and sustain his creativity. For him, it’s an ally, not a foe.

I have bits of music I’ll play according to which series I’m working on. So the Isabel Dalhousie series, which is one of my Scottish series set in Edinburgh, I know what sort of music  I should play when I sit down to write that. And I often play the same sort of thing to get myself into the mood to write.

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

He’s talking of using specific music as an induction technique.

For an Isabel Dalhousie book, I play the trio from Mozart’s Così fan tutte, “Soave sia il vento. And I’ll put that on and sit down and listen to that. And it transports me, it creates the right sense of inner calm that I suppose I need, to imagine myself in Isabel’s world.

At 13:30 minutes into the show, you hear some of the Mozart trio, deftly overlaid with short comments from three authors, a subtle production touch. My favorite comment being voiced over the Mozart is this:

The novel is a struggle for coherence. Everything must lock together. That’s why madness is so difficult to do.

That’s good, isn’t it?

McCrum talks of the whiplash differences in the alleged “loneliness” of the writer’s workspace and the recent insistence that authors be out and about, cultivating readership, managing publicity. We call this platforming. I love his question:

Can you imagine Franz Kafka at the Hay Festival? Or a Samuel Beckett signing session?

Howard Jacobson
Howard Jacobson

That room of one’s own, he rightly points out, must be protected—even though, we’re expected to assume, it’s a place that plunges writers into the deepest agonies of loneliness.

Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, author of The Finkler Question, talks about a “another self,” a side of the writer’s personality that’s “running alongside of the novelist’s self. And it’s a self that likes to be in a public place, in a room with thousands of people.”

There’s a feeling now that if you can’t do all this [platforming], it’s harder for publishers to sell your book…Well, no way will I ever tweet. No way will I tweet my views upon the world…or tweet (t0) the world what I’m eating. That really is the last straw. No novelist, no painter, no musician should do that. You should shut up. If you’re a novelist, then you’re a novelist by virtue of your novels and nothing else counts.

So get back into that room of one’s own and wrestle with your proverbial loneliness, right?

That’s what I want you to talk to me about.

The Finkler Question by Howard JacobsonWhat about this distance at which most writers, it seems, feel they must operate?

The need to work in some degree of solitude, by definition, yes, puts them at a certain remove from friends and loved ones for a time. If those writers are to be sitting apart—either as Jacobsonian Twitter refuseniks or simply in long stretches of concentrated writing—is it really such a negative thing as this show’s premise and so many folks seem to make it out to be?

Isn’t it possible that some writers prefer the solitude, love the escape, spend all day trying to get into the studio, not leave it, safe away! from the clamor and incessant chatter of the world?

I like this BBC half-hour very much, and I commend it to you. Don’t wait around, I think it has only about a seven-day window online, and that may end this weekend as Monday’s new episode approaches. If you have a chance, listen in and see what you think.

My only qualm is that it prefaces the entire discussion on that stereotype of the writer writhing in isolation, suffering all that nightmarish loneliness, pining for the racket of the regular life.

 

Do you buy that? Or is it possible that we like to say the solitude of writing is negative in order to curry some sympathy from the heaving-social world? Might we not actually love having our writerly excuse to be alone? “Sorry, must hole up and write now, miss you terribly, bye.” When you’re writing, are you sobbing with loneliness and clawing to be reunited with your fellow creatures? Or isn’t it rather good to know they’re out there chewing each other’s legs off, and you’re in here with your characters…who answer to you? 

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

Comments

  1. says

    I suspect the people who suffer most are the other people in the writer’s life. They’re the ones who have to deal with their friend/spouse/whatever being immersed in their own little world. I don’t think it’s a negative thing for the writers, provided they remember to come up for air.

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    • says

      Real good point, Jeffo,

      It may well be more of a challenge for those around a writer than for the writer herself or himself.

      With luck, we might hear from some of the WU community today about family life and intensive writing schedules — cannot be easy to coordinate, that’s for sure.

      I agree with you, I don’t see the negative aspect of writing solitude as that much of a trial for writers. And you may be right that it’s the “supporting players” taking the brunt of it.

      Thanks for weighing in, and good weekend!

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  2. says

    Porter,
    What a coincidence. I just blogged about this very topic. My post centered on the writer as introvert and one of the things introverts crave is solitude. Those periods of intense reflection and concentration are conducive to the creative process. Well done. I will listen to the BBC piece. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

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  3. says

    Hey Porter, thanks for the mention!

    What an interesting question. Here’s my take.
    Most of us who have the temperament to work long and hard at a novel have a crowded inner life. I always feel there’s a thought or an idea that must be examined, made sense of, assembled into something. Writing is how authors do it; composing or playing is how musicians do it, and so on.
    I don’t see this as spending time alone, or as seclusion. This clamour of ideas happens whether I am with other people or not. It happens when I watch a film, unless the film is very enthralling. It happens when I listen to music, as demonstrated with my Undercover Soundtrack series, but music is about the only thing that can join in the interior conversation. So I need to retreat in order to clear the mental inbox and remain a functioning human being.
    What’s difficult, though, is the pressure to produce. It’s not fun when the muse isn’t talking usefully, or you know you face another day of muddle and mess. That’s the agonising part.

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    • says

      wow, I completely agree with this. Maybe that’s why spending time alone doesn’t feel so alone, because my mind is too busy imagining things to notice. It doesn’t feel like a bad thing to me but I think jeffo made a good point about coming up for air.

      Love what Howard Jacobson had to say about tweeting, too. I mean, it’s fine for those who want and like to do it, but for some of us, it’s a bit tortuous. I’m there, but you probably won’t see me.

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      • says

        Hi there, Marcy —

        Yes, many folks can relate to Jacobson’s Twitter comments (and he’s very funny on the show in talking about the writer’s ego and how big a crowd of people a writer might like to have when leaving the isolation of the work room — the Nuremberg rallies’ masses, he says, weren’t big enough crowds to satisfy him. :)

        And I think you’re putting your finger on it with Roz Morris — in the solitude of writing, your mind is busy, not idle. You may well not experience this as loneliness at all, in my experience (I never do).

        Great to have you read and comment, thanks so much!

        -p.
        On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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    • says

      Now, this is a really interesting take on it, Roz, and thanks for dropping in with this comment.

      In a way, what you’re saying makes me think of times when my “crowded inner life,” as you put it, has actually been louder, if you can believe it, than the “real world” — and so, if anything, maybe why I don’t feel isolated or lonely is because in the privacy of my work I’m actually dealing with all sorts of voices, ideas, energies (that “crowded inner life”) in the effort to, love your phrase, “clear the mental inbox.”

      I need this new program I’m using for email, SaneBox.com, for my “mental inbox!”

      As long as our great friend James Scott Bell is offering the hugely useful Coffitivity.com secret for sound, let me offer you something I find very helpful with the mental inbox: Lumosity.com — you can use it free or get a paid membership if you love it.

      Lumosity.com is created and run by Lumos Labs in California, a research center that has generated a series of really cool exercises — for flexibility, speed, memory, attention, and problem solving. Lumos and most users call them games, but to me, they’re exercises and the use of them as I start a writing session is invaluable. They help focus the mind, sharpen the Muse’s attention on things (“Muse — empty this inbox, please.”) and generally can be a big help in trying to open up head room, I find. Any time of the day and night, and easily accessed. Plus they track your progress and give you comparisons to how you’re doing relative to others in the population your age, etc. Give it a try.

      As you say, music can be the only thing that can “join in the interior conversation.” My experience exactly.

      Here’s to emptying the mental inbox, lol.
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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    • says

      I completely concur with Roz’s thesis on authors who can withstand solitude having such a crowded inner life that it doesn’t seem like solitude at all, but an essential way to clear the cache. I’ve not seen this so clearly articulated before and it is very helpful. Something that drives my teenagers mad is how, when I haven’t taken time to clear down and process that inner noise, I cease to be able to interact with them. (It happened just last night when Hannah was talking to me as I did the drying up). What should be an enjoyable time for conversation (something else I’ve posted about in the past) becomes – for them – a frustrating series of stones lobbed down the well, with no corresponding – or rewarding – splash as it hits the water.
      Porter – I must send you R4 links more often…

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      • says

        Agree with you, Sheila, I thought Roz did a great job of explaining the importance of clearing “the mental inbox” and how it can hardly seem like solitude at times.

        Real interesting about your washing-up time sometimes being affected by the “inner noise,” I’ve had that sort of preoccupation with things many times and it’s so hard to put aside when things are pressing on your mind.

        We just can’t be splash-able all the time. Which even your teenagers will come to realize in time.

        Thanks again for the Radio 4 tip on this show, do that frequently, yes, so I can just sidle over and listen. :)
        -p.

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  4. says

    I love your post today, Porter. I will definitely listen to the BBC piece. This post reminds me of what author May Sarton wrote (poet and novelist, her most famous journal and best-seller “Journal of A Solitude” and “Recovering”). She suggests to “make peace with solitude … to come to work without ambition, for the joy of it.” This is certainly a worthy if not challenging goal.

    As for loneliness, Clark E. Moustakas in his book “Loneliness” sees loneliness as “neither good nor bad, but a point of intense and timeless awareness of the Self … bringing a person deeply in touch with his own existence.” It appears there are some good uses for adversity.

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    • says

      Hey, Paula,

      Thanks for these really useful references. I think Moustakes is completely right, and in fact one reason so many folks may not like “loneliness” is that it’s such an “awareness of the Self,” as he puts it, that people are really uncomfortable with it.

      To my mind, there’s no adversity in it, but many who do see isolation or what we recognize as “loneliness” to be so negative I’m sure could be comforted by these ideas, especially the advice from Sarton to “make peace with solitude.”

      For my part, it’s the rest of life that needs the peacemaking, lol. :)

      Many thanks again for reading and dropping a lilne.
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  5. says

    CG,

    What a coincidence, indeed, great minds. :)

    I like your write, too, and I’m glad to see you brought in the question of introversion and Susan Cain’s book (which I like).

    Your list of qualities of introversion — listening, watching, reflection, and solitude — is good.

    I think you’re probably right that a large proportion of writers would say they’re introverts, too, and that’s another reason, really, why I don’t think I buy this negative cast, this “lonely” characterization of the writing life.

    If anything, the kind of battery-charging that Cain reminds us introverts need from solitude makes perfect sense to me as something many writers find in the isolation of the writing process. This, I would argue, is part of what makes it unlikely that writers experience the solitude of the job as being as negative as many like to paint it.

    We may want to consider, too, that extroverts are the ones calling the writer’s life “lonely,” because to them — the ones who get energy from others and feel drained when alone — the idea of working in solitude probably does look unpleasant if not outright awful.

    So thanks again for bringing these elements of the issue in with your own write, good stuff and very helpful.

    Cheers, CG, good weekend!
    -p.
    On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  6. says

    Thanks for the mention, Porter. I’ve always liked writing in cafes, and didn’t really analzye why. But recent research indicates a certain amount of low-level noise/activity is actually an aid to creativity.

    If I could design the perfect writing day it would be sitting in a booth at Langer’s, one of the world’s great delis, downtown LA, typing away. But having been a waiter, I know that would cause a certain amount of consternation among the servers.

    So here’s what I do: I use Coffitivity.com for cafe noise, iTunes for the music background, and a screen shot in Scrivener of the interior of Langer’s. It’s the next best thing to being there, or maybe better as I’m not tempted to order a full-on hot pastrami.

    As to your post: Writers who are making a career at this know that it’s real work and not just play, as many outside the writing life perceive it to be. Perhaps the “loneliness card” is one way to get through to outsiders that there is something “real” going on.

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    • says

      JIM!

      Always with the smartest thing. I’ve never heard Coffitivity.com at work, and now I’m hooked. In fact, while listening to the Morning Murmur here, I’m getting desperate for breakfast. Can’t find my waiter but I hear all these dishes and and I think I smell the food. :)

      What a cool little site, love this, thanks for it. I have a couple of Langers’-like spots I can get up in images, too. :)

      And I really like your point about the real-work aspect of writing.

      A very new wrinkle of possibility, the idea that playing the “loneliness card” is an attempt by writers to communicate that we’re not all just playing Angry Birds behind closed doors all day. Excellent point — like Jeffo’s point about the surrounding folks who must deal with writerly isolation, it tends to put a different dimension on the issue.

      I’m actually pretty good with sound, too, as you are, not at all surprised at the results of the research on that. The total-silence thing gives me the creeps, lol. Newsrooms do that to you, you get to a point at which you need people yelling over your head. I normally use Q2 Music, a NY Public Radio affiliate stream as my primary music source (contemporary classical – http://www.wqxr.org/#!/series/q2/ ) and my own library of music.

      I also have had good luck with some frequency-controlled ambient-sound programs that control texture and rhythm of sound as white-noise backgrounds from time to time, they can really help when you’re extra tired but need to keep working.

      And now I have Coffitivity. :)

      Thanks so much — the idea of good sound and good caffeine is pretty close to heaven for me, so this hits the spot. Real work, damn it. We have to keep telling them that.
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  7. says

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, not just the need for silence and solitude, but the need to reestablish distance in this profession. Writers are so accessible these days. Reviewers, internet trolls, and even fans can speak directly with writers via Skype, email, book review platforms and I can’t help but wonder if that’s a negative thing. The public has always associated a romantic mystique with writers and their processes, and the built-in distance of solitude only enhances this notion. I wonder if the constant accessibility, the breakdown in book pricing, the very LACK of solitude degrades the creative process and public opinion of the art we create.

    In terms of my own process, I like coffee shops or silence at home. Both work for me. But as Self said above, I am my own General (ironically I come from a military family)! I set a rigid schedule that I abide by that isn’t negotiable. If I went for a run, or picked up groceries, etc, whenever I wanted, books would not get written. My non-writer friends marvel at this. Somehow they still see writing as a hobby, as something “fun” I do in your alleged spare time.

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    • says

      Hey, Heather!

      Thanks for reading and for making this great comment.

      What you’re talking about is the “once writers were invisible” part of Robert McCrum’s show on BBC, as a matter of fact, and you’re exactly right. This is the topic that leads into author Howard Jacobson’s section. As McCrum and Jacobson make clear, they, like you, are concerned by this new accessibility AND the expectations placed on authors – the “Samuel Beckett signing” event scenario, if you will.

      I fear that it’s very possible, actually, that this new need to cultivate and serve a readership directly and personally really can degrade the quality of what I see as the natural remove of the author from daily hubbub.

      So yes, this is serious and troubling. As much fun as we may have about it in teasing about Twitter, and your greatest defense is that “sergeant-major” approach you have in common with Will Self.

      Check James Scott Bell’s comment above, he is making a similar point to yours about the perception by outsiders that writing is a hobby and frivolous. He notes that this may be one reason writers describe it as onorously lonely sometimes — to try to let others know this is not playing.

      Thanks again, good to have you here, as always!
      -p.
      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

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  8. Mark Bordner, author of the Mighty First series says

    I’ve come to a mutual agreement w/ my wife on this very thing. I set aside a 4 hour block every morning where I am ‘at work’ in the writing room. She allows me that time of solitude to work on the project at hand undisturbed, and the remainder of the day is available for family time and the daily tasks of life. In this way, she and the kids don’t feel excluded, and I get the quiet time that I need to get into ‘ The Zone. ‘

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    • says

      Mark, thanks for this good comment.

      And congratulations on a very sane and well-structured approach to balancing family needs and getting the work done. I’ve known several writing couples or families with writers doing something very similar. In some cases, the spouses basically trade handling the home life for several hours a day at an agreed-on time, so both get to have a period of solitude and yet they both share in the household’s work, as well.

      Thanks again and bests with the work!

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  9. says

    I love solitude and I don’t want sympathy. Time spent alone writing is some of the best time I spend, especially when the words are coming. But I also love my family and have a social life at work, church, and even online. I’ve struck a great balance. All that moaning about how HARD it is makes me wonder if perhaps that person would be happier doing something else. And also that he/she is a bit of an attention-hungry drama queen. I’ve known quite a few of those in my life. They are always looking for sympathy whether they are writers or not.

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    • says

      Hey, Erin,

      I’m with you, for me the solitary writing time is the best of any day. I’m introverted by nature and really thrive on working alone, so my personal bias runs that way.

      I also think there are a lot of histrionics in “the industry! the industry!” as I refer to it in my Ether columns. Publishing’s folks tend to need to perform their emotional responses early and often for everyone. Not that they’re alone — there are other industries given to a kind of emotional profile like this. But it sure can be wearing, huh? :)

      Good of you to jump in with a comment and thanks for reading. Sounds like we’re on the same track about this “hard” work. :)

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  10. says

    Prison! When I watch prison movies I daydream about how much writing I could get done.

    Same outfit every day, 23 hours of solitude, 1 hour of exercise, 3 hot meals, room without a view, no TV, toilet and bed nearby, visiting hours once a week–sounds like a retreat.

    Silly daydream, but not far from what I aspire to in real life. Except I’m free. I’m free to walk out of my writing room at any time, but do I devise ways to escape? No, I devise ways to return. My door locks from the inside.

    Solitude is a choice.

    Thanks for the discussion! Jennifer

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    • says

      Hey, Jennifer,

      If you have a chance to hear the BBC show, you’ll enjoy an anecdote Robert McCrum mentions early on. It’s the type story no one is ever completely sure is true, but the tale is that Picasso was once asked to lend his support to an effort to get the Soviets to release writers they’d imprisoned in the gulags. Picasso supposedly replied that he would not help this humanitarian effort because the writers were doing their best work in prison. :)

      As long as that door locks from the inside, yes, indeed — enjoy that solitude, I’m right behind you.

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  11. says

    “Isn’t it possible that some writers prefer the solitude, love the escape, spend all day trying to get into the studio, not leave it, safe away! from the clamor and incessant chatter of the world?”

    Yes, yes! Why is this such a foreign concept? Most creative endeavors require solitude and thinking time. Thanks for another great post, Porter.

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    • says

      LOL, thank YOU, Cindy — clearly someone who knows what do do when things get mercifully quiet. :)

      My own biases, of course, are toward seclusion and solitude, but I’m with you, I find it hard to understand at times why someone who prefers the “roar of the crowd” can’t at least understand those who don’t. Probably the rule of the majority: extroverts outnumber introverts, thus don’t (as a group, many exceptions) work as hard to understand the minority-introverts who need some peace and quiet to recharge and create.

      Ah, well, this is why God gave us doors to close and Internet connections to turn off :)

      Thanks again!

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  12. Jeanne Kisacky says

    A nice thoughtful post, thank you.
    I think it depends on whether lonely is a term being applied internally or externally. Is it people looking at the ‘lonely’ writer from the outside; or is the writer actually slowly feeling cut off from outside connection? One is a trope, the other is a sad trap.

    For me, being at the writing desk is never lonely, whether I’m surrounded by people or just four walls (or even in the great outdoors). This is partly because the desk is the only place where the usual clamor dies down, partly because the writing ‘room’ is filled with my characters.

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    • says

      You know, Jeanne, one of the things I love about your good note here is that you’re implying what I think is a great exchange for writers: the real world’s noise for the clamor of characters.

      I know from experience that in periods of very deep production in fiction, you can feel a bit beaten up, even hounded, by your characters — which is to say, of course, by your own thoughts about those characters. But they are, at least, yours. And this is why I couldn’t agree more with you: you’re simply not alone when you’re working. It never feels lonely or even isolated for me.

      And while the real-world interface of the Web can be too seductive for one’s own good — it needs managing — I also think that for a writer who is suffering that sadder trap you mention of real loneliness, there’s new hope we haven’t had before.

      I always compare this to living in Europe before and after the Internet. When I first started living for extended stretches overseas, keeping in touch with the States was considerable work, not cheap and very laborious. Thanks to the Internet, you need never be out of touch anymore, for the most part. And this has made a huge difference in the experience of people who need to live away from home for long periods.

      Similarly, I think the Net is giving those writers who do need to feel more in the world than out, a way to do that. And for those of us who like the long periods of being out of touch for focused creative work, the Net can be switched off or limited by various programs like RescueTime.com, which I use and like.

      Keep filling that room with characters, Jeanne, that’s the chatter you want. :)

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  13. says

    Very well-presented and thought-provoking post, Porter. Great to see you here on Friday! As you might expect, the guy who writes the Writer Inboxed community column feels pretty strongly about the positive aspects we writers gain from our association. I’ll try to keep my community sword safely sheathed, though. I’m coming to you sans helmet today. :-)

    I’ve always been a guy who craves solitude, but I think that time is made all the sweeter when it offsets time spent in the company of others, and vice-versa. I love Roz’s take on “the crowded inner life.” I think the necessity of my role moderating the WU group page has made me fairly adept at compartmentalizing my day. I’ve gained a swinging door to the portal to the world of my story. And having certain music playing on the story side of the door helps me to drown out the noise from the community side.

    But if I’d never found the sometimes raucous public-house side of the swinging door, and I kept to myself on the story side, I think I’d just be lost in the haze, wandering that distant world with ill-defined purpose. Going back and forth gives meaning to my explorations of both sides. I think it’s one of the reasons I loved the Amanda Palmer speech we saw in Boston together. I could pretty easy fall into the comfort of my bower. But I wonder what I’d really have created if I didn’t call down to the crowded marketplace, and invite others to come inside. We gain so much through connection. And isn’t human connection at the heart of what most artists seek? I suppose whether we do it for ourselves or others is a debate for another day.

    Thanks for being a fixture on the public-house side of my swinging door, Porter! You always provide context to my explorations.

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    • says

      Hey, Vaughn,

      Thanks for the kinds words AND for the Friday welcome — I’m so glad to have a weekday berth here on the good ship Writer Unboxed, especially Friday, which is always my favorite.

      And in terms of the community and your work, it sounds to me as if you’re defining a very well-balanced setup for yourself. Needless to say, there’s nothing wrong with your enjoyment or appreciation of the community, never has been, helmet or no helmet, lol. The only thing that could mean there was a problem, I’d say, would be a sensation that you couldn’t be without the community and still be productive. Clearly, you have no such problem, and that’s super.

      La Palmer has a lot better open-window policy than I do, lol. I wouldn’t dream of letting the crowd in, no, as much as I appreciate her concept. My version of her vision is to leave and go out into settings in which I’m engaged with others. That way, my space remains my own. I can come back and have less cleaning up to do afterward and the Campari bottle is where I left it.

      My concern in this post, as you know, is about the standardization of such community-held myths as the one that we hear a lot, about “loneliness” being a universal feature of the writing life. Anyone who says such a thing is also going to tell you that the only song you can play on an accordion is “Lady of Spain.”

      I’m working on a rendition of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” for this accordion here, and the longer a solo stretch I get in a day’s’ work, the farther I am from “loneliness.” In fact, my most compelling experiences of loneliness have been when I was in a crowd.

      Go figure, and wave to me over your swinging door. :)

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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      • says

        Love that accordion version of ‘Satisfaction,’ Porter! And agree about being able to feel most alone in a crowd. Thanks for your thoughtful reply to my comment!

        Also, trying Teri’s Twitter link box, new to the comments. It showed right up for me, without signing out and back in. Fingers crossed it works, and helps us connect in Twitterlandia!

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  14. Ronda Roaring says

    Yes, I definitely think some people equate being alone with loneliness. You can be lonely in a crowd. You can also be alone in a crowd. It’s all a state of mind .

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    • says

      Hey, Rhonda –

      It’s interesting that you mention loneliness in a crowd — I’d just finished saying in a comment to Vaughn Roycroft above that the most compelling loneliness I’ve ever experienced was in crowded settings.

      As you say, a state of mind.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting!

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  15. says

    I feel like I’m stalking you this week, but you always have such good posts to respond to! And I’ve enjoyed the comments as much as the post. It’s a great discussion today.

    Funny, thinking about solitude just made me realize I could make more solitude in my life, but I choose not to. I could put the computer in the back room, instead of keeping it in the living room, so when I write I have more silence, but I keep it in the living room. Maybe if writing was my day job I’d do things differently, but right now, if I holed up for a couple of hours after work, I’d never see my kids. That’s just not acceptable. If I wait until they’re asleep to write I’d be up super-late and be a crotchety mother and wife. That’s just not acceptable, either. So, I work to find a balance. I’ve gotten pretty good at tuning out the world around me when I do write.

    Aren’t there plenty of great writers who were social in the past? Maybe they’re the ones who hated the fact that they were all by themselves in a room writing. I’d think personality has a lot to do with how you view the quiet time and what you need to produce.

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    • says

      Glad to be stalked, Lara, LOL, and thanks for these good comments, both here and over at the Ether!

      It’s really interesting that you keep your workspace in the living room. One of the authors on the BBC show talks about how when she’s in her writing studio, it’s fine to hear voices talking elsewhere in the house — which likely you do, too, as you work in the living room — but that those voices must not be having a negative conversation. In other words, she likes hubbub but it needs to be happy hubbub. Fascinating, and probably someone needs to let her know about Coffitivity.com ( @Coffitivity on Twitter) which James Scott Bell has introduced us to today (and I’m loving).

      There are and were, yes, many very social writers. That whole Montmartre thing (largely apocryphal, I’m sure, but a lovely cultural “memory”) was built on the idea of a highly social writers’ and artists’ corps that came together in the cafes to be just that, social to the max, then dispersing to their private corners to do more work.

      To this day, I love that idea best and would dearly love to find a few such artists in physical proximity with whom I could debate what i was working on and what they were working on, then we’d all retreat again into our isolated workspaces to ply what we’d talked about and push farther into the material.

      As it is, I find that I have half of it — my private workspace (no loneliness here, by God) but not the cafe set to go over what I’m doing and hash out what they’re up to.

      That having it all business, lol….still elusive, no?

      Remember the entrails,
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  16. says

    I attended the RWA conference in Atlanta. Of the 2000+ writers present, I doubt even one of them spent time wailing about how lonely they felt when working. Bemoaning not enough time to write, certainly; wishing to be agented or published, of course. And, yes, grateful to be with others who share the passion for creating stories. But how can you be lonely with all these other people, places and events in your head?

    I think the lonely label comes from the outside, from those who don’t spend their time wondering, “What happens next?”

    Cheryl
    http://lynnettekentbooks.com

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    • says

      Hi, Cheryl,

      Great of you to read and comment, thank you.

      I think you’re getting at what may be an important part of this discussion — it can, yes, be quite possible that the idea of “loneliness” in the isolation of the writing session comes from outside the industry. After all, the BBC Radio 4 program I like, although it’s filled with the voices of some of our finest authors of the day, is a program created by radio people for the audience at large, and thus carries as part of its mandate the “public voice and view” of any current-events programming (particularly that of much work in the UK under the aegis of the BBC’s vast operation).

      What becomes the next question, then, is how fully (or not) we IN the industry might be susceptible to the favored myths of the wider population around us. At what point have we heard (like “weapons of mass destruction,” remember?) the bit about “the loneliness of writing” so many times that we, even unwittingly, begin to believe it a little bit, ourselves?

      One of the things I find myself thinking about more as the digital dynamic moves through publishing is that our challenge, as the industry! the industry! and as individuals can become at many points simply staying conscious of what’s up. Getting focused. Bringing to the fronts of our minds what we’re reacting to, and how we’re reacting. If you’ve had any experience of stage acting as I have (I started some life or other as an Equity actor), the primary lesson you learn is that good acting is nothing more or less than utter, deep, unwavering consciousness. The more you know yourself, the more you know the characters you play, the elements of personality you bring to them, and the deployment of their personalities you make for your audiences.

      I think publishing needs to, as a collective, consider this carefully. As some of us are discussing at Writing on the Ether from Thursday ( http://ow.ly/nZ8uQ ), we have to become more focused on what I call “platforming-out,” not platforming-in — platforming-in is selling your novel to other writers instead of finding the “adjacent fans” in other fields who may love it. Platforming-out is facing out, knowing you have the industry at your back (and crawling up your legs, most days) but looking outward at the greater readership, our audience, our customers, unaligned with publishing and uninterested in our issues.

      The more we can do to go at the real targets of our work — those readers — platforming-out and deploying our stories in their directions, the less we’re going to be worrying about whether we’re “lonely” in production. As you say, RWA’s busy writers prove the point well.

      Thanks again for commenting, great to have you, bests with your work,
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  17. says

    Porter, no matter how busy I am, I ALWAYS stop for your posts! Forgive me if I repeat something another commenter has said. I have had to skim the other comments rather than read in-depth as I usually do. I have a few quick comments of my own.

    Perhaps having my version of ADD isn’t such a bad thing! When I am focused on writing, reading, whatever, a bomb could go off and I wouldn’t notice. I can tune out the world at will – not always a good thing for marital communication or good will, but there you have it. The only exception is music, my other passion. Can’t play music because I’ll stop and sing along. Good music cuts through anytime, anywhere and grabs my attention; bad music annoys and angers.

    “That stereotype of the writer writhing in isolation, suffering all that nightmarish loneliness, pining for the racket of the regular life?” Barring terrible circumstances beyond one’s control, one’s life is what one makes it. If writers choose isolation, then that is what they wish and what works for them. In my experience, this is not the norm, however. The writers of my acquaintance live balanced lives that include plenty of social interaction in all its varied forms. Your qualm is well founded and it raises a question for me. Do we writers perhaps sometimes take ourselves just a little too seriously and could this be a function of our self-imposed “isolation”? :-)

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    • says

      Linda, I love it when you talk that way. :)

      Always stopping for my posts? Fabulous. Recommend that tactic to your friends, Romans, and countrymen, won’t you? :)

      Seriously, thank you, you’re very kind and always ready with a helpful comment and observation, which makes you the kind of reader any of us is lucky to have.

      I must give you the secret of using music for your work: no lyrics. Instrumental only. OR in a language you don’t understand. You can play all the Eros Ramazzotti you like, and as long as you don’t speak Italian, you’ll be just fine, won’t understand (or be distracted by) a word. :)

      Seriously, my own use of music is centered in the contemporary-classical (akin to film soundtrack work at times) of Q2 Music, an Internet station devoted to the astonishing stable of living composers we happen to have at this point in history in New York. Like being able to hear Mozart’s work as he composes it, only in our time, our day, modern and electrifying. Wonderful for writers. Give it a listen (it’s completely free) at http://ow.ly/keYfD — you’ll rarely hear a lyric, and if you do, it’s likely in another language an won’t slow you down.

      Music with lyrics? Never. Can’t hack it. Words are what we do, the music is what the composers do. We want their music, not their words.

      Bad music “annoying and angering?” Totally, totally, totally, cut it off. I mean, bad music is simply not to be had, is it? We don’t want it, need it, or tolerate it. Hit MUTE.

      Now, to your question of whether we could be taking our issues of supposed “isolation” too seriously, this, yes, is a very significant point to consider. It is, probably, axiomatic that at the point we get off on our own and focus for hours on end on our work, our characters, our thoughts, our stories, the self-referential aspect of this, as unavoidable as it may be unintentional, simply has to play a role.

      I think you’re naming a very important element of this, even a genuine red flag. Anybody in any profession (did I mention my background as a professional actor? LOL) can take themselves too seriously — the dramas become central, the crush of time becomes relentless, the perspective goes out the window.

      Writers have a particularly and expressly robust danger to cope with in this regard, I’d say, in that the very self-focused intensity of writing’s isolation invites us all to fall into that vat of self-directed fascination.

      We are, at bottom, the best conversationalists we know. And because we have to spend so much time talking to ourselves to make our work, it becomes doubly important for us to try to keep that risk of taking ourselves too seriously in focus.

      I’m sure I have it on a Post-It around here somewhere…

      :)

      Thanks again,
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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      • says

        Thank you for mentioning the internet station. I’ll give it a listen, but probably not while I’m writing. Did I mention that music stops me in my tracks whether orchestral, choral, arias, you name it? Several years ago, 60 Minutes, I believe, ran an experiment by having Joshua Bell play in the NYC subway tunnels. They wanted to see how people would react. Many rushed by without even a glance. If I had been so fortunate as to have stumbled upon him, I probably would not have reached my destination. I have a particular interest in choral music and there are several living composers that are favs, Lauridsen especially. I can understand how background music can be beneficial in getting the creative juices flowing for many. Alas, if I know the piece, then I am listening for a favorite passage or movement, if it’s new to me, then I am analyzing and anticipating. Music is a big part of my life. I guess I should tell you that my circle of friends is made up in part of music professionals. Perhaps because music is an avocation that I sometimes wish I had pursue professionally, it may be a more “loaded” experience for me. Pesky, but there it is. Must run now. I left my main characters hanging in a bad situation and they are yelling at me to rescue them.

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        • says

          Good on you for liking Morten Lauridsen (who is an incredibly nice fellow, too, I’ve spent some time with him, enjoyed every minute).

          His Ave Dulcissima Maria and the Madrigali are some of my favorites, as are Les Chansons des Roses. My fave recordings of his work, by the way, are from Polyphony, Stephen Layton’s amazing ensemble, if you haven’t heard them: http://ow.ly/o1qoC and http://ow.ly/o1qrx

          Thanks!
          -p.

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          • says

            OMG!!!!! Porter, I am having palpitations! You were actually with Lauridsen! His music is among the most beautiful I’ve ever sung. I sing with the Texas Master Chorale home based in the Houston area. When we sang Sunday High Mass at St. Peter’s in Rome with the Vatican cantors, we sang two of his works: a selection from his Lux Aeterna and O Magnum Mysterium. Probably the most meaningful and spiritual experience I’ve ever had and I’m a Methodist! I don”t know if you are a choral works aficionado, but if you are, you might also enjoy the work of a young composer from North Carolina, Dan Forrest. Here is a link to his Te Deum, premiered and performed by the Texas Master Chorale. Here is the Youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T94XYgyknSs

            Now as to a tennis ball ponging away, I don’t know. Maybe a metronome would be just as good? You seem to have some music in your soul, as well!

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  18. says

    First of all, we are dealing with social media, so there is some entertainment involved.

    “That the writer is only fully free in prison” sounds more interesting than “writers need to be free from distractions.”

    We all do. After reading Roz’s comment I also realized many artist or people, who indulge in reaching mastery level of a thing, require tons of hours of imprisonment for self examination and self discovery without being distracted. Read about athletes, martial artists, actors, or anyone who desires to reach a level of excellence, and you will probably find people who need their isolation, quiet time, or imprisonment. It’s a human a thing not just a writer thing. Writers may seem to require more time alone because we don’t perform in front of people (not often). We primarily start the story alone and finish it alone.

    As Mr. Incredible would say, “Fly away buddy; I work alone”.

    The same can be held true for the others I mentioned. They only escape prison to perform. The writer’s performance is recorded and distributed to people who desire to see us.
    Are they not isolated when they’re admiring our work?

    Huh, how ironic

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    • says

      “We primarily start the story alone and finish it alone.”

      I like that line, Brian, thanks, and I especially like your question about whether our readers aren’t engaging in some kind of solitude, as well: “Are they not isolated when they’re admiring our work?”

      That’s something (the solitude of reading) that’s being challenged these days by concepts of social reading. They’ve eased up a bit, at least in general discussion, in the last year. I think this is because some social-reading apps and approaches have been harder to create or maintain than others. But it may also be because people who are “sharing” (such a church-ish word) books in social reading are far less immersed in the work than they are if simply reading — and maybe they find after a time that the thrill of “sharing” comments and/or marginalia wears off and they’re not really into their stories as much. Just a hunch.

      As you say, we’re dealing with social media, so there’s some entertainment involved.

      We have to hope so. :)

      Thanks again and bests with your work,
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  19. says

    I crave my solitude, and love it when the house is quiet and I can write. I don’t feel lonely whatsoever. I can’t write in a crowded cafe or public place – I have to be by myself.

    But the social interaction has to be a part of my life, too. For me, like others have said, it’s about balance. If my teenage daughter comes to my office and says she needs to talk about a problem, I’m not about to turn her away because I’m writing. She takes precedence over the writing.

    In fact, the family always takes precedence over the writing. I make sure and spend time with them every night after work before I head up to my upstairs office. In the end, they are what really matters. I could have ten New York Times bestsellers to my name, but if I don’t have my family to share in my success, it will mean exactly nothing.

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    • says

      Hey, Melissa, and thanks so much for reading my article here and responding to it.

      I think you bring up one of the most interesting “balances of power” we hear about in this debate (and it has come up several times, as it does in the BBC Radio 4 show, too) — the need to balance the importance of a full family life with the importance of a focused writing life.

      The longer I hear people talk about how they do this, the more I think there are as many ways of trying to work it out as there are families. So many permutations of times of day, places in the house (or out of it) held for writing, understandings with spouses and children…my hat’s off to all the writers who are juggling such major forces around their work: not easy.

      Congrats on your clear understanding of how this stacks up in your life and work, that’s what it takes. As I was saying in another comment, that consciousness, getting it to the front of the mind, is what it takes.

      Cheers,
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  20. says

    I love the solitude, although I need music. But at the end of my writing time, or if I’m just not having a good writing day, I crave interaction, and I miss my children. Luckily, their schools are close, and always welcome volunteers. Helping out in the classroom for an hour or just visiting for lunch and maybe stopping by the bookstore on my way home is all I need to feel connected again.
    I am so checking out Coffitivity!

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    • says

      Hey, Elizabeth!

      Thanks for jumping in here. (And you’ll like Coffitivity, it’s a fun ambiance-maker, I must say.)

      I have to admit that the idea of a parent helping out in a classroom for an hour is not only a good one but introduces a level of involvement in a child’s education that few kids in my day could have witnessed. Normally, when I was growing up (in the 18th century), there was a near church-state separation between home and school. My mother was a teacher and supervisor of math in the schools and frequently taught at schools I was attending (though she made sure she never taught me), so I had that sense of parent-on-the-premises all the way through. For most students, though, this would have been exotic and either awful or grand, depending on their parental relationships. I really like the idea of parents being that conversant with what their kids’ classrooms look like, how they operate, what goes on in there.

      Bit of a detour, but it looks to me as if you have a very effective counterweight to writing solitude if it does produce that “craving” you talk about for interaction.

      Thanks again for the input, terrific to have you.

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  21. says

    Porter, I understand that Sartre seemed delighted by being imprisoned by the Nazis for a period in WWII, it giving him undiluted time to work on his plays. He is quoted as saying, “… in the Stalag I rediscovered a form of collective life I had not experienced since the École Normale—in other words, I was happy.” Gaol didn’t seem to do much for Oscar Wilde, however.

    I prefer my imagination’s jail to have an unlocked door, but there is much to be said about some form of encapsulation: I’m lucky in that my writing cell is a ’66 Airstream, a cozy aluminum womb, where even though Twitter chirps away in one minimized window, I only have the orange-plaid stripes of the original upholstery to crack the silence.

    But Coffitivity cracks me up; maybe I’ll toss in some ambient antics now and then to shake things up…

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    • says

      Hey, Tom,

      Full-service columnist that I am, I added the missing “didn’t” in your comment and tossed the correction comment so all reads the way Mr. Wilde would wish and we don’t go to hell in a handbag.

      While I think I’d have to do something about the orange plaid, yes, the kind of “encapsulation” is of great use to many, including GBS in the shed at the bottom of his garden. Did you know he had it rigged so it could be turned during the day to follow the light?

      For years, I dreamed of having an AURA workspace http://www.poetictech.com/aura/ — alas, not getting up the cash or the gravitas to get one before they went out of production. The “wall-less shed” effect of the AURA is much more my style than the actual enclosure of your Airstream, which would likely bring out the tunneler in me. Huis Clos to your Sartrean friends.

      But you go, dude, if getting inside that “aluminum womb” works out for you, it’s all yours.

      The space, the place, is important, somehow, and wildly different from person to person, I find.

      Good stuff, thanks, as ever for reading and commenting, Tom. If the elevator door opens on hell, choose another floor.
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  22. says

    The ADHD Writer

    I’ve never been able to do only one thing. I run old movies and crime shows when at home, usually typing in bed between dogs.
    I go out of town, usually Mexico for long work, and work in bars.
    Vegas schedule for rewrite next week.
    Get up at 10.00 am
    Planet Hollywood Restaurant from 10:30 until 2:30 (I tip $5 per hour and never stay if busy.
    Paris Sports Book from 3:00pm until 6:00 (I take a booth with two screens of horse races. For a $5 bet you get a drink ticket which keeps me in coffee and I might win.)
    6:30 back to room for a wake-up shower.
    7:00 to 9:30 or 10.00 at the PBR Rock Bar complete with mechanical bull, whistles, lots of wild people.) I work at the bar and the bartenders know me and keep the coffee coming. The extra stuff keeps me going when tired.)
    Movie on the computer. Rinse and Repeat.

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    • says

      Barbara,

      The good news is that as many places as you’re using to write your stuff, you’ve got to be in great shape, just from all the workspace-hopping. You may be describing the new exercise regimen for writers. :)

      Glad you have such a fine routine worked out, I love it. The structure you’ve put together (which might appear anything but structured to the more sit-in-one-place writers) is just great and likely is a key to your productivity.

      So in the whatever-works way these things simply must be done, it sounds to me like you’ve aced it.

      The commenter above you, Tom (don’t say “Huckleberry Finn” to him unless you have an hour free) is burrowing down into a 1966 Airstream and you’re all over town.

      If things get too quiet somewhere for you, try James Scott Bell’s tip of Coffitivity.com — very nice bistro-noise stuff. :)

      Cheers, and I’ll take over from you at 2:30a.

      -p.
      On Twitter, @ Porter_Anderson

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    • says

      Barbara, my first comment seemed to have been swallowed, but I love the thought of getting a writing respite at the sports book. When I lived in Vegas, I spent a lot of time on the jai alai floor at the MGM, getting in my bets and my booze, but also sipping from the writer’s straw. As Porter says, it’s an Airstream for me now, but the long Vegas nights, though long ago, still stir the dry air.

      (Oh, by the way, Porter, I dig the AURA! Dig “If the elevator door opens on hell, choose another floor” even more. Nice to have a choice when it looks like there’s No Exit.)

      Barbara, deal the cards please.

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  23. says

    I’m the original me when I’m writing. I’m so content with myself. It’s the only time when I feel its okay to be silent and ignore everyone and everything around me. I’m in heaven.

    But, of course, the guilt trip starts in after a few days and I worry about losing touch with people I care about. I wonder if they still care about me. So I tear myself away from my writer’s cave and venture out, tentatively tossing out signals to see what reaction I’ll get. Do they still want me?

    Of course, they do. But it doesn’t take long to feel the withdrawl symptoms. I’m listening to their rant about their inconsiderate husband but, all the while, my mind is creating the next scene and dialogue. Impatient to return to my cave, I make excuses, apologize – and flee.

    I recognize the need to maintain balance in my life – socially, health-wise, activity, spiritually. Thankfully, my dog is a priority. He’s the one who keeps me moving and interacting with people. I wonder if writers everywhere are provided by an angel who’s role is to prevent us from disappearing into pages of our novels.

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    • says

      “I’m the original me when I’m writing.”

      What a wonderful line, Feather!

      I also get what you’re saying about a dog. Mine needs brunch.

      I also get the thing of getting into touch with your ‘real’ world, only to find that the banality of those conversations and situations and “their rant about their inconsiderate husband” does, indeed, pale beside the work at hand, the interior stuff.

      There’s something sad about how the world that reads you won’t quite ever catch on to how insanely and unnecessarily prosaic they are by comparison to the work. But that’s another post.

      You write, “I wonder if writers everywhere are provided by an angel whose role is to prevent us from disappearing into pages of our novels.”

      I guess I wonder, frequently, if it would be so bad if one did disappear into them. :)

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  24. Thea says

    I like to be alone. For me, it’s balance. If I go into the zone (where I am alone in my head) I can easily keep going until I collapse from hunger or fatigue. Then I recoup. I sort of lose all grasp on the basics of life going on around me, like feeding myself or others, errands, chores, etc. Then I feel overwhelmed and out of control during the recoup faze. And it delays my getting back into the creative zone. Having folks around ends up being a burden but it’s not their fault. I can’t figure out how to discipline myself to writing three hrs a day and then bam! stopping. and doing that every day.

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    • says

      Hey, Thea –

      You’re not alone. Several of the commenters here are revealing what might in some quarters be called a rather obsessive approach to writing, in which there’s a binge effect — write ’til you drop — then a recovery. (And yeah, you’re going to feel out of control during that, lots of things will have fallen apart, I’m sure, fires to put out everywhere.)

      Wish I had an answer. I think binge-writing is something many authors are familiar with. I had an experience of it many years ago on a project. For that situation, it was terribly productive and, of course, for the rest of my life’s issues at the time, it was a mess.

      Probably the most organized and the gurus who like us to think they’re organized are going to say that part of professionaling-up is getting past that binge thing and learning to turn it off when you need to, get in and get out each day. They love schedules, those allegedly organized gurus, especially when it’s you they’re scheduling.

      I don’t believe a lot of them and I like even fewer of them.

      Best I can say is try to inject some awareness — that consciousness I’ve mentioned in several comments here — while you’re in a writing session. Ask yourself every hour or so whether you’re at a point at which you could make some notes on what to do next and stop for the day or for a few hours of life-stuff.

      (Having those notes and a plan of what to do when you sit back down is, actually, a great technique that many writers use, even the organized guru-approved ones. It simply lets you walk away knowing you won’t forget the glories you were up to when life called and will be able to find your way back to the mountaintop when you return.)

      Just get this issue into the front of your mind as you go in to write next time. Frequently, that’s all it takes, a little awareness.

      All the best!
      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  25. says

    This actually puts me in mind of Susan Cain’s Quiet, which does a fabulous job at advocating for introverts. Yes, the introverted writer is a bit of a stereotype–but I’m an introvert, and I’m a writer. I think Cain would argue that the tendency to pity “those poor writers, alone in their dark caves with so little human contact” is an extension of what she calls the extrovert ideal: Western society’s tendency to favor those who speak up and make themselves known vs. those who tend to hang back and think before they speak, and indeed, to insist that Everybody! Should! Speak! Up! and be with other people all the time.

    But I think introverts in general understand that when they’re alone, that’s often when they get their best work done. I do like heading out to a coffee shop or some place every so often to write. But if it’s too loud or too crowded, I can’t get any work done, and I can’t think of a single instance when I’ve had a story breakthrough in a roomful of other people. They come when I’m alone, either in my office, my bedroom with my journal, on a walk with my dog (who is perfectly all right with me not speaking to her), or driving in my car. Alone. I don’t consider that a bad thing.

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    • says

      Hi, Amanda!

      Yes, indeed, I’m a great fan of Susan and Quiet, too — as, I believe, is our CG Blake (2nd comment), who mentions her work extensively in his own post on this matter, which cleverly coincided with mine. (CG was always a step ahead of the rest of us.)

      Here, FYI, is CG’s piece: http://cgblake.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/why-introverts-make-good-writers/

      I like this line from your comment: “I can’t think of a single instance when I’ve had a story breakthrough in a roomful of other people.”

      Pure introvert. I do think I’ve had a few “aha moments” when around others, but in most cases they’ve been sort of discoveries about those others — or others in general — which I’d later use privately in my work. Like you, the overwhelming majority of my progress is made with no one around but perhaps Cooper the Literary Beagle. He’s very Quiet.

      Thanks again!

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  26. says

    Porter, I hope it’s all right to post a letter I found in my great uncle’s belongings delivered after his passing. It may shed light on your subject of writing alone.

    Dear Mr. Salinger,

    Though we have enjoying considering your short stories and your little novel Catcher in the Rye, we have have been shocked to find that your Twitter feed is devoid of entries and your Facebook account has only the same message, posted as often as you seem to be able to get there (exactly twice), which I quote here: “No, I don’t do interviews and I wish to be left alone.”

    Therefore we at All In 24/7 Publishers regret to inform you that we cannot accept your work as supported even by yourself, which is not in concert with what we take to be the ethic of a writer. Please let us know if you decide to become serious, at which point we will take another look at your new thingies, though they will be considered only in the order received.

    Twitter to Your and Yours,

    Joseph Handservant

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    • says

      Ha!

      Thoroughly enjoyed the letter from “All In 24/7 Publishers,” Tom. LOL — the name of the publishing house, alone, has me in stitches. That’s just about what it is now, right?

      Too funny. I believe Salinger would approve, too.

      Thanks for the diverting and pertinent romp here, enjoyed the laugh, I’m sure the Twitterati would enjoy it, too. ;)

      -p.
      On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

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  27. says

    I’m one of those rare birds, an extremely extroverted writer. Too much isolation and alone time, and I start to feel like Superman wearing Kryptonite undies.

    But.

    I never feel alone or lonely when I’m writing. Never. The stories are far too noisy, clamouring and clattering to be set free, for me to have any real sense of peace and quiet, let alone solitude. In fact, a good writing session can perk me up just as much as a night out drinking and dancing until the sun comes up.

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    • says

      Hi, Jo, thanks for your comment today!

      Really interesting perspective to hear someone say they’re extrovert but have no problem with the solitude of writing. What you’re saying seems to echo the comments we’ve had from Roz Morris and others who talk of the “loudness” of the characters and stories in their minds.

      Enjoy that dancing, too. :)

      -p.

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  28. says

    “When you’re writing, are you sobbing with loneliness and clawing to be reunited with your fellow creatures?” Not at all! I actually do prefer the solitude away from “the clamor and incessant chatter of the world,” as you say. If I need company I can go to a public place to write — and I’ve found that once I’m in the zone I can usually write no matter where I am. Great post; very apropos this week for me, and I love reading about other writers’ habits and inspiration.

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  29. says

    This is wonderful, Porter. So much to ponder…

    When I think of the isolation of the writer in terms of my own life, it has more to do with feeling alone in a crowd. I am constantly surrounded by people (which I enjoy 6/7 days)–I have three sons, a husband, a dog, mucho family and friends in close living proximity, etc… But there are times (more and more) when my stories and characters demand attention when I’m unable to give it to them. I could be sitting at a large family dinner or at a party, and a thought arises (what if your protagonist did this instead of that), and I find it difficult to attend to the people around me once that thought is introduced. I can, but it feels a bit like a cold wind blowing over exposed skin–tingly, annoying… It makes me long for solitude.

    The paradox of course is that actual living feeds writing. I have to think that being alone too often isn’t good. Perhaps these author events and interactions balance that thirst so many writers have for solitude. Maybe it could have even saved some of those ill-fated writers of the past to have to attend a conference or find other souls on Twitter (yes, Twitter) experiencing the same feelings they so often had. I say that in all seriousness.

    Great post.

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    • says

      What an intriguing idea, Erika, and thanks so much for jumping in to comment!

      You do know quite a bit about some of the tragedy encountered by icons of literature, of course, with your work on Hemingway, etc. And I’ve wondered about these things at times, too.

      What might Tennessee Williams have made of the kind of middle-of-the-night contact we now take for granted? Could Rimbaud have lived longer with the kind of instant-on communication we have today? — less absinthe, a couple of conferences in the daylight? I think I could trust Emily Dickenson to still crank out a good piece or two, even if she weren’t so isolated, maybe had a Skype line at her disposal.

      Fascinating concept. Thanks so much.
      -p.

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  30. says

    Excellent discussion Porter…

    Personally, I like to be around people when I’m doing any research for my writing (I use the Library for a lot of research and talk to people there). Even when I’m home online, while researching, I like to have a conversation.

    But when I’m writing, solitude doesn’t even begin to cover it.

    Absolutely NO distractions. I could be one of those writers who lives in a cabin in the woods while I’m writing anything.

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    • says

      Hey, Joseph,

      Thanks for the kind words, and you make an interesting distinction between what your attention can handle when doing research vs. what you need when actually writing.

      The no-distractions requirement brings along its own difficulties, too, in a world that seems determined to create as many distractions (for everyone) as possible.

      All the best with it, and thanks again,
      -p.

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  31. says

    Interesting comment for this week. I’ve been in the house by myself since Monday, when my husband took our daughter back to college. “What will you do with yourself all week? people asked. “Are you freaking kidding?” was my reply.

    This is not to say I worked a lot at home. I didn’t. I find writing at home – in my office or any other room – often too distracting. I see laundry and bills and other unfinished tasks that make me feel guilty. So, out of sight, out of mind.

    I work best in a library (I like the 3rd floor reading room at the main NY Public Library on 5th Avenue) or a coffeehouse (I have my favorites in various cities). I also like long train rides in a roomette. I’m willing to try out the American Bar at the Savoy in London, in the interest of research.

    My book writing begins only after months (even years) of research filling up my head. I need room to spread out books and articles and few distractions, so I can build my book. I don’t have an iPod, but if I take my hearing aids out, that eliminates a lot of noise. ;)

    If at home, I listen to certain music, a la Roz Morris: the second side of the Beatles White Album and the 3rd disc in a Crosby Stills & Nash retrospective are my current favorites; I listened to a lot of Elton John when writing my AIDS book. No show tunes; the possibility of recreating choreography is much too tempting. Vivaldi is always welcome. The choice ultimately comes down to whether I need to calm down or rev up.

    Alone is not lonely. I learned that many years ago. I’m not lonely when I write, but I do need to be alone. I cannot understand how my best friend goes off with other writers, rents a house in Aspen or South Carolina, where they can all write for a week. I wouldn’t get a damn thing done.

    As for family: it’s not the solitude per se that’s the issue. It’s the fact that no one else can help you write your books. They can’t participate in the actual writing, though they may be able to help with other things. It’s really not a collaborative effort, and that’s something not all non-writers understand or like.

    As for what I did this week: I sent the (hopefully) final corrections on my third book back to the editor, did a lot of marketing and am almost done cleaning my office. I’m working on a guest blog and two freelance articles. I’ve also had dinner with a group of friends, coffee with a few others. Alone, not lonely. Big difference.

    Back to work –

    Viki

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    • says

      Well, Viki.

      People who worry about what to do with themselves while a spouse is gone for a few days — or about what YOU might do with yourself while your spouse is gone for a few days — those people are sexist at worst and too attached to their own spouses at best.

      I’ll just move away from this aspect of things right now because Porter’s Opinion of What’s Wrong With Most Relationships is not our topic of the day, the week, or the month, and we must all be grateful for that fact. :)

      It’s impossible to judge the writers who gang up and rent a house in Aspen or South Carolina to “write” for a week. I’d have to know them to know whether to take those quote marks off the word. :) On average, I’d say such trips are normally less about writing than other things. Did I mention relationships at home?

      And I’m glad to know you’re willing to give the Savoy a chance in London, I can just hear the whole staff breathing a sigh of relief and laying in extra Campari for when you get there.

      -p.

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  32. says

    LOL, Porter, you are so right. I look forward to discussing your Opinion on What’s Wrong with Most Relationships at a later date.

    And the Savoy will only need Campari for you: vodka for me. :)

    And a further thought: don’t people in most professions need time to concentrate without distractions?

    Viki

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    • says

      Yes, Viki, I think other professionals need focus and concentration, too. They just don’t talk about it as much as writers do.

      In fact, I’m not sure anybody talks about anything as much as writers do. :)

      -p.

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  33. says

    I agree with others who’ve talked about never truly feeling alone while writing. I’m with my friends, my foes, my quests, my realizations. I confess to sometimes feeling more out-of-place in a crowd, catching the edges of conversation and trying not to feel guilty at my mind wandering ahead to the next twist in my fictional adventure, the corner of history still to explore. My close friends and family, the recognize it–my husband calls it “getting twitchy”–and they will pass me a writing implement and a surface on which to scribble. Because sometimes it’s the conversation that sparks something, something that makes me again long for my solitude.

    That said, I’ve done some of my best writing when surrounded by other writers. I was once a part of an amazing writing group. We met twice a week for about two or three hours and, really and truly, all we did was write. We didn’t critique, we didn’t share, we didn’t read. I’m not even sure I knew what everyone else was writing at any given time. When we stood to stretch or refill a coffee, we’d check in with whoever else was stretching and recaffeinating at the same time. But we didn’t work through conversation. Our group existed to provide unspoken motivation, silent encouragement, solitary companionship. We got more done being alone together than we did being truly alone. I miss them all terribly.

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    • says

      Intriguing concept, Jessica, working alongside — but not with — other writers in regular sessions.

      I saw this and experienced it for a bit on a retreat in Arizona once. It seemed to work really well for most of the group. This was a dedicated bunch of commercial genre writers, all reaching for the highest possible word counts. Nobody said a word, as in your experience, perfectly serious effort.

      I think for some this is a good way to go, though why it works for them is a bit of a mystery. I suppose there’s the fellow-feeling of working on a similar task (different projects, of course) in parallel.

      Having had it work so well for you in the past, it might be something to consider trying to revive for yourself.

      Thanks for the input, great to have you!
      -p.

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      • says

        Unfortunately I moved some years ago and, while my original group still meets and writes (they’re going on seven years now of regular, weekly meetings), I’ve been unable to put together a similar group where I am now. I’ve tried. The writers I’ve met here have different goals and attitudes towards their writing. So, something is to be said for the right mix of people. To me, it was very motivating to meet with my group. We were all people who did not get much free writing time due to our day jobs or personal lives, and so we didn’t squander those six hours a week. We’d store up the creativity and then let it out in a big rush when we got to our meet-up. Something about other writers so focused on creative output, smiling and frowning and nodding along with their writing, keeps me going. To see writers around me not only writing, but actively engaged with their writing, inspires me.

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        • says

          I’ve seen this, too, as a matter of fact, the faces of writers at work — it’s always interesting to watch. Some are very expressive, and others practically poker-faced, in my experience. As long as that little show of creative transfer doesn’t become more interesting than getting your own writing done, the group sounds great. :)
          -p.

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  34. says

    I’m surprised nobody has referenced Michael Ventura’s great essay, originally published in the Sun 20 years ago, but still very relevant. “The Talent of the Room” http://michaelventura.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/THE-TALENT-OF-THE-ROOM-1993.pdf

    He said “Writing is something you do alone in a room. Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room.

    Before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years — how many years — can you remain alone in a room?”

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    • says

      Anne, so glad you’ve brought the Ventura out — especially since it’s on a 20th anniversary, which I didn’t realize.

      I like this part:

      “A few of these talented people would even arrange the room. A good desk, a
      clean, well-oiled typewriter (a computer now), the paper, the pencils, the stereo, maybe a
      hot plate. But after the room is ready you have to sit in it. For a very long time.
      (Sometimes it takes weeks or months even to begin writing.) And that’s the talent they
      didn’t have.
      “There’s no harm or blame in not having a talent. But it is very painful to have
      some of the talents, almost all of the talents, except the one you really need. ”

      Great thoughts, thanks for bringing them to the table!
      -p.

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