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Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Dreaded Solitude of Writing

Off Skiathos - Porter Anderson [1]
Evening off Skiathos – Porter Anderson


Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [2]
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 [3] in the UK, that I’ve found this BBC Radio 4 [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 Hide [5]not, 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 [6]
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 [7] “love-hate relationship with the demands of his vocation.”

Will Self [8]
Will Self

And then we hear Self, author of, among others, the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella [9], 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 Self [9]Self 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 [10]
Paul Auster

Paul Auster, author of The New York Trilogy [11], might envy our friend and author James Scott Bell [12], who frequently hails us all on Twitter [13] from a Los Angeles Starbucks [14] 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 [15] 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 [16]
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 [17] has demonstrated with her long-running Undercover Soundtrack [18] series of author guests posts.

For example, on the show, novelist Alexander McCall Smith [19] 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 [20]
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 [21]
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 [22] winner Howard Jacobson, author of The Finkler Question [23], 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 Jacobson [23]What 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? 

About Porter Anderson [24]

@Porter_Anderson [25] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [26], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [27] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [28]