Alone At Last

It was reassuring in a way hearing Maria Semple talk about “dark existential moments of aloneness” brought on by writing her first novel. Not that I would actually wish these thoughts on anyone, but Maria had come from a very successful career writing for television, and it reminded me once again that no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, nothing can truly inoculate you to the unique solitude of book writing. Which is to say, the echoing silence of your own psyche is more a product of the activity than the individual.

But we must be careful, those of us who write, might write, or have ever written, not to cry too long and loud about this aloneness. As unique as the solitude of book writing is, so too is the deliciousness of immersion when it is going well. We have all had days when we have gone in deep and then emerged from a work session as if waking from a dream. For me, these days are as relaxing and profound as the best mediation or visit to a church. On these days, any company but my own would only spoil the very thing I have always sought.

After all, aloneness is really the point of it. One gift of writing is that moment when the author looks up and realizes, “Jesus.  There’s no one here but me.” I had this same experience when I was twenty-one and moved into my first apartment without roommates. I was quite terrified in a way. That first night I lay in bed and thought how when you are a child, you get in the car and go wherever the driver is driving it, but when you are an adult, you can drive that car anywhere, and the world is quite large and full of roads.

Yet any choice that anyone has ever made has occurred in the solitude of the heart, where there is never anyone present but the one making the choice. Writing a book merely dramatizes this fact. We can fool ourselves by asking advice or convening focus groups or taking polls, but in the end we must make our own choice, even if that choice is to do what someone else wants us to. Making peace with the inevitable solitary nature of life is not some hard pill to swallow, though it might appear so at first. Rather, it is the very route toward your own contentment. At the end of that road, as anyone who has ever finished a book knows, is the knowledge that not only can you can you do it, but that you were meant to do it, and the only true loneliness is separation not from other people, but your own heart.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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