American novelist Ernest Hemingway offered up his take on the loneliness of the writing life when he said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer, he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
Writing is a lonely endeavor
As a writer, the entire process of writing longform nonfiction and fiction is a very lonely one in which, most days and nights, it’s just you and your thoughts meandering about all by yourself. There’s no audience cheering you on, except maybe your dog at your feet (snoring). No Rob Schneider motivating you, saying, “You can do it!”
There’s nothing to light your way, except a glowing laptop screen and desk lamp. The only other companions, at best, are a notebook and an ink pen—maybe an ambient music playlist of some sort.
Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, once said, “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and […] we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.”
On the one hand, you could say that’s some pretty depressing philosophy to toss into the air and crack with your bat. On the other, there’s a lot of truth in it as it relates to life and, for the purposes of this piece, writing. At the end of the day, we sit with our thoughts — for better or worse. Before you close your eyes for the night, even if there’s someone sleeping right next to you, it’s just you.
That’s not wholly a bad thing. It comes down to your perception. Although our daily anxieties try to get the best of us, being alone at the end of the day with our thoughts gives us the opportunity for self-reflection. During the hustle and bustle of the normal day, self-reflection almost always takes a back seat. The end of the day allows it to move into the passenger seat alongside you.
As Catherine Beard writes in “Why You Should Make Time for Self-Awareness,” self-reflection can help us make sense of things, challenge our own perceptions, and increase our self-awareness so that we can live a more intentional life.
Yet, writing is an act of communication, making us feel less alone
While writing is an act of communication, in and of itself, making us feel less alone, so, too, is reading the words that are the by-product of writing. From the perspective of David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest et al:
“I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I guess a big part of serious fiction’s purpose is to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves. Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of ‘generalization’ of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside.”
And so, while writing may be a lonely endeavor, no writer writes for themselves alone — just as no reader is alone in the words they read. I write, as many others do, successful or unknown, because words create bridges from one psyche to the next. Writing is a form of communication, not isolation.
Being alone and by myself while writing does not make me feel more alone; it makes me feel far less alone. It’s why I would encourage anyone, whether they consider themselves a writer or not, to keep a handwritten journal. When you read what I write, there is an actual connection taking place between my words and your eyes and brain. You become the company I keep, and I become the company you keep.
And for that last sentence, I’m sorry. Just kidding. Thanks for reading.
If you enjoyed what you just read, help others find it on the web. I’m no longer on Facebook, but if you still are, consider sharing it there. You can also copy and paste the link in the url above and send it to friends and family by text and email.
Written by Jeffrey Pillow, author of the coming-of-age memoir in progress When the Lights Go Out at 10:16, which you can read on this blog as it’s being written. When the Lights Go Out at 10:16 is a story of growing up in small town America in the 1980’s in a teeny tiny town known as Phenix, in Charlotte County, Virginia. It is a story of life and friendship in the face of terminal cancer. Want to read more blog posts? Visit the blog archive. You can also subscribe to this blog to receive updates of new posts by email.
Photo by Dustin Groh on Unsplash