“If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.”
In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” This is what writing my dissertation feels like many days. Perhaps Fitzgerald was pulling from his own experiences. Is writing a chance to get away from the chaos of the world, or to record it? Or is it the cause of some chaos? Watching isn’t doing. And writing—actually sitting at the desk and scribbling or typing away can feel the same way at times. Writing demands time, energy, and seclusion: time and energy perhaps better spent elsewhere. Talking to loved ones. Tending to house repairs. Keeping one’s world from falling apart. Instead we look at characters, arguments, ideas, words and how they work. Writing is a choice. And it demands some time and space—isolation.
Problematically, for me, people often equate isolation with loneliness. I’ve often see essays published in journals and posted on online forums commenting on the loneliness of writing. Writing is a lonely pursuit. I wonder if that’s just what they want us to think—a remix of a centuries-old device to build a reader’s empathy to the writer, to bring feeling—romantic feeling—to the work they’re reading. This is the image: the tired, toiling, troubled writer who must put words on the page. This is the reality: writers have the luxury to make the time and find the space to do what they do (even if that’s staring at a blank page). I am growing tired of the essay that promotes the former, the idea that the writer writes because they are lonely or because they want to be lonely. I never want to read that the most terrifying thing in the world is being alone with your own thoughts. To wander is a luxury. To get lost, to be scared . . . and to create these situations so that you feel something. Let’s not confuse this artificial construct with the real-life problems that people face everyday.
That’s not to disregard loneliness altogether, just the need to bring it into the writing process. The connection between loneliness and writing has been misunderstood and perverted to maintain the romantic archetype of the writer, for the writer. Quoting Hemingway’s “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life” is a cheap effort to self-canonize; loneliness is a chance at martyrdom. Although Charles Bukowski has never been among my favorite writers, I tend to agree with his sentiment towards loneliness:
“I’ve never been lonely. I’ve been in a room — I’ve felt suicidal. I’ve been depressed. I’ve felt awful — awful beyond all — but I never felt that one other person could enter that room and cure what was bothering me . . . or that any number of people could enter that room.”
Writing is a different kind of social affair. We choose to write to contribute to something. We imagine readers and community, but readers, friends, and family don’t banish the existential dread upon which writers capitalize. We need friends and family, some imagined community, and we need loneliness to identify companionship and to appreciate those happy moments it can bring. And we all need the banality of isolation, time alone. We have had enough of the glamor of writer’s loneliness.