Anyone who spends a good deal of time writing knows that it is a lonely pursuit. Nearly every other job has at least some aspect of socializing to it — even other creative jobs: actors exchange dialogue; musicians are often in bands or at least collaborating on songwriting; even painters, sculptors, and drawers can be in the same studio together. For the writer though, solitude is perhaps the single most important requirement to success. Especially when writing something long — be it a novel, a play, or a screenplay — there are so many loose parts spinning about in the writer’s mind that even the din of a café can be too much. Time locked away in isolation is precious.
And yet the causality between writing and loneliness is misunderstood. Writing does not breed loneliness so much as loneliness breeds writing. People do not start writing because they want to be lonely; they start writing because they are lonely.
There is nothing more terrifying than being alone with your own thoughts, weighing your existence, letting your problems spring up like weeds that come back faster than they can be plucked. The majority of people despise sitting in silence so much that they would rather give themselves electric shocks than let their minds wander. The lonely take to writing because it is a catharsis: putting down your thoughts in a journal or in a character’s mouth is like coming up for a much needed breath.
Solitude has been glamorized at least since the Romantics. Rousseau wrote of the transcendence loneliness allows: “my habits are those of solitude and not of men.” Shelley’s poem “Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude” romanticizes the restless, isolated spirit. The decision to become a writer is oft-treated with the same sacredness and the same embrace of fate as the monk who makes his vows to the convent.
And yet, loneliness is more banal than that. Life is a series of doors opening and closing and new ones opening again, but as you continue to go through the doors you begin to realize that’s all there is to life: more doors. Happiness is self-defeating: it immediately requires more happiness; success only leads to a need for more success. The writer isolates himself because he has already realized there is no point. And once he is isolated, all he can do is write.
It is for this reason that the writer is lucky: walking through life one finds that loneliness is everywhere from the elderly alone in their homes to young clerks and attendants wasting their most poignant years completing mindless, lonely tasks. To have the chance to do something with life’s inevitable loneliness is of the greatest fortune.
And yet, no one enjoys loneliness. No one who sits down to write ever thinks that it will be a social affair, but any writer worth much hopes that he’ll contribute to literary history, that his words will be left after he passes, that, in a sense, he’ll join a community of others like him. Writing is an attempt at legacy, but it is also an attempt at banishing existential loneliness.
So what a shame it is then that the inspiration and the beauty of great writers come at the cost of bone-chilling loneliness. Hemingway said, “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” but perhaps it is equally true that writing, at its best, is a martyr’s life. At least, on quiet evenings when only the scrawl of a pen or the typing on a keyboard can be heard, this is what the writer hopes for: that he does not live and die alone in vain.