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“Lonesome animals”: on writing and isolation

Art “is the social act of a solitary man”.

So said John Butler Yeats, artist and father of poet and Nobel Laureate William Butler Yeats. The aphorism is an apposite one for writing in particular, a craft that almost demands isolation.

Writing is a liminal process, something abstract that happens between the separation of ideas from the writer’s mind and their incorporation on the page or screen. The space between the writer and their work is the only space in which this can take place; the writer and their work its only attendants. You can discuss your work with someone. You can show them the drafts. But the experience of the writing process is for you, and you alone.

Isolation is necessary for writers

Writing is mentally, if not always physically, isolating. But isolation, far from being a burden, can be a necessary tool in a writer’s arsenal.

Another Laureate, Ernest Hemingway, seemed to consider it a requirement. In his Nobel acceptance speech (for the delivery of which he was, coincidentally, absent), he wrote that as a writer “sheds his loneliness … often his work deteriorates. 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.”

Will Self claims that, by the third draft of a novel, he needs “up to 16 hours a day in complete Purdah”. Marcel Proust spent most of the last two decades of his life in almost total seclusion, working in a soundproofed, sunless office. Thomas Pynchon, of whom there exists only a handful of known photographs, is so elusive that some believe he is in fact J.D. Salinger.

Self justifies his need for solitude, claiming that “novelising … requires its practitioner to listen very intently so as to hear the voices and thoughts of wholly inexistent [sic] beings”. Indeed, writing a story is a tremendous feat of imagination. Coaxing one into existence means spending a lot of time alone with your own thoughts.

But social isolation can take its toll

As well as writing for this blog and pursuing my own projects, I work as a copywriter. My current job is home-based, and has been since May 2014.

This is not to say I am always lonely. I share a flat in London with my wife. Even if a week passes without my seeing any other friends or family, I enjoy her company daily; and fortunately, such a week rarely passes. And yet, the mental health problems with which I have struggled since childhood have, in the last two years, undergone their most protracted and violent mutation since my first nervous breakdown at the age of nineteen.

The deleterious effect of social isolation on the mind is well-documented. Hours spent in ruminative seclusion can make writing a mentally strenuous, and occasionally dangerous, profession. Countless writers, from Philip K. Dick to Leo Tolstoy, have lived and sometimes even died in the grip of some psychiatric malady.

Protracted periods of solitude won’t necessarily kill you or send you mad. But loneliness is known to cause stress, itself a precursor of depression. And therein lies another danger of isolation: if one thing is guaranteed to hamstring the motivation to write, it is depression. If you are not careful, the privacy that was intended to cultivate creativity can end up stifling it.

Do writers become lonely, or do lonely people become writers?

John Steinbeck wrote: “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals. He isn’t telling or teaching or ordering. Rather he seeks to establish a relationship of meaning, of feeling, of observing.”

Not only must writers seclude themselves to concentrate on their work, they must also deal with years — perhaps even a whole lifetime — of seeing little reward for their efforts. Criticism, rejection or, perhaps worse, apathy, can make writing lonelier still. They can make it feel frivolous. They can fuel yet more angst that, like the tribulations of creative process itself, is impossible to share with others.

It seems to most outside observers like an unglamorous existence. It certainly isn’t easy money. Based on these qualities, it seems unlikely that someone would pursue it were it not for a burning need to do so.

But does that need come from an initial sense of isolation, a sense that only by writing can you reach out to someone? Or is it something more primal, the conviction that the story you want to tell must be told, and you will risk emotional torment to see it done?

It is not necessary to be isolated to feel lonely

Steinbeck continued: “We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel—‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’”

As a result of my toxic relationship with my own hippocampus, I have, in recent years, become far more outgoing. Nowhere is it stated that writers must reject society altogether, and in fact, many writers live rich social lives.

And yet, as harmful as it can be, I often find myself craving my own company. I doubt I am unique among writers in this. The compulsion to spend hours exploring and nurturing figments of your own imagination can only be brought on by a sense of disconnection from the real world and, to an extent, the people in it.

But being alone need not mean being isolated

Loneliness comes from separation. It comes from sensory deprivation and a lack of stimulation. With sufficient determination and resource, it should be possible to prevent your life from degenerating into true loneliness.

A dissonant mixture of arrogance and self-doubt that, I think, more writers possess than not, ensures that the act of writing will always be somewhat solitary — because the act of being a writer will always be somewhat solitary. The trick lies in finding a balance; in taking the time to cultivate both your private craft and your public relationships; in not allowing your writing to supplant your life outside of it.

Writing can be arduous, enlightening, exhausting and joyous. It can feel demanding yet rewarding, trivial and yet vital. Ultimately, it is something that writers will do, because to be a writer, you have to write. And in many ways, it helps to sacrifice that sliver of sanity that keeps most people from staying hunched over their keyboard until the small hours of the morning, batting out a work of fiction for an audience of one.

But writers should decide on their own terms what sacrifices to make. They should take a step back when it is healthy to do so. And above all, they should know to recognise when they are no longer in control — or allow themselves the company of people who will recognise for them.

If you are struggling with depression or loneliness and feel that you need emotional support, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. If you live outside of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, you can contact Befrienders Worldwide for support.