The Solitude of Writing
For Whom Are You Writing?
Recently, several clients have talked about how lonely and isolated they feel when they are writing, how the solitude is difficult for them to tolerate. As I’ve reflected on the struggle of these writers, I realized that their difficulty is not that writing requires solitude, but that even when they sit in a room with no other person present, they are not really alone. Instead, whenever they write, they invite a host of other voices with them into their writing space: critical parents and teachers, magazine editors, judgmental readers, competitive friends. “Invite” may be too strong a word. Perhaps “permit” is more appropriate. Often, writers who struggle as they write, have not made it perfectly clear to the critics in their life, past and present, that they should stay away.
Of course, these writers are not all aware of their uninvited guests. The only way to learn who, in addition to you, inhabits your writing space is to focus your awareness on the voices in your head. Most of us are conscious of these voices, at least some of time. But we don’t often hear them as we write. To do this effectively, you need to become their scribe. As you write, keep one ear tuned, then write down—either in parentheses or in a space on the page set apart for just this purpose—everything the voices say. At first, you’ll likely catch them telling you that you’re writing is boring. Or that nobody will want to read what you’re writing. They may criticize your grammar. Or your spelling. Or your prose.
These critics want to be heard, and if they become worried that they are losing control, they escalate. That is why if you continue to listen and transcribe, the criticisms may become more toxic. Anything to keep you from writing.
Once you become aware of the voices and who they may represent, you can let them know that they are no longer welcome in your writing space. When you do this, it’s important to treat them kindly. You don’t want to create tension and darkness around your writing. Instead of banishing the critics, suggest another activity for them, anything to distract them and keep them focus off of you.
I once had a client who realized that her mother came into her writing room with her each morning and prevented her from working. To create the true solitude she needed, this writer learned to get up out of her chair and walk her mother across the room to the door. “Mom, thanks for visiting,” she told her each day. “It was good to see you. But right now, I’m writing, and I need to be alone. Maybe you could do some shopping.”
When I identified one of my harshest critics as my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Lauck, I learned to tell her that I appreciated her concern, but that I didn’t need her any longer. “However, there are plenty of fourth graders out there who could use your help. Why don’t you look for one of them to support?”
Being alone with yourself for a period of time each day can be renewing. Without distractions, you can focus all your creative energy on your writing. But if you have not cleared your writing space of unwanted guests, what looks like solitude is quite the opposite: open season for the critics in your head. No wonder so many of the writers I work with have a difficult time being alone when they write.
Writing is indeed a solitary act. And if you can achieve true solitude, which involves intimacy with yourself, you have gone a long way to creating an ideal writing situation. It is when you allow “others” to enter your writing space, that trouble begins.