The Art of Being Alone

Scribbled in the back of one of my 2009 notebooks is a quote from Jessamyn West

Writing is a solitary occupation. Family, friends and society are the natural enemies of the writer.

She might have blamed, also, colleagues, television and cookery. Or dog-walking, DVDs and chocolate. Work, sleep, love, indifference, good music, bad movies, weather, furniture, news, caffeine or the lack of it. A literal world of distraction poised like a comic-monster in the closet, waiting for the unwary writer to allow to lapse the protective guard of solitude. For born-contrary loners it’s a childish fantasy. An excuse to kick petulant feet and demand sanctuary, a light in the hall to keep the boogie men away.

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I’m one of these cranks. My dreams are of open roads in unmarked cars, the world at the bottom of the sea, places untouched by the hand of man, anywhere you can’t see the end from the beginning. These spaces hold the tantalising prospect of rebirth, endless reincarnation into whatever I want to be at the moment I arrive. They hold nothing: no memory, no backstory, no construction apart from mine. The appeal of solitude has little to do with art and everything to do with the fears of the artist.

Writing is a series of selfish, arbitrary choices. Effective writing imposes order, kills img_20150331_124739573_hdrSchroedinger’s cat, insists something is here rather than there. Friends, family, crying children and cocktail parties are a writer’s enemies because we cannot control them. They are, at best, available for interpretation, after the fact. Hence the writer’s urge to scuttle to a hermitage far from forthright reality.

All knowledge is borrowing and every fact a debt. For each event is revealed to us only at the surrender of every alternate course.Cormac McCarthy

This is why writers have an irrational fear of pets, lovers, must-see TV and the daily paper. We know that to write a lucid sentence is to not-write a thousand equally valid, truthful, consequential sentences. Writers must choose one thing from an infinite number of possibilities. As anyone who recalls being a child in front of a wall of pick-a-mix sweets knows, a super-abundance of choice leads to paralysis.

Yet it is a writer’s job to be aware of everything. Not just facts, what “really” happened, what he or she said, but of all the loose threads one might pick up, hidden meanings, fantasies, improvisations, alternate endings. Writers are advised to take notes, write down their dreams, improve their imaginations, scribble down fragments of speech, lie back and absorb life like a sponge. The charge is to then make sense of it. To sift 500 tons of dirt to find that ounce of gold.

Is it surprising writers develop the same cranky relationship to daily life that forty-niners must have had with the California soil? What we need is in there, but the process of extraction is terrifyingly laborious. Every moment of reality holds both promise and distraction. Solitude offers the fleeting hope of achievement. Perhaps, within a protective cocoon, we can shake a few flakes of truth out of the last heap of experience.

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