Solitude and the Writer

Creative work—that miserable, wondrous, and mysterious achievement—requires large stretches of solitude. It’s fine to trawl the world for the bits and pieces that form our subjects and sentences, but quiet is the best state in which to sort out your mind, hear your thoughts, and synthesize. A state of solitude is where a writer realizes he can do more than he thought he could.

Solitude allows a writer the chance to listen, and to usher in the voices that will form his work, fiction or non. In this empty space, he can create full worlds occupied by people he brings to life on the page. And all these characters need things, day after day. They express themselves, interact, think aloud, explain themselves, pick fights with each other, compromise, and scene by scene, they advance the story. The central figures will have the writer’s undivided attention. The protagonists take on a near palpable presence. This is a lot of architecture, psychology, and narrative to build. A good writing day is exhausting, and a bad one, even more so. The job requires peering into the murk and writing toward the light. Solitude is the state in which other worlds can exist.

Solitude, then, is something to embrace. It’s not just a necessary condition to the work, it’s a wonderland of possibility. Kafka got it right when he wrote: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen. Simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: Horia Varlan. Punctuation on the Kafka quote mine.

The Temptation of a Great Line

The devil knows what he knows from getting older, and not from being the devil.

No, I didn’t write it, although I wish I had. A Cuban friend said it to me and mentioned her grandmother as the source. But I think a lot of grandmothers had similar admonitions.

Whatever your trouble—money woes? kids? cranky boss? anemic writing life?—this line seems to cover it all.

I’ve wanted to use the line since I first heard it.

But what does a writer do with a great line? Save it for the moment when you need a line that says just this, that experience breeds the kind of wisdom none of us is born with. For the writer, who recognizes the beauty of a line that perfectly sums up a certain kind of situation, it isn’t easy to wait to use it.

But wait you must, because there’s another great line attributed to William Faulkner that every writer should take to heart: kill your darlings. When you fall in love with a phrase, a line, a paragraph, remember that it only works if it works where you place it. If not, kill it, difficult as that is, or it will muck up your work with irrelevancies.

Any great lines haunting you? Comment here and be liberated.


Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit—nicodoremus1, sxc. Thanks, as well, to G.S. who gave me the line.

Looking For Your Beating Heart?

There’s a great old house in the neighborhood, a massive, old money affair. Red brick and turrets, servant’s stairwells, hundreds of acres of prime lakefront, coach barns, farm barns, a carriage house, trails, gardens and wildlife sanctuaries, porches and stone beaches, greenhouses and a railroad not far, a private line that ran to the city.

Turn the clock back 40 years, give or take, and I was among those—intruders, though surely someone had permission, anyone? anyone?—who roamed the corridors of what was then a derelict house, the satin sofas white sheeted for the winter, the beds made up, the portraits hung undusted, the library untouched, the fireplaces swept and long cold. Like Goldilocks, we went from room to room, trying out the furniture. Look at this! Oh my God: come look! And when we reached the upstairs bedroom tiled with the blue-and-white Delft, someone struck a match and some inhaled.

Ten years passed, and there I was again. Invited.

This time the old place was going through a renovation and a friend was hired to revamp the inn. I heard lots about fabrics and pound cake, menus and organic cheeses, linens and wallpaper. And in time, the place sparkling, the doors were opened to the paying guests. It was way too pricey for my crowd, but I did change clothes in a bedroom once when I served as a bridesmaid to that friend who had picked the paint colors and the accent pillows.

Twenty more years later, my friend lost her cushy job, and the marriage was over as well, but the inn continued to flourish.

And last week, with the formal dining room now turned into a restaurant, I was there again for the first time in ages, eating brunch on a sunny terrace.

It was a fine time, a fine meal, and it’d be churlish to suggest otherwise, but it held a hollow note. For this writer, this intruder of yore, this voyeur of the middle years, something was missing.

Gone was the process—the firecracker time of transformation, flashlights in the dark, stubbing toes, possibilities unfolding, stunning discoveries, everything still fluid, nothing completely decided, daring still possible, dreams still nascent, still on the ascent, so much that could still happen.

Looking for your beating heart?  Seek discovery. Seek process. Seek the doing. The eggs were good, sure, but it’s the getting here that mattered. It’s the finding out, and not what you find.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits by Armando Torrealba.

The Writer and Obsession

Here is a measure of my personal experience with obsession: once with a man, once with a story, three times involving children, once involving a sibling.

There are five things I can tell you for sure about obsession.

1. It can be fatal. That’s the nature of obsession. It consumes you.

2. It’s not a quick death. Three of my obsessions continue and have endured for decades.

3. No one around you will ever really understand. They may have their own obsessions. Or they may be the kind of people for whom obsession has no place in the pantheon of emotion. You’re on your own with obsession. It’s a deeply personal affair.

4. It is also, make no mistake, a crazy thing—agony and ecstasy whipped together.  Get the juices of desire running and a typhoon blows through your life.

Now, does your writing—maybe not the kind that pays the bills or answers to the client, but the kind that is closest to you; the kind that is you—consume you like this?

The sheer act of it, perhaps? Or a great line, or a scene rendered perfectly? Or are you obsessed with what you think you can get out of it, immortality say, or justice, or beauty?

You won’t find me encouraging obsession or equating it willy-nilly with the production of good work. You can make a hash out of anything, obsessed or not.

But, if you are obsessed or obsessive by nature, one more thing is for certain: let’s hope it’s about your work, or your work will suffer.

Because obsession is total. It owns your heart and mind completely. And whatever is not the subject of your desire becomes relegated to the category of loveless labors. Just make sure your work doesn’t end up here, and you’re good.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: two-faced figure by Shaun Wong; frustrated guy by Xpecto.