How much solitude do writers need?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how much solitude is ideal for writers. In part, this is an ongoing problem for me because there is this constant conflict between how much time I spend creating (pondering ideas and punching them into the computer), how much time I spend absorbing (reading books, newspapers, online articles) and how much time I spend socializing (sometimes in person but often online, and though this can be educational or stimulating or fun how much is too much?).

Recently, I wrote a snail-mail letter (because it was Christmas) to a friend (I’ll call him James) who interpreted what I had written as a request for writing advice. We ended up having a phone conversation about it. He feels very strongly that writers need to be alone most of the time. For him, socializing is almost always boring, a complete waste of time. (I think his mind is too brilliant to find a match with the vast majority of other people’s minds.)

Though it is true that the actual writing gets done when we’re alone, I don’t agree with James that writers have to be completely withdrawn. We get a lot of our ideas from both interacting with others, and being observers and eavesdroppers.

I’m sure most writers are like me in getting inspiration for fictional characters from real people. Sometimes it’s better when you know a person only slightly—but something about that person utterly seduces you or puzzles you—and you can go on to let your imagination build a whole character from the few tantalizing things you know about the real person. I’ve heard some writers say that they lose control of their characters—the characters “take over” the story and it goes places the author never planned.

How important is it for a writer to have an audience—his readers? Of course we all want to write a bestseller that millions of people buy so we can get rich, but do writers also get a reward simply from the act of creation itself?

I went to a Canadian Authors Association meeting last night in Vancouver, where B.C. BookWorld publisher and writer Alan Twigg gave an inspiring talk (in his inimitable provocative style) about B.C.’s writers and publishing scene. He began by telling us he’d been writing a book for two years that was intended for one reader. [I’ll be writing more about Alan Twigg and B.C. BookWorld in another post.] He segued into other topics, but later I reminded him about his “one reader” comment. I said that most writers, even if they didn’t care about becoming rich and famous, would rather have a hundred readers or a thousand than just one. Most people around me nodded.

After all, don’t we write in large part because we want to share—our experiences, our imagination, our unanswerable questions and partial answers? When James talks about writers’ solitude, does he mean the purest writers don’t care about having an audience at all? Is the purest writing done for oneself alone?

I don’t think so. Writing is an attempt to capture truth and beauty—which we each do in our own way, though Keats wrote a long time ago:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
     Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

(These are the last two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, published 1819.)

We want to capture and share.

Did James mean that in writing one shouldn’t be corrupted by what others want or expect? One should write exactly what one means from the depths of one’s solitude? Then others can make of it what they will. A writer with integrity will want to express himself as precisely (in meaning) and as beautifully (stylistically, in his own voice) as he can. The “masses” may not approve of or understand what comes out. That doesn’t mean the writer doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Surely most writers have peers (as well as people they consider to be superior to themselves in terms of wisdom, knowledge, writing skill, talent, and experience) and the opinions of these people will “count”.

We want not only to share, but to receive feedback. Most of us aren’t egoless, and we like pats on the back. Also, everyone can improve at any skill, including writing, and there must be few writers who can’t benefit in some way from the feedback of others. But I guess James is right that the initial effort has to be the effort of a single mind, not a committee.

I liked the challenge James suggested to me, though—his idea of “what it takes” to be a fiction writer:

I am reluctant to run advice past you that wouldn’t be worth anything unless you know somehow somewhere you have that feel of “ok, I want to put five years into this fiction business. See what I got. Throw the dice, accept the consequences. I refuse to sit around and bark all day.”

Alan Twigg expressed a similar idea of the writer’s compulsion to write: “You will be a writer if you can’t not write.” He went on to explain—“We have needs…hunger, sex, and then there’s art. Life is empty without art.”

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