When I started to become serious about writing as an experience that fully engaged every faculty, feeling, and inclination, I quickly realized that I must spend a great deal of my time alone.
Only in the stillness of loneliness can true writing take place. On the surface of things, this appears counter-intuitive, as fiction writers write about people. They chronicle loves, hates, struggles, victories, dreams. Fiction’s subject matter is people as much as geology’s is stones. Yet I have found that at the deepest level, writing must take place in solitude, with the mind keenly focused on only one, narrow task.
So how are these two impulses reconciled? The fiction writer uses human reality as her template for art, yet she must frequently emerge, break free, and do what is demanded of her in the world. Reality and its demands take the writer away from the solitude necessary to create art. This is the high wire act of writing, and most writers fall off: the world intrudes too heavily on their private space, and crushes writing and all its demands.
So writers must insist on time alone, for it is the backbone of successful writing. Only by securing solitude, guarding it, and cultivating it, does it become possible to navigate this often rewarding, sometimes disheartening enterprise.
The writer must sit alone and work with words, sentences, paragraphs, pages. No one can help. There must only be the writer and the world he is creating with his imagination. Even if it seems sometimes unfaithful and as hard to manage as the very flow of human life itself, his imagination can only be harnessed in solitude.
It takes intense concentration to coordinate the different elements of the physical act of writing, the control and guidance of the imagination, and the discipline to continue to work beyond fatigue, struggle and boredom. And through this, the writer must keep the world away. This is the absolute key to make writing inviolable. In order to have its own life, the work must be held up above the swarm of life.
But then comes an unnerving moment when the solitary stage of writing must conclude, and the writer must set about to conquer a different but just as difficult challenge: she must let the world in. Eventually, that writing before her must be read by someone else. Hopefully, this will be a sympathetic soul with precious distance from her work, providing the most helpful of advice: what works and what doesn’t — what rings true and what sounds hollow. This seems simple, but is really a complex gift given to the writer. With good criticism, a writer can feel like a lens has been lifted that didn’t seem cloudy until it was removed, and now she has been given a wide open window to see through the eyes of another.
Then the writer is alone again, and struggling with the work once more. Reading, cutting, writing, the work is still her work, but subtly less so. The spell is already broken. Once read by even one person, the intimacy of the writer and his work slackens. The coolness of redaction demands distance. The writer can now often edit the story at the cluttered kitchen table, with kids playing in the next room.
After repeated performances of this ritual, the writing is transformed into a more public object, and pulls away from its creator. The work must stand on its own legs, and in order to do that, the writer must stop supporting it, having already begun to let it go step by step and stage by stage.
And if the writer is lucky, and the work is so self-sufficient that it leaves him or her (or you) one day for the solidity of a published form, the circle is complete: the writing is then part of the very world the writer fought against to bring it into existence. At that point the loneliness the writer shared with the writing is truly gone, and the work, having been encouraged to leave its author’s protective wall of solitude, seems to walk away, as the writer seeks out loneliness again.