Writing, by its nature, is often a solitary activity; it is best done when the writer is alone with his or her thoughts, preferably in an amiable environment.
I’ve mentioned that I often wait for the kids to both be off at school, and try to cram in as much time as I can. I used to stay up late, after they’d gone to bed, but that doesn’t seem to work very well these days. And since we moved the computer upstairs, it’s harder for me to find that amiable spot to work in. (We moved it after deciding that our kids needed less access to it….) But if I think back, I’ve always been like that, cramming in what I could, where I could, like the time I grabbed some snooze time on top of a pile of luggage in the Mexico City airport.
During high school and college, I worked on perfecting the art of appearing to take notes, while really doing personal writing. Naturally, this worked better in lectures than in, say, math class. It also worked better than my previous activity of trying to hide my personal reading behind textbooks. I would also say it ranks as better ideas than trying to eat a burrito in the bathtub, or sleeping while your assault squad leaves you behind. Not that I’ve ever tried those things…ok, maybe I was falling asleep in the field, but those Kevlar helmets perch perfectly on top of an M-16…but I never got left behind! And during my 9-5 job years, when I wasn’t finding jobs that let me eat all day, I worked at a place where my main task was shipping archery equipment to the MWR departments at military bases all over the world. You can guess how much brain power that sucked up. It wasn’t hard to look like I was writing up documents and making phone calls, when I was actually working on my first book, and making phone calls. Now I’m making myself look like a Gen X slacker, but no so, I swear! I really just prefer accomplishing as many things as I possibly can in a day, especially if I can push out a little of my own agenda at the same time. I do have to remind myself not to do this at PTO meetings, though, because let’s face it, they’re not that long, and I’m sort of one of the officers.
But I was talking about the solitude. The lonely writer, sitting in a drafty garret, covered in ink stains….
Who wouldn't want that hat to wear while writing?
Are we writers because we prefer to be alone?
Or are we alone because we prefer to write?
One could look to Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald as examples of writers who, in many ways, drove everyone away. Hemingway wrote, albeit semi-fictitiously, about the dissolution of his first marriage, in his novel, The Garden of Eden. His case makes for the most compelling chicken vs. egg argument of the above questions, particularly in light of his depressions and eventual suicide.
Outside of that most famous case, there are droves of writers who maintain Other Lives while having writing feature as their career. I might point to J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman as examples of people who write pretty brilliantly, who vocally struggle with their writing, but also, who share the writing with their families. Both of those authors say they’re pretty heavily influenced by their kids, as we also know to be the case in some of the more classic children’s lit, like Winnie The Pooh or Thomas the Tank Engine (both of which, like Harry Potter, have taken on massive and imperial lives of their own). Rowling, as anyone familiar with Harry Potter’s origins may know, invented this world and her hero in the hopes of providing for her children. It’s the dream of every writer who is also a parent, I believe….
But that archetype lingers, as we think of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and even Beatrix Potter. The alienated writer, which is a character that John Cusack seems to be liking a lot these days, the failed star, the genius who could not reproduce his or her initial success, the J.D. Salinger-type, who makes a splash, and hates it enough to go hide in the woods for the rest of eternity.
I’m not sure if there is an answer between the two of those ideas…it’s a bit like wondering why there are so many people in Hollywood with personality disorders, perhaps. Maybe you’re bound to behave a certain way under a set of circumstances, or programmed to only cope with so many stressors (as in current psychology theory).
Or maybe you have to sit down with yourself, and make the decision, well ahead of the bumpy road, to choose humanity, no matter what.
((In that vein, I’m going to take a look at one of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, in one of the next few installations))