Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, September 9, 2013

Writing and Loneliness


I don't find the act of writing to be a lonely one. There's something about the concentration, the empathy required to imagine what characters think and do, and being immersed in another place that never makes you feel you're actually by yourself. It's comforting to have the control over an imagined world that we can never have in the real one.

But the act of writing is a solitary one, and the writing life forces you to shut off the outside world for long stretches of time. To complete a huge task like a novel you have to say no to outings with friends and time spent in the sunshine, and choose instead to chain yourself to your computer or notepad and stare at it for hours on end. And because you have to spend so much time writing, you might not leave enough time for friendships and fun.

Writing might not inspire loneliness, but the writing lifestyle definitely can.

There was a really moving article in Slate last month about the dangers of loneliness. According to studies, the health dangers of social isolation and loneliness is comparable to smoking, and twice as dangerous as obesity.

It can be difficult to fess up to loneliness, or even to recognize that it's behind what's ailing you. As the article points out, doctors don't ever ask how many meaningful social interactions you're getting and there is a social stigma for admitting to this kind of a problem. Even if you're surrounded by people, sometimes there's a tendency to retreat inward and cut off the outside world.

And for writers, there's a temptation when confronted with loneliness to simply channel that back into your writing, to escape back into the company of your characters and to lose yourself in books until the dark feelings pass.

But that's a temporary fix, and it can start a dangerous cycle. Characters aren't substitutes for people, and it's important to balance your writing time with meaningful relationships and time away from the computer.

Don't let your zeal to finish a novel cut away at the rest of your life. Take your time, find great relationships, get the help you need if you need it, heck, contact me if you need to, and make sure that you're cultivating life as much as your work.

Art: Portrait of Vincent van Gogh by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec






42 comments:

Matthew MacNish said...

I wish I had more time to myself, alas.

danielle said...

Lovely, honest reminder.

Bryan Russell said...

Finding other writers is great, too, as they understand the process and the siren call. And they're likely similarly unhinged! Always a bonus.

Bryan Russell said...

@Matthew MacNish

Totally hear you on that. I will totally trade some people and work for some quiet time by myself with a keyboard. Or hell, just a coffee and a book. Also, I have four children to rent for anyone in need of company. Only a small down payment and monthly premium.

D.G. Hudson said...

Great portrait of Van Gogh. (I've never seen this one) Looks like a oil pastel drawing.

Writing is an internal process, so writers do tend to retreat inward. You need to occasionally experience the world to be able to write about it.

Debbie said...

I'm lucky to have friends who are writers and friends who aren't. Both groups understand my need for alone time, and both have good instincts for when it's time to tell me to back away from the manuscript and get out of the house.

Cora Foerstner said...

Nathan, thanks for the post. This is honest, and your reminder to have a life is important. Often, even if we have a busy life, we can, in our pursuit to write, isolate ourselves without realizing it.

I raised four children, and between cooking, cleaning, shuffling kids around, and other sundry duties, I wrote, snatching up the moments I could.

One day, I overheard my then 16-year-old son telling his friend to be quiet.

"My mom's writing."

"Dude, your mom is here?"

Made me stop and think a bit. Yet, I was there but not there.

My kids are grown now, and I'm the person in your post. Every once in a while, I have to look around and remind myself to go do something.

Johanna Garth said...

This was a very sweet post. I think the loneliness thing is one of the main reasons I escape my house to write in coffee shops where I can be alone surrounded by people.

Kelle Z Riley said...

Well said, Nathan. Thanks for the reminder.

Mirka Breen said...

Writing itself is not lonely, for all the reasons you so eloquently penned . It's the sound of one hand clapping when you're done, that brings back the feeling there's no one there. This is the part that is so different from most day jobs, that "well done!" thing.

Amy Saia said...

I'm socially awkward, partly due to my childhood, partly natural, and so for me I gain a lot from my characters. There's an intuitive process, like dreaming, that reveals and heals. Writing brings me a lot of joy. Yes, I'm lonely when I can't channel the characters: I'd rather live in that perpetual state of mind-meld with them, but overall it's a good thing. I think maybe we're lonely people, us writers.

Stephanie Faris said...

I become a full-time writer next Monday and I've been worried about this. I write a lot of articles and blogs in addition to fiction, so I won't even be able to escape into an imaginary world. However, I plan to get out at least once a day, whether it's to have lunch with friends, attend a networking event, or simply go to the grocery store. Still--it's not the same as being in an office full of co-workers. On Monday morning, there's no "water cooler" to gather around to discuss whatever's going on in the world when you write alone at home!

Elizabeth said...

"Dude, your mom is here?" Lol. I have 2, they're still fairly young, and they keep me connected with the outside world. Once they're gone (no no no I won't think about that) I am the person in this post, too.

Serenity said...

Wow, really well said and not said enough. And what a beautiful touch to invite readers to contact you.

Andrew Leon said...

Actually, there is some (quite a bit) research that shows that characters (while reading, I don't know about writing) can and do take the place of real people. A character in a book affects the brain in the same way that interacting with a real person does and reading does, in fact, help people to be less lonely.

I'm not advocating for isolationism; I'm just reporting on the research.

Catie Rhodes said...

This is really interesting. I had never heard of these studies or of loneliness leading to health deterioration.

It is easy to isolate.

As a society, we live elbow to elbow. Cities of apartments. Houses packed upon each other. Congested traffic. Crowded restaurants, shopping centers, and workplaces.

All that forced interaction carries weight and creates exhaustion. For many years, I've felt like a fish in a fishbowl. No privacy. No quiet. No respect for personal space. I isolate out of self defense, to keep from going crazy.

Two things I've learned:

1) I have to interact every once in a while or I forget how to do it.

2) If I don't interact often enough, doing stuff like writing dialogue and emotion gets way harder.

Interesting post, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

People also don't talk about the loneliness of being among people who don't get you - they may like you, but in my experience it is rare to be seen, deeply and fully, and received. So few people take the time. Writers are seers - we must be, in order to be able to reflect the world back to others. I have so seldom been seen with the depth and care with which I strive to see.

mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mira said...

What a wonderful post, Nathan, on a number of different levels. Very caring and compassionate. And I think it shows bravery and integrity to take on this topic - it combats the stigma just to talk about it. Those who are alone, may feel less so, because you brought out that it's a trend.

A kind deed, Nathan, thank you.

One thing - I agree that loneliness is stigmatized, but I also think it's taboo to talk about it. I don't know why or when that started. It has not always been that way. I'm recently reading some books written in the late 19th century, and characters in those books are forthright in admitting they are lonely.

But even though we can't talk about it, it's so real! I remember watching an interview with Mother Theresa once, and she said the 'poor' in the U.S., although richer materially than in many other parts of the world, were the poorest of the poor - because of their isolation.

So, talking about this is so helpful - and I liked how the article you linked brought out that internet connections, when made real, can be long-lasting. I think the internet is a terrific place for people to meet - if they take it to the next step. It used to be hard to meet people. Meeting people based on proximity alone is not always the way to find people who can understand you deeply. Connecting on the web with like-minded people won't always work in real life, but it's a very good place to start!

Thanks again for this, Nathan!

Tammy said...

So does this mean if you're an overweight, smoking writer, you're doomed? All kidding aside, I often feel that I don't have enough alone time. However, I am self-entertaining and enjoy my own company.

Anonymous said...

I struggle with this and I'm really only re-stumbling into my writing habits and trying to formulate some discipline to finally do things versus dream...
But its rather complicated with me...and almost too embarrassing for me to talk about...would love to chat with you, ha..but that would be nuts because I'm so private and so "newbie". I'd be too intimidated and feel silly.

Perhaps I ought to embrace more online connection (start a free blog maybe...).

Anyway, thanks for this post. I think its probably the best you've written. You've articulated yourself very well. Simple and concise.

J.

Bruce Bonafede said...

It was explained to me once by a psych type that the difference between an extrovert & an introvert is not that the extrovert is outgoing & the introvert reserved, it's that an extrovert DRAWS energy from having others around & an introvert IS DRAINED of energy by others. This helped me understand something about myself, since I love to be around people but I find it exhausting. For me, a semi-solitary lifestyle is perfect, though I'm sure it doesn't work for everybody.

wendy said...

I think having friendships which promote positive feelings, and therefore increased energy, of course is beneficial to health. The danger of being alone too much is of falling into morbidity which decreases energy and results in failing health. A trend I've noticed in my small town - of low socio-economic demographics - is that the males tend to prefer the company of their own gender due to, I think, paranoia towards women and the desire to liaise with the like-minded without drama or expectations. I questioned one of the aforementioned about all these bromances, and he agreed that his friends preferred the company of other men, but only because 'we're messed up'. I've also noticed a large proportion of adult males who have returned to living with their parent/s.

What does this mean, especially in terms of this post's topic? Well, it does reveal a certain amount of fear and self-preoccupation, I think, preventing some from reaching out with kindness and altruism. In the light of which I especially appreciate your thoughtful post today, Nathan, which I found inspirational and comforting.

Kastie Pavlik said...

Your post really grabbed me because I was recently isolating myself (due to health reasons) and had started reading an old book series and reworking a wip as a means of distraction, and I shied away from any personal interactions. But now that my health is improving, I'm interacting more and in better spirits. Although my writing has never caused me to withdraw like this, I agree completely with what you've said.

Of course now that I'm back on the wip, I'm also back to needing "me" time so I can focus...so here I sit, alone with my laptop, while my husband and the dog and our cats watch tv in another room... <<_

Joanna said...

Excellent contribution today... Writing for me is not exactly lonely (my characters are great company) but it is anti-social. It is also hard on the self esteem because after a marathon session at the keypad, no one is at all interested in hearing about what you managed to accomplish. All that loved ones see is the closed door and they really wish I had cooked dinner. What to do?

After several years of tears and frustration, I called a "meeting" and with my family, we brokered my "writing schedule" It isn't always convenient for any of us, but we all respect it...

Human relationships are the mainstay of a happy life... we can't dismiss them... even when in the midst of doing what we love best.

As an aside, I have just returned from Europe where I visited the van Gough museum, and so I particularly enjoyed the self portrait of the artist that accompanies your excellent post.

Melanie Schulz said...

I tend to be a very social person, but there's a side of me that likes to be alone. When I became a writer, that side took over. Now, I'm not nearly as comfortable in social settings as I used to be-maybe because, like you said, I spend so much time with imaginary people.

Ryan Schneider said...

Ray Bradbury said “Find out what your hero or heroine wants, and when he or she wakes up in the morning, just follow him or her around all day.”

Who has time to be lonely when we're stalking our protagonist?

Seriously, though. Social interaction is important and is a skill which can atrophy over time. So make it a point to get away from your writing on a regular basis. It doesn't make you any less of a writer. Who was it that said "You can't sit down to write until you've stood up to live."?

Incidentally, the captcha code for my comment is 471 hourtype. Hmm.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, this year for the first time I do feel lonely as a writer. I'm an introvert and I love spending time alone (and writing for long periods) but now with an empty nest and a spouse working farther from home, I find myself alone for very long hours, and it's been hard. I've started writing in a coffee shop and I've reached out to friends and other writers but it's still really really hard ... so thanks for the link to the Slate article and for the opportunity to 'fess up here.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

I like what Bruce said. I tend to have different personalities depending on the people I'm with (not on purpose). It's akin to being "on" and it can be exhausting. Sometimes I crave solitude.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Nathan. But in most cases doesn't this fall into the category of loving what you do, too. In other words, I love what I do and I like the solitude. In most cases, I would rather be writing than wasting time with so called friends in a bodega dreaming about what I wish I could do.

To be a writer takes a certain amount of discipline and the ability to work alone for long stretches of time. And if someone gets that lonely, to the point of needing professional help, maybe he or she shouldn't be doing it. Maybe a career where there is more social interaction is something this person would like better, and would make them happier in the long run.

I crave my time alone with my characters,literally. I have never had one single day when I've felt I would rather be somewhere else, or doing something else. And I've been doing it for a long time. It's the way I'm wired. And I stopped apologizing to friends a long time ago.

dawnpier said...

A very timely post for me Nathan. I finally fessed up in a very public way about how I've been feeling isolated and lonely. Here's a link to my blog post: http://wp.me/p2ev1c-ks What surprised me is how this blog post more than any other got people commenting and offering up advice. So there was definitely some empathy out there among my readers.

Offering yourself up as someone to connect to in our time of need is so incredibly compassionate of you. Above and beyond. Thanks.

Marion said...

On the flip side, if you've never felt loneliness, then you probably won't be able to write stuff that resonates with your reader.
And it is this feeling of being on the outside looking in that enables you to observe people objectively--ish!
Interaction with other writers is essential though, whether via an in-person group or via e-mail, blog comments, etc.

Deborah Harkness said...

Thank you for this post and the enclosed article link. I saw my reflection in the mirror. are we lonely because we are drawn to write or do we write because we are lonely? I write or struggle with writing because I need to breathe.

Leigh Hogan said...

Well said!

Jane said...

A lovely post. I love being in my own company and crave having more time to myself plus I don't find writing itself a lonely persuit however as I live in a country that I didn't grow up in, all of my old friends are no longer around me when I do want to interact with people. I constantly see people in my 'day job' and try to spend time attending various social occasions to try and meet 'my people' as it was phrased in the linked article but although I am surrounded by people I do feel loneliness from the lack of connections to people who 'get me'. Loneliness is real and is stigmatized when it shouldn't be. Thanks for talking about a topic that needs more exposure.

Robyn LaRue said...

Writing is when I'm least lonely, but I'm blessed with natural breaks between big projects that let me get back into life as much as my introverted personality cares to be. :)

Nick LeVar said...

This is something I'll have to work on. I haven't hung out with friends for about three years (when I became a writer).

Anonymous said...

I like your post -- and the beautiful art.
The great writer William Faulkner died rather early -- at 61, I believe, after a fall from a horse. In his late years, he said that when people finally realize all the opportunities that exist in life, it's usually too late for them.
As I see it, Faulkner couldn't have written all those brilliant and beautiful works of his if he had not lived a life --mainly -- of privacy and isolation. He watched and studied all the people in his postage-stamp area of Mississippi, but mostly from a distance. Many people hardly knew him. I hope to read again one day the very detailed biography of this writer by Joseph Blotner.

Cyndi Calhoun said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cyndi Calhoun said...

You know what makes me kind of lonely? I work outside of the home less so that I can write more. But, it impacts my budget. So, I don't go out as much and stay home more. And it sort of creates this wacky cycle. I'm working a little more to offset that, but there's no guarantee that lonliness won't affect you even when you ARE around people.
I think, as you said, is that it's important to cultivate relationships. That's the easy part once you've met people. The hard part is actually finding people to meet that understand the mind of a writer. Haha.

Jenny said...

This is very true for me. We've moved to a new town and I have yet to meet anyone who gets me. Writing actually cheers me up, as long as I am writing something funny and lighthearted.

Whirlochre said...

Writing isn't about words, it's about STUFF.

Unless you witness, and interact with, STUFF, then your writing will always be about nothing.

All those phantoms are STUFF, SEEN.

So you have to GET OUT THERE and SEE STUFF.

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