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