The loneliness of being a writer

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“What the budding artist needs is the privilege of wrestling with problems in solitude.”

– Henry Miller

A writer’s world can be a strange one: we desperately try to find moments of solitude but then, when we get it, often struggle to adapt to the loneliness.

The truth is that writing can be a lonely old business. It usually needs to be. And different people cope with that in different ways. What’s important is that we choose and embrace this solitude rather than feeling powerlessly cut adrift. I guess that’s the difference between solitude and loneliness.

I actually like the solitary nature of writing – but I’ve found that I’ve been at my most productive on writing retreats, where I’m surrounded by other writers. In it’s own way, this is still isolation: in a house in the middle of nowhere, with no distractions and nothing to do except write from morning till night. It’s inspiring to feel the energy coming from the other writers in the group – that was the additional motivation I needed – but I still had to find my own bubble to write in.

There’s also the ‘no-one else understands’ loneliness. Oh yeah. If you stick your head out the window right now you’ll be able to hear that wail from a thousand heads looking up from a thousand keyboards.

And it is true. It’s highly unlikely that anyone else (except other writers) will understand exactly what it is you go through every time you sit down in front of a blank piece of paper, knowing that you’re embarking on a process that will take months, if not years, to complete. Not only won’t anyone understand why you do what you do – but they may not understand what you end up writing either!


It’s not so easy to fit all this in to our day-to-day lives. We crave the moments we manage to find for ourselves: after work, before work, at weekends, when the kids are out, on that weekend away, on the train. And it’s never enough. But then we make the time and guess what?

1. We procrastinate

There’s always that friend you meant to email, the youtube clip you meant to watch, the washing-up left in the kitchen sink, that thing you had to do that you’ve been meaning to do and you should probably at least look in to how you go about starting to do it.

If only someone would ring on the doorbell, you’d invite them in for tea and cake.

And sure, you want to build up a social media profile, to update your blog regularly, to make contacts… but if you haven’t made peace with the solitude and put the time in to your writing then the other stuff is all for diddly squat (is that even a phrase or did I just make it up?).

Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

I guess this is now a tough love post!

2. The pressure, the pressure!

We’ve found the time and the space to sit with our pen and paper or at our keyboard… but what if the words won’t come? What if everything I write is shit? It’s making me crazy!

You know what? Seriously, just ‘suck it up and get on with it’. If you want to be a writer then write.

Ok, I know I’m being harsh. There are plenty of techniques and exercises to help get the words flowing – I’ve suggested and discussed a lot of them since I’ve started blogging. But being a writer is tough, no matter how much we love doing it or how much we feel that we have a story that needs telling. We need to learn to make friends with solitude and be hard on ourselves. Think of it as a privilege to do what you’re doing, not a chore, no matter whether your friends or family understand. For me, it’s all about being continually surprised and excited by what I’m writing… and if I can stay in that place then I’m a happy man.

(Photo by me)

(One day I’ll learn how to write a structured article)

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53 thoughts on “The loneliness of being a writer

  1. thoughtsatintervals

    Hear, hear.

    I think I might try one of those writing retreats. Sounds like a good way to make a significant step forward on a project and to give it momentum to keep it going through the subsequent snatched minutes and hours.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    Reply
  2. Trish

    I’m always wishing someone would come to visit me for tea and cake, and occasionally they do, but that’s because I invite them… Some days I call this procrastination, other days it’s really a survival technique. Anyway, writers are supposed to mix with the rest of the world to get material to write about. We don’t want to be like Proust who wrote in a cork-lined bedroom and rarely left it. But then, perhaps someone visited him for tea and madeleines, and look what a great passage he managed to write about that! Your post is great; thanks for writing it.

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Ha. Tea and cake is good! And obviously getting out in to the world and interacting is what life’s about. We’re all better writers from using our own experiences in some way. But thanks so much… glad you liked the post.

      Reply
  3. claratsi

    yep, I’m feeling much like this now, struggling to be creative as I begin to write my next review. This article may serve as a nice reference, that feeling of space in my head sometimes when I need to conjure a thought – reassuring to think I’m not alone in my struggle. Great post, food for thought!

    Reply
  4. John W. Howell

    Diddly squat is an adverb verb combo which describes the function of no or little result. Comes from the Latin Bowlum Nesturnum which literally means small poop. The action of squat ( prep to bowel function pre North American ceramic) modified by the adverb indication of a small or insignificant amount. Hope this helps 🙂

    Reply
  5. ioniamartin

    I would have t agree with you about the benefits of a writer’s retreat. I tried going to a weekly writer’s meeting, but the problem seems to be that i can’t stand having to do anything on a schedule of such frequency. So, once or twice a year to a long weekend of sharing thoughts with others who are like minded seems to work best for me.

    Reply
  6. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    I would love, love to take time out for a writing retreat, oh sigh.

    Being alone a lot is very true, as a writer. My son’s friends, I don’t know what they think of me – but often, so often the weekends I am in my room, writing. There is no other way.

    Reply
  7. lyriquediscorde

    I needed the tough love more than I can say. Yes, I get it and needed to read this, and damn, you kick my writer’s ass in the best way. Thank you for always being such an inspiration/motivation…now I need to just WRITE and find my own spot of workable loneliness.

    THANK YOU

    Reply
  8. Betty Generic

    I think that is how Frankenstein was written. A group of writers on vacation sat around trying to come up with the best horror story, which sounds so much cooler than laying around in a bikini getting a tan, or I am a really dull girl. 🙂

    Reply
  9. johnnycrabcakes

    Great post–I say diddly squat all the time–used as a noun, as in “he don’t know diddly squat!” inerchangeable with “nuthin'” and “shit”. But then, I’m a yank…
    It is true that I crave this aloneness and yet so often don’t know what to do with it when I have it. It has helped me greatly to think of it in the same way that I think of mindfulness practice (what some would call “meditation”). You just do it. And some times you don’t. And some times you feel guilt/regret/frustration with/at your self and then you still just do it and let go of all the diddly squat. Especially your own diddly squat that you create as a constellation of squatting diddly all around the whole topic of “ishouldbewritingbuti’mnot” possibly as yet another excuse for not writing and then you still just have to do it.
    …and this is a constant conversation that I keep having with myself…
    …much more clearly articulated by yourself….
    Thanks–

    Reply
  10. Rodger Jacobs

    I recently discovered the rampant self-doubt that comes from embarking upon the writing of a novel, a lot of fun that is. I feel lately like some tortured Graham Greene-esque Catholic priest grappling with the realization that there is no God.

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      That’s really tough… I reckon most writers feel huge doubt while they’re writing. I certainly have no idea if what I’m writing has merit beyond keeping me busy (!) but I always try to remember that I’m doing this because I want to and I have to – for now, it’s not my job to make it good, it’s my job to write it. Just go back to the reasons that you’re doing this in the first place.

      Reply
      1. Rodger Jacobs

        Just go back to the reasons that you’re doing this in the first place.

        That’s where I’m trying to get my head right now, the original inspiration. What I’ve found is that in some places I’m guilty of overwriting, of trying too hard to impress or make a point (i.e., hammer it home). After a 25-year-plus professional writing career, the novel is the one form I never challenged (after journalism, lit critique, documentary and feature films, theater, radio, short fiction, etc.) so it’s sort of daunting somehow.

  11. Rodger Jacobs

    And yet I never tried too hard in any of the other forms I cited. I was totally confident of my abilities in those fields, even advertising copy, which I loathed (but it paid well, man oh man, did it pay well, but it’s drudge work).

    Reply
      1. Rodger Jacobs

        I am still on the first draft, though during the month of February (when I commenced writing) the first 4,000 words or so were revised and rewritten about seven times until I finally felt satisfied and confident to move forward with the rest of it. Currently I’m approximately 25,000 words in and just edging up to the end of the first act and moving into the second act. The entire novel has been outlined, though not in a formal sense as I believe that rigid outlines impose too much on the author and discourage spontaneous prose, perhaps a side effect from my flash fiction period of 2008-09 when I composed over 100 spontaneous pieces of flash, about one-third of which have been published in various venues and publications.

      2. beautifulorange Post author

        I agree that a rigid outline can be restricting – I reckon that the one thing that keeps me excited about writing above all others is that I love surprising myself as I write.

        I’m no expert but I have read and spoken to a lot of authors – and from this and my own experience, I really do think that the trick with a first draft is to just keep moving forward ie. don’t re-write too much, just get it down and worry about making it good in the re-writes. I posted a quote from Jennifer Egan a fee weeks ago (she’s a Pulitzer prize winning author) in which she says that much of her first drafts are clumsy and cliched but that she just moves on through it anyway. I guess what I’m trying to say is that usually the most important thing is to finish the first draft as quickly as you can – too much re-writing can be a killer.

  12. Le Clown

    Beautiful Orange.
    “If you want to be a writer, just write”.
    Indeed. Embrace the fear, and write.
    Le Clown

    Reply
  13. Rebecca Bradley

    I definitely need to find time and finance to go on a writing retreat, I’m not getting the chance to find isolation writing at with the family It’s a few rushed bits of work when I know I jhave half an hour alone, but definitely not enough time to feel isolated. As for procrastination, I’m just coming to the end of the very crazy AtoZ blogging challenge and what I’ve found is that it has formed a new tighter schedule and work ethic for me. I’m more determined to sit down with my keyboard every evening. This can only be a good thing and I’m hoping it lasts.

    I will have to look up writing retreats though. That’s if I can afford them after the writing festivals I’m planning this year!

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      As you can tell, I loved it. I hope you do find the time and money to give it a go. If you click on the link in my post you can see the one I went on – which I’d absolutely recommend.

      What writing festivals are you going to? Sounds great too!

      Reply
      1. Rebecca Bradley

        I’m going to the Harrogate Crime writing festival in July which will be my third! Love it!

        I’m also eyeing up the York literary festival. If you buy a ticket for a day, you get a one to one with an agent! That one is finances permitting!

  14. talesfromthemotherland

    So glad that Le Clown saw a connection between my post today, and yours here… and sent me your way. Love this. It is exactly what I’m grappling with right write now, and this is the inspirational push I needed. Thanks! If you want to be a writer, than write. Indeed! By the way, diddly squat better be a real “phrase,” because I use it all the time. 🙂

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Ah, Le Clown is a wise old soul! I’m glad that my post has helped. I’ve tried to offer support and advice to so many writers recently – but sometimes we all need to be told to just write. That’s what separates us from those people who ‘know I have a novel in me’ or who ‘would love to write some day’.

      And I’ve just read your post… it’s also incredibly inspiring. Thank you.

      Reply
  15. myduallife

    Love the humor within this post, which is also chock-full with solid advice we writers ought staple to our foreheads and quote in the mirror every morning and night. I’ve written a number of poems on procrastination, and immediately after penning those down, a more inspired piece of writing came to me. Ah, the magic of writing. After a delightful snack of tea & cake (or rather, cookies & hot chocolate/coffee here in NYC).

    Sidenote- that “All work…dull boy” youtube clip freaked me out… I’m guessing it’s from a scary horror movie?

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Thanks so much. Hope you managed to get some work done after the cookies and chocolate.

      And yes, that clip is from The Shining – Jack Nickolson plays a writer who takes his family to an isolated hotel to caretake while it’s empty over the summer – and so that he can write his novel. It’s one of my favourite films – if you can stomach a creepy movie then I’d highly recommend it.

      Reply
  16. girlproducer

    Never tired a writing retreat but I’ve noticed that I do seem more focused on writing when I am surrounded by people then when I am by myself. Maybe because they serve as inspiration?

    Reply
  17. Helena Hann-Basquiat

    Thank you for my new mantra, darling! If you want to be a writer then write. (I mean, I knew this, of course I knew this, but it’s easy to get distracted and forget why I’m doing this). Thanks so much for dropping by my blog — you caught me at a discouraged and depressed moment, though — if you want a laugh or two, go back and read earlier stuff!

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Ha, well glad it’s helped. I try to tell it to myself as much as possible… although today it ain’t working! I’ll have to stop by your blog again and search out some happier posts 😉

      Reply
  18. joelseath

    Maybe this has been said before up above (though I haven’t read through to see), but there is an argument to say you’re never alone when you write. 🙂

    Reply
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  21. Tracesofthesoul

    I like that idea of a writing retreat. I have started bringing my notebook to a café sometimes and the writing is different; I do struggle with balancing the solitude though.

    Reply
    1. beautifulorange Post author

      It was one of the most productive periods of writing that I’ve ever had. I also carry my notepad with me everywhere – but I find that I write the best when I remove myself completely from familiar surroundings.

      Reply

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