I want to write today about an important facet of the writer’s life: being alone with your thoughts enough to compose something on the page. While some of you out there may be lucky enough to write by yourself or in a separate room, odds are most people have to deal with this situation simply by dint of having a relationship with another human being.
My wife and I lived in a very cramped apartment for the first five years of our marriage. This led to numerous issues regarding space, and while a lot of it got rectified when we moved a bigger place last year, we still could not avoid the fact that we are occupying much of the same area together, almost all of the time. How can we as writers learn to deal with such a situation? How can we with partners in our lives learn to be alone, together?
First I’d like to address the simple matter of how to write even when there is somebody in the same area doing something completely different like watching television. Headphones can be invaluable to cut off the noise, and to place you in the right mindset for writing. For me that’s a heavy dose of classical and/or ambient music. But more to the point, we as writers need to find the proper mindset for working on our craft even in a fairly cramped environment. My wife has her own concept of “alone time,” which she needs just as much as me. Even in a one-bedroom apartment we find our ways of separating, whether that’s moving to the bedroom to read or putting on my headphones and jamming out on a story. While we do have to occupy the same space, we manage to live in our own worlds at certain times. I think this is an important concept for anyone who lives in close quarters with another human being: make sure they too have the space they need from you, when they need it. This can be tough to understand and acknowledge, but believe me, if you can find an arrangement that works out for the both of you, it will do wonders for the entire relationship.
But I want to go deeper than that. What does it truly mean to be alone, together? We as writers are basically unable to do our jobs unless we can be solitary and cultivate our thoughts. How is this possible in our world full of distraction and people? Those who work with me have probably come to know me by turns inherently taciturn and, as I’ve been described by too many people to count, “quiet.” This was especially apparent in my previous job, in which personal connections broke down and I became utterly consumed with keeping to myself. While this led to some humorous anecdotes in my current manuscript concerning neurotic behaviour in the white-collar workplace, it did not lead to me connecting very well with my co-workers. I find myself currently employed in a bookstore, surrounded by some of my favorite works but also by people who do a lot more thinking before they speak (not a huge concern of the office-dweller, in general terms). And yet even here I find myself not speaking much more, often because I have a lot of ponderous thoughts about my books going on in my brain. While part of me keeps trying to make myself interact more with my fellow booksellers, many of whom are very deep people with interesting stories to tell, I must remind myself that the work is residing up there in my cranium, and to make sure I allow myself the time needed to grapple with it. Those of us who deign to use the written word to tell a story need not be so afraid of living a withdrawn life. I cannot stress enough how important it is to retain the singular lifestyle required of the writer in various circumstances. I am lucky enough to have a job in which that isn’t too difficult, but I would highly recommend this to any aspiring writer: find ways to keep within yourself and your thoughts as much as you can.
That’s not to say you should be inwardly focused all the time, but you will never reach your full potential as a writer unless you can be alone with your thoughts. Whether that’s being home alone, together with your significant other or alone among others in your workplace, it’s imperative to cultivate that mindset as often as you can stand it. On this I can only offer my considerations as I ponder the direction of my writing career. While the first draft of my third novel resides on my hard drive, I have for the past few years been chewing over the direction of my fourth one, and how it can reflect reality. This began as the seed of an idea as I was waiting for the bus some afternoons after the office job, and continued into a bigger notion the more I was able to contemplate it, either when others were present or own my own. The important thing to note here is that I would not have been able to get this far without being able to honestly and deeply appraise my own thoughts. Make sure you are giving yourself the same amount of space.
This ties in with what I hope will be my final essay on the writing process this year, which is a doozy: What exactly is a writer for? That is, what are we as purveyors of the written word attempting to do with our careers? I’ll be the first to admit I have expressed utter cluelessness on this score for a long time, but as this year has progressed I have come as close to an answer to that question as I’ve gotten yet. I hope to get that essay out of my brain before this horrendous year has passed.
And of course, stay tuned to this space for the final few updates in my year-long experiment in reading fiction, the incredible results of which have guaranteed its continuation into the next year (more on that next month).
Thanks for reading, and as always feel free to add your own reactions to these ideas in the comments. Happy holidays, everyone!
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.