We are lonesome animals. We spend all our live trying to be less lonesome. And one of our ancient methods is to tell a story, begging the listener to say, and to feel, “Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.” John Steinbeck
I wrote my first novel in a small room next to the kitchen during teacher vacations. I sat alone, day after day, week after week. Though I had written a couple of short stories and many poems before, I had never written a novel.
I had never been alone with myself that much.
I grew up with four siblings. My childhood friends had large families. As a teacher, I spent my days with thirty or more young people, and as many staff members.
Novel writing means sitting in a void of silence and solitude. It is painful. For me it can feel nonhuman. Making up pretend people who do pretend things seems, at times, beside the point. Why not be with living people who do real things?
Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god. –Aristotle
But still, the need to write tugs.
At first I found all sorts of reasons not to sit in that small room alone. The dog needed to go out. I should call my mother. The bills, the dishes, the laundry were unfinished. Voices called me, helped me make excuses, helped pull me away from the hardest thing about writing: The struggle of isolation.
I forced myself, my eye on the prize of getting a novel written. Gradually I got attached to my characters, and interested in my story for its own sake. By some miracle, I finished the book. It was in no way polished, but when I finished the draft a few people read it. I revised it and sent it to an agent or two but it eventually took up a space on my shelf, gathering dust.
The second book was about the same. I wrote while wrestling with solitude. When the draft was done, I think three people read it, including me.
The third book was a NaNoWriMo novel that I drafted in a month. No one, thankfully, ever read that book, or most of the subsequent revisions.
I submitted revised opening of the third book with my application to Vermont College of Fine Arts Masters in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.
Attending VCFA was like waking up to find myself in an enormous, multi-generational family the likes of which I’d never seen.
I met people. Writerly people. Fun, kind, interesting, brilliant, stimulating people. Suddenly, I was part of a far-reaching human collective that didn’t go away, even when I was alone.
Now when I wrote at home, I no longer felt like I was in a little room, writing into a grey fog. I had an advisor expecting my work. I had to submit to the critique group. Fellow students shared work with me. At each residency, I made new friends who loved writing for children.
Facebook widened my circle of writer buddies: I had friends to cheer for and who cheered me on. Attending conferences and retreats added more folks to my network that includes writers and readers from around the world. I joined a regular critique group.
Most of my friends are writers, teachers, artists or a combination of these.
Most of my friends care about my success, as I care about theirs.
My daily news is filled with new books, author visits and possibilities for writers. It’s also got reality checks, like how many zillion times you need to send work out before it gets bought. Or sad news of publishers leaving, or fine editors and agents quitting, or books going out of print.
Every single day I learn something new from a friend that I didn’t have when I began my first book alone so many years ago.
I still struggle with the poverty of solitude. I avoid my writing. I act like an orphan, alone and afraid. But I am not.
As I stare at my screen or my journal, loneliness does not take me over.
In this very bleak time in American history, when the void flicks an evil finger at me, I can say resolutely: You do not own me. I have my people. And they have me.
We are here holding our places in the creative world.
This saves me every moment of every day.