Ernest Hemingway once famously said something profound about writing and being alone. A lot of writers really glommed onto it. They began to take themselves incredibly seriously and beat other people over the head with that little axiom. Eventually, their friends got tired of hearing about how lonely they are, about how writing was easy, all you do is open up a vein and bleed onto the page. They might have protested and said “You know, using a word processor might be easier. Or even a pen and paper if you don’t like to do first drafts electronically. Or so I’ve heard.”
Writers, like all artists often have a flair for dramatics. They do all sorts of weird things as part of building their personas. It reminds me a little bit of being a kid and deciding you were going to be famous when you grew up and since you just learned how to write in cursive, you were going to practice your signature over and over again until it was unique and the personification of your greatness and wit. And so many a Trapper Keeper had been covered in variations of your name and Lisa Frank unicorns and fluffy kittens were smudged with blue and black Bic pen until you realized being successful has a lot more to do with hard work and putting talent to use that it does having a cool scribble for a name.
But there is a lot of truth to the cliche of writing being lonely. A lot of the work you do is in your head. A lot of what you produce winds up getting chewed apart, dissected, repurposed, recycled or just outright cut from existence as the creative process trudges on ahead. I enjoy writing my blogs because nearly everything that you read here was written in one shot. I might not have even spell-checked it. It’s just raw. Often my voice is captured here and the tone is honest if nothing else. Unless I’m writing a blog for a customer and there is money on the line, I don’t outline. It’s nothing as severe as opening up a vein, but sometimes I do speak too honestly and reveal too much. It becomes more like a diary and overly personal or intimate than I probably intended. But that’s what edits are for.
But I do digress.
Writing is lonely because you are doing most of the work in your head. A lot of what makes it to the page the first shot is garbage. There might be seeds of wisdom or brilliance, but that’s what subsequent drafts are for, to winnow out the chaff and collect those grains, to process them, cultivate them, make a nice oatmeal or meatloaf. Maybe some bread. Maybe sow them in another field, cross-pollinated with some other strain until you get something better.
But really, it’s lonely because nobody should be forced to read a garbage first draft but the writer. Not your mom, not your significant other, and certainly not your readers until you are dead and buried and they can marvel at the creative process long after you are too decomposed to cringe at whatever the hell it was you were thinking when you started your draft.
It’s lonely because by the time you are done with a readable draft, a lot of that work and brilliance is nearly forgotten because that was months if not years before. It’s old news. Even if someone did pat you on the back and say “WOW! This is great!” You would just shrug them off and say, “Oh that? It was okay. You should see what I’m working on now!” Which suffice to say is another garbage first draft.
It’s lonely because when you are published, or they buy your work, the feedback you get is either an acceptance letter with a check, an invoice you have to submit, or teeny-tiny royalty checks, or the occasional review on Amazon where someone says something like “Nice story. Sorta reminds me of GRRM without the sex or killing. I can’t wait for the Winds of Winter to be finished! AMIRITE?!” These short-lived little nods to your hard work have about as much dopamine hit as a “like” on Facebook for writing something stupid about a cat video.
It’s lonely because you feel like a fraud. Authors are distinguished men and women with that look on their face, peering at you over their spectacles at a reading or book signing. They are just so damned clever and honest. Nothing like you: The person who can still taste the Spaghettios they had for breakfast or the one who just stammered like an idiot to the barrista when they asked what your name was. (It doesn’t matter what they wrote on the cup. The important thing is that you produced sound and maybe words when they asked you a question. They were laughing with you. Not at you.)
You’re a fraud because you aren’t Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Safran Foer, or even Kitty Kelly. So when people ask what you do, you tell them what pays the bills. You say, “Oh, I’m an administrative assistant.” It’s not what you are. You are a writer. You might as well have just told them “I watch funny internet videos and look at memes!” That’s what someone does. It isn’t what they are.
You wallow in self-doubt. You feel like nobody else understands how writing a book is like painting a room with two artist brushes, and when you are done, it’s time to use those same brushes for a second coat. And a fourth… You might find yourself “blocked” not because of lack of ideas, but because what is the damned point of it anyway? Making up stories that never happened for a handful of people who might never read what you wrote anyway and some of them will probably figure they could have done it better than you and they are probably right?
So, you withdraw. You stop being a writer and you get really good at laughing at memes. You stop telling people you write. You withdraw and not only are you no longer encouraging yourself, but you stop bothering to encourage anyone else, because what kind of friend subjects another human being to that kind of self-doubt and isolation?
Then you bump into some people one day at a coffee shop. They didn’t know you wrote. You didn’t know they wrote. You start talking. You start getting excited about the creative process. About making new worlds and characters and this crowd doesn’t consider the things you write about juvenile or insipid. They think it sounds cool. They like stories about vampires and monsters and heroes and to hell with the duality of Man and that Upton Sinclair bullshit. They like stories where stuff blows up. Not only are these people your audience, but they are your fellowship.
Writing should never be a lonely profession. I think writers fall into that trap because our kind is far-flung. We are frauds because we aspire to be important, rather than enjoy what we do. Writers should band together and yammer about their tales and complain about rejection letters and encourage each other.
It shouldn’t be solitude. It should be a celebration!
So, if you are blocked or frustrated or feel like your story sucks and nobody wants to read it, talk with some other writers. Tell them, “I’m a fraud” and they will laugh with you, not at you. Because we are all frauds. Frauds that are having the time of our lives.