Writing is surrounded by many myths. Often, these myths hold us back by promoting unrealistic perceptions about our craft. One such belief is the myth of the lonely writer.
As with most myths about writing, the idea of the lonely writer stems from a romanticized view of the craft.
Many of us are drawn to the cliche' of the solitary creative. Isolated in his or her writing space (preferably in a private studio filled with sentimental objects) this character feverishly toils to create a work of literary brilliance. This archetype is fueled by centuries of poetry, novels, and films about writers. While it contains some truth, the cliche' promotes several unrealistic expectations about writing.
Before I move on, let me stress that I think that solitude benefits most writers. I believe that isolation has a place in a healthy writing practice. What I’m reacting to is an extreme view of independence that has the potential to limit growth.
I could point out many problems with the myth, but I’ll focus on three lies that fuel the romanticization of this concept. These lies relate to the themes of genius, productivity, and grit.
The Lie of Genius
All of us have heard stories about literary geniuses who sequestered themselves away for years and then later emerged and presented a masterpiece to a waiting world. We’ve heard stories like this about Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau. We’ve been thrilled by these stories. For many of us, these dramatic biographies fueled our initial interest in writing.
Now, there is truth to the idea that living in solitude can help people to create great works. It's also important to remember, however, that the authors in these stories were usually very unusual people. They weren't the average writer. To suppose that imitating their lifestyle will make us equally successful at writing is a bit like supposing that just because Michael Jordan always ate a steak before a game, we too can eat steak and play world-class basketball.
In addition, we can't link the solitary habits of certain geniuses with the quality of their work as some kind of cause-and-effect. It could be a matter of simple correlation that they happened to be hermits and they happened to create works of literary genius. We can't assume that the genius of their work follows in cause-and-effect fashion from their solitude.
We also need to consider that the genius of their work may have happened in spite of their solitude, rather than as a result of their solitude. Really, there's no way to prove that famous lonely writers created their masterpieces because they were in fact, lonely. Who knows, maybe Emily Dickinson would've written even better poetry if she hadn’t been an isolated spinster. Maybe not, but who knows?
My point is that we can’t assume that key literary figures created works of genius as a result of their solitude. Don't shun the association of your fellow writers or the benefits of criticism on the grounds that you are emulating these literary figures. That usually doesn't work.
The Lie of Productivity
Efficiency is another matter that writers often get wrong when they think about solitude. There’s truth in the idea that spending time alone can boost productivity. However, it’s also true that many writers who spend too much time in solitude become highly inefficient. Writing in isolation should be characterized by productivity, but for many, it turns into long sessions of staring at their navel.
The best practice for the typical writer is to balance periods of productive solitude with periods of productive socializing. During the solitude, the writer knuckles down and writes like mad. During the social periods, the writer regroups with one or more other people to share, to encourage, and to offer constructive criticism. Maintaining the balance between these two spheres gives the greatest benefit to most writers.
The Lie of Grit
One last lie is that lonely writers have greater resilience. This is also a myth.
Again, we can look at certain anomalies—writers who were productive and consistent in their isolated existence—but these are not the norm. The average writer who works in isolation is less likely to complete a project, not more. Every year, millions of people resolve to write a book. Every year, the majority of those people give up after a few days. Typically, those who abandon the project worked in secret and lacked support.
The isolated writer has the greatest opportunity to squander time and energy. For most of us, great consistency in writing comes from avoiding the hermit mentality. If you lack the grit you need to complete a project, you most likely need support more than solitude. Find encouraging friends. Ask them to keep you accountable, and they will! There's no need to act as if you must pull yourself up by your own bootstraps day after day, week after week, month after month. It’s smart to have friends, colleagues, and peers to rely on. If they can help you stay consistent, leaning on them is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence.
A Balanced Solution
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not bashing solitude. I love solitude. I probably love it too much. What I've learned, however, after years of mediocre writing output, is that prolific writers usually balance solitude with social accountability. If you can grow and produce by spending oodles of time by yourself, peace be with you. But please, be alert and pay attention to whether solitude truly furthers your writing or holds it back.
Here's my cold, harsh pronouncement for the day: I believe that for most of us, the myth of the lonely writer is an excuse. It's an excuse to avoid being held accountable by others. It's an excuse to sidestep clear communication in writing, which is difficult. It’s an excuse to treat writing as an exercise in self-aggrandizement, rather than an opportunity to serve. It’s an excuse to fuel our fantasies, our vanity, and even our fears, rather than to employ writing as a means of facing reality.
Being alone is good. It's powerful. It's even necessary. Like everything in this life, however, solitude can be misused.
Don't let the myth of the lonely writer twist your practice into something imbalanced. May your work be truly filled with genius, productivity, and grit. I'll be here if you want to share it with me.