The Lonely Writer

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.” So said Ernest Hemingway, great writer and master of misery. Which is interesting to me, because of the “at its best” in the middle of the sentence. Writing is a lonely life. Yes, certainly. Most writers fly solo, and by definition fiction is something that only we can see until we set it down in words.

But does “at its best” refer to the quality of the writing or the life? If it’s the writing, then I think that depends on the writer. Some people work best locked in a room alone, others at a coffee shop where the minor distractions of real life help them to avoid the major distractions of boredom, procrastination and writer’s block.

But Hemingway being who he was, I think it’s perfectly possible he was referring to the quality of the life. No annoying co-workers to interrupt, no screaming children or hungry cats, no nagging wife or impatient husband … just the writer and the worlds he chooses to create.

In which case, Mr Hemingway, I must respectfully disagree.

With a group of fellow writers recently, those of us without day jobs were bemoaning the state of our lives. Put very simply, there were three big difficulties facing us. The first, is the rather obvious and clichéd image of the starving artist. As unpublished writers, we cannot be sure that our work will ever bring in any money; we certainly can have no confidence whatsoever that it will feed and clothe us into our dotage. It’s a concern and a very real one. But, for many writers, a day job or a partner with a day job is enough to pull that problem down from Crisis level.

Connected to our lack of financial security is the difficulty of self-motivation in the face of nothing stronger than a hope of one day being published. As an un(der)-employed writer, I know that nobody is going to give two hoots if I spend the day in bed or watching TV. Nobody is going to chase me for the next draft manuscript or the next short story. For me, the solution is a schedule – I’ve mentioned this before – and a healthy dose of self-motivation. I know that on a Friday I must post my piece for Madison’s Friday Fictioneers, for example, and as well as my Flag Raising goals for the year, I set goals every morning for the day and on the first of every month to complete by the end of it. And some days I’m more productive than others, but it means I don’t need a boss standing over me with a deadline and a P45 (Pink slip for US readers).

But, to come back to EH and his lonely life, the biggest problem for the un(der)-employed writer is a much more human one, felt by homemakers and full-time carers, the unemployed and the cast out as well as the world’s writers. We need company. We need to hear a human voice, to talk – even about nothing – and to be listened to. The television or radio can help, but it doesn’t quite fit the bill. And there is something unhelpful about telephones too – I find they help even less. Which is why I consider myself extremely lucky to have made friends with a group of people who have an online chatroom. Most of them are writers, in one guise or another, although there is much more to any of them than their fiction. During the day, whenever I have a mini-success or what feels like a catastrophic failure, I can jump in and tell someone about it. And the rest of the time, we chatter like co-workers do. Not non-stop, or there’d be no time for work, but enough to feel a connection. It’s as important as being able to share the bigger successes and failures with my husband and family. Like I said about the coffee shop, sometimes allowing minor distractions is the best way to prevent major ones.

So, while I fully admit that my writing, at its best, is still not fit to clean the shoes of EH’s worst; for me, the writing life, at its best, is one that’s shared and enjoyed.


Filed under Writing

7 responses to “The Lonely Writer

  1. James Donnelly

    “Share and Enjoy” is the company motto of the hugely successful Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints division, which now covers the major land masses of three medium sized planets and is the only part of the Corporation to have shown a consistent profit in recent years.

    The motto stands – or rather stood – in three mile high illuminated letters near the Complaints Department spaceport on Eadrax. Unfortunately its weight was such that shortly after it was erected, the ground beneath the letters caved in and they dropped for nearly half their length through the underground offices of many talented young complaints executives – now deceased.

    The protruding upper halves of the letters now appear, in the local language, to read “Go stick your head in a pig”, and are no longer illuminated, except at times of special celebration.

    — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

    (Sorry Jen – I couldn’t help myself! Besides, an epic story about an Englishman trying to get a decent cup of tea in a foreign environment seemed somehow appropriate 😉

  2. Dear Jen,

    I want you to know that in my writing life I have been buoyed by your comment and conversation.

    I want you to never say that your writing, best or worst, is not fit to clean the shoes of Hemingway’s worst. (You are allowed to think it, every now and then, but quash the thought quickly and write on. Do not give voice to the idea, even in jest or in passing conversation. We are all Hemingways, banging our heads and busting our asses to make the words sing and the stories live. Say that instead.

    Hemingway was a lonely man who wrote. I am an introvert who chooses my friends carefully. I’m not lonely, but like you, I thrive on the connection I find with other Hemingways in waiting. You’re one of them, by them way, so
    thanks for that.

    • Thank you for your kind words, Doug. They are appreciated, as is the connection that this strange online world can give to strangers.

      I’m personally no great fan of Hemingway’s work, but a tenth of his success would be more than my wildest dreams – how’s that?

  3. And, believe it or do not, WordPress would not let me sign off with Aloha, Doug, so I’ve added it here.



  4. I approve. (By the way, have you ever read his short story titled, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber? Genius.)



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