“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 As unpublished writers, we cannot be sure that our work will ever bring in any money; we certainly can have no confidence whatsoever that it will feed and clothe us into our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.