It’s now been over a year and a half — which I regard as three six-month sessions — that I’ve been living alone. Logistically speaking, anyway. I haven’t lived alone since I was twenty-two years old. Almost seventeen years. Finding myself in this solitary situation has been exactly that: a process of finding myself. This main course of self-discovery has also come with a complimentary bowl of soup laced with loneliness, a few dashes of anxiety, some spooky deja vu, plenty of boredom, and good old-fashioned depression. All served piping hot to me at my table for one.
Over drinks last night with Naylor, the topic of solitude and loneliness came up. It’s a topic my mind has crossed paths with twice in the past three days: once when I watched Into the Wild (my favorite film of the year, by the way), and again as I read a thought-provoking essay yesterday by Natalie Goldberg. The essay in question, from her writer-targeted book Writing Down the Bones, was entitled Use Your Loneliness. She points out how loneliness, while certainly not the most comfortable of emotions, can effectively be harnessed, flipped upside-down and backwards, and then turned into a driving force for creative productivity. The first step is to recognize it. With honesty. Then, rather than fearing it and becoming buried by it and all its damaging effects, you instead embrace it, and put it to use. Make it a tool. It’s not easy.
Into the Wild came up first last night. We both loved that flick. Based on a true story, a college graduate, disillusioned with his fellow man for several reasons, gives his $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhikes to the bowels of Alaska to “shed his inner self” and live off the land in solitude. I immediately connected with his spiritual journey, particularly on that night. Hit the spot. I feel like I didn’t even pick the movie that night. It picked me. A theme that underscores the entire story is verbalized in one of the main character’s lines. The line as I remember it, which isn’t word-for-word: “Happiness isn’t exclusively found in human relationships. It can be found in everything. All you need to do is look around.”
After Naylor and I hashed out our shared admiration for the film, I mentioned Goldberg’s tangentially related essay, Use Your Loneliness. A few interesting realities became clear through our discussion. I’ve been recently realizing that solitude and loneliness are such fundamental and universal parts of the human condition that, as artists, it’s crucial that we experience them first-hand. I’d even argue that experiencing loneliness is a requirement in a writer’s curriculum. I believe any writer of creative material — fiction, poetry, music — must endure a season or three of solitude and its side effect of loneliness if that material is to be genuine. Without having that necessary experience, we’re simply uninformed about one of the most glaring realities known to man. Whether or not we’re writing about loneliness in a specific piece, and whether or not we’re lonely at the time, it’s critical that we intimately know loneliness for our work to be human. It’s one of the things that age and wisdom are made of.
There is, of course, a balance to be had. Embrace the loneliness, know it, feel it. Just try not to stay there so long that you become a jaded recluse.
So yeah, it’s been a solitary gig for over a year and a half. But, now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see I’ve been living in solitude and feeling quite lonely for a lot longer than that. Perhaps all my life. The fact is that, as writers, we’re born lonely. Right out of the gate. Starting on Day One. Writing is an isolating activity, and writerhood is an lonely existence that we’re born into involuntarily. I’d be lying if I said that my addiction to words hasn’t always felt like a sort of solitary prison cell, isolating me from all the sane people of the world. What’s been encouraging to me lately is that, as I’ve been meeting fellow writers that share this addiction, I can now see that the prison cell is more crowded than I thought. It’s a shared isolation. It’s not just me. THANK GOD.
Writing is akin to any other addiction. It’s a demon that chooses you. “Addicted to what?” Naylor asked. Fair question. I could probably sit here and answer that one for an hour, but in a nutshell, I’d say that it’s an addiction to expression. A writer’s need to write, or, if you will, an artist’s need to express, is like a breather’s need to exhale. There’s nothing optional about it. The stream of consciousness is unstoppable.
Naylor then tossed out the question, “Are solitude and loneliness the same thing?” Well, no, they’re not. While I’d been treating the two terms synonymously in our conversation, they’re clearly different things, albeit related. This question of terminology seemed to be begging us to take the conversation to another level, but we didn’t feel like getting overly philosophical so early in the evening. So that was that.
Anyway, I just wanted to share those two things with you tonight. Watch Into the Wild for inspiration. And the next time you’re faced with loneliness, face it head on and put it to work for you.
And finally, one last parting tip: if you don’t use Twitter, and plan on eternally refusing to do so, then never give your cell number to a lonely Twitter-using writer unless your wireless carrier package includes unlimited incoming text messages. As a gesture of love and in the interest of unprejudiced inclusion, we tend to CC anyone without a Twitter stream.