Perform Your Loneliness, Please
10 writers on making the very private very public.
When asked, in an interview, what it takes to be a writer, Zadie Smith replied, "The serious part of it is having a great capacity to be alone. That really is the key. I have lots of students and friends who want to write, who are very talented, but... the question is whether you want to spend all day alone, and most people don't... understandably." And elsewhere echoed, "It's kind of an extreme life, right? This incredible loneliness and then a performance of your isolation."
Q: If it's a fair assumption that the impulse to write (often) grows out of a youth spent medicating loneliness with reading, how much of writing as an adult amounts to medicating loneliness by performing? Do you see your writing as being performance? If so, is it more "Here's what I've seen," or "I'm here! See me?" And is this healthy?
The first chronicle of my life I ever wrote took the form of personal letters to Macaulay Culkin and was bred of loneliness and hormones. I’d obtained his fan club address from a 90s Teen Beat magazine. I was 11. He was 12. The letters contained facts about myself—my childhood ballet career, my tape collection, what books I’d read—that I hoped would stand out among what I imagined were leagues of letters from young girls. That I never received even a cursory, form letter reply didn’t matter to me. I was more interested in the performance itself: writing, editing, and rewriting my letters until they were perfectly sound and error free, as a dancer might perfect a number for the stage.
Making the private public through writing has always felt like performance. Every book, or essay, or story is its own stage. You don’t see the writer cowering in the wings, the way the makeup looks in the dark. You don’t see the pins that barely secure the costuming. The warm ups, the missteps in rehearsal. The grueling monotony of preparing and the breathlessness of fleeting successful execution.
Performance as medication for loneliness may be a misinterpretation of Smith’s quote. A capacity to be alone is different than its being an ailment, though sometimes it can feel like one. At a reading Julia Alvarez gave years ago, she said of being a writer, “If you have seen a thing, what then is the obligation?” Instead of thinking of performance as medicating loneliness, I prefer to think of it as sitting alone with those stories that we are compelled to make public. Is it healthy? Maybe not. You have to sit a long time like that.
Characterization of the performative elements of writing has shifted for me. I’m no longer the little girl desperate to be seen, to be chosen from a stack of other girls. Rather writing has become an act that crystallizes the way I think about what I’ve seen. The performance is an invitation to the audience to view and be moved by that thinking. Or disagree with it. Or respond to it. David Foster Wallace said that “the very best works construct a bridge across that abyss of human loneliness.” I believe in that. Trying to use my performed loneliness to engage the lonely.
I don't believe that the driving force to read or write is to medicate lone-liness. Of course reading and writing can and do perform this function. But my love of reading as a kid did not develop as a reaction to loneliness—rather, my obsession with stories and my favorite characters compelled me to spend more time alone. And that's different from being lonely. I loved being in those fictional worlds, loved the way narrative structure organized the world's chaos. Being swept away by a story was an empowering experience because it gave me a sense of control. Most kids don't have that—in our culture, children are controlled by adults.
There are different aspects to writing as performance. There's the published work. There's also public readings and social media, which are more "performative" in the sense that they're presented to a (relatively) live audience. Writers are control freaks. We want attention just like everyone else, want our ideas and feelings and observations acknowledged and sometimes celebrated, but we are a careful tribe. We want to get it right. We revise and revise. We have a need to be understood, perhaps, even more deeply than the average person. So I'd say my writing is a performance, something of a "Here's what I've seen and how I've processed it and hopefully this will spark something in your spirit." Whether that's "healthy," well, healthy seems to me a word wrung of its meaning these days, so I have no idea.
Though I was an only child, I was rarely lonely and enjoyed solitude more than most. Still do. But I was endlessly curious about my inner and outer worlds, and with no siblings to talk to and a mother who hadn’t made it beyond the 6th grade forever cautioning me not to “bother” my father, I sort of wrote my way to understanding.
In fact, one of the first things I “wrote” was actually a drawing of a fish, which I created at a very early age in answer to the question, “How do fish swim?” It’s a little football shaped thing with a “spiral” for a tail—my way of making sense of that phenomenon. All of my writing, since, has been my way of figuring things out. Even the fiction is me figuring out or celebrating or lamenting how life “goes.” But that’s also probably why it took me so long to get to fiction. With my nonfiction articles at the Sun Times, HuffPo or Patheos et al, when I’m done working something out, it’s on to the next question tout de suite. Fiction requires me to work on one question for an extended period, and the excitement wanes if I’m not careful—pantser, here. I bet you could tell, right?
I think all voluntary writing as an adult is a form of medication to address loneliness, but whether the results of this medicine are positive and productive or negative and ineffectual is the responsibility of the writer and something they must always be wary of.
The idea that a finished piece of writing may one day “perform” for other people is a primary way to remain self-aware enough that the effects remain positive. Without it, writing runs the very high risk of repetition and self-indulgence.
However, when writing is done for performance, at least for any length of time, the loneliness becomes a tool of the writer’s arsenal that instead of needing to be remedied should be embraced and protected as it fuels and facilitates the act itself. In this way, writing as medication also becomes the cause for medication. While that may sound self-defeating or unhealthy, the opposite is true. The longer the writer writes and performs the more blurred the line between medication and cause become, until finally balance may be achieved.
Personally, The idea of making the very private very public forces me to have enough respect for whatever I’m writing to not only follow it to completion but figure out what it is capable of accomplishing, instead of what I want it to accomplish, as those are often two very different things. By being able to let go of my own desires and let the story, poem, etc. fulfill itself, I often find that while my initial intentions are still present, they are part of a larger picture, a more complex and complete pill, that can address far more than just loneliness.
I think that, in asking your question, you are starting with a false assumption and unless I address this assumption, I can't even answer the question. You start off by saying that reading and writing are completely solitary pursuits, a sublimation of loneliness.
There are, to be sure, pockets in society where this is so (and that's not very nice, in my opinion), but elsewhere—and this is the way I grew up and still live—reading and writing are totally sociable. Our typical family outing would be all of us—parents, grandparents, kids—each reading a book on the beach. Books were discussed at meals, recommended, traded. It's not having read certain books that would be a social faux pas.
And my own writing—no, I don't find it solitary at all. I can talk about it with my family and those friends who are interested. Discuss research, discuss ideas. To me, writing is the natural extension of my conversation, just better thought out, and, as a consequence, I don't regard it as performance or sublimation or anything like that. Now and then, I have a story to tell and I write it down. When it's published and people read it, they might enjoy it.
I feel the same way about cooking a meal for friends or bringing over a bunch of flowers. It's something fun, a good time to be had by all. So pretty healthy, I'd say.
Writing is a performance of the self on the page. What I mean is that writers are engaged in an active investigation of something that haunts or inspires or perplexes them—whatever genre they choose to work in. I write a lot of creative nonfiction, and when I’m writing about my own experience, I’m writing about an aspect of myself. It’s what Vivian Gornick refers to in The Situation and the Story as the persona. “To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing,” Gornick says. I’m writing with my own voice, sure, but it’s a voice that I choose.
I wrote an essay for Literary Hub about loneliness and literature, in which I said: “We are ourselves before we are actually ourselves. Clay waiting to be shaped by experience, perhaps, but there’s something pre-formed about our personalities before they are even molded.” I write in order to look at the many layers of myself—but also to make it universal. One thing many people have in common is this underlying idea of loneliness. That can be incredibly unifying, even though it’s fundamen-tally isolating, too. If stories are meant to explain certain aspects of life that often feel unexplainable, then what else can we do but enact that excavation in a way that (hopefully) resonates with the reader?
I write to uncover my true self, but I recognize that that true self can be seen as an act, too. What am I holding back when I say something? How many other versions of the stories are there? Am I misinterpreting something? Misremember-ing it? Distorting it? Enfolding it into a narrative that makes more sense? These are questions I ask myself whenever I sit down to write.
So yes, the author gives a performance—but what matters is that it’s an emotionally truthful one.
I tend to resist any ideology which posits writing as somehow palliative, so I’d probably disagree—from a personal standpoint, which is the only space I can speak from—with the idea that writing is a way of “medicating loneliness.” I think there’s definitely a relationship between writing and loneliness, I just don’t find it to be one in which the writer cures his loneliness via the act of writing. Conversely, I think writing can increase one’s loneliness.
That being said, I can definitely get behind the idea of writing as performance, for that has always felt true to me and my work. Writing, at its most elemental, feels like a task of performing a self on the page. And I think that sweeps across genre, too. One transforms oneself on the page via the act of writing, and this is part of the performance, too.
I’m very interested in dissolving the boundary between the so-called personal and the so-called public in my work, by way of what the writer Jane Gallop calls “anecdotal theory.” (Great practitioners of this include Maggie Nelson, Lidia Yuknavitch, Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Sophie Calle—to name just a few.) I hope that it’s more of the variety of “Here’s what I’ve seen,” though certainly there’s an element of “I’m here, See me” in it, too. I can’t quite identify where the impulse toward disclosure comes from, but it’s something I feel lies at the center of all my work.
Is it healthy? I’m not sure. Probably not. I don’t think of writing as an especially healthy endeavor, and don’t know many writers who do feel that way. It's exhausting and upsetting and infuriating and isolating—even if it’s going well. I’m with Joy Williams when she says, “Writing has never brought me any pleasure.” A somewhat bleak pronouncement, but I find that it’s true. Reading? Yes. I get great pleasure from reading, which is why I read far more than I write. But whether or not writing is healthy, for myself and for most of the writers I know, isn’t really the point. It’s what we know how to do. It’s what’s available.
I do see my writing and my participation in the writing community as a kind of performance. It is both “Here’s what I’ve seen” and “I’m here!” In terms of writing itself, there is a sort of fetishization of solitude when we talk about writing. The author toils, alone, for hours, days, years at a time, with nothing but the blank page and the voices in her head to keep her company. I don’t entirely agree with Smith’s contention that a writer needs to have “a great capacity to be alone.” I tend to be more skeptical of general statements about the dispositions, belief systems, and writing habits of writers. A creative pursuit involving discipline, practice, and perseverance may or may not require long periods of solitude, yet the pursuit itself is myth-ologized, maligned, and/or idealized.
I think of the “performance” of writing, beyond distribution and reception (with its own provisions and accommodations) as emotional and intellectual engagement, which is really a failed seduction, because both the means and objects are constantly in flux. This is why I don’t see writing as private or sacred, no matter what the author desires it to be. At the same time the tension between the private and public spheres makes sense, especially if/when the writer and her work are conflated. I’m not sure, then, that I would characterize how we perform writing as healthy or not, though I admit that my obsession with writing can be unhealthy if it takes over my “real” life. It’s interesting to think of the way these two entities (writing/real life) interact. Are they like two close friends sharing a meal, acquaintances at a party, or distant cousins at a wedding? What do they say to one another? What do they want the other to see?
This is why I’m a fiction
writer—so I can pretend I’m telling a story THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH ME! Even though it may have everything to do with me. This approach served me well for many years, with a few brief forays into tiny personal essays, until I started working in earnest on my recent book, a collection of unconventionally linked stories about the sudden death of my first husband. At the core of each story is “one hard true thing,” taken from my direct experience—which isn’t so unusual for a fiction writer, right? But this time I decided to go around stating that the book blurs fact and fiction, that my husband did indeed die, that these stories were me-me-me… except for the parts that weren’t.
I’m not going to call myself bold, but I’m going to say that jumping into these waters has been an interesting experience—wondering why I didn’t simply write a memoir, why I didn’t simply shut up and call it fiction (both legitimate questions). I feel that I was doing exactly this, “making the very private very public.” Is this healthy? I’m no psychologist, but I’d have to guess no, at least not for me. I grew up in a world of secrets, the unspoken, and things that are “fine” though they’re not (it’s called “the Midwest”), and I suspect that’s a more realistic view of contemporary life, for all our talk about honesty, emotional and otherwise. Who doesn’t hide just a bit now and then? So, if it’s not healthy, why did I perform this story, why did I dance the most personal story of my life for you? Because it made for a good book. Because that was what this book required. Whether this tactic worked or ultimately didn’t, it was my job as a writer to bow to the needs of the book. Surely it’s a certain luxury to disregard “health” in this way and I know enough to be grateful for that, but for me, there is one answer to every difficult question: Because, art.
I say yes, a writer's life is very healthy. And it's not so much an act of loneliness as it is the necessity of isolation. I don't see writing as performance as much as I see it as an act of interpretation. And in order to interpret, one has to sequester oneself and get into the middle of "who they are." And then of course there is, for me, the driving search for the perfect words, because I do so want to be understood. This business of reaching deep within and calling things by name takes stillness, yet it need not be confused with loneliness, rather, it can be seen as the arena of deep-thinking, personal intimacy and the latitude to share.
In a writer's life (or schedule, as it were) there is plenty of room for common sense. One has to find balance in one's life; there is no need to fall to extremes. None of us is defined by one characteristic. We are complex beings juggling the mental, physical, emotional, and, dare I say, spiritual elements bouncing simultaneously within us. We are skeins of such tangled variables that order from chaos is the key to our manageability. The power of choice comes into play here; one feels compelled to write, but how to balance its requisites while being a member of humanity? I am well aware of the dilemma. To meet me in person, you'd think I was gregarious to an exuberant fault (I blame this on my Southerness) but I am like all of us: there is a part of me no one will ever know; a part of me so woefully misunderstood that I want to duck and cover. The thing about being a writer is it's not something you aspire to as much as something you get in touch with. Then the question becomes how to be in it without falling prey to the being of it.
I'll circle back now to common sense. I have my own way of dealing with this, which is to say I fit writing into my life, and not the other way around, else there's nothing to write about. So accept that invitation; make an effort towards the gift of friends; find joy in life's banalities; and count your lucky stars that you're here on earth and in the game to begin with. Then, I encourage you, find that alone time and write about it all.
“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
–Olivia Laing, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone
*quoted via Michele Filgate's "Writers, the Loneliest Artists of All"