Sunday, September 14, 2008

Writing Alone

Writing in the earliest stages of a project--and the process of thinking about these drafts as they come into the world--demands that I do it alone, out of sight, far from the company of other people.

This aloofness--this physical and psychic distance--is a necessary part of the process so that I can hear my own voice without interruptions or the intrusion of other voices.

When I'm alone, thoughts emerge differently. I don't worry about what others may think about what I have to say. I don't worry about anything but finding out what I think.

The moment I begin to share these thoughts with people, though, I worry about being judged and about seeming stupid, and these worries shape how I think in a way that's different than when I'm alone.

I'll even take it a step further and say that sharing these thoughts too soon can ruin the outcome of a story--if not destroy it altogether--because I'm inclined to censor my thoughts depending on what I think will please people, and I'll evaluate the "worth" of my ideas based on their responses.

Writing alone, though, I'm able to evaluate the "worth" of my own words without worrying about how the words are heard outside my room. I'm free to think whatever I want without concern about the opinions of others

Not worrying about how one's words are received may seem at odds with the notion of the storyteller's job of pleasing readers. (If you don't please readers, after all, you won't have many readers.)

Is it, though?

If I think about what pleases me most as a reader, I have to say it's finding an author who has plumbed the depth of her soul without worrying whether what she finds might please (or displease) anyone else.

The most satisfying stories are those that come directly out of an author's deep need to discover something, and which offer the reader a chance to experience that discovery through the words that the author has labored to put down on paper.

Those words are the result of solitary work.

It's as solitary creatures, I suspect, that we create our most meaningful work.

That's because out of solitude comes a human cry for connection... a need for solace... and a plea for understanding.

Solitude is what enables us, even as we struggle against being alone, to reach out to others and make connections.

The time that we spend alone gives us the chance to explore our thoughts freely, take risks, and experiment without fear of public ridicule or disparagement.

Alone, we can fall and get up and fall again as we wrestle with words, trying to bring something rare and never before seen into the world.

Surprisingly, in the end--if we go deep enough into our solitude--we may find that we're not writing alone after all.

Rather, through the magic of words and stories and the human heart, we may discover that we're connected to something much larger than ourselves.

For more views on writing alone, visit:

Also, check out this book, Writing Alone and with Others by Pat Schneider:


Barbara O'Connor said...

I love this post, Bruce - because it's something that I grapple with quite a bit, particularly in terms of self-censorship. Sometimes I look back at my earlier work and it seems so much freer, in an almost naive way. But as I've published more, I'm more aware of how my work will be received - reviews, teachers, other writers.

My goal is to try to get back to that all-important solitude and close the door on the censors while I work.

Easier said than done!

Bruce Black said...


Thanks for your comment, which points out the difficulty of balancing so many diverse--and sometimes conflicting--voices.

Solitude gives us the chance to find our center, I think, without having to worry about how others might perceive our struggle to find the right words and arrange them in the right order.

Writing to find the center is a different process than writing as performance. In the former, we probe our life and our imagination by focusing inward, while in the latter, it's all about evoking a response in an audience, adapting our words to applause or boos... by focusing outward.

That early stage--the probing inward with the door closed (an image that I first learned about in Stephen King's book on writing)--is crucial to getting to the next stage when, inevitably, you do need to share your work with trusted readers.

But in the beginning, as you suggest, we need to do anything we can to evade the censors!

Jack said...

Some good reflections on the subject, Bruce, and Barbara.

The writing that I seem best able to sustain comes out of solitude and quiet meditation on themes that have visited me in some way over a lifetime. When I start exploring a selected theme, I stay pretty vulnerable to my own interior censors, never mind external ones. So without a whole lot of solitary writing and isolation, I might easily be persuaded away from a theme that could have had something unique to say, to myself and others.

It would be grand to be a known and respected author, but cloistered writing brings its own interior rewards.