Writing and the art of being alone


Writing and the art of solitude

“Don’t contemplate a life as a writer unless you have a huge appetite for solitude, and more than that, in some sense you are most alive when alone” – Martin Amis


I slip out of town late on a Friday. It’s dinner peak hour at home but Hank waves me off, children clinging to him like barnacles. I’ve packed my laptop and a stack of books and I’m heading west for the Blue Mountains. I’m escaping.

Night falls as I pass Katoomba. The road narrows here to a single lane and snakes through midnight gullies to Medlow Bath and Blackheath. My headlights dip and sweep the bends. It feels like the bush is closing around me, drawing me in.

I have a room booked at a pub in Blackheath. The New Ivanhoe Hotel commands the corner of the Great Western Highway and Govetts Leap Rd like a stout matron in a brown hat. The original Ivanhoe opened in 1889, burnt to the ground in 1932 and was rebuilt in 1940. With their country at war, people needed a drink.

Hank and I first stayed here seven years ago. We were trying for a baby but it wasn’t happening so we decided to stop for a while and take our minds off it, think about other things. We drove up from Sydney for a long weekend in April, just the two of us. It was cold and foggy. We drank a Barossa red, curled up in coveted armchairs in front of the fire. A band played jazz in the afternoon. We walked for hours through ethereal bush shrouded in mist and took a photo of ourselves, relaxed and happy, at the Ruined Castle.

Later in the car I had a funny swoony moment, like the lights flickered on and off in my head. I blamed the red. Back in Sydney, two blue lines revealed that was in fact the last wine I’d be drinking for a while. It wouldn’t be the two of us for much longer.

I haven’t been back for a few years but returning here alone to the old pub perched atop the Blue Mountains labyrinth feels like something of a homecoming.

It’s quiet for a Friday night. The bistro smells of ham hocks and split pea soup. An old man dining alone lifts a trembling spoon to his lips, like he’s leaning in for an anxious kiss. A handful of blokes nurse beers in the public bar and watch rugby on the TV.

The tiny lady behind the bar hands me a key with a shrewd once-over, “Just you, is it?”. Eyes flick from the rugby to me and then back to the rugby. I order a beer to blend in then fumble the change, scattering coins noisily across the floorboards.

Upstairs not much has changed since the forties. French doors open on to a cosy parlour; lampshades casting dusky shadows on sepia tinted photos and a pair of old velvet settees piled with tasselled cushions. There’s an empty wine glass on a side table.

The carpeted hallway stretches to the left and right, dotted with closed doors. I wonder if anyone else is staying here besides me.

Room 12 waits for me at the end of the hallway, door slightly ajar. The windows are open and the room is cold, I’ve forgotten how much the temperature drops at night in the mountains.

It’s simply furnished. A quilted bed. An overstuffed armchair. An antique wardrobe with a bevelled mirror. A bathroom with pale yellow tiles opens off to the side and the table and chair I’ve requested have been left in the middle of the room.

I drop my bag at my feet. This is my spartan retreat for the next two days. And it’s perfect.

//

I have come here to write. That’s the plan at least. The work has been queuing up in my head, jammed behind the everyday noise and mayhem and constant kid wrangling, behind the ever present ‘pram in the hall’. I’m craving quiet, solitude, space.

“Do you have what it takes in this sense? Do you have a willingness to be that alone?” asked Will Self in the BBC Radio series The Sins of Literature, of those aspiring to write. Admittedly the man is a bit of a Calvinist when it comes to the discipline of writing, likening his muse to a belligerent sergeant major ordering his arse into the chair daily, but he has a point.

The psychology of writing and this idea that creativity flourishes in solitude is a persistent one. Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Roald Dahl, Maya Angelou: they all form part of an illustrious line up of writers working in garden sheds and isolated huts (Angelou rented a hotel room and paid for it by the month) who have attested to the necessity of seclusion and the power of solitude to crack open the mind.

Some, like American writer Susan Sontag, find solitude essential yet intolerable. “Without others to respond to her ideas, or a book to provoke them, the ideas vanished”, wrote Emily Cooke in her essay The Lonely Ones on Sontag, Vivian Gornick and Alejandra Pizarnik – three female writers who struggled with the tension between the lure of connection and being alone to write. Observes Cooke, “But women, in modern history, feel the tension with special acuteness, we who are assumed to be talented at interaction and rudderless when alone.”

Danish author Dorthe Nors, in a conversation about Ingmar Bergman (who habitually secluded himself on the island of Faro, north of Gotland, in order to write) talks about the courage required to be alone with our human experience. “But it is the job of the artist to sit with our feelings, to be receptive to them, to examine them, turn them into narrative or paint or film.” She insists that “the artistic process unfolds in the lonely hours.”

In truth, I don’t feel alone when I’m writing. Not in a lonely sense at least. Probably because as a mother of three I am so rarely alone in the first place that it’s literally aspirational. But when I’m writing (and actually writing, not just faffing about with emails and Facebook) I turn inward, away from the world. There’s a door I step through and I have to sequester myself in order to find it, to focus the fragments of creative impetus. I can’t even tolerate music playing. Navigating past all the monkey chatter in my mind is task enough.

If I’m writing fiction, it’s the story or the characters that transport and those occasions are all the more satisfying because of their rarity. They are a gift. More often than not, I simply become absorbed in the methodical (and at times frustrating) interior task of problem-solving, of finding the right word. And then the next right word. And then the next. Until I finally complete the puzzle.

I can edit and rewrite in a storm of chaos (and usually do) but for the actual writing itself, in order to ‘hear myself think’, being alone is essential. That’s where the real work happens, when there’s nowhere to hide.

//

And so here I am. In a room of my own, without children, without husband, without endless demands. Even with the whole bed to myself, no sideways sleeping two year old, I have kept to my customary three-quarter-inch. Outside I can hear the village coming to life; a greeting, a bicycle bell, the sudden staccato of the pedestrian crossing. The morning sun slowly fills the blinds with a soft block of light.

I wonder about the people who have stayed in this room over the years. Travelling salesmen, returned soldiers, day-tripping couples, likely a few in the clutch of a clandestine affair. I imagine that my name is Mildred and I’m passing through town at the end of the war, a woman of mystery and means, with pin curls and a brown suitcase. My hat and nylon stockings draped over the back of the chair. The hotel has sat here stoic and silent, through raging bush fires and icy squalls, and housed us all.

I kick off the quilt, restless. I’m suddenly anxious that the writing won’t come, that I won’t be able to summon the muse. Considering the logistics involved in organising this weekend, I’m feeling the pressure to produce.

Stepping out into the bright Saturday morning, I buy a coffee and croissant from the cafe across the road but the noise and bustle soon beats me back to the quiet stillness of room 12. It’s a relief to close the door. I avert my eyes from the laptop sitting open with cheery optimism by the window, take out my Womankind magazine with Frida on the cover and sprawl across the bed like a teenager.

Yet despite my best efforts to distract myself and ignore the task at hand, it won’t leave me be. Mildred is tapping her foot impatiently downstairs in the bar, waiting for me to get started, to get in the chair. I know nothing can happen until I do. That door is not going to find itself.

I put Frida to one side and sit down to write.

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Over to you my dear readers, how do you plug in creatively? Do you need to take yourself far to write or create? Or is solitude an empty room for you? As always, I’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment below.

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Emma x

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18 Comments

  • Reply Jennifer Fletcher February 28, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    Oh Emma. The silence of solitude that is needed for creativity, stepping through the door and entering another world, how true that is and so beautifully put. The busy monkey brain has to be left behind and that arse has to be put in that chair or stood behind that easel! Obviously the muse did come. Mildred could relax and have a sherry. Frida would definitely have approved.

    Jennifer

    • Reply Emma February 29, 2016 at 11:24 am

      Ha thanks mama fletch, the muse did come but she took a whole day! Stubborn wench, she likes to be wooed and seduced. And always arrives just when I’m ready to throw in the towel and become an accountant instead… Em x

  • Reply Collette February 28, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    Like you, I am mother to three and most of the time I can’t hear myself think. But my three year old goes to day care for two days a week so I can work / write, but come 3.30 when the older two arrive home from school it tools down. The silence has ended. A precious 10 hours a week seems so fleeting. I’ve abandoned waiting for inspiration because my window of quiet is so small.

    But I am rediscovering painting and I can do that when the kids are around – in fact it’s great because they are getting inspired by me and my paintings, so want to engage creatively to.
    A weekend away, alone, would be glorious.

    • Reply Emma February 29, 2016 at 11:08 am

      How precious those 10 hours a week are indeed! My two year old will start preschool two days a week later this year and for the first time in years, I will have a window of time during the day to work and write. How wonderful that you have rediscovered painting and that your kids are connecting to that creative energy. My dream is to have a permanent space just for art, where the kids and I could paint together. They love doing art but it’s always a big undertaking in a small house. Thank you so much for your lovely comment Collette and if you ever get the chance, a weekend away by yourself is indeed glorious and highly recommended! Em x

  • Reply Naomi February 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

    ‘An old man dining alone lifts a trembling spoon to his lips, like he’s leaning in for an anxious kiss’. Oh Em so beautifully put. I was in that hotel with you as I read it, I could smell the old carpet in the hallway. You inspire me with every post. I hear my own anxious and impatient voice waiting for my departure to Africa in a month. A somewhat extreme search for solitude and adventure. I just hope I can do it justice x

    • Reply Emma February 29, 2016 at 11:36 am

      Thank you so much Naomi! And your imminent solo adventure in Africa inspires ME, what a magical marvellous thing to do. And what a perfect way to plug into your own creativity. I can’t wait to see it all through your eyes. Much love and happy safe travels, Em x

  • Reply Mandi March 2, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Ahhhh I really love this. The imagery alone, holy moley! Thank you so much for a beautiful post and as a writer myself, I get it. While I don’t have kids I get the necessity of needing to be alone to do it. Or at least alone without having to worry about distractions (or a cat that always wants attention!) I hope you managed to get some writing down! x

    • Reply Emma March 2, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      Oh thank you Mandi, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, especially as a fellow writer. I did get some writing done but even without all the usual distractions, it was hard to focus! It’s like there is this final internal resistance to push through and once you get past that and find your rhythm, you’re away. Nothing beats that feeling. Em x

  • Reply Julie March 3, 2016 at 3:02 am

    A gorgeously and thoughtfully written post, as always, Emma! I look forward to sharing it!

    • Reply Emma March 3, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Thank you Julie, and thanks for sharing! 🙂 Em x

  • Reply Mark March 3, 2016 at 6:00 am

    For me, a good story is like a good bout of laughter,…. it can’t be forced, it just has to happen naturally. There has to be a genuine element,… a “been there/done that” componet, for me that’s essential for writing a good story,
    It’s like trying to describe the smell of oncoming rain to someone,…. you can use words like “clean” or “fresh”, to try and describe the event,… but there’s so much more to it than that. There is a brief moment just as the front of the storm reaches you, where the barametric pressure changes, and all the leaves on the trees seem to roll over with the breeze to show you their under sides….. As you breathe in you can smell the moisture in the air, but there is also a faint smell of earth and dirt as the first big drops that fall, start to kick up dust from the dry ground. It’s like the whole planet has taken a deep breath and exhaled it in your face all at once.
    For those of you who have truly experienced this event, you understand exactly what I’m talking about,…. but how can you describe that moment to someone who’s never felt that ?
    Writing for me is a wrestling match between being too descriptive,… and not descriptive enough. Part of me wants to charge right in and get the story told,… and there’s another part of me that wants to spell out every moment, and every detail, to make sure I don’t leave anyone behind. I want everyone to not only smell the rain, but to FEEL it,.. the way I feel it in my mind as I think back and remember it.

    Your writing takes me to that place,….

    That place between reading about something new for the first time, … and having the feeling that I’ve been there and lived that moment before.

    “I look down into my hand,, and I see the key to room 12. It’s an old key, from a time when locks were mostly just internal latches placed next to a doorknob as a signal for others to keep out,.. and not the multi-tumbler devices of high security found on hotel rooms today. As I fit the key into the lock, l can’t help but think of all the other visitors before me who have done the same thing…. The traveling salesman grabbing a few quick hours of “down time” before heading back out on the road to make his next appointment,…. The young lovers nervous about getting caught, yet giddy with the thrill of being alone and intimate with each other for the first time,….. Or maybe even some other young writer,.. just looking for a quiet place to gather their thoughts for the next installment, on the list of many short stories they plan on sharing…..”

    Thanks Emma

    • Reply Emma March 4, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      Cheers Mark, “A good story is like a good bout of laughter,…. it can’t be forced, it just has to happen naturally” – I wholeheartedly agree with this, there has to be a rhythm and flow that feels good to write – because that usually means it will feel good to read. Thanks for reading! 🙂

  • Reply Kris March 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    What a lovely weekend that must have been. I love solitude, crave it. As a writer it’s the perfect impetus for me to get cracking on something, anything. The more I write, the better I write. So if I put it off for too long then expect magic to burst forth, I’m often left empty handed. But what I’d do for a weekend away in the mountains. One day… x

    • Reply Emma March 4, 2016 at 12:46 pm

      It was so good Kris. Weird at first, I felt like I was missing a limb – or several limbs! But once I started writing, it flew by in a heartbeat. So true: The more you write, the better you write. It’s what keeps bringing my butt back to the chair, that desire to improve, to tell a better story, to become a better writer. Piece by piece. Em x

  • Reply Janeen March 5, 2016 at 6:51 am

    This is the first thing I have read of yours Emma. I am about to continue reading. Your words describing how much you go through to write a small but eloquent, thought provoking, poetic and expressive piece of work had me enthralled from the first word. Do I write, well, I enjoy putting “words to paper” so to speak, I have dabbled in fictional short story writing and have been writing poetry since I was a young child – so I guess some may call me a writer. I am however, yet to find an audience to my little musings on life and the experiences lived or lessons learned along my way to where I am at the end of each day. I totally understand what ‘Mark said “I want everyone to not only smell the rain, but to FEEL it,…” because that is exactly how I feel when I write. Being uneducated in the art of writing though, sometimes I am a loss for words, or even wonder if what I am writing is worth reading. When I write, I imagine I have an audience of thousands and hope that I am able to ‘share’ my experience with at least one of them :). But I digress; for me to write, I sit down at the computer, put my favourite song on in the background (usually Yanni’s One Man’s Dream on repeat) close my eyes and just write (or type). I never know what is going to come out of this exercise, but the music always takes me there.

    But, this isn’t about me, really!! lol I What I really started to write in my reply was, thank you Emma, I really enjoyed your work. Now it’s time for me, to read more of you.

    • Reply Emma March 5, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      Thank you Janeen and welcome! How wonderful that music is able to transport you like that, that you can close your eyes and just write. I think that is marvellous. I love listening to music prior to writing, it’s magic for igniting ideas and getting me in the mood, like I’m seducing my creativity to the surface 😉 So happy you enjoyed this, Em x

  • Reply Sandra March 22, 2016 at 11:45 am

    Oh Em, beautifully written once again. I can relate to so much in here. I haven’t yet found my sweet spot for creating. There is always work to be done so I can get a bit ahead to pay the bills so I can free time for creative pursuits (an endless cycle without the bonus of creative time manifesting!), chores piling up, a 2-year-old needing attention and a relationship to nurture. So I deal with the scraps of time life deals and make my lemonade then. I’m becoming an ardent plotter rather than a pantser to bring structure to my writing. Pantsing, as much as I love seeing where my characters take me from one day to the next, just ain’t working for me. It has delivered a file full of unfinished manuscripts. My muse is demanding order to cut through chaos and the constant monkey chatter in my mind. Let’s see how that goes. Love ya gutz x

    • Reply Emma March 23, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      Oh I am so with you San, I’m such a plotter now too, no more pantsing for me – I tend to just write myself into a corner otherwise (I have my own jammed drawer of unfinished manuscripts attesting to that). Our muses have grown up it seems! Though mine still appreciates a fine dirty martini at the bar it must be said.. 😉 Thanks as always lovely San, Em x

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