On Writing: The Myth of the Solitary Writer

Writing isn’t a solitary act. There’s a romantic notion of a writer as an eccentric hermit, popularized perhaps by the legends of writers like JD Salinger or Emily Dickinson but that notion is as fictional as anything a fiction writer can imagine. Indeed, Salinger was a common and friendly face to his neighbors and Dickinson was close to her sisters and a prolific letter writer. The truth is that good writing comes from relationships and experience and good writers are connected as much as they are disconnected from the world around them. It’s that connection between the writer and the world that I find most interesting to me today and worthy of a deeper consideration.

The genesis of all of my writing comes from people I’ve known. Every conversation I have or overhear, every happy or unpleasant interaction finds it’s way into a vast well of my experience. and when I write a new character, I drop a bucket into the well and I pull out parts of everyone I’ve ever known to fill my new character up. There’s a common question that writers get whether they’re writing fiction or memoirs; is this based on me? It’s the mirror to the other common question; is this based on you? For me, the answer to both is always yes, it has to be. Great stories need characters to come alive and great characters need something authentic for readers to relate to. Of course I base my characters on people I’ve known and on myself – what else could I base them on? Imagination isn’t a magic spell that conjures something from nothing, It’s an extrapolation of something that’s already there. It’s the process of seeing a thing, understanding it and then changing and advancing it to something new. I’ve met thousands of people in my life. From old friends, family, my wife, colleagues and passing acquaintances to strangers at the grocery store or the driver in a car that’s passing by. Those thousands of people have thousands of tics and quirks, mannerisms or difficult to quantify looks and what I do, consciously and unconsciously is recognize and internalize them. So, when I say that my characters are always based on someone I know, the truth is that every character is based on everyone I know. I can’t be a hermit or recluse. I need to connect with people and struggle to understand or misunderstand them and I must let them manifest in my work. I think all writers need that. That doesn’t mean that every novelist needs to be the center of the conversation or life of the party but it means that he or she should be connecting in some way to the outside world. That connection can be reading about people and people’s stories or people watching at a Starbucks but without that connection, the work will be lifeless and alien.

In addition to inspiring characters (and stories), people also have a fundamental role in the writing process. When I start work on something I need solitude to focus. When I’m working intently on something my friends and my family know it. I’m less available to them. I’m distracted but I’m also far more vulnerable to their moods and rely on their support. There’s something that seems either absurd or masochistic about locking yourself away and writing something people may not like and I’m absolutely reliant on encouragement and understanding to keep it up. I might be needier than some but I imagine all writers (or any creative laborer) has a similar relationship with a spouse or with kids or with friends that have to understand why sometimes it’s necessary to skip a Saturday night out to finish something up. These are the people that keep us grounded and keep us believing in ourselves even when self-confidence waivers. The greatest writers and visionaries are made greater by a muse or confidant.

Finally, writers have an even more intimate and critical relationship with readers. Writers write to be read. Even if they can’t find the right audience or they’re hesitant for any number of reasons to share material with just anyone, I firmly believe that not only does every writer have certain readers in mind but that having those readers in mind is a crucial part of the process. Readers close the circle that starts with a writer internalizing the world and then moves into trying to understand or interact with the world through stories. It’s far more than a pursuit of accolades or affirmation (though those are certainly welcome by most writers). It’s about the feedback and the challenge. I need to know if my story worked, if it resonated with people beyond me. I need to see their reactions and I need to know what it makes them feel. It’s validation and it’s acceptance but it goes beyond that. For me, writing is and always will be about connecting and communicating something that goes beyond language. It’s about transmitting an experience or a feeling, a moment that means something more than mere words can describe. My written work is a shorthand. A story is a series of emotional pictograms and beats. My characters and stories are familiar to me because I need a reader to be familiar with them. My writing is an attempt to have a conversation with the world around me and if there’s no one on the other end of that conversation, it will end.

I think it’s important to think about writing as a communal experience. While a writer might need monastic solitude to work, he takes the community with him and returns to it with the results of his labors. It’s important for writers to remember this and appreciate their inspirations, supporters and their readers and it’s important for everyone else to understand this secret dialog we’re having. Reading is as much a part of the creative act as writing. The two processes are inextricably linked. It can be hard for writers to accept this when the audience is passive or negative but it always remains true. I have to remind myself of this every time I write something that doesn’t seem to click with anyone. I have to move past resenting readers for not getting it to try and understand them better (or perhaps find different readers). I believe the process of writing is fundamentally about connecting and if the writing isn’t working, it’s time important to consider those connections and try something else. It might be that the answer to the challenge in the blinking cursor or the blank page is best solved by reaching outside the story to the world beyond.

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