The Pernicious Myth of the Lonely Writer
Beliefs are persistent, sticky things. Take the notion of the lonely writer, herding words in solitude, lit by the holy glow of the computer screen, in search of some punchy dialogue and a well-turned sentence. It’s an idea given credence by plenty of literary heavyweights. Ernest Hemingway claimed: “writing, at its best, is a lonely business.” John Steinbeck was equally forthright: “In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.” There’s probably a niche market for literary bumper stickers on the topic: ‘Writers Do It Alone’, ‘Keep Your Distance – Author on Board’, ‘My Other Car’s A Garret!’.
The concept resurfaced again during the recent coronavirus lockdown. More than one acquaintance insisted that my working life would glide on unaffected. After all, I was already a self-isolating expert, spending my time alone in a room with only fictional characters for company. But is any of this actually true? Is writing really as solitary as the myth suggests? Is the pursuit of isolation, with a twist of suffering for your art, the best route to success?
I’m with Flannery O’Connor on this one. She called the myth of the lonely writer ‘particularly pernicious and untruthful’. And I know from hard experience how the notion can seduce you down a dead end. A dozen years ago, while still a dabbler at the fringes of ‘proper writing’, I wrote a book, of sorts. It was a creative non-fiction novella, some weird hybrid between a short story triptych and a travelogue. It had grand themes, a dash of lyrical description, a certain melancholy humour. It had the shape and direction of a book. But what it lacked, utterly, was the input of another person. Not during the making of the first draft, or during the attempts to turn that draft into a coherent manuscript.
My wife was supportive – but she’s not a reader. No other writers read it because, well, I didn’t know any at the time. I didn’t have the confidence or gall to ask friends to read it. I couldn’t afford an editor. Instead I bought wholeheartedly into the narrative of the lonely writer, sequestered and struggling to create.
I reached a point where I had to send it out into the world, still unread by anyone else. Half a dozen agents were contacted, three asked for the full manuscript. One held onto it for more a year. Emails were exchanged, vague promises made, then silence. A few more months went by until they sent me an unsigned standard rejection letter.
The whole experience was bruising. From the struggle to write and edit it alone, through writing a synopsis (worse than creating the book itself) and then the extended submissions process. Maybe, if I had persevered, someone might have been willing to work on it with me (though quirky, travel-based novella hybrids by unknown authors aren’t exactly a hotspot for editorial resources). Unfortunately, older, wiser, writer me wasn’t around to advise myself at the time. So I decided the whole lonely writing business was a shit gig and gave up.
Cut to two years later. I heard about an online writing course and decided it was my last chance to give writing a serious thrash. The course was a place where craft was emphasised, where feedback was constructive, and daily writing was encouraged. But it wasn’t just this disciplined approach that was important. For the first time ever, I was interacting with other writers.
My work began to develop, though success came hand-in-hand with abundant rejections from magazines and competitions. But that was okay too, because I had people around who understood the pain. I had peers who could suggest new places to try, or ways I could improve my work. The process of writing was still done alone, but that wasn’t the only part of being a writer.
As my career moved on, I tried to carry this sense of community, this necessity for connection, with me. Right up until coronavirus hit and lockdown happened. In a few swift days reading gigs were cancelled, workshops I had planned were postponed indefinitely. Attendance at literary festivals, editorial meetings, writing group get-togethers…all wiped out. Worse still, I couldn’t meet with other writers for alcohol and mutual procrastination. The counterweights to the solitary graft were gone and a return to an involuntary isolation beckoned.
Thankfully, the writing community found ways to innovate around isolation. What emerged was a spirit of generosity. I saw offers of free mentoring support, discounts for online courses, literary festivals went digital, recordings of events were made accessible for free. There were initiatives to create online spaces where writers could work, virtually, alongside others. There was connection everywhere.
Maybe the truth is we all should have been doing this anyway. We certainly shouldn’t let it go to waste. And by recognising and harnessing that sense of community and innovation apparent during the pandemic, we might be able to dispel the lonely writer myth once and for all. It is a chance to create a writing world that is a kinder, more generous and nurturing place that gives equal opportunity to all, so that nobody, whatever their colour or origin, will feel that they have to work unsupported and in isolation.
Maybe it’s time for a new version of the literary bumper sticker: ‘Writers Do It Better Together’.
K.M. Elkes is author of the short fiction collection ‘All That Is Between Us’ (Ad Hoc Publishing). His short stories have won or been placed in competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, Bridport Prize, and Royal Society of Literature Prize. In 2019 he was longlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award.