Friday, May 6, 2011

I Write Alone

"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right." ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

When Mr. Hutchens wrote that, he might have directed the quote to the enormity of the task set before every writer as he or she sits down at the keyboard to try and create a new world out of thin air. But he touched on something so fundamental, so essential, and so powerfully sad that it might be missed as you read the words. To write is to be alone.

I love The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And yes, I realize it is actually a saga (no, Stephanie Meyer didn't invent that word) because of The Hobbit. I love the books, and I love the movies. The imagery, the drama, the thrills, the characters... I love everything about it. Remember the scene in the movies when Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry are back at the The Green Dragon (the pub in Hobbiton) after their adventure to destroy the Ring of Power. They each have a mug of ale in front of them, and as the party goes on all around them, the four friends simply look at each other with small, almost strained smiles on their faces. They are silent, then clink their mugs together in an unseen salute to the victory only they will fully understand or appreciate.

That's what it's like to be a writer. You and you alone know the immense amount of thought and planning it took to build the story. Only you know understand every little nuance of the character's lives. And even though many have, or will, read the book, only you know what happened between the lines and behind the scenes.

But beyond those things, there is the craft itself. Why the word "but" is better in once instance instead of "however;" when you read through the first draft for the first time months after writing the first words and discover a thread of theme loosely tied in the story arc; or how minor characters from your story are literary descendants of the greats like Gatsby, Othello or Bob Cratchit. No one who isn't a writer cares about these things. They don't want to hear about them. When you even mention writing, if the first few words out of your mouth aren't "royalties" or "advance" or "sales" then people aren't interested. Their eyes glaze over and if they were honest, they'd listen to you ramble forever, then when you ask them for a comment on something, they'd say "I'm sorry I quit listening ten minutes ago; I'm thinking about what I'm having for dinner tonight."

A writer sits at his keyboard, stares at the blinking cursor, and to paraphrase someone a lot smarter than I am, waits for blood to drip from their forehead. We agonize over things, pour over details and sweat each paragraph, sentence and word. Then after each painful battle has been fought, when the climb up the insurmountable mountain has been made and we stand on the peak of our own writing-centered Everest, we have to endure that most horrific and gut-wrenching of blows: to be rejected, however benignly, by those whose interest and praise we want the most.

It is a terrible fall and for some writers, famously it sent them into tailspins. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, they both drank themselves into an early grave. The list of writers who have destroyed themselves through addiction, depression or some combination of both is as long as some of our novels. How to avoid being one of them? I don't have the answer. Only a knowing nod, a small strained smile and a raised mug of Green Dragon ale. Drink hearty, my friends.


  1. I enjoy the solitude in my worlds. I am always right and good. My characters are mine. I love it.

  2. *nods and raises her mug*

  3. Jen, I enjoy the solitude of my worlds too. I listen to a song on the radio and imagine how it would play in my characters' lives, not my own. They are an escape for me.

    Aden, back at you... next one's one me.

  4. I enjoy some solitude but I also enjoy interaction so Twitter helps. this article is very much to the point when it comes to be a writer.Great article .I raise my glass to you.

  5. Great post and so true. The solitary life isn't for everyone. I happen to enjoy it, except when my muse takes a vacation.

  6. I'm one of those writers who likes solitude as well. But it does get lonely sometimes, and there are times I want to SCREAM for someone who I can sit and talk about writing with. Living where I do, there really isn't anyone. Hopefully when I get back to the States, I can find a face-to-face writing buddy.