Revisiting the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

Cynthia D. Bertelsen learns to embrace the isolation of the writing life

I REMEMBER the exact moment that I decided to become a writer, the year I was in second grade. Snuggling deep into the coffee-brown overstuffed couch my mom had hauled home from a secondhand shop, I opened one of the two Bobbsey Twins books my grandmother had given me for Christmas and read, with snow falling outside the picture window of the living room. Two hours later, I let the book fall to the floor. Caught up in the world of Bert and Nan and Flossie and Freddie, I just lay there and decided I wanted to write stories like Laura Lee Hope did, to enthrall people with words.

Laura Lee Hope, I later learned, was not one person, but several. Despite that brief disillusionment, I still nurtured the idea of becoming a writer.

It’s been a long journey since that snowy day on the couch—and a lonely one, in which images of the romantic life of prolific hermit writers like J.D. Salinger have bumped up against society’s idealizations of both extroverts and submissive women.

Sure, most writers say writing’s a solitary business. And it is: you sit alone with pen in hand or in front of the computer for long stretches. There’s some consolation in reading stories about writing, and everyone from Anne Lamott and Stephen King and Annie Dillard to Eudora Welty and Margaret Atwood has contributed to the canon of reflections about the writing life. Wright Morris even published a book with the catchy title of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer (1995).

But while people talk about the physical isolation, I think the emotional isolation might be even more overwhelming. I think one reason why I feel a profound sense of loneliness as a writer is that most of the people — family, chiefly — surrounding me offer little emotional support.

In fact, they often completely ignore the writing part of me. I get the message that if I talk about my art, I’m seen as a braggart. For me, getting an article published now and then is simply the same sort of thing as, say, taking a business trip to Germany or India (which some of my relatives do). Just part of the job, the process.

To counteract the demons of isolation and solitude, I tried immersing myself in various community organizations. One of these was a group devoted to preserving a magnificent cookery-book collection housed in the university library near me. I liked the work, and over a period of years I took on leadership positions. But weekly and monthly meetings demanded a lot of my time, and squabbles between committee members drained my energy, and even editing the newsletter of this organization became a trial because so few contributors stepped forward. Surrounded by living, breathing warm bodies, I found myself still alone, physically and spiritually depleted, drowning in the world.

And—more to the point—not writing.

One morning, after a particularly fractious meeting at the university library, I knew the time had come. I resigned that afternoon.

To do the real work of writing, I realized, requires a form of solitude, not unlike that of the anchorite, living in seclusion for religious reasons. Julian of Norwich served as my role model. Walled into a cell in a convent in Norwich in the late fourteenth century, away from the sinuous clamorings of the world, she wrote Revelations of Divine Love, the first known English book by a woman. She said “No” to the world.

And that is what I learned to do as well.

Yes, to write is to be alone, even lonely. The Internet and social media help in driving away some of the physical and mental isolation, bringing other living, writerly voices into my life. But the danger of over-involvement is there as well. What Ernest Hemingway stressed in his 1954 Nobel acceptance speech remains true:

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

Indeed, there’s something of the eternal about writing, the words remaining long after the flesh is dust.

And so, for now, I accept the loneliness, as it’s the price I must pay to do what I do. These days, I often think of Norman Mailer’s comment: “Writers don’t have lifestyles. They sit in little rooms and write.”

And they say “No” to the world, to protect the writing.

About the Author

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Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Cynthia D. Bertelsen is a writer and photographer and the associate editor of Bacopa Literary Review. Her book, Mushroom: A Global History, grew out of her blog, Gherkins & Tomatoes.

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