The loneliness of the long-distance writer

Last week I tried something different – I went away on my
own to try to fix the plot issues with my second book. The thought appealed –
throwing myself into my work, focussing on the inner life, getting away from
distractions. I’ve been working from home for about five months now, and it’s
not been entirely as I expected. On the whole I love it. I don’t feel tempted
to watch daytime TV and I don’t get lonely during the day or miss being in an
office (the tea is better at home and I don’t have to go to meetings about water-coolers).
Working for myself suits me – a flexible schedule, no need to get up early (my
number-one hate), and being driven by my most exacting boss – me.


However, what has really got to me is the internet. I love
Twitter and Facebook and all that and think it’s really useful for building a
profile. But because I have a part-time job working from home, I tend to have
my email open all the time, just looking for distraction. Although I’ve still
got quite a lot of writing done in the past five months, it’s shocked me a
little how poor my concentration now is. I used to be able to work for up to
three hours with no internet, no radio, nothing. Now I find myself jumpy and
twiddling my thumbs if I don’t have another window to click on every five


I recently went to an event with the great Edna O’Brien, who
spoke about this problem. She felt that social networking and the internet may
actually fundamentally change the character of the novel. It will disrupt that
deep, almost trance-like concentration you need to be able to hold 100,000
words in your head at once. I’ve recently heard writers debate the issue of
long-hand writing. I wrote most of my current work long-hand to start off with,
copying it onto the laptop after. I realised this didn’t make much sense, and
was duplicating work, but I felt the text I wrote straight onto the screen
lacked something tangible. A flow, a connection. Edna O’Brien explained this by
saying writing is a kinetic art, flowing from somewhere in the body. To etch it
out, pen onto paper, is like painting. We feel the words going out of us. I
agree with this. I think for me the only way that works to write a book is
straight through, no stopping, and in longhand. In fact I think the reason I’m
struggling with something in book two is that bits of it were written over the
years and then put together. It’s a book that’s come together in the edit. I
don’t think I will do one this way again.


So I thought I would take myself off to re-connect with the
deeper part of the mind. But it soon became clear to me that there’s a reason
writers tend to cling to the internet like a toddler to their parents’ legs.
Because being a writer, being alone with your thoughts all day, can be pretty
lonely. And though I did get a lot of work done last week, I was lonely at
times too. It feels slightly embarrassing to say that – like loneliness is a
shameful secret in today’s world. But everyone who writes must feel it at
times, the desolation of the blank page, the stark understanding that however
helpful the advice, no one else can do this for you. You dig out those
plot-holes alone. With just me and the book, everything felt quite raw. Like
there was nowhere to hide, either from myself or from it. Natalie Goldberg writes
about loneliness in her brilliant and brave book Writing Down the Bones, which I often return to for solace. She
says it’s like cold water – you never get used to its sting and bite, but you
can learn to stand up under it.


What’s the solution to lonesomeness in a profession where
you need to be alone to do it? Writing in cafes, or trains, or communal writing
retreats? I’d try all these things, and remember to be grateful for everyone
who’s out there, offering advice and support. Even if it’s through the medium
of links to amusing You Tube videos of people falling over.

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