Challenges Writers Face (2): A solitary occupation

Chimamanda Adichie and Wole Soyinka used to illustrate the story. [Photo credit:

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” said Ernest Hemingway in his thank you speech for winning the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature. “For he [the writer] does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, in each day.”

Writing is a solitary profession, an activity most often undertaken in isolation. It is done alone, most times away from people, including loved ones.

Even in noisy environments, which the newsroom of newspapers is, once writing begins, the individual shuts off the world and gets lonely. Writers are agreed that even when one is not isolated from other people, when writing in the company of other writers, one is still alone.

In a 2005 interview he granted Simon Stanford, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka described the ideal setting for writing: “I mean, ideally, for instance, I think most writers would like a quiet space, complete isolation, in which they control their own time. Spaces of creativity in which there is very little interruption! I think that is the idea and this perhaps is how I began as a writer, finding that space, that intense period in which I am completely alone, completely alone.”

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, known for his great works, including A Farewell to Arms and The Old Man and the Sea, explained the lonely feeling in an interview he granted.

He said: “When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. “You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.

“You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.

“When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Okey Ndibe

Two of Nigeria’s famous writers, Okey Ndibe and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, relate easily with Hemingway.

Ndibe said: “Ernest Hemingway’s statement captures a fascinating paradox about the vocation of a writer. A writer often creates in solitude — and frequently solitarily — that which he intends to share with multitudes of readers. Of course, it’s not always the case that the writer writes by withdrawing entirely from others. I, for one, sometimes crave the comforting presence of others, even strangers, as I write. But for the most part, I do my writing in quietude, in those hours after everybody around me has gone to sleep—or before they wake from sleep.

“Hemingway’s other point—that a writer must confront the verdict of literary history utterly alone—is pertinent. The question of whether one’s work will survive one is not a question I pose to myself in a conscious manner. Yet, each writer is engaged in an essential gamble. Your work may connect in a vital way to the concerns of readers, and so remain in circulation long after you’ve passed on. Or it may be a victim of its own narrowness of perspective, or its highness of ambitious, or of the vicissitudes of taste—and
thus pass into oblivion.

“I’m always aware that writing, a solitary undertaking has, in the end, an intensely social impetus. Writing that’s not read by others, that does not speak to a community of readers, over time is—to put it mildly—a disaster.”

Maxim Uzoatu

“Yes, the loneliness of the writer is eternal. It is the writer and his paper or his computer. Writing at its best is not group activity. It is incumbent on the true writer to go deep inside his being to pour out his soul. That is why writers suffer and some end up committing suicide!”

The experience of a few more writers further clarifies the challenge that has become synonymous with writing.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was a writer, poet, civil rights activist and award-winning author known for her acclaimed memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which made literary history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African- American woman.

In her audiobook, Daily Rituals, she described her routine: “I usually get up at about 5:30, and I’m ready to have coffee by 6, usually with my husband.

He goes off to his work around 6:30, and I go off to mine.

“I keep a hotel room in which I do my work — a tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room. I try to get there around 7, and I work until 2 in the afternoon.

“If the work is going badly, I stay until 12:30. If it’s going well, I’ll stay as long as it’s going well. It’s lonely, and it’s marvelous. I edit while I’m working. When I come home at 2, I read over what I’ve written that day, and then try to put it out of my mind.

“I shower, prepare dinner, so that when my husband comes home, I’m not totally absorbed in my work. We have a semblance of a normal life. We have a drink together and have dinner. Maybe after dinner I’ll read to him what I’ve written that day. He doesn’t comment. I don’t invite comments from anyone but my editor, but hearing it aloud is good. Sometimes I hear the dissonance; then I try to straighten it out in the morning.”

Charles Dickens

He wrote such great books as A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities.

The eldest son of the famous English novelist, widely considered as the greatest of the Victorian era, revealed his daily routine.
Charles Culliford Boz Dickens recalled: “No city clerk was ever more methodical or orderly than he; no humdrum, monotonous, conventional task could ever have been discharged with more punctuality or with more business-like regularity, than he gave to the work of his imagination and fancy.”

“He rose at 7:00, had breakfast at 8:00, and was in his study by 9:00. He stayed there until 2:00, taking a brief break for lunch with his family, during which he often seemed to be in a trance, eating mechanically and barely speaking a word before hurrying back to his desk.

“On an ordinary day he could complete about two thousand words in this way, but during a flight of imagination he sometimes managed twice that amount. Other days, however, he would hardly write anything; nevertheless, he stuck to his work hours without fail, doodling and staring out the window to pass the time.

“Promptly at 2:00, Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’

“Returning home, his brother-in- law remembered, ‘He looked the personification of energy, which seemed to ooze from every pore as from some hidden reservoir.’ Dickens’s nights, however, were relaxed: he dined at 6:00, then spent the evening with family or friends before retiring at midnight.”

Loneliness, solitude and being alone

Loneliness is a scary word. And does writing alone or going into solitude to write translate into loneliness? Although some writers have slipped into loneliness, depression and have even committed suicide, there are clear distinctions.

Solitude is a state of seclusion or isolation – lack of contact with people. It may stem from bad relationships, loss of loved ones, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders or circumstances of employment or situation; or be deliberate.

Loneliness is defined as a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. It typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people.

According to psychologist John Cacioppo, loneliness works in some surprising ways to compromise health. The net result is that the lonely experience higher levels of cumulative wear and tear. He provided details:

*Perhaps most astonishing, in a survey he conducted, doctors themselves confided that they provide better or more complete medical care to patients who have supportive families and are not socially isolated.

*Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.

*Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stress ors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.

*The social interaction lonely people do have are not as positive as those of other people, hence the relationships they have do not buffer them from stress as relationships normally do.

*Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure. It undermines regulation of the circulatory system so that the heart muscle works harder and the blood vessels are subject to damage by blood flow turbulence.

*Loneliness destroys the quality and efficiency of sleep, so that it is less restorative, both physically and psychologically. They wake up more at night and spend less time in bed actually sleeping than do the non-lonely.

The causes of loneliness or solitude are varied and include social, mental, emotional and physical factors, but being alone to write is by choice.

Although most writers work in solitude, they do not necessarily suffer from loneliness. Solitude could mean privacy or peace. When you are in solitude, you are in your own company, by yourself.

Also, the popular conception of the writer as a lonely figure, an alcoholic or a chain smoker is flawed. For example, it will be laughable to describe Ndibe or Uzoatu as people suffering from loneliness. They are both strong family men and socially active.

However, several studies suggest a disproportionate number of writers report loneliness compared to other professions. That, for sure, is one of the challenges to writing, which requires proper handling.


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