Writing, Loneliness, and Depression
At first glance the subject of writing and loneliness may seem straightforward. But it’s more nuanced and complex than you realize.
I have a vested interest in exploring this topic. I suffer from periods of tormented loneliness, diagnosed as depression. The number and quality of friendships I enjoy, or how well business is running, has nothing to do with the condition.
The loneliness of depression can last from a few hours to several days. In my youth, it could go on for weeks. As I get older, it’s more merciful. Whether all loneliness springs from the same soil as depression is an interesting question. As a reformed alcoholic, depressive, and sometimes lonely writer, I hope I can add something to the discussion.
There’s a link between loneliness and depression, although it’s possible to suffer from forms of depression which don’t involve loneliness. Depression can stem from a sense of shame, or guilt, and low self-esteem. Repressed anger can also translate into a depressive state. But as we get closer to understanding what the link between writing and loneliness may be, you won’t find it in the twilight zone between loneliness and depression. The link is altogether more surprising and unexpected.
Writing and Solitude
Most writers work in solitude, or wish they could. But not all suffer from loneliness. This is a very important distinction. To be alone may also be to experience deep connection, quite the opposite of loneliness. I can testify to that as both a practitioner of Zazen (mindfulness meditation) and a person who spends long periods alone.
If there’s a popular conception of the writer as a lonely figure, that may be as exaggerated as the contemporary myth of the writer as an alcoholic, a subject I’ve discussed here. Because in the same way that most writers are not alcoholics, and there have been as many great teetotal writers as there have been literary drunkards, most writers are not lonely. But the tragic stories of the lonely and depressed garner more interest than the more hum-drum biographies of happy, well-adjusted pen-pushers. We mustn’t mistake solitude for loneliness.
But writers who suffer a great deal from loneliness exist. Several studies suggest a disproportionate number of writers report loneliness compared to other professions. The experience of loneliness for such writers is the subject of this post.
What is Loneliness?
Is it something in the “type of person” who becomes a writer? Are most writers introverts, inadequate, self-doubting, and poor at dealing with personal relationships? Many famous writers exemplify all such characteristics, but it can’t be said all, even most, writers are like that.
Perhaps loneliness comes from the peculiar demands of a writer’s life? Is there a necessary link between writing and loneliness? These are simple, reasonable questions. But while they have reasonable answers, they are not simple. We should begin by defining loneliness.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives us:
Sadness because one has no friends or company. The fact of being without companions; solitariness. The quality of being unfrequented and remote; isolation.
But as we’ve already established you can feel lonely even when you have friends and family all around, and need not feel lonely when you are alone, that seems inadequate.
Collins gives us:
Unhappy as a result of being without the companionship of others.
Not much more enlightening, is it?
One last try with the dictionaries. Let’s see what Merriam-Webster has to say. After several similar definitions to those above, it gives:
Producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation
Well, that’s true. But it isn’t very explanatory.
It’s nothing close to the experience Sylvia Plath described with almost surgical accuracy in her journals (recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the human condition and creativity).
“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of parties with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter — they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
That conjures the painful and frustrating realities of the sense of loneliness. Plath also makes explicit the sense of self-hatred and shame which often accompanies psycho-emotional isolation. The inability to communicate, to feel connected to the world and understand people and their relationships, to value these things, is disturbing for the writer. It’s the writer’s job to communicate, to relate, and to touch the mind and the heart of the reader. Most writers of fiction seek not only to tell a good story, but to enrich the lives of others.
Writing About Loneliness
Solitude is often cast in a positive light as a necessary precondition for deep, creative work. The concept of solitude as a supporting framework for creativity exists in other areas of endeavor, including the visual arts and science. But that condition of solitude isn’t the same as loneliness. Social situations may make loneliness more acute.
When I’m feeling lonely, solitude eases rather than amplifies the feeling. In the deep loneliness of depression, if I can get my body moving and out for a solitary sojourn in Nature, it’s a great help. It doesn’t cure the depression, you have to ride it out, but solitude can mitigate against the worst and most immediate psychological and emotional effects.
Despite the comments from the diaries of Sylvia Plath quoted above, it’s difficult to find direct references to loneliness in the private and public writings of well-known authors, other than in fiction. If writing about loneliness is rare in the letters and diaries of authors, it’s one of the most common themes in literature. For all the letters and diaries which don’t speak of existential loneliness, thousands of novels have loneliness at the heart. That’s telling because, as we’ve noted already, one problem with the loneliness we’re discussing here is the huge stigma attached to it. We can only approach it through stories.
Loneliness in Literature
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is an excellent case study. Novels dealing with loneliness often suggest the monstrous anti-hero as a symbol of the feelings associated with the condition. As with the misguided Doctor’s famous monster, the lonely feel rejected and unlovable. Think of the final passages of the book when the poor creature throws himself overboard to be “borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
Consider Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Sasha’s tragic trajectory is an accurate exploration of existential loneliness. It’s an extraordinary book and if you haven’t read it, you should. Despite its depressing theme and heartbreaking conclusion, Rhys crafts the story in sensitive, delicate prose, rendering loneliness as tragic and beautiful as the corpse of a hummingbird.
Much of the finest literature for young readers also deals with loneliness. Ursula Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, the fourth book in her Earthsea quintet, explores the labyrinthine traps of existential isolation in a story as poetical as it is powerful.
Existential Loneliness and the Writer
This loneliness is distinct from the loneliness of the dictionary definitions; the loneliness which occurs when you’re missing company. Dictionary loneliness dissolves in the company of friends. If you’re missing a loved one, once you’re reunited the problem solves itself. If you’re a sociable, gregarious sort and you’ve been working alone all day, you go to the pub, or a party, or dinner with your family, or meet a pal in the park, and you’re fine again. It’s easy to satisfy the need for company.
We can best describe it as existential loneliness in a nod to the likes of Camus, Sartre, and Kierkegaard: an experience independent of interpersonal relationships which we might, for want of a more precise term, call “spiritual” loneliness. It’s emptiness at the core of being.
The Stigma Attached to Loneliness
If writing and loneliness belong together, in what ways are they connected? Is the process of writing itself something more likely to generate existential loneliness? Is it a price we must pay for creativity? Are people who would suffer from existential loneliness more likely to become writers?
As we know you can be alone and not lonely, and be lonely and not write, is it that as a society we link writing and loneliness because those lonely people who are writers are able to express it in a socially acceptable way that others can’t? The heroine or hero of almost every story ever told is the outsider, the other, marked by difference and set apart, alone and often lonely.
As Plath pointed out, loneliness leads to a terrible sense of shame. It’s difficult to speak or write about loneliness. It’s not a thing you want to admit because of the fear that doing so will only deepen your isolation. Instead of someone coming to embrace you, to bridge the gap, to include you, they are more likely to abandon you. Lonely people are among the most ostracized and rejected. And so the condition only becomes compounded.
Existential loneliness carries with it a sense of failure. That has always been the case as Plath’s description of her feelings at parties explains. This is a danger now more than ever, with the social media and the obligation they lay upon us to present idealized images of ourselves and our lives.
Writing, Loneliness, and Social Media
Much of what happens on social media isn’t communication in any real sense of the word. Research attests to the normalization of deceit perpetrated by these platforms. It is not the same honest communication which happens between two people face-to-face in real time.
The distorting and demoralizing effect of social media is the subject of ongoing discussion and analysis among academics and mental health professionals. They raise concerns about the negative impact of addictive social media use on the young and vulnerable. Aspects of virtual communication represent a real social problem. But it’s such a recent phenomenon that none of us understand it yet. Considerable financial interests are involved, and that always muddies the waters because in our culture we value money over and above human life.
Writing and Solitude Revisited
Writing is an activity most often undertaken in isolation. It’s a thing you do on your own. Even if you aren’t isolated from other people while you write, even if you are writing in the company of other writers, you are still alone. Rather as in a Zendo (Japanese Zen meditation hall) where monks are practicing Zazen in the same place, they are together only in a limited sense.
As with a Zen monk in sitting meditation, a writer at work is undertaking a deep, personal, inner journey which she can’t communicate. I wrote another post a little while ago, touching on the question of why writers write, which highlighted that many writers want approval, recognition, applause, very much as do actors. I’m not the first writer who was once an actor to draw the comparison. Writers are also performers, but as with filmmakers, we don’t see the audience. But a force much stronger than affirmation or applause drives us to write.
Loneliness and the Joy of Creation
That post was about why we keep writing when we don’t get approval. Why do writers keep writing even when they’re not getting published? Or when published, no-one is buying their books? or when people are buying the books, but the critics are tearing them to shreds? These things happen to most writers. But we keep writing. Those who don’t are not cut out to be writers in the long term.
So what is it that drives us on in our lonely task even when we don’t receive approval? Well, I can answer that question: the simple joy of creation.
Creating any art, popular or high-brow, a novel, a painting, music or dance, is a personal, almost numinous experience. Joy comes from immersion in the worlds of the creative imagination; not in the way of daydreaming, but in a proactive mode, bringing together a constellation of craft, poetry, and magic. All works of fiction, whether in the final product it’s a short, plot-driven pulp or a work of literary prose, the process for the writer is always the same.
But whatever the final product, it doesn’t embody the process. The process is incommunicable. It’s like enlightenment; it’s something you can know and experience, but you can’t convey it to another person. There is something essential and isolating in the experience.
When this experience leads to an overwhelming sense of the ineffable nature of creativity, it leads also to loneliness. And if you’re not getting your work published, read, and acclaimed, there’s a terrible existential contradiction to face: Because the writer has lived deep in the joy of creation. When people disregard or deride the product of that joy, it’s easy to take it as a personal affront, as a denial of the joy itself.
The Emptiness Between Writer and Reader
But the product is only ever a story about some guys doing stuff, however well-crafted. The product isn’t equal to the experience of creating it. So personal, so ephemeral, so nuanced and delicate is the creative process, that you can’t share it. The only other person who may come close to understanding will be another writer, musician, or artist; someone familiar with what the Greco-Romans would have called the “genius.” In Classical times, the genius (Latin) or daimon (Greek) was an individual’s spirit of creativity, a guardian angel, the higher self.
But the critic can no more see or touch your genius than your soul. She can only examine the product, the results of the work. And she has every right to do so. She can and should criticize the plot structure, the characterization, word choices, themes, and stylistic treatment. But these aspects have nothing to do with the joy you experienced in creation.
Honest criticism of the work is essential for a writer. She should strive to improve her product. But if she makes the process and the product synonymous in her imagination, she risks a painful existential contradiction. Writing, she’ll experience the most extraordinary and exquisite immersion, a spiritual “high” which we have identified as the joy of creation.
Then the work is over.
She’ll set it aside and revisit it later only to discover a dry, dead, empty thing. It’s fairy gold turned to dust on return from the Otherworld.
The problem at that point is she still perceives things through the writer’s rather than the editor’s eyes. She’s expecting to rediscover and live again the joy of creation. But it’s no longer there. The finished work is not a bottle with the genius trapped inside. It has the form and appearance of her creative experience because it grew around it, but it isn’t the experience. It’s an image, an empty shell. That realization can lead to a profound sense of existential loneliness and one which all writers must face.
Writing and Loneliness: A Quest for the Holy Grail
But that’s one thing which drives so many of us on to write and keep writing. It’s the realization we have failed to make the experience permanent, to capture the elusive genius and bottle it for future enjoyment. We have to go back and start again, tell a new story, or the same story over in a different way. Thus we start new stories, new books, to re-enter the realm of creative joy. Once enchanted by fairy dust, we seek always to return to that other world where, as Browning puts it in his poem, The Pied Piper of Hamelin:
“… waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
Their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles wings”
We are searching for something which we’ll never find, on an endless quest for the Holy Grail. It’s a lonely road. And as many knights who have gone before us attest, it leads us alone into the Dark Forest, or at best the Kingdom of the Hollow Hills, whose wonders we can never share.
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