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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


When you think of a writer at work, do you picture one person, head down, typing on a computer or scribbling in a notebook? Is there anyone else in the picture?

When I first decided to try my hand at a novel, I didn’t know any unpublished writers. I worked in a bookstore, so I’d met any number of “real” writers, but fiction seemed like a magic trick to me. I knew it all started with writing, so I sat in a little room with a narrow window through which I could see all the way to the Seekonk river, in the winter when the trees were bare. And it didn’t take long before I realized I have a very busy brain.

Working at a coffee shop was one way to siphon off some of that excess mental energy, so I could focus on the story I was trying to build. I got in the habit of working at a table in a room full of strangers. Sometimes I played ambient noise through my headphones, other times I used a new cup of coffee and a big cookie as a bribe for hitting my word count, but having a space that wasn’t mine freed me from responsibility for the environment and helped me focus what Natalie Goldberg calls the “monkey mind.”

When I needed extra inspiration or support, I turned to books. I read just about every book on writing I could find, and I made stacks of novels by my favorite writers, so that whenever the work seemed too hard, I could dip in and remember what I love, the thing at the root of all of it...the story. I was working at another bookstore, and as authors came in I began to ask them how they wrote and what advice they might give. Dennis Lehane recommended critique groups, adding that every critique group would offer good advice, bad advice, and a scattershot of opinion from which you can pull what you need to make your work closer to what you want it to be.

Through critique groups I found one of my favorite ways of writing alone. Still at a table, always adjacent to sources of food and drink, now with other people I know, all writing. Suddenly writing doesn’t seems like a strange thing, something for an elite group of geniuses. Suddenly writing is something you build out of daily work, something accessible for anyone with the passion, willing to put in the time. Some of my writing partners are also in a critique group with me, many are not. We sit down, say what we’re working on and share updates about submissions or goals, and then we get to work. I’ve found few things as inspiring as looking up from the page to see someone else working hard. I have heard people say, “I could never write in a public place; I could never write with other people.” And there’s nothing wrong with that. Sometimes when I’m deep in a complicated revision I do need total silence. But when I need to throw myself off a cliff and onto the blank page, it’s good to know I’m not alone.

I think it must be like running a marathon. You run it alone, your legs and lungs burn, your mouth is dry, you have to believe you can make it all twenty-six miles. But you are surrounded by people with the same goal, feeling the same things, and the road is lined with more people cheering you on.

Just because something is hard, just because you are the only one who can tell your story, none of that means you have to do it alone.

“It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone.” ― Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays

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