When social distancing became a reality here in Vancouver, just over two months ago, my first thought was: “Business as usual.” Writers almost always write in isolation. A work of fiction is not a team project – at least, not usually.
Since writing, and then publishing, my first novel in 1997, I have understood that a writer’s life is solitary, for the most part. Even when you have family to care for, even when you have a day job, the actual writing process is carried out alone. You may be lucky enough to have a room set aside for your writing, or you may, as I have done, do most of your writing on the kitchen table, during those few hours you can carve out of your working day. Perhaps when the children are finally in bed. Or, as in the case of a very productive writer friend of mine, in the early hours of the morning, before you head to work.
There are writers, I know, who like to work surrounded by other people. Before the pandemic occurred, they wrote in coffee shops, stimulated by the conversation and bustle of their fellow customers. They liked the music playing on the cafe speakers; they liked feeling part of the outside world.
Most of us, though, need our own, controlled space in which to create our projects. Other people are distractions – music, unless its of our own choosing, is annoying. We need space to think, to dream, to imagine our narratives. And so, as I say, most writers write in solitude.
So what, then, is new about writing during COVID-19? Well, as I began to realize, there’s a lot that’s different. Some of it is helpful, some of it isn’t.
To begin with, even a writer needs a break from herself from time to time. It’s too easy to get into your head and stay there, if there’s no particular reason to leave. If, in fact, you CAN’T leave. At least, not for frivolous reasons. You can go to the grocery store and walk the dog; here in BC we’re fortunate, thanks to the mild weather, to be able to get out and exercise: walk around the lake, ride our bikes, hike a neighbourhood trail, and so on.
What we can’t do – at least what we haven’t been able to do for several months – is socialize. And it’s been a bit of a shock to discover that I do like to see people now and then. In person. Face to face. Over a meal or a drink or at the theatre. Video chats are all well and good, as far as they go. I’ve spent time on Zoom, Skype, and Facebook Messenger. I use Kakao Talk for some of my ESL students, FaceTime for others. I’m grateful for these digital options – where would we be without them? And I will, no doubt, continue to use them from time to time even after the pandemic subsides, or after we have a vaccine. Whichever comes first.
But I’m craving the kind of personal interaction that doesn’t rely on a device, the kind that doesn’t need to be mediated by a laptop or a phone. And, as someone who considers herself an introvert, this longing for human contact surprises me.
I’ve spent my life (well, my adult life, to be specific) turning down invitations to join groups. No, I don’t want to be part of your hiking/movie/wine club. Thanks, but I won’t be hosting a Tupperware/Pampered Chef/Mary Kay party. And don’t get me started on Amway! I did belong to a book club when I lived in Ontario, and I enjoyed the society of those women even when I didn’t always enjoy the books. But that, for me, was the exception that proved the rule: I am a solitary person. So why am I chafing at all this isolation?
It seems to me there are a couple of possible reasons. To begin with, I may not be as much of an introvert as I’ve always thought. An introvert, according to the most common definition, is someone who is more inward turning than others, someone who is focused more on internal thoughts, feelings, and moods rather than seeking out external stimulation. Introverts tend to be quieter than others, more thoughtful, perhaps, and more introspective. While not necessarily shy or socially anxious, they do generally prefer their own company to that of groups. Whereas an extrovert will be invigorated by being around large groups of people, introverts find these occasions exhausting, and need time alone to regroup.
The fact is, most of us lie somewhere between these two extremes, perhaps leaning a little more to one side or another. In my case, I definitely lean towards introversion. And yet . . .
John Green, who wrote the best-selling young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, has put it this way: “Writing is something you do alone. Its a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.”
That makes perfect sense to me. Not all writers are introverts, of course; Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. were all believed to be extroverts. But so many others were not. Jane Austin, Charlotte Brontë, Edgar Allan Poe, J. K. Rowling . . . the list of English-speaking writers who wrote in solitude is practically endless. Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve been told that Shakespeare wrote King Lear when he was quarantined during the plague, which may or may not be the case. We do know, though, that the Marquis de Sade wrote his magnum opus, The 120 Days of Sodom, while incarcerated in a cell in the notorious Bastille. It’s hard to imagine a writing experience more solitary than that.
The misconception about introverts is that we – yes, I’m still identifying as one – don’t like people. Not so. We just prefer to engage in meaningful, one-on-one relationships as opposed to endlessly expanding our social networks. A world made up only of extroverts would be exhausting, but one consisting solely of introverts would be pretty lonely. It also wouldn’t work: societies are formed by people connecting with each other. If we didn’t, we’d still be huddled in our solitary caves, wondering how to avoid the saber-toothed tiger outside the entrance.
So yes, I do like people and I’m grateful to my extrovert friends who persist in calling me on a regular basis and disrupting my solitude. Without them, my life would be too cloistered even for me. Personally, I think we need each other. Introverts and extroverts complement each other, like yin and yang.
There’s another reason, though, while I’m finding things difficult at the moment, and it has to do with my own expectations. For years I imagined what I might do with long, uninterrupted stretches of time in which to write. Think how creative I could be if nobody was expecting me to meet up for lunch, run a few errands, shop for clothes or buy groceries. Surely, given enough alone time, I could produce a magnum opus of my own.
Well, let me say this about that: it hasn’t quite worked out that way. It would be wonderful if I could tell you that having all this alone time has resulted in page after page of brilliant, thought-provoking prose. I have been writing, and I’m pleased to say I’ve just about completed the book I started on last September. But – and it’s a big but – magnum opus it probably is not.
Here’s the thing: Shakespeare was Shakespeare long before he supposedly used quarantine to write King Lear. He’d already written more than two dozen plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and The Taming of the Shrew, as well as scores of sonnets and poems, including Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Isolation didn’t turn him into “the Bard of Avon”, and it’s not going to turn me into Shakespeare. I’m not going to become the next Jane Austen or J. K. Rowling. I am, and will remain, me.
And that’s fine. When this pandemic ends, however, I will likely look back on this time and be grateful for the Zoom meetings, the family gatherings over FaceTime, and the friends who shared their daily stories on social media. We’re in this together, introverts and extroverts alike, and when we come out of together we’ll have a whole new batch of stories to write.