Why Writing Alone Is Impossible

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Writing is a solitary occupation, and one of its hazzards is loneliness. But an advantage of loneliness is privacy, autonomy and freedom.  – Joyce Carol Oates

We all believe this fallacy that writing is a solitary sport.

Of course we write alone. At least, that’s what we tend to think. It’s not a team activity. It’s one writer, sometimes two, but even then, they’re not actually writing together.

The words are your only company and they’re strung together alone.

But every writer knows they’re not truly alone. 

There are people to your right and left, before and behind you. Where you’ve come from, where you’re headed, people who’ve helped and advised you, and those who form the oppositional voices in your head.

They’re all there, waiting and watching as you work to bring everything you have to bear on the draft, saying it all and saying it well.

And then there are your advisors, readers, teachers, coaches, family, editors, agents, publishers, and friends who form your team. Some, obviously, are more helpful than others. Some you’ve internalized, and some give you opinions even when you didn’t ask for them. We all struggle to decide how many and which ones we should give access to. Is their advice or support important or even necessary? And beyond how it makes you feel, how do you know who should be allowed in? What factors or characteristics should qualify them?

Or should we let no one in? Is limiting outside influences best? Or do we cripple our potentially broader appeal when we don’t share?  These are important questions and we can’t afford not to consider them carefully.

In Writing Alone and with Others, writing coach Pat Schnider says, “Writing can be a lonely endeavor, much of the work must be done in solitude. However, too much solitude–or too much conversation with people who do not write, and too little with those who do–can lead to depression and despair. Having a place to listen thoughtfully to new work by others and having the option of receiving response to your own writing can be invigorating, encouraging, and tremendously helpful.” (p 177)

I’ve found that during the first draft, as difficult as it is to write straight through without stopping or looking for outside affirmation, it’s important to limit influences at that early stage. Other than that hopefully short time relatively (maybe 10-20% of the actual work), your select, surrounding influences are very important as you research, rewrite and edit.

Writing may be a solitary sport, in a way. But your influences and internalized voices are always there. And the rest of the process of completing a book (80-90%) is unmistakably about teamwork. 

What’s more, as a writing coach, I get all up in writers’ business. I think it may be that for some writers, other books are their best friends and advisors for the research and revision. Other times, a “translator” helps, someone to guide and discuss the process with.

There’s an essay I love and often refer writers to, written by T. S. Eliot, called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In it, he describes how each writer stands upon the shoulders of those who came before her and must draw upon that tradition while emptying of self to attain the highest universality of experience and thought:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” (ref. 4)

Figuring out your place in this literary heritage is admittedly for those who seek to contribute significant art. However, every writer has comparable writers. And it may be wise to seek out a respected reader or family member to serve as your “coach” or first editor in this. Ideally, everyone you’re taking advice from would be familiar with your goals and at least some of your literary influences. However, those books themselves are usually the most important sources of feedback on your work, far more than the interpreters of those books, however trustworthy your friends may be.

When it comes to editors, you can’t afford to think about saving money. Almost every writer I know starts out trying to save money. It’s important to be able to pay, of course. And yet, most of us can make sacrifices for what’s really important. And there’s nothing more important than ensuring your editor understands your type of work, your vision, your literary influences, and the vagaries of style to improve your work and make it appeal widely.

For every book that succeeds, there’s an editor who has become an author’s best friend.

This isn’t American Idol–writing isn’t singing. Yes, you’re channeling universal thoughts and emotions, but it’s not only you being heard up there. And even singers have coaches, teachers, and trainers. Neither is writing painting. The brushstrokes aren’t going to all be yours. That’s for your good. You can’t complete your work without a number of dedicated people contributing their colors, content and context.

We all know plenty of books underperform. That’s a failure of community. A competent content editor and/or coach could have helped. Reputable writing coaches would prevent the thousands of books that go unnoticed from getting published without careful scrutiny and vision-casting, not to mention the lack of consideration of the market’s readiness for that message. Qualified readers, other writers, and developmental editors worth their salt can and do prevent many writers from falling on their faces.

The point is, every Higher Purpose Writer needs to be clear on this: Writing is the solitary part. The rest of the journey is teamwork.

Construct your team to succeed.

The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.  – T. S. Eliot

For the higher purpose,

m

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8 thoughts on “Why Writing Alone Is Impossible”

  1. Well said. I am missing my first readers. Feels like every word is a struggle this time around. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone take a read and at least affirm that you’re on the right track. Or not Too many people giving input is probably not wise, but at least one or two trusted advisers is good. It is tough to go it alone.

    1. No doubt! Get thinking about those trustworthy readers and make your asks! Rooting for you, my friend.

      M

  2. Beautiful confirmation that I’m on the right track. What a gentle way of telling us to get out of our closets. For me, it’s definitely about letting the right ones in on the journey. Very helpful, compadre, as I begin to give my creative endeavors more time :)

    1. Jenelle! So glad to hear that you’re getting back to the writing! Remember, you are never alone, my friend. :) – m

  3. I do a lot of my own writing. ;) And editing. Of course, I know I need a professional editor to iron it all out for me, and at that point, I feel even more alone, especially if I’ve had trouble getting my idea across to that one person.
    However, as a writer to women about women’s issues, my most valuable and most appreciated other person is my husband. He is the sun to my moon, the shore to the ocean that is my writing. If he gets it, if he trembles when he reads it and asks me “how did you know this?” then I am ready for the editor.

    1. Ha! Sounds like a plan. You are very fortunate to have your husband! Use his read well…

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