“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.
Two of Nigeria’s famous writers, Professor Okey Ndibe and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, relate easily with Hemingway.
Ndibe said: “Ernest Hemingway’s statement captures a fascinating paradox about the vocation of 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.”
“Yes, the loneliness of the writer is eternal. It’s the writer and his paper or his computer. Writing at its best is not group activity. It’s incumbent on the true writer to go deep inside his being to pour out his soul. That’s why writers suffer and some end up committing suicide!”
The experience of a few more writers here further clarifies the challenge that has become synonymous with writing.
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 stressors 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 nonlonely.
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 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.