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Writing a Novel & Being Alone

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I’m at the start of my fourth attempt at writing a novel in thirty years, working on the backstory and setting for what I hope to make into a science fiction novel, or two, or three or more.  I have three unfinished novels in plastic bins in my attic.  If I count my memoir, it’s four.  I really stopped writing fiction about five years ago when I got thoroughly stuck working on an historical novel about the Franklin Expedition.  I have volumes of research, over 3000 index cards, but I hit a wall at about 200 pages.  The same wall that had always stopped me.

While I’m a decent writer, I discovered after years of struggle that I’ve always been poorly suited to the writing life.  I need long stretches of time to conceive and immerse myself in my work, but that state of being alone has always given me trouble.  Being alone wore me down.

I like to write.  I love the feeling of being immersed in a work, but I have always been very harsh with myself.  Over time that harshness would score me, abrade me, dissolve me like a penny in vinegar.  I would ask myself why I stuck with it because it felt pointless–on days when ideas would not come, when I spent hours berating myself for wasting my time alone, I would weary, and the notion that sparked my passion would begin to tarnish and eventually turn black.

I didn’t know what caused it, but that caustic voice defeated me almost every time I set out on a project.  Every year, every month, every week, I’d question what I was doing.  Fortunately, or not, I’m also really stubborn.  What kept me at it was the cost of defeat.  I could not see myself giving in to something I could not understand, and I did not understand why I had to be so miserable. To lose, to quit, under those circumstances was unthinkable to me.  It still is.

This awful stalemate, went on for 33 years.  I started writing seriously when I was 21 in the summer of 1984.  It is now the winter of 2015/16, and for the first time in my life, I can say that I know and accept myself well enough that I can not only tolerate, but look forward to the time alone that it take to write.  When I’m alone now, I like the company I keep.  My only anxiety now is will I have time enough to write what’s in my imagination still, to build some kind of career in my time remaining here.  I answer that by saying, “I don’t care.  I like what I’m doing.”

What was it that made being alone so hard?  The long and short of it was that I didn’t like myself very much.  I’m not going to go into the details here (I will in another place and time), but the circumstances of my upbringing made me perpetually wary and hyper critical of my own judgment–these are really bad characteristics for a writer, really non-starters.

For a while a few years ago, when I had decided I was walking away from a writing career, I wished that when I had started, someone would have sat me down and told me that I had better like being alone if I wanted to be a writer.  Perhaps it is a sign of my own obtuseness that it took me more than 15 years to realize that it was not writing that was hard for me, but being alone, and being unable to tolerate being alone was crippling my writing process.

One can be aware of circumstances in one’s self such as this, but that does not mean that one can do a damned thing about it.  It took years for me to recognize that I had a problem; then convince myself that I wanted to and then could do anything about it.  Then I had to unravel, step by step, the circumstances in my childhood that led me to feel this way about myself, to be so scornful and mistrustful of myself that I could not enjoy the activity that I had chosen as my profession.  It was an excruciatingly long and painful process, twenty years of therapy and an absolute dedication to uncovering the truth about myself, how I was made inside, and how I’d gotten that way.

And once I’d finally worked it all out and made my peace with it, I found out that I had to teach myself a new way of being in the world and a new way of treating myself.  That was not quick either, and I’m still doing it.   But I have to say that it is a hell of a lot easier at this point than it has ever been, and one thing has emerged that makes me very, very happy. I can write, alone, pretty much pain free.  If I never publish a word of anything else that I write, that alone, the fact that I can now enjoy the process,  will always count for me as a great accomplishment.  I approve of this message to myself.



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