Dear Writer: Advice on writing through isolation
On where solitude fuels productivity and avoiding loneliness, from Helena Fitzgerald of Griefbacon
We asked Helena Fitzgerald to share her advice on navigating isolation as a writer. Helena writes Griefbacon—a newsletter on the weirdness of relationships for “the last people at the party after everyone else has gone home.” She recently contributed to The Lonely Stories and is a fearless advocate for trusting your gut and giving shape to feelings. Read on for her experience of solitude in writing, or listen to her read it aloud above.
Dear writer, how does isolation play into your writing experience? When do you crave it, and at what point do you seek support, collaboration, or edits?
How do you come up for air when the loneliness of writing becomes too much?
I get up very early most days. I do this for a lot of reasons, including habit, but the main one is that it’s how I get to be alone. I live in a very small apartment with my husband and two cats, all of whom I love, but sometimes what I want more than anything is to be with no one. Sitting at my desk at 5 a.m., it is possible to believe that maybe nobody else exists in the world at all.
My writing habits have changed over the years, but the one thing they’ve always involved is solitude. There are a lot of dangerous and embarrassing myths about the link between isolation and writing. What makes these myths dangerous and embarrassing is that most of them are a little bit true. I was, in fact, a lonely kid who didn’t know how to make friends. I did, in fact, turn to writing because it was an activity I could enjoy even if no one invited me. I kept writing because I was chasing that comfortable high—I knew how to be alone for long stretches of time, and I craved it. Long after I had gotten older and figured out how to make friends, isolation still felt like a balm to me. Even now, part of what draws me to writing is that it necessitates solitude.
Not everyone who writes enjoys the isolation of it, and not every writer’s process or routine involves isolation. Some types of journalism are exactly the opposite, requiring a constant, active, and material engagement with the world. But for many of us, the practical need for isolation—having to be alone with your thoughts, have to retreat into your head, having to talk to no one else for hours at a time, having to disconnect from the immediate external world in order to conjure something onto a page—is part of the point. Writing is, at least a little bit, an excuse for isolation.
Last month I finally came down with Covid, after two years and three vaccinations. I hoped—like I always do when circumstances force me into isolation—that it might be useful for writing. Instead, the isolation was torturous. Worse, I was mad at myself: Isn’t this what I’m supposed to love? Isn’t this what’s best for writing: solitude enhancing focus, the noisy world falling away? But it wasn’t. I was lonely and stir-crazy, and the isolation made it harder to write, not easier. My own voice was too loud in my head. I was bored of listening to myself. None of my jokes landed. I just wanted to go outside and talk to other people.
Virginia Woolf famously said that what is needed in order to write is a room of one’s own and 500 pounds a year. Although the second item (roughly $40K in today’s money) is probably the more important one, Woolf meant that writing can only happen successfully if the individual can free herself from social obligation. One reason she specified these conditions for women was that such obligations often cut more deeply into women’s lives than into other people’s; a woman getting a moment to herself was as unusual as her having an independent income. Solitude is an antidote to the kind of small talk that clogs the arteries between thought and expression. In most of life it is necessary to be polite; in writing it is necessary not to be. A room of one’s own is wherever allows me to be impolite, tactless, and truthful, because I can be alone.
Solitude is an antidote to the kind of small talk that clogs up the arteries between thought and expression. In most of life it is necessary to be polite; in writing it is necessary not to be.
When I started my newsletter on Substack, Griefbacon, years ago as an occasional free email, it was in many ways a project about this kind of solitude. My job at the time required a lot of in-person social performance, and I wanted a place to write things that weren’t meant to please anybody else. The newsletter was a room of my own. Of course, it didn’t stay that way for long. If I had really wanted this to be a pure act of solitude, I probably wouldn’t have posted it on the internet. But I like to think some of that sense of solitude, stepping outside the party alone for a few minutes before going back inside, remains.
But when that kind of isolation works, as I was reminded while I stayed inside waiting to test negative, it works in contrast. Myths about how much writers love to be alone omit a crucial piece of the picture. Even my weird little inward-looking essays demand some collaboration. Working with other people makes me nervous, whether sharing my work in a writing group, or receiving edits on an essay. But these are the only ways in which my work has ever improved, or remained interesting to me. The ideas we write about have to come from somewhere. Work that develops in solitude starts from the outside world. The difference between useful isolation and the kind that made me grouchy and miserable when I was stuck inside is whether that isolation returns to the well of something beyond itself.
I was skeptical and nervous when I added a community component to Griefbacon. I love the discussion threads in other newsletters, but I worried it wouldn’t work for mine. I did it anyway, though, and it’s become one of my favorite things about the newsletter. Each week I ask a question and then I get to connect with subscribers and watch them connect with one another. Just like a good party, it reminds me that getting outside of the closed room is what makes the closed room matter.
Isolation can provide focus and solace. But turning that monologue into a conversation keeps us engaged with and interested in the world. It’s the fresh air, the curtains opening to let light flood into a dark and dusty. Solitude is a luxury, but it feels luxurious because of the time we spend out in crowds, away from the rooms of our own.
This is the fifth in a recurring series of longform writer advice, following Alicia Kennedy’s advice on learning to listen, Embedded’s Kate Lindsay’s advice on creating trust with your readers, Lance’s Anna Codrea-Rado’s advice on learning to celebrate just how far you’ve come, and Mason Currey’s advice on creative growth.
Could you use some advice or inspiration from a fellow writer about creativity, motivation, and the writing life? Submit your question for consideration for a future advice column by leaving it in the comments below.