Writing is a rather solitary activity. One sits for hours on end with a keyboard, a notepad, or if one is feeling nostalgic a typewriter. It’s hard to chat and react to the outside world when one is interacting so heavily with an inner world. There’s another word for that if one isn’t published or doesn’t have very creative friends and acquaintances: crazy. To be a writer is to develop a useful kind of schizophrenia where the hallucinations serve a purpose and hopefully confine themselves to the times and places the writer has set aside to craft his or her narratives.
This is why other writers — and TV shows/movies/comedy sketches/etc., which are of course composed by writers — so often make fun of the “writer” who camps out in coffeehouses or attends numerous writing clubs with a satchelful of angsty poetry, a scarf, and a beret. Unless one lives with half a dozen roommates or has really just decided he or she has to sacrifice productivity for the illusion of human contact for a few hours, a coffee shop is a poor place to set up office. People come, people go, people complain loudly, people talk on cell phones, people try to snoop over your shoulder, people ask if they can sit at your table or borrow the other chair(s). In other words, people constantly interrupt the stream of inner voices and ideas. It also is much easier to make the rest of the world believe you to be a “crazy person” rather than a “writer” if you are sitting alone at a table talking to yourself to work out a piece of annoying dialogue or are staring off into space for long stretches of time trying to envision how one character or another would really behave in the situation in which you’ve decided to stick him/her.
I’ve tried writing nonfiction stuff out in the world, too, just because when you’ve been locked in your study staring at piles of research for days and weeks at a time, you crave people but feel your deadlines. Personally, I found that the number of distractions and spotty internet connections did nothing to help me sort out the three dozen sources from two different disciplines needed to finish my thesis.
Maybe it’s just me.
For the record, I did manage to publish something once, many years ago. It was a short story in an online mystery rag that has likely long since died its last mysterious death. There’s a difference, though, between a writer and an author. A writer is one who writes. It says so in the dictionary. An author is one who has garnered enough approval, funds, or connections to publish something. An obscure author is about 99% of authors, including for long periods of time anyway, people like Nora Zeale Hurston, who didn’t really get the recognition and sales until it really stopped being all that useful for her as a person. Then there are the authors who received their kudos while alive, but have since fallen out of print and consciousness (numerous Newberry award winners come to mind). Online nonsense aside, I don’t consider myself an author, and I’m probably only a writer about 3-4 months total out of the year.
I’m a writer when the voices of the characters tell me to be a writer, when the ideas and dialogue snatches, and random research collide and tell me to get it down before it disappears. For that reason, I may never be an author. I probably lack the discipline, though many writers have admitted to spending time sketching out plots or obsessing over dates or scattering a wall with notecards; following cops or bartenders or truck drivers; or researching 18th century architecture or the secret lives of milkmaids or the inner workings of terror cells.
I’m also a reader, a photographer, a gardener, a painter, and a baker when the mood strikes me. Almost all of these tend to be solitary activities. I meet with a book club once a month and I discuss novels and nonfiction with my coworkers fairly often, but the act of reading is one best done alone. Even photographers who shoot (photographically-speaking) people, tend to spend hours developing or uploading, printing or editing the fruits of their shutter-clicking labor alone (and at one time, they did so largely in the dark).
I’d probably be a better gardener, painter, photographer or baker if I focused on the one hobby and let the others fall away. Apparently though, at the heart of it all, I’m a writer. I find stories in photos as I shoot, edit, and print them. I work out dialogue while weeding. I contemplate plot twists while rolling dough. I let the smells of oil paints connect distant bits of flotsam in my head. While reading, I savor language and information from various fields of study and distant geography.
Perhaps one day, I’ll seek publication and let my characters be with other people.
In the meantime, I’m not lonley (and after spending all week with a classroom full of kids, a little alone time is a good thing).