Want To Be A Writer? Prepare To Be Lonely

Reading & Writing


‘This has given me friends all over the world’, says Tony Hancock, patting his radio transmitter. ‘None in this country, just all over the world.’ Social media gives you a false sense of what friends is all about. But consider the writer; you work alone, at home or in a quiet place, and your head is filled with people who don’t exist. Is it any wonder that so many writers go off the rails sooner or later?

The biggest problem is the writer’s inability to share their work with anyone else, because until the work is finished it’s simply a dream, an intangible tangle of disconnected bits you can’t really share. It’s in the back of your head all the time, preventing you from doing important stuff. And when you try to discuss it with a friend the effect is like explaining a holiday you once took; it’s impossible to convey your interior thinking, and boring for the friend who’s struggling to understand you.

My workspace is inviolate. I don’t want to share it. So I lock myself away with my laptop, which is what a writer needs to do to finish that next damned chapter. Besides, if you make a friend, you then own a garden which will die if you fail to water it. And that takes time away from writing; so what can you do?

This summer, as we had to move out of our London flat, most of my work is being done in Barcelona. And as I’m incapable of anything beyond primitive Spanish (it’s not the place to learn; people speak the regional but entirely separate language of Catalan) I thought I’d join some kind of group. It’s an incredibly social place; every conceivable meet-up  you can imagine is here, until you have to choose one.

Pick a hobby group! A health group! A dinner group! A language group! But they’re all full of 20-somethings – your own age then? Argh no, the Seniors Hiking Society? And anyway, isn’t all this merely a distraction from the job at hand, which is to get on with the book instead of going out?

I’ve mentioned Dan Lyons’ cautionary book ‘Disrupted’ elsewhere here, but there’s an absolutely gruesome description of the patronising ageism he faced in his job which would prevent anyone over fifty from hanging out with anyone younger. So what to do? The answer is that you don’t. You carry on working alone, and maybe talk to others online.

The danger is that you become isolated. We start shedding friends after 30; marriage and moving away are cited as the two main causes. For the writer, losing touch with the young can be disastrous. You forget how crazy, driven, lax or dangerous to themselves they can be, as you once were.

I got a call from a friend who said his son had been kicked out of his flat; could he crash at mine for the night? Sure, I said. At around 6pm, the son turned up with one small bag containing all he had. So what are you going to do, I ask, throwing him my keys. I’m going to a party, he says. Which he does. At around 4:00AM he leaves the party, calls someone advertising an AirB&B and moves in. A couple of days later he remembers his bag is at my place. That’s what being young is like, and we forget.

You won’t find a group for what you need as a writer. And writers’ groups can be pretty grisly too. I have a photograph of six writers, including me, in a bar and it looks like a bunch of middle-aged white guys discussing management changes in an insurance company.

There’s no easy answer. But as a writer you’re an outsider, an observer, a listener, so if you do take on social events it’s worth remembering that those are the skills you want to exercise.

One last thing; you do need a small group of old pals with whom you can cut loose once in a while, otherwise you really do get isolated. I have a handful of crazy people who’ll watch my back and can be there when it’s time to rant; everyone needs someone like that.


4 comments on “Want To Be A Writer? Prepare To Be Lonely”

  1. Steve says:

    That line about friends being gardens needing watering is very true.
    Languages are good. Sometimes it’s just about interaction and a different environment and maybe a challenge.

  2. Rachel Green says:

    I write in isolation but would struggle without my online ‘friends’

  3. Mike says:

    Oh My Chris,
    Isolation can be chaotic. Social media, somewhere in there must be an oxymoron. I need a barrier in this social world. Can you put a screen door on Facebook? While i am not a writer, I need isolation to focus on work and for me that is being a therapist. Regroup everyday to prepare for the next day of meism. I call this present social order the “Lolly Pop guild” aka “How many licks”. Just how many licks does it take for people today to loose focus and move on. These people today would wear out a humming bird. Never satisfied, always wanting. It seems to be maturing into middle age and beyond. Isolated yes, lonely not so much. For the mind never really gets a rest as it should. Mmmm, middle age prosaic, oh i know what that is Viagra. HA HA. Just some thoughts for fun. Be careful or you may become Bryant.

  4. Anne Fernie says:

    The tendency (even if you are aware of it and fight it) is to gradually look inwards the older you get & writing only exacerbates that. Working with students certainly helps to keep perspective and mitigate the po-faced gloom mongering.

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