Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his typewriter or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter. — Isaac Asimov
I’d like to start off by making a fine distinction. I define writer’s loneliness as being cut off from other human beings. I define writer’s isolation as being cut off from other writers, or at the very least from literary-minded people. I’m going to talk about both of these problems and treat their solutions as separate matters.
If you’re a writer and you feel lonely from time to time, congratulations. (A) You are perfectly normal and (B) you’re not alone, as contradictory as that sounds. There are tons of lonely writers and artists out there.
There are two types of lonely writers, in my opinion. Some people are lonely because they started writing. Some people were lonely first, and started writing to alleviate their loneliness, to try to reach out to others in the safest and least mortifying way they knew how. Either way, loneliness is a commodity all too many writers have in plenty. As the great Isaac Asimov pointed out at the beginning of this post, writing is a lonesome pursuit. It’s just you and the keyboard, and (if you’re a normal writer) a thousand thoughts crowding around in your brain, battling to seize your attention. Only a portion of these thoughts are writing-related: the rest are your insecurities, your fears, your frustrations, your stresses, your worries and woes. Your taxes. Your hospitalized family member. Your neighbor’s barking dog. Your weight. Your receding hairline. Your unpaid bills. The funny noise your car engine is making. The crappy dialogue you just wrote that you don’t know how to fix. The fantastically boring action scene that you don’t know how to punch up. (And what’s worse is that nobody else understands these latter fears, not being writers themselves, which makes a writer even more lonely.)
If you’re single, or (like me) are married but work wildly different hours than your spouse and hardly see him or her, then you’re probably a lonely writer. If you moved to a different town to be with your significant other (also like me), you probably don’t have many friends. Therefore, you spend all your time moving between two rooms: your office at work and your office at home (whether that office is a bedroom, or a La-Z-Boy in the living room, or the kitchen table). You hardly see anybody else. It’s just you, your laptop, and that little voice in your head, telling you that you’re crap and you’ll never be a real writer.
Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe you’re an introvert, the shy and retiring type. Crowds make you nervous. The thought of meeting new people gives you fits. You’d sooner undergo any sort of medieval torture than speak in front of a crowd. You’re most comfortable on the Internet, where interaction is never face-to-face and you’re free to say what you think without fear of being mocked or shunned.
Either way, you have a serious case of writer’s loneliness.
Or let’s say that you’re not lonely at all. You’re one of the lucky writers who actually has a social life. You’re married with children, or really love your coworkers from your day job and hang out with them all the time, or have a large circle of friends. It’s an odd moment when you feel alone and unloved.
There’s just one problem, though: none of the people you know are serious writers.
I hate to keep using myself as an example, but I’m the only serious sci-fi writer I know. I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve never, ever sold a science fiction story (even after making 30 submissions to major magazines in 2017) is because I’m isolated. I don’t know a single other professional science fiction author—somebody who’s actually trying to build a career out of their work and not just penning fanfiction in their spare time. I don’t know any successful sci-fi writers whom I can use as mentors.
Hell, I can’t even find a quality beta reader. Whenever I give my writing to a friend or coworker, all I get is a glorified line-edit, and maybe a couple of vague comments about whether it was good or not. Nobody I know is literary-minded enough to give me a thoughtful critique about plot, tone, pacing, thematic elements, characterization, and all the other weapons in a writer’s literary toolbox—let alone knowledgeable enough about classic sci-fi to tell me whether I’m on the right track with my own. I can’t express how desperate I am to find a community of sci-fi writers who can help me critique and hone my work into something both edifying and salable.
And so I exist in a writer’s hell: an echo chamber of self-doubt and uncertainty. I never know what exactly is wrong with what I write, so my editing is haphazard and half-assed. I never have anyone to talk to about good sci-fi or bad sci-fi, so I never get any fresh ideas or insights on my own writing, nor am I inspired to write new stories. And worse yet, I get discouraged easily. I can’t tell you how many potentially great stories I’ve scrapped simply because I looked them over, lost courage, decided they were awful, and deleted them in a fit of pique. If I’d just had one other real writer to show the nascent story, they might have encouraged me to continue.
Let me give you an example. Stephen King’s wife Tabitha is also a writer. She is solely responsible for the fact that Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie was published. In his seminal work On Writing, King admits that he crumpled up a rough draft of the story and threw it into the wastepaper basket, thinking it was awful. Tabby dug the story out of the garbage, read it over, and convinced her husband that he really had something good going. She then made a few pertinent suggestions about how to fix the problems it had, and Stephen, heartened, finished the manuscript and sent it to his agent. His agent sold it to Doubleday for $400,000, of which $200,000 was King’s to keep. This put food on his table, a new suspension on his car, and allowed him to quit his teaching job and write full-time.
Writer’s Loneliness: Solutions
So how do we remedy the persistent malady of writer’s loneliness? First, stop writing. I’m serious. Don’t spend every free moment in your office or bedroom or wherever you write. Putting out 2,000 words a day is awesome, but you gotta think of the mental and emotional complications of overwork. You need a life outside of writing. Even Victor Frankenstein and Hamlet got out of their castles and brooded on the ramparts every once in a while, breezes blowing dramatically through their hair. Take a letter out of their books (so to speak). Get out of the house. Go socialize. Remind yourself that there is a “real world” out there, separate from the one which you are laboring to create. Take a walk. Go get a drink at a quiet bar right after it opens, à la Raymond Chandler. Reconnect with an old friend (hey, if you’ve got social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook and Google Plus like all burgeoning writers should, you really have no excuse). Jump on Match.com and find a spouse (hey, it worked for me). Volunteer at a blood donation center. You never know who you might meet or how inspired you’ll get. The point is, you need a life outside of writing. A life that involves other people. Who knows how this could inform and inspire you?
I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful.
— Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Writer’s Isolation: Solutions
Writers, I’m sure you’ll agree, must avoid isolation. I would argue that it’s even more important for a sci-fi writer to avoid isolation, since the genre we write in is so specialized and its community and following so tight-knit and…I don’t know, esoteric. My advice to you is to join a community of fellow sci-fi writers. Sci-fi and fantasy writers, by their very nature, create their own worlds in their heads and play around in them. It can get very lonely there. An isolated sci-fi writer can have a hard time knowing whether their themes and premises come through in their writing. Existing in an echo chamber isn’t a constructive pursuit. It’s all too easy to give up and quit writing when you’re going it alone.
Joining a sci-fi writer’s group can keep your ideas fresh and original. There’s nothing new under the sun, after all. In the excellent science fiction story Melancholy Elephants, Spider Robinson proclaims that there hasn’t been a new idea in sci-fi in over 50 years (and he wrote that story in 1982). Professional sci-fi writers, if they’re worth their salt, read just as much as they write. Your acquaintances in your writers’ network can help inform you if that latest brilliant idea you’ve had was already done by so-and-so in such-and-such book or magazine. My wife is a prolific reader, and whenever I turn to her and say, “Hey, does this sound like a good idea?” she’ll tell me if “That sounds exactly like [insert random work of science fiction here].”
Most importantly, though, hanging out with other sci-fi writers can serve as a sort of mental sanctuary. Do you know how tiresome it is to be alone with no one to geek out with? Of course you do. I love being in a room with other sci-fi fans. People who’ve read the same seminal science fiction stories that I have, which we can then gush about together. It’s seriously reinvigorating. It’s all too easy, when you’re an isolated sci-fi writer, to look at your work and think it’s the stupidest, nerdiest crap that ever graced a page. Being in a community of like-minded geeks, however, helps you silence your inner critic.
There are tons of sci-fi writers’ groups on practically every form of social media. Just remember that the relationship is give-and-take: if you expect people to review and critique your works, you’d better be energetic and enthusiastic about reviewing and critiquing theirs. Don’t just jump right in and ask for critiques, either. Take time to ease yourself into the community, get known, comment on a bunch of posts and threads, and offer to read other people’s stuff. Be a good neighbor. If you take the time to do these things, you have the chance to create long-lasting relationships with talented writers and potential beta readers.
If you’re old school and you prefer face-to-face communication, you have three options: Meetup groups, local writing workshops, and creative writing classes at community colleges.*
Ever been on Meetup.com? It’s wonderful. You can punch in practically any topic or interest (kayaking, philosophy, 17th-century French drama) and somewhere, probably within 50 miles of you, there’s a group meeting every second Thursday in the local Chili’s or Red Robin and playing pub trivia and planning excursions and outings and activities. There’s a writer’s group up in Sacramento that meets the second Monday of every month that I’ve been trying and trying to attend, but I keep getting sick or otherwise held up. But the writer’s groups are out there, and they’re full of people like you: writers, fiction writers, genre writers, creative writers, serious writers, people who devote hours every week to their craft, and who desperately want to get better at it. You could do worse than hobnob with them.
Writing workshops are another option. Often, you’ll have to pack your bags and travel out of town to find the good ones. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and a big shot writer will come to your local college or university and host one. Now that the Internet is a huge thing, more and more writing workshops and webinars are being hosted online. Writer’s Digest hosts a fair few. A quick Google search will tell you what’s in your area or nearby.
Finally, there are writing classes at community colleges. Anyone can sign up for these, provided they can pay the fees. (I actually did the ground school portion of my private pilot’s license qualifications at a community college in Wyoming.) A two-second Google search tells me that San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California (just down the road from me) has a course called ENG 49A: Introduction to Creative Writing. Sounds splendid!
So there you go: the problems of writer’s loneliness and isolation, and how to beat them. I hope this post will be of use to anybody out there who’s struggling to write good science fiction, the kind that inspired them when they were teenagers, but haven’t a single soul with whom to share it and from whom to get good feedback. Take heart, kiddo. You’re not alone. If you can’t think of anybody else to ask for help, ask me! I’ll be glad to look your writings over and give ’em my honest opinion. I’m not successful (yet), but I have read a lot of science fiction, and I know what I like. (I’m currently reading Broken Glass by John Hindmarsh and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge…excellent stuff.) So hit me up!
*There are also writer’s conferences. I’m going to the San Francisco Writers Conference in February 2018. I’m really, really sick of being isolated and I’m looking forward to making connections and forging a network of contacts in the industry. I’m hoping to wind up with (1) a solid relationship with a magazine or publication that needs me as a freelancer and (2) four or five literary agents who know my name and have expressed interest in my novels (if not an actual book deal). At the very least, I want to make friends and exchange contact info with a bunch of other writers, preferably in my chosen genre, who can render me beta reading services. Either way, you’ll read all about it on this here blog.