June 15, 2009


Below is the first piece I wrote for the memoir-writing group I joined recently. We had a number of prompts from which to pick, and I chose the one about solitude.

When my husband had his wisdom teeth removed, he had the surgery as part of a clinical trial for a new pain medication so he could get the procedure done for free. As a result, he was kept overnight at a research center. So I had twenty-eight hours of time entirely to myself without the needs of another person to consider, and no plans to share it with anyone. The daylight hours proceeded as normal; I spent them writing and doing research, with a break for yoga. During the day, when most of the world is at a day job, communicating, meeting, taking lunch, that is when I need to be in my bedroom, curtains open and natural light coming in, nobody else within shouting distance, and just creating poems or stories, doing research, or writing and editing articles. I probably won't answer my phone unless I have reason to believe it's urgent.

In the evenings, I tend to focus on the non-creative aspects of my work, such as writing cover letters, preparing manuscripts for submission, scheduling interviews and meetings. The things that make up the business of writing; that don't demand 100% of my mental energy; that I can do while I eat dinner or talk on the phone; that don't have to be done every single day; that don't demand daylight to fuel my inspiration. I have a space for these in the evening, just as I have space for people in the evening. When the sun is gone and my creative energy wanes, I am done being alone. Even if I plan to continue some of the administrative aspects of my writing life, I crave companionship. I need to recharge from the hours spent inside my own head; I need to experience other people; I need to remember that my mind is not the only one in the world. So I go out and spend the night having fun, or I spend time chatting with my husband, half-noticing television, and working on whatever else I need to get done. If my husband is away at night, I miss him, and often try to fill in the hours with friends. I prefer my solitude during the daylight, but when the moon is out I want companionship.

As the sun began to set on the day of my husband's surgery, I started to feel lonely. Although tempted to call friends in the evening to fill the void, I decided to stay up late and finally finish a story I had been working on for months. It was one of those pieces that became longer than I planned, my attention had waned, but I picked it up time after time because I knew it had potential and I didn't want to let that great idea go to waste. But my loneliness mad it difficult to concentrate. I did not want to be an artist at that moment; I wanted to be a friend or a spouse. It was dark out, so my brain was telling me it was time to be around people, or at least to switch gears to something less mentally taxing. But I wanted to make good use of the free time, and knew that when my husband was recovering from home, his presence would interfere with his work. When I felt desperate for companionship, I took breaks to chat with people on instant messenger. When nobody was online, I turned on the news in the background just so I could hear human voices. Finally, at 1 a.m., I had a complete draft. While I was please with my progress, glad I had finally reached that goal, I was still lonely.

I am always thrilled to see my husband when he comes home at night and I am ready to share someone's company, but if he's around during the day, I need to go somewhere else to work. When he came home the day after his wisdom tooth extraction, all of my work habits were immediately thrown off track. My creative energy is at its zenith when the sun is out, and I both need and want to work uninterrupted. But he always provides a source of distraction by wanting to go to lunch, to show me a new YouTube video, or just to chat. This was certainly true after his surgery, because although he was sore the drug he was taking was both effective and non-narcotic, so he was up and about rather than sleeping off the pain. Just having the presence of a companion in the apartment made my work difficult, and his coherence made it impossible. The only solution was to take solitude among strangers.

Public place can be solitary if you know how to make them so. The library, of course, is almost too easy, as it's designed to be a quiet space. Coffee shops are more of a challenge, but they will work, as long as you go alone. Just carve out your own space at your own table. Yes, these places can often be noisy. But noise is not incompatible with solitude. After all, when I have the apartment to myself during the day, I'm often blaring loud music in order to get my energy up. While I like to be alone, my mind wanders if it's too quiet. It needs to work against a source of distraction in order to function most effectively. Even the hum of the air conditioner can provide enough stimulation to set my concentration in line. So the one-sided cell phone calls and the ongoing chatter works well for me. Just as long as nobody tries to share my table.

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