Writing, Alone


By Brian Volck

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
—Dorothy Day

Writing, at least writing anything worthwhile, is a lonely business, and I’m a lonely person. Some will surely scoff at that last bit. Others will say I’m whining. After all, I’ve been married nearly twenty-five years to a woman I’m absolutely in love with and I have more friends than any man deserves.

Then again, the notion that marriage can and ought to meet one’s every emotional need is an fantasy of recent manufacture, more suited to Barry White songs than life on this planet. I’m not justifying infidelity, just making a point about a sentimentality that corrodes and finally undermines the demanding practice called marriage.

As for the friends who know me best, I don’t see them often. Our paths haphazardly intersect here in town or we meet after months apart in places like Chicago or Santa Fe, keeping in touch the rest of the year through disembodied means: emails, phone calls or the rare letter.

Doctoring, of course, demands a certain sociability, but adaptable introverts know how to assume a persona. And those who imagine introverts are necessarily shy have no idea how exhausting personae can be. My wife sees the fatigue my patients and colleagues don’t, and wonders how many hours a man can sleep.

Writing is exhausting, too. Exhausting and lonely. There are, I’m sure, socialites and extroverts who write well and often, but even they must face, sooner or later—and necessarily alone—the blank page. No matter where writing is conceived, it’s birthed in solitude and with great effort.

Odd, how soon after I sit down to write comes the desire to take a nap. It’s the critic arriving early, I know. The same inner voice that, under different circumstances, sniffs at my last paragraph and says, “So what?” or “That’s even worse than usual.”

A poet friend of mine once wrote, “If the critic arrives too soon, poison his coffee.” I wish I could take his advice. It sucks, being a pacifist.

So the critic lingers, killing seedlings as they sprout, laying waste precious time I’ve stolen from the rest of my life.

Thomas Mann observed, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” In the original German, the predicate, “schwerer faellt” is best translated as “more difficult than,” but the words can also mean “falls harder.” For a writer, writing falls harder than it does for others. It’s a weight at least as often as a joy, more so when the gap between sentences I write and those I want them to be widens into a chasm.

I want my words to be clear as glass, to show and tell at the same time, without all the explaining and qualifying I imagine my weird takes on the universe require. A resident I supervised in the hospital once said, “It would scare me to live inside your head.”

She had no idea.

In the Ted Turner version of the life of Abraham (talk about drawing straight with crooked lines!), the priest, Melchizedek, appears out of nowhere, bearing bread and wine, and blessing “Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.” Abram, played marvelously by Richard Harris, looks first at this stranger and then skyward, his face forming a prayer of wonder and relief. “Here at last,” he wordlessly conveys, “is one who understands me, who requires from me no explanation.”

I love that scene. That’s what I want my writing to do. That’s what I hope for in life. Not all the time, but on occasion at least.

I’ve had those moments: with my wife, with close friends, at the Glen Workshop or Ekklesia Project gatherings, during my MFA. It needn’t be all agreement and singlemindedness. I disagree all the time, but in such graced moments disagreements play out on a field of compassion, a tacit understanding that each hears the other with a desire to understand.

Maybe that’s why I can’t write in the grip of loneliness: I’m afraid of what won’t happen. Afraid that my words won’t find a home, will be cast aside, misconstrued, or give offense. I’m afraid of what might happen without community.

And maybe that’s why the critic leaves so conspicuous—to me at least—a trail of things unwritten, punches pulled or not thrown at all, for fear of causing offense, of disappointing or contradicting someone whose opinion I value above mine, often people I hardly know. I should be old enough not to care, but it’s still important that people like me.

November is the month when I can expect my melancholy to crawl out of its hole like some half-forgotten pet snake and bite me, filling my blood with the twin venoms of loneliness and doubt. It stinks, but it makes for an interesting Advent, a season of waiting for the Stranger I both desire and fear.

And maybe that’s why I return each Advent to Annie Dillard’s short essay, “God in the Doorway,” which you owe it to yourself to read at least once and which ends:

I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.