The balance of aloneness

Writing alone, together

I’m just coming off of a lot of fours. A writing retreat in Maine for 4 days (technically two full days and two half-ish days). There were four of us, friends or acquaintances or former coworkers or humor website co-founders or became-friends-through-Instagram-ers, who all drove from Vermont to be in Maine and work on very different projects while not really talking about those projects at all. And this was Year Four.

Whenever I mention this thing to people (especially creative people) they say, “Ooooh a writing retreat! Who’s running it? Which program is it? How much did it cost?” because we are so programmed to believe that everything related to writing or creativity must be official And Have A Name. It must have a Famous Creative Person associated with it. It must be a Program With A Plan And Cost Money You Can’t Afford To Spend.

I’m here to tell you—maybe you just need time. Maybe you just need time and pressure. You know, that whole thing about how diamonds are made etc etc etc? Maybe you just need time away from the one thousand little things that leave little cuts in your imagination and allow it to bleed out. Away from people you love and their demands (you’ll think being away from them will somehow be the easy part, but it isn’t, not always). And away from the excuses you make and the distractions you indulge in that block your already not-so-easy path.

This writing retreat is nothing more and nothing less than the four of us staying in tiny little cottages in a row, writing separately, and only gathering for dinner. (And okay fine, also texting, there is a lot of texting.)

This all started four years ago when I took a weekend away to write, alone. An early birthday present to myself. I loved the spare isolation of my days—when you leave your family to write, you best fucking write—but the nights were quite lonely. And let me tell you something, I’m an only child, I work from home, I enjoy being alone. I do not struggle with aloneness. But when you are alone and writing under pressure, you feel adrift by the end of the day. Exhausted in some ways, exhilarated in others, and wanting someone to tip you back into a sense of normalcy. Instead I went to a restaurant alone, ordered dinner and a single glass of wine, had no one to talk to (I think my voice cracked when I asked for the check, it was so out of practice), and felt lonelier than I could even believe.

That’s when I hatched a plan: Invite other writers—friends first, writers second—to come along with me next time. We call ourselves a writers group but that is misleading—we rarely talk about writing. And that’s why it’s the only writers group I could ever join. We write alone, together. Then we go out to dinner and make a scene. Why this is, I don’t know. But it always seems to happen. We laugh so hard and so loudly it’s almost like we’ve been locked in a box all day …. hey, wait a minute. But those meals packed with conversations about family or marriage or parenting or childhood memories and all that laughing tip us back to ourselves. Ready for the next day.

Returning every year on the same weekend has served as a measuring stick, like I’m backing up to the wall in my cottage to pencil-mark my milestones rather than my height (which is good, since I’m shrinking.) Every year is marked by different projects, different thrills, different disappointments.

On my way to Maine the first year, I detoured to Massachusetts to interview Chris Monks and it was such a thrill. The second year I had hoped to be working on my book but was still awaiting feedback on my proposal from my agent. So I wrote a bunch of short pieces and stockpiled them for submissions—an approach I have stuck to most years. Last year I spent my entire time working on the final edits of my book. I can still picture the process of divvying up the manuscript on my bed, setting aside the “all set” pages and pulling out the ones with handwritten notes from my editor.

This year I did a bit of everything. I wrote three humor pieces and started a fourth. I returned to editing an essay I had set aside months ago. I worked on my novel (very little) and started a screenplay (I guess?). I counted the pieces I had written and placed since January 1st. So far the total is 30. I kept recounting because it felt like it should’ve been closer to 1,000. I weeded out all of my writing files and random drafts and weird texts and emails with fragments of ideas and organized them. It’s a bit of a Writing New Year’s.

Even with all this—the lists, the tasks, the friends, the plan—I was struck by how lonely I felt this year. It hit me often. This was a different flavor of loneliness than that first year. This time it was the weight of the four years that had passed, the heaviness of my kids getting older, how quickly it all happened. When they were younger, getting away for a weekend was an orgasmic thrill. In a car! Alone! In a cottage! Alone! BYEEEEEE. Back then they were 8 and 10. Now, they are 12 and 14. I thought about future Writers Weekends and how they won’t even be living at home when I return. How I have been programmed to expect happy small people to be thrilled when I walk in the door. But now I’m already looking up at one of them. No one is small anymore. And one day they will be out there, in the world. They will not know when I am gone or when I am coming back. Their lives will not revolve around my presence nor my absence.

But I am back now. To them. To the thousand cuts. To the weight of my dog curled into the back of my knees while I sleep. They are all helping to tip that balance back, slowly, frustratingly, to where I need to be.


New from me:
• One of the pieces I wrote over this past weekend has already been published by McSweeney’s! BECAUSE OH HO BOY WAS THAT A BIT OF AN ANGRY WEEKEND AS IT TURNS OUT. Honest Greeting Cards You Should Expect From The Women In Your Life This Week

Things from elsewhere:
• BRAND: As someone who does a lot of naming projects and has heard just about every theory about naming, this was new (well, not technically, it’s from 2016) and fascinating: Why The Sound of a Brand Name Matters.
• WRITING: Related to my recent newsletter about the realities of publishing a book, this piece is absolutely everything. This line in particular made me yelp with recognition: “When people say, ‘Oh my god, a book, you must feel great!’ most writers get a little half-smile that tells you books are hard to hug close.” I started to pull out additional excerpts to demonstrate how spot on (and encouraging) this piece is but I was pretty much excerpting the entire thing. Just go, immediately, and read it: “Should I Quit My Day Job to Write a Book?” 
• FREELANCING: Very, very, very much related to that same recent newsletter that touched on freelancing, money, security, and all that shit is this excellent piece that hit me square in the chest with this question “Did I choose the wrong life?” Find it here on WorkingNotWorking.
• THE FUCKING PATRIARCHY: I obviously couldn’t get through this thing without a couple pieces about this whole Kavanaugh fiasco. I’m surprised I’ve made it all the way to newsletter #4 without sharing a piece by Anne Helen Petersen, one of my favorite writers. An excerpt: “It’s a profound statement on the position of women that the only way for a woman’s account of sexual assault to be believed is if she, and the account itself, becomes as amenable, as unthreatening to men, as possible.” Read “Christine Blasey Ford Was A ‘Perfect’ Witness — But Why Was She On Trial?” And this excellent piece from Slate, Brett Kavanaugh and the Cruelty of Male Bonding. An excerpt: “In each case the other men—not the woman—seem to be Kavanaugh’s true intended audience. In each story, the cruel and bizarre act the woman describes ... seems to have been done in the clumsy and even manic pursuit of male approval.”
• HUMOR: The best take on the above—by far—is this: John Oliver Asks Republicans About Brett Kavanaugh: ‘Why This Particular Asshole?
• PHOTOGRAPHY: Say goodbye (for real this time) to summer with these stunning images.

Oh, hey, RAZED is open for submissions! Our 3rd quarterly issue, Sleigh Ride to Hell, is out November 12! Find the sub guidelines HERE.


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