A writer’s need for space and solitude is well known. Thoreau took himself off to the woods to live alone; Virginia Woolf wrote of a woman’s need for ‘a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. Certainly, when I am writing a novel, that involves plenty of time working alone; closing the door to my office seals me in a quiet bubble in which I can dream and think and create.
And yet, as John Donne wrote back in 1624, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ In order to write, we authors need pen and paper (or laptop) and both a physical and mental space in which to write. But we also need people. Put simply, without people there would be no story to tell, and no need to tell it.
People – their failings and strengths, their ambitions and mistakes, their relationships with others – are at the heart of any novel. In order to conceive the idea for the story, the author has to relate to others. As Thoreau said, ‘How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.’ We authors must live, which means being sociable, having relationships with others, being part of a community.
Of course, we may be shy and introverted, but that is fine: plenty of insights come through people-watching. That is a major reason why so many writers enjoy cafe culture; think of Hemingway Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Oscar Wilde forming ideas at the famous Cafe de Flore in Paris (see my article ‘Favourite Parisian haunts: the cafes where history was made’).
Writing for LitHub, Emily Temple explored the loss of the cafe as a space in which people can write during the pandemic, and considered whether cafe writing will prove to be a true necessity or a luxury. For many, I think it will be the former. It is not that we need solely write in a cafe and nowhere else, but we do need the occasional visit to a cafe – and a library, a museum, an art gallery, even a shop – in order to live so that we may write, in order to connect with that which we write about: people.
Not only are we novelists somewhat bereft of the connections that inspire our writing, but we are finding it difficult to write during this time. How can we write stories set in normal times, where people interact freely? We could write, instead, stories set during the pandemic, and some authors have dashed out books already on this theme, but many of us prefer not to – we want to write of the light, not the darkness.
So, this time has not been easy for writers, though we may enjoy quiet and a little alone time more than some. But what can sustain us and alleviate the loneliness is the entire reason we write in the first place: we write because we love reading; we write to be read (whether by ourselves or a wider audience). We can all weather this storm by reading, and as writers, we can use the medium of writing, even if just like this, in an article or a post on social media, to connect to our readers. To paraphrase CS Lewis as portrayed in Shadowlands, we read – and write – to know we’re not alone.