‘How Do I Feel Less Lonely?’

Loneliness is a condition of being your only original.

[Photo by Yanyi: A mature tree shots up above the camera at the Millay Colony in Austerlitz, New York. The tree faces you with stumps of branches cut from its trunk. It sits in a green forest with the first signs of fall gold. A scanning error leaves a black bar across the top side. Damage on the photograph’s film leaves black gashes in a line close to the top of the photo. They are surrounded by technicolor accidents.]

Hi Yanyi, thank you for sharing your financial journey on Twitter. It really made me think about my current IT career. My question is: how does one deal with the utter loneliness of writing after one has held a conventional job? I have savings, my husband earns decent money, and I can afford to write full time for a year. However, I don’t know how to live without a job, without team work, without that monthly acknowledgment at least in form of salary...How does one build a writing life in a capitalist society where everyone else is producing goods and services marked with clear monetary value and you are holed up in a room with a fancy idea? How does one convince oneself that words are enough (given that I have money to survive a year)? Where does one meet people and live some form of social life? Thank you for your generosity.

Melbourne

Dear ____,

Before dawn, where I am, the sun hints with a barely-lavender wash behind a nearby church tower. The color drapes on all walls of this house as I close the bedroom door, ripples into the living room as I open the curtains. Usually, at this time, no cars venture on the street, not for a couple more hours. I make coffee then sit on the couch and read until the lavender becomes more lavender, less shadow, then gold—the true color of a morning page.

Every so often, I live this vision of idyllic solitude. I am awake and not over-caffeinated. I like the book I’m reading. I am not yet hungry. No appointments to make. No deadlines to meet. No hours of work tugging the sleeve of my attention. “Solitude and freedom are the same,” says Agnes Martin. “[Suffering] is necessary for freedom from suffering,” she also says.*

You are asking, practically, about how to find community as a writer, so I will answer this first. Writing communities function like any other community. They are made of people with a common interest, but whose beliefs and values may be wildly different besides that. The more you approach and invest in other people, the more people might do the same in turn. Book clubs, workshops, and events are the easiest ways to meet others. Outside of pandemics, going to events is a quick way to find others who might be interested in the same kinds of writing as you—curating them is a quick way to find out what you yourself are interested in.

If you’re feeling lost right now in terms of structure, finding a workshop with an instructor, rather than a community workshop, may be the best bet. When you are feeling more confident in your work, I also recommend applying to fellowships with cohorts with whom you might bond during your time together. And throughout all this, I recommend seeking lasting friendships in which you genuinely value each other beyond fame, fortune, and even whether you continue in the art. Community, in other words, is still made of the same stuff even when there’s an adjective in front of it.

I want to turn, now, to the anxiety of being the one with the “fancy idea.” Many of us don’t have the luxury of risk. We don’t get to be “mavericks” or “pioneers”—we’re born indebted to bigger things, often by duty, whether it’s needing to pay our parents’ electric bills or avoiding the state and social consequences of not fitting in. The thought of sticking out and doing something completely different—risk is a privilege. Risk could mean less freedom, not more. Yet, risk may be one choice, if not the only choice, you have in order to create the life you want to live.

Writing is a lonely path, but perhaps not in the ways that you think. It’s true: most of the time I spend on writing, I’m alone, but I’m dogged by the memories of what has happened yesterday, or the day before. My friends’ voices and the voices of the books I’m reading, the voices of strangers and the dead, not mutually exclusive, are ringing as clear as the church bells dancing on the hour. Writing is something you do alone, yes. But as you live, the world lives in you. And the moment you write, you offer an echo of that life that dares to live beyond even you.

In that empty room you fear, the life you’ve built until now doesn’t seem to have prepared you for anything you will have to do from now on. Where does community come from, without a team? Where does acknowledgement come from, without a quarterly reviews? Where does life come from, without a plan?

All your life, these plans have been made for you, tacked in place by promises of failure if you step out of line. You’ve been taught to prove it, not to believe it. That you need to sound correct rather than like yourself. That you’re not a source of knowledge, but a project to be improved. But toward what and for whom? You have been taught, in other words, to never make your own meaning. You have been written out of your own life. No wonder you’re afraid of what you’ll do if you have no one else to watch you.

____, you wrote to me about loneliness of writing after having a conventional job. It is not, as you suggested, the loneliness of wanting to write. It is not the loneliness of needing money. But even the things you fear—the loneliness of being the one wanting the “fancy idea,” the loneliness of needing acknowledgement, or the loneliness of wanting a community—they are real, but they knock at the same door of loneliness through which you must pass when you choose to be a writer.

The loneliness of a writer is that of having chosen something completely for yourself. It is the loneliness of many mornings or nights writing words that you hate or fear. It is the loneliness of not yet being able to love them. It is the loneliness of setting your own pace of how you should write, when you should write, what you should write, and whether you should write. It is the loneliness of entering an empty room in the morning. It is the panic, the terror, of not yet having a start, a place, a role, a preset meaning for what you are doing. It is the loneliness of responsibility, of finally having the time you wanted, of finally being alone, but alone with the doubt, perhaps, that you are not who you wanted to be.

That is: a writer. As a writer, when your needs are met, your loneliness is about caring for your life, seeing its potential, and guiding its direction. As a writer, you will be lonely because you alone have your vision. The room is empty, the page is blank, and no one will swoop in to reassure you that you are doing the right work; no one will love your work in your place. You are your only original. You’ll have to do. You do.

As writers, we have to not only invent ourselves anew but the worlds in which we dream of living. The first story we write is not the one we set on the page: it’s the one where we tell ourselves about who we are, who we can be, and what we dare our lives to be. It is gradually telling ourselves Do you dare? instead of How dare you.

In that empty room, against time both endless and short, do you dare remember what the world told you to forget? Do you dare survive when you were told to die? Do you dare to ask yourself how you want to live? The confidence to offer worlds to others comes from the tenacity of following yourself into the sun. “[Suffering] is necessary for freedom from suffering,” Martin says, for that suffering is learning how to let go of who you once planned to be in order to become who you were told to abandon: yourself.

Yesterday, while responding to a prompt about food, I wrote about my father teaching me to make 番茄炒蛋 for the first time. The memories of tomatoes and eggs at that time now live with all the memories of tomatoes and eggs: eggs, but more perfectly. Tomatoes, but more perfectly. Even my father. I started writing the story I always write about him, the story I long told myself in order to live with being disowned. But the prompt encouraged me instead to remember this other side of him, the story of quiet patience while I put the eggs in the pan; how he sprinkled salt over the tomatoes and put the lid over them to steam. The memory of my father’s love appeared next to that rote memory of his fears. In the end, it is better, because I received him more as himself.

For there are always more sides to the story. Always more to go back for. When you become another version of yourself, you do not abandon your other selves. You become yourself more perfectly. And in this, you, alone, are perfect.


Notes

* from “The Untroubled Mind,” 1972.


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