Friday, May 20, 2011

Loneliness is Good for the Writer's Soul

I first started writing stories when my third grade teacher showed us how as part of a creative writing assignment. I wrote stories (complete with illustrations) about a girl my age who lived in the woods. I wish I'd kept them.

I started reading a lot when I was in the third grade too. I read through almost all the books in my teacher's classroom library and earned several of those Book-It Pizza Hut gift certificates (remember those?). I especially enjoyed Beverly Cleary's books, because she seemed to understand just how little girls my age viewed the world.

I kept reading all the books I could get my hands on, and I kept writing stories and jotting down my ideas and feelings in journals too. One reason I read and wrote so much was because I didn't have any close friends in grade school. I grew up in a very small Midwestern town and went to an even smaller Catholic school; the cliques formed in the first grade and more or less stayed intact through senior year of high school.

I always hated recess, because I used to stand on the sidelines and watch the girls play tag or other games. I'd call out tentatively and hopefully, "Can I play?" Once in a while they'd say yes, and I'd run with them, happy that I got to be included. More often than not they'd say, "Sure, but after we finish this game," and I'd watch them keep playing until the bell rang and we had to go back inside.

I dreaded class field trips because of the bus rides. I usually didn't have anyone to sit with, so I was stuck sitting next to a teacher or by one of the "couples", who were never very happy to have me invade their "couple" time (yeah, like I was ecstatic about it).

I was one of the "smart" kids, so I wasn't completely ostracized. The other kids were usually nice to me when they needed help with their homework. And if one of the kids had a birthday party where the whole class was invited, then I would get invited too.

When I got to junior high and high school, though, kids started throwing parties where only the ones playing on sports teams or who were on the cheerleading squad were invited. In my hometown, sports was the main form of recreation, so if you weren't athletic, then you were "out".

So I played along for a while and joined several teams and even became a cheerleader for a while, even though I am one of the most physically uncoordinated people you will ever meet.

First of all, I almost always get hit by the ball, even when I'm watching a game; that was why I often would run away from the ball when it came at me, which really wasn't the best idea when I was playing in a game. Second of all, when it came to cheerleading, I couldn't do the splits, because I had this slightly irrational fear that I might rip my entire body in half if I did them. I also couldn't do cartwheels, because I was afraid I might land on my face and then the crowd in the bleachers would shrink back in horror at the sight of all the blood and think that they had stepped into a scary movie titled Klutzy Cheerleader Gone MAD.

The fact that I wasn't good at sports didn't help me make friends and only made even more people make fun of me. In both grade school and high school I was often the butt of other people's jokes. They'd laugh and say, "It's just a joke. Can't you take a joke?" I wasn't even allowed to feel bad about the fact that they didn't realize how much they hurt my feelings. Looking back now, I realize that I was overly sensitive sometimes, and I did take some things way too seriously. But sometimes, the other kids were just being jerks.

Since I didn't have any close friends to talk to when I was a kid, I wrote down a lot of what I was thinking and feeling in my journals. Being one of the "quiet" kids made me a lot more observant of the world around me.

For example, once I was walking around outside with a group of girls from my class; I think we were doing some kind of outdoor class project. I pointed at a bird hopping towards a tree and said to one of the girls, "Look at the way that bird is moving." She laughed and said, "I can't believe you even noticed that!" She told the other girls, who thought it was hilarious too. After that I kept most of my observations to myself, and wrote them down instead. I wrote down a description of the bird I'd seen, and I wrote down how I felt when the other girls laughed at me.

It wasn't until high school, when a few new students arrived, that I finally started making friends. I became a "drama geek", even though I was neither a good actor nor a good singer. That would probably be why I always ended up with the small roles, where I'd show up on stage and say three or four lines and then try not to trip as I made my exit. But even so, I finally made friends and was happy.

The only time I really felt left out in high school was when my friends started dating. My parents were very strict and said that I should focus on getting into a good college, not on getting a boyfriend. I was, however, allowed to go on "dates" to dances.

I don't really think of those nights out as real dates, though. I think of them more as "Let's all get dressed up in uncomfortable, expensive clothes that we will never wear again, and then let's all stand in a circle and show off the five dance moves that we know while we dance to interminably long songs like 'American Pie' and think to ourselves, For the love of God, does this song NEVER END? And then let's all start line-dancing (hey, this was the Midwest) or do the Macarena (hey, it was the 90s, and we all thought it was fun; it wasn't until later that we realized how stupid it looked). Then when the slow songs start up, let's all pair off and sway back and forth and try not to sweat on each other."

Because I didn't really date in high school, I stayed home on the nights that my friends and classmates went out with their boyfriends. I wrote stories about unrequited crushes, teenage bookworms like me, and I wrote down my dreams of escaping my hometown, even though I loved it because it was familiar and the only home that I knew at the time.

When I went to college in a bigger city, I felt freer to step outside of my shell because it was the first time in my life that I was living in a place where everyone didn't know me and every single embarrassing thing I'd ever done. It was easier to meet people during freshman year in particular, because everyone was new and eager to make friends. I went around with a group of girls and guys, but by sophomore year the big circle of friends became smaller; I stayed friends with the people I had more in common with.

At my college, a lot of people went off-campus on the weekends, usually because they went home to visit their families or boyfriends or girlfriends. I stayed on-campus, because my family lived in a different state. I started walking around the city and soaking up as much of it as I could.

A lot of the other college kids I knew were more interested in partying and going to bars. I went with them a few times. Once I went to a bar with a group of people. A few of the girls jumped up on top of the bar and started dancing. They beckoned to me to join them. I am not a very good dancer, and I didn't really want to advertise that fact to all the people watching. I also thought I might fall on top of the people watching and then there'd be all this beer and blood everywhere, and then I'd get thrown out of the bar. I remember looking around at all the people standing around drinking and checking each other out without talking to each other, and I remember how lonely and bored I felt. I made up an excuse and left early, and I wrote down a description of the scene for a story.

Now that I'm older, it's more difficult to meet new people and make friends. After college, most of the people I knew moved away to different cities for jobs or grad school. Now that I'm thirty, most of the people my age are married and have children now; they're busy with their families. Other people I know have full-time jobs and work long hours; they have little time for socializing. I don't get to go out a lot either, because I'm busy with school during the week. My retail jobs often require me to work on weekends when everyone else goes out.

But I do still have a small circle of friends from high school and college. We see each other once or twice a month. But to this day I am still a loner. I actually enjoy doing a lot of things on my own, like watch movies, explore interesting neighborhoods, go to museums on free admission days, watch plays at tiny theaters that sell inexpensive tickets, or eat lunch in cheap but good restaurants. I don't feel the need to always be with other people in order to do things that interest me. In college, I had this friend who would always ask me, "Who'd you go with?" whenever I told him about how I went to a concert or a new bookstore. He could never understand why I liked going on my own.

I read somewhere that solitude can be good for writers, because it makes us more observant of things that we might not have noticed if we were with other people. I think that that's true. And when you grow up feeling lonely a lot of the time, you can either spend a lot of time feeling sorry for yourself, or you can put that loneliness to good use. I don't think it's good to completely isolate yourself, and I don't do that anyway. But I think that the fact that I grew up feeling lonely a lot of the time fueled my writing. I don't think you can't be a good writer if you were/are popular, because you can still generate good material from the memories you make with your friends. Either way, I think it all depends on how you utilize your personality, childhood, and relationships with other people when you sit down to write.

What about you? What motivated you to start writing?


  1. I've been writing since I could read, because it's books that have always motivated me. Ok, and yes, loneliness.

  2. I could have written a very very similar post! I've always been kind of a loner, and my situations were similar with sports being a big thing and me not being athletic and people wanting to party when I wasn't that into it, and people thinking things I said were weird so I learned to just not say them. I'm still working on finding new ways to meet people and stuff. Also, recess was fun sometimes but I hated lunch time in high school and now I hate it at work!
    I don't know what motivated me to start writing though! I've always loved reading. I think the first real stories I wrote were in first grade. When we had free time, I never really knew what to do and the other kids were all doing stuff together, so I just did what I felt like, which was writing I guess! I was very into the Sweet Valley Kids books and also Babysitter's Club books, so I think some of my first ones had similar ideas to those. I liked the way they portrayed friendships because it was something that I wanted but had never experienced, so if I wrote about it then I could create it even if it was for my character and not me. I'm sure I didn't realize all that when I was about 6 or 7; I was just writing a story in pretty colored mrakers!

  3. Hi Karen,
    Books motivated me too, because they made me feel less lonely. I thought about writing a post about that sometime soon; I think that a lot of people read because the stories make them realize that they're not the only ones who think/feel that way.

    Hi perfumeandpromises,
    I read the Babysitters Club and the Sweet Valley Twins books too; when I was growing up I had a whole bookshelf dedicated to both series. I liked Elizabeth Wakefield in Sweet Valley Twins better than Jessica, but I didn't like how she let Jessica walk all over her. I heard there's a sequel of sorts out now, about how the twins are adults; I haven't heard a lot of good things about it, though, so I'm not sure if I want to read it.
    Lunch time at work can be stressful for me too. I've been in workplaces where people ate lunch at their desks, but there were always cliques who went out to eat together. I guess some things never change.

  4. I think a great writing exercise for you would be to write a story from a "social" girl perspective, rather than from your "lonely" girl perspective. I remember when I was in middle school and all "woe is me" about how everyone had everything and I didn't because of my mom/looks/money, I wrote a story about someone who had it all. I found it a few years later and it was insanely precocious, all about how none of the popular people were as happy as they seemed and how even when the main character suddenly finds herself recognized by everyone and wanted by everyone, it turns out to be more of a burden than she'd expected, and everyone had more issues than her "lonely" life ever had, blah blah blah.

    So yes, being "lonely" was a part of why I started writing. But I think it was borne more from the idea of being able to live a million different lives and being able to express that idea of a loneliness just being the human condition, no matter your circumstance, no matter how it seems to an outsider. To express the idea that we're all intrinsically the same, on some level.

  5. Hi mmarinaa,
    Thanks for the advice! Those are all really great ideas. Your idea in particular about writing from a social girl's perspective made me think about how I used to listen to the popular girls at school talk about their home lives. I was surprised that their lives weren't as perfect as I thought they were. I also liked your point about how writing allows us to live a million different lives, because we get to experience things in new ways through the characters we create.

  6. Solitude isn’t only good for writers, it's necessary. Some writers can function amidst chaos, lucky them, but most do much better when they can turn their inner radio to the right station and write.
    Look at the bright side of being single and being free to do what you want, when you want.

    You don't have a husband to answer to or have to get up in the middle of the night to change diapers or feed a squalling baby. You have freedom and a lot of your contemporaries wish they did also.

  7. Hi notesfromnadir,
    That's a great way to describe being single, and I totally agree with it. My membership recently expired, and I feel relieved to be taking a break from online dating. It does feel freeing to be single, in a way; I will keep trying to find someone, but for a few weeks I'm going to take a break and focus on other things (like work, teehee).

  8. Thank you so much for the comment. Unfortunately, I am one of those students who is disappointed with the A-. I place insane expectations on myself sometimes, but I am trying to be better. I have been meaning to ask, what classes do you teach?

    Also, I can really relate to this post... Although I'm not sure if "loneliness" is the word I would use for my experience, it was something similar. My entire life I have always felt somewhat separated from my peers and never fully able to fit in. I always felt that I thought and felt more than all of my friends; like I was on a different "plane". Much of that depth inside me came out through my writing.

  9. Hi Teddi,
    I teach freshman composition and literature classes. Ph.D. students typically start out by teaching composition (M.A. students who are able to get T.A.-ships also teach composition). Then, as they advance in the program, they are allowed to teach 100-level literature classes; some of them assist professors in the larger survey classes. It depends on the graduate program; sometimes T.A.s will start out by assisting professors, which means they lead discussion groups, hold office hours, and grade papers.

  10. I've always felt like an outsider too. While I always had a good friend or two to get through those years, I never thought I'd get through those years.

    And yes, I think those of us who felt outside became good observers. But even more, we're in-tune with our thoughts and emotions. And we can put them down on paper.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

  11. Hi Theresa,
    I heard that authors Anne Lamott and Jennifer Weiner said that children who are outsiders are often more likely to become writers. I think that junior high and high school can be very difficult; most kids just want to fit in during those years, but it isn't always easy to do so.