There’s this quirk in my personality: I desperately need time alone.
Sometimes this desire—this need—gets exacerbated by daily existence here on the bustling island of Manhattan: partiers in the apartments just below and above us, commuting on the subway, work, and, like this weekend, a sold-out showing of a very long movie at the big theater in Union Square.
Two nights a week, e teaches jiu-jitsu and then I have three hours to myself. You’d think I’d be mighty productive, pounding out pages or reading my sentences aloud to check their cadence, even folding the laundry or doing the dishes. But no. Usually all I do—all I can do—is put on the TV, eat dinner, then lie prone on the couch, unwilling to move. I just shut off my mind, think absolutely nothing. It’s almost beautiful. Problem is I don’t really have time to be doing this. I can’t return phone calls. I can’t answer blog comments or emails or call the loan company or figure out why my retirement fund randomly sent me a check. I can’t do much of anything except stay in that one spot, doing my beautiful nothing.
Sometimes it feels like I’m gathering up all my energy to regenerate a limb.
I also take both days on the weekends as “alone time”—my writing days. While I am not physically alone, as would be next to impossible in this city, I am not talking to anyone, I am not here but inside my own head, running through my own thoughts. The idea of giving up a writing day for a social engagement, or for a trip to see family, is sometimes unbearable. It is rare that I make plans on weekend days. I need these days to stay sane, even if I just produce one sentence. In this way, I have alienated some friends and family. The people who are close to me in life understand this need of mine, though. E has never once complained that I spent every Saturday and Sunday—my only two days off—away from him. Sometimes we meet for lunch. My mom understands; yesterday she was asking me a question on iChat then said she should go because she knows this time is “precious.”
Something I read this weekend made me think of this, how it’s not so much a quirk of my personality but a quirk of a writer’s personality. Perfectly normal, you might say.
When I was at the book fair at the AWP conference, I picked up some free copies of a magazine called The Writer—oddly, something I’ve never read before. This weekend, I was paging through the February 2008 issue, figuring I’d leave it in the kitchen at my writing spot, to share with another writer who might want to page through it, when I found an article that was first published in 1964. It’s called “My Rules for Writing” by Patricia Highsmith.
“Writing is a way of organizing experience, or of organizing something imagined, of making something perfect and beautiful—even something as small as one sentence—in a world that may be at times chaotic, wretched, ugly, and upsetting.
“. . . When writing becomes a habit and a necessity, the writer need never give a thought to discipline, because writing is a pleasure. Then friends and relatives will say, ‘Ah, what discipline!’ on seeing the writer at work, not realizing that it would take more discipline than they dream of for him to spend the next few hours in their company.”
How that rings true for me, is that awful to admit?
I feel so much closer to my writing on a day when I don’t have anything else to do but that. A writing morning can be easily crushed with obligations: nine a.m. kills me. That’s the time I have to leave for the subway if I want to make it in to work on time. A phone call in the midst of a good spree can shatter everything. The question “What are you writing?” is best left—when it comes to me—unasked.
Here, Patricia Highsmith says:
“It is astounding how after days of being with people—sometimes out of necessity, social or economic—a good and exciting idea becomes pale and wan, vague and not worth writing. It is just as outstanding and thrilling when, after a day or so of solitude, silence, daydreaming and loafing, the same idea comes alive again, beautiful and bright like a wilted plant that has been given a good soaking in the rain.
“It takes a few years to learn this. It takes a lot of skill and scheming, make-believe and trickery, to preserve one’s enthusiasm through the hideous periods of reality, of people, of obligations, of non-privacy. It is sometimes necessary to avoid thinking about one’s story in the midst of people, because it can be crushed like a violet—a violet tossed on a subway platform during rush hour.”
So it is the start of a new week, that “hideous period of reality.” But this weekend, when I was alone, I sat frustrated with the scene I was trying to write and happened to glance out the window to see a white sheet of plastic from a construction site come loose and perform aerial stunts in the billowing wind twenty stories above Broadway. It was a dancing ghost in broad daylight. Then the ghost lost hold of its body and the sheet of plastic became again a sheet of plastic and fell in one swift swoop for the street below. There were windows everywhere, but it seemed, in that moment, that I was the only one watching.
I was perfectly, beautifully alone—even in a room surrounded by people, in a city surrounded by people.
Then I turned back to my computer, put my fingers on the keys, and wrote.