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Loners, Loneliness, Being Alone

by Stephanie Sides

This topic is a particularly tough one for me because Iím a very solitary type. Itís taken me the longest time to accept that preferring my own company is a good thing. My own counsel is becoming an increasingly good thing as I get older, as I become wiser and a better self-advisor, both in terms of what I should do and what I want to understand and need to explore.

Still, I always benefit from advice from others. And itís typically best served up when Iím not looking for it. Iíve benefited from the help of not just my contemporaries but from women who are 20 years older than me (in their 70s and beyond) as well as teenagers and my nephew when he was four. Everyone, Iíve learned, has insight to share. It benefits not always but frequently enough that it pushes me to try to listen to everyone.

Still, I struggle with reaching out for guidance because itís just not a natural thing for me to do.

My heart wars with my brain, though my heart usually wins. And I know from experience that this battle produces good things. So my heart perseveres in spite of what my brain may be telling it.

As an aspiring creative writer, I took the Robert McKee ďStoryĒ seminar in Los Angeles. I thought my mechanics were pretty good after years and years of professional writing in science and engineering, but I felt I needed guidance on how to tell a compelling story. This is a three-day, 12-hours/day exercise in learning what has constituted a good story over centuries and how to create one whether youíre a screenwriter, a novelist, a memoirist, a personal narrative writer, or anyone inclined to storytelling in one way or another.

Iíve been studying the art of writing, through this seminar and various recent readings Iíve done (most recently The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner): writers writing on writers, writers writing on writing, etc. Itís all very recursive but potentially useful nonetheless.

Now that I feel compelled to formally join this professional nest, Iím coming to recognize that the writerly type, for lack of a better term, tends Ė perhaps has Ė to be a loner Ė insecure, struggling, seeking approval. So owning up, Iím writing this column from that point of view.

Lerner, in particular, says that, for a writer, ďantisocial behavior is essential.Ē Busted, I think to myself. She continues, ďthe writer becomes more alive inside his work than in the real world.Ē This definition underscores the common loneliness not just of individual writers, but of writers as a community. Consider it a profession of loneliness. Especially when the Holy Grail seems to be publication, which typically eludes writers for years and years (Iím told on average 10 years for those who end up being successful), if not forever.

This calls out to me to draw a distinction between loneliness, a condition by choice and personal inclination, and being alone, which in my mind constitutes the human condition. That is, unavoidable.

Letís take the latter one first. Ultimately each of us is alone. We come into the world that way and depart the same. So itís a good idea to get clear about that.

This reality, because itís so heavy, is addressed by societyís immense pressure to couple up, beyond reproducing the species, even at the expense of incredible unhappiness, long-term frustration, and horribly lived lives. I see them everywhere about me.

Itís often done in the name of continuing to live a lifestyle one has become accustomed to.

Iím amazed at what people will tolerate to be taken care of, perhaps less often to take care of someone else. Typically, in both cases, this happens because the consequences of ending the relationship would be too catastrophically expensive. In my mind, thatís a choice made by not making a choice.

Thatís a human motivation I donít understand. It seems too high a sacrifice to make in terms of what matters to my life.

But I was also too smart to ever get divorced; it would never happen to me, I told myself. But it did.

It was one of those ďnever say neverĒ kind of lessons. I was duly humbled.

So I think itís a good thing to learn how to be, and accept being, alone. Being alone presents as one of the few real opportunities we have to be revealed to, and understand, ourselves. That and through conflict with others Ė an unfortunate but universally enduring part of life. As I learned formally in the ďStoryĒ seminar.

The trick is how not to succumb to ongoing loneliness. We all, after all, are lonely periodically. That, too, is a fact of the human condition. What Iím talking about is ongoing, enduring loneliness without end, loneliness that debilitates.

This is where, I believe, force of will comes into play. Itís a choice to be lonely or not. And choices lead to changes in behavior lead to actions lead to changes in circumstances lead to...

Those that tend to (or need) a loner existence can use that to advantage in their work, other endeavors, or what they might consider their core of existence, but then they can choose to reach out to complement that existence.

Unless they take a sometime artsy attitude that theyíre ďfatedĒ to be lonely. Which I think is bullshit.

I can see situations where loneliness can be used for creative, if very painful, good. Itís all about the intent so, again, weíre back to the issue of choice.

In my own case, a big part of my loneliness, I now realize, had to do with myprofessional community. I felt forever an incidental outsider, in many ways never taken seriously because I was the promoter of the world, not the inside doer. The one without the degree.

So with a new focus on writing, Iím seeking a new community of what I hope will be more like-minded souls. And Iím very hopeful about how this will work out.

I actually worry most about those that cannot be alone. Because they never allow themselves the time or solitude to really understand themselves. I worry that these people are afraid of what theyíll find or donít appreciate the richness that lies therein and how that will engage them and help them move forward in their lives, help them get over the beneficial discomfort of this investigation. Itís a shame, really. Because that unexplored terrain is likely to yield things that the world will be better for, certainly creatively.

Once oneís found oneís niche or, perhaps better, while one is in the process of finding that niche, itís important to reach out to those in the circle that surrounds you.

For those inclined toward the solitary, like me, itís not a comfortable thing to do.

I occasionally get together with friends and colleagues from my past professional life and I find that theyíre still living that life while Iíve moved over to a new one in parallel. At least thatís how it feels to me.

I want to call out to them and say, ďcome on over where itís nicer.Ē But of course it makes no sense for them to make that leap. Iím sorry about losing connection with those I felt so close to in the past. But that also oddly refreshes me because it means Iíve made the change I wanted to make and that Iím now more fully ready to explore. This is my glass half-full.

So Iím seeking out readers, writers, editors, publishers, story tellers, screenwriters, artists, whomever I think will help me move more fully into this new exciting realm. And itís mostly a kick.

But not always. Inevitably, and sooner than I would have wished, I encounter the clichť here that any specialized community has. The early contender is the full-of-himself, working-in-Hollywood kind of fellow. Still, heís someone to listen to from afar, as I gain courage to make his acquaintance and find out what his life is like. He tells others in my hearing range that heís older than he looks, so that ought to lead somewhere; I can relate to the ďageĒ thing. But then he leaves, misses the last day of the ďStoryĒ seminar because heís going to a ďwrapĒ party for the movie heís working on just before most of the staff ship off to Australia for the ďlocation shoot.Ē My good intentions are thwarted.

Still the intention of sociability (mostly without judgment) is a good thing. The only other problem is lack of grounding in the new world. Thatís what can stymie those that courageously, albeit naively, want to change fields. An open heart and acceptance of being dismissed can work wonders, especially as one gets older and oneís skin gets tougher. At least I hope so. Iím not giving up yet.

And, as I hear and read, fortitude is the master. Thoroughness, not shortcuts, is what Robert McKee recommends. All it takes is good, honest, hard work. And having a clearer idea of what you want.