1.39 How to Be Alone
TORONTO, ONTARIO: A few weeks ago, I was reading the Richard Yates short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. The cover of the book showed a wooden staircase in a house with a person sitting at the top of the stairs with head in hands. The person looked so small. Never had the name and cover of a book elicited such responses.
The librarian, who checked the book out for me, slid it across the counter. Her eyes scanned the surface and she asked, “Are you sad?” I had no answer and felt a certain amount of consternation she would ask such a personal question. Besides, she already formed the answer in her head. She might be my librarian but we’re not that close. Friends who glanced at the title, sighing with emphasis, referred to my natural inclination towards reading material that in their opinion seems to promote depression. Strangers on the subway, who normally don’t regard me with so much as a first glance, let alone a second, raised eyebrows that spoke to me of pity.
The title of this entry comes from the book of essays How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. In an interview discussing the book, Franzen explained that the collection was about someone who felt utterly alone, depressed and isolated. In the end, he was still alone but comfortable enough with his solitude to understand that nothing was wrong with it. He was simply letting himself be at peace with his natural inclination towards autonomy.
There is a difference between being alone and loneliness.
How to be alone as the title of the book is a statement. For the purposes of this entry, I’d like to turn it into a question. The essays in the book are interesting enough, but it really was this title that captured my imagination. By turning this statement into a question, I asked myself what it means to me.
How to be alone.
This statement speaks to an unapologetic impulse to be true to certain aspects of my personality. The first thing that came to mind was work. I have difficulties understanding how to separate my life and my work. One reflects the other. My work is my life.
The label of artist has never sat comfortably in my mind. Negative societal images of laziness and the inability of sustaining a purposeful place in the world are conjured in my head. In the old fashioned sense of the word, I have an image of the artist as alone.
I worked as a video editor for over ten years. The times I felt most comfortable while editing occurred when a tight deadline was fast approaching and an overnight shift turned from a voluntary choice to a necessary requirement. I locked myself in the office, turned out any lights that weren’t needed and worked quietly and steadily with the glow of the computer screen on my face. The sound was different at night. It was not silent but the noise of every day interaction faded away. The light hum of the computers and the wind blowing outside and the voices from the videos were the only company.
The filmmaker as artist is difficult to define. The collaborative aspect of filmmaking works in opposition to the traditional artist creatively working in solitude. It is simply a matter of facts: One person cannot perform every position required to produce a film. And they shouldn’t have to. Every role on a film shoot is diluted in order to serve the overall project. Learning to work with other people and collaboratively completing a piece of work provided invaluable experiences. You might write a screenplay, but someone else has to make the movie. In the end, a film is no more a sole authorial product than any other large-scale project such as building a bridge or skyscraper.
The problem wasn’t the people or filmmaking or editing. The problem was me. The problem was my difficulty in accepting a truthful aspect of my personality. Although it was ingrained, I could not perceive of a localized comfortability in being alone.
The problem persisted and bled into other areas of my life. At this point, there was no definition of what the problem was or how it should be defined. I sought distraction in other people and experiences. This was a time when I was not concerned with being alone but with loneliness. A time when I began to understand the difference between the two. A person does not come to comprehend loneliness more when they are surrounded by people and feel completely, utterly and hopelessly alone.
I wanted some space and some time. I dropped out of everything. By removing myself from the regular routine, I reasoned, the problem would be sorted out. The more I thought about it, the more it grew into an abstract object that seemed wholly removed from me. I could distance myself or at least be able to place this object aside and point to it and say, “There’s the problem. Not me. That.” Alleviate personal responsibility.
In reality, there was no problem. There were external forces exhibiting all the elements that would make me happy. The problem, if there ever was one, was that I ignored the important voice, a voice that was getting lost amidst the noise: My own.
And so, I certainly don’t make things easy for myself. Deciding that I wanted to be a writer was the easy part. Difficulties lay in the doing. There is an assault on the written word. ‘They’ consider journalism, newspapers, magazines and novels as dinosaurs dying off. They’ve been dying forever, so I think they’re not going anywhere soon. That’s besides the point. In order to make people believe in my words, I have to believe them myself. Through writing, I am learning how to be alone. It is not always comfortable, most of the time it is quite the opposite.
Writing is an occupation that thrusts you out of synch with the normal flow of traffic. Writing is not easily definable. It does not fit into a well-tailored description and therefore, neither does the writer. I am not asking for sympathy. This is of my own volition.
Two years ago, I was sitting in a boardroom at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. We discussed a potential project with the artistic community that developed programs with members of Workman Arts.
A man walked into the room. Scruffy-looking. Dirty. The air in the room changed. He mumbled that he needed to speak with one of the employees in the meeting. The man did not bring violence with him, just a feeling that something was not right. He said, “You see, he’s following me again and he wants to kill me.” He said this in a very calm voice. He said it as fact.
When I left the meeting that day, I couldn’t help thinking he was the loneliest person in the world. None of us could understand his pain. We would never know if he walked into our reality or we were allowed into his. He was isolated. He was alone. What saddened me was that he didn’t know he was alone. Yes, he was suffering from a mental disorder, but how many of us walk this thin line. Think of how little it would take for a mind to snap.
By selfishly using this man and his situation, I examined my own determination and desire to operate within society but also be okay with the times that I am alone. There is a tendency to believe that being alone is a sign of social deficiency. Being alone = isolation. Isolation = alienation. Alienation = loneliness. Loneliness = being alone. I just can’t buy into this.
My usual default positions of guilt and self-pity are superficial. Guilt is a way of thinking too much about something until a numbness appears. Self-pity is a form of denial. The guilty desire to express myself mixed with the self-pitying nature to deny the relevance of my own thoughts cancel each other out. This only left me in a state of stasis. One or both of these elements had to go in order to breathe again. There was a life waiting and one of relevance.
How to be alone. At this point, the answer is elusive. Perhaps it is best to revert this back to a statement. For now, being alone means understanding the difference between valuable solitude and wasted hours. There is a time to be around people and there is a time to be quietly alone.
The definition will continually change. Most likely evolve as soon as I post this entry. Whether being alone is utilized in my aspirations as a writer or for some other means, I cannot deny my natural tendencies. Nor should anyone else.
I have written in the past of the importance to tell stories. I can admit now that I wrote those words because by writing, perhaps my belief in them will come to fruition. Perhaps the confusion will end. Perhaps I could not only say or write words, I could believe them. And I could listen to my own words and understand their relevance to my own life. And I could say to myself, “It’s okay to be alone.” And I could clip this further and not even say the words but have them transition into something intangible. Internal. Something that is not words spoken by someone else or even words that I tell myself, but some kind of awareness that is simply a feeling that floats along within me and around me and both connects me to others and distinguishes ourselves as our true selves. The essence of an idea.