After months or years of heroic solitary labor, the Lone Writer emerges, reeling, with a stack of pages: a literary masterpiece. Published, it becomes immortal.
The image of the Lone Writer, the burner of midnight oil, the solitary genius, haunts us, but it's misleading. In a word, it is false. The Lone Writer is like the private detective in his trenchcoat and fedora, or the Texan with a six-shooter and spurs: simplified, stylized images, created for entertainment. We know better than to confuse them with real people. But belief in the Myth of the Lone Writer lives on, even in the minds of writers, and unlike our images of detectives or Texans, this image can destroy people. It destroys writers.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a Lone Writer.
-But, but! Some great writers of the past actually worked that way. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. Right?
-No. Poe was a magazine editor. He spent his days reading other people’s writing.
-Well, Ernest Hemingway wrote at his stand-up desk alone in the woods.
-He was alone while he wrote, but he had a great editor advising him and keeping him on track: Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. Hemingway called Perkins his most trusted friend.
-Well, Thoreau, then.
-Thoreau’s mentor, author Ralph Waldo Emerson, opened his home to Thoreau and at times supported him financially. Walden Pond was on Emerson’s property. And even at Walden, Thoreau was not always alone: His book describes the many visitors he had while living there.
-Sylvia Plath wrote the Ariel poems alone at 4:00 a.m. while her children slept.
-Those poems didn’t come out of thin air. For seven years Plath was married to British poet Ted Hughes. All that time they were a team. They read and critiqued each other’s poems. They had shared interests. Plath typed Hughes’ manuscripts and got him published. Hughes gave Plath writing exercises when she felt blocked, and inspired her to write a voice play and children’s books. Each deeply influenced the other.
-Emily Dickinson never left home.
-She asked the biggest poetry editor in the U.S. to critique her poems and come visit her. (He did.) They corresponded for 25 years.
-Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, was a collaboration with a writer named Charles Dudley Warner. Look, why are we focusing so much on writers? Why don’t we focus on what they wrote? That's what's important.
-I think we want to figure out how they achieved what they did.
-One thing is sure: They didn’t do it being Lone Writers.Because Lone Writers hold themselves apart from the world, there are all kinds of writing and publishing opportunities they will never hear about. They forego the chance that someone will suggest, for their manuscript, a really great title, or a better ending. They will never meet someone who knows a friend-of-a-friend who can help the writer get a grant, or get on the “New and Notable” list. However, it will be bitterly clear to the aspiring Lone Writer that other writers benefit from such “connections.”
Literary history, like art history, is full of artists’ circles and groups and movements and hot spots, as on the Left Bank in Paris, or Harlem in the 1920s. Can it honestly be said that because Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston worked together, or because Van Gogh and Gaugin were friends, they sacrificed their originality and integrity? Artists of all kinds need a community. Friends. A circle. Colleagues. A support group. A network. Sponsors. Grantors. Accomplished writers have always had these things – or they figured out how to get them.
- Gertrude Stein had Alice B. Toklas and a weekly salon for artists and writers at her house.
- Virginia Woolf had Leonard Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle.
- T.S. Eliot had as his mentor Ezra Pound.
- Jack Kerouac had Neal Cassady and a bunch of poet friends.
- The Brontë sisters had each other.
How do I know all this? I used to be a Lone Writer.