Isolation and the Writer – A Social Distance Essay

If you think of yourself as a writer, you probably think that this time of pandemics and quarantine is just the thing you need to start that novel or maybe finish. Writers are moving into a period of unprecedented history. Writers know the value of their time and the space they need to write. The rest of the world – is anxious. 

Socializing and being connected to people is a part of our jobs, our friend groups, and family. As people begin to rethink their lives around this outbreak of flu, social distancing and selecting to live a quiet, remote life for a few week (forced or not), will be a difficult proposition for the people around you. In our culture, we have used isolation as punishment. Leaving people out or creating a cancel culture is considered terrible social terms to live in. People who violate the terms of Twitter are put in Twitter jail or facebook prison for a period of time. This is all social isolation. We don’t value sitting and reading a book for three hours (because no one really has the time anymore). In the book How to Disappear: Notes on invisibility in a time of transparency, Akikko Busch so aptly discusses visibility and invisibility in the world. It is a brilliant discussion of why being invisible is just as important and relevant as being visible digitally and physically.  “It has become routine to assume that the rewards of life are public and that our lives can be measured by how we are seen rather than what we do.” This visibility that makes us public isn’t just a physical space, but a technological presence of posting our food pictures, sharing social gatherings, and posts about travel. But that is changing and writers are good ambassadors to help people understand the value of reading a book that will change their perspective, share the value of working on something (anything) uninterrupted for a long time. 

Fiction, poetry, and storytelling are fostering an understanding of imaginary inter-relationships in our imagination. We know that we can be deeply moved and changed by watching a good movie or reading a book we really are excited about. Sometimes, those stories are meant to change us, and sometimes they do it slowly, without an immediate impact. Busch talks about the value of imaginative conversations, ways we talk to ourselves as a way to practice speaking at an interview, discussing relationships, or just trying out a new idea. “We can have simulated discussions with real people who are not in the room. We can be deeply effected by fiction we’ve read. Something that is not real can have a real impact and foster a real emotion reaction.” In terms of your imagination and your ability to think and interact – these isolated practice sessions are just as important to your brain and your ability to see the world. 

Writer may feel better about thinking in terms of life as an invisible playground. They may even have a massive set of skills for this kind of interaction. Writers can manipulate and change scenes and find the moment things are relevant, important, and new. They can practice (in their minds) scene that change over and over again until they find the optimal vision that will draw out emotion and change the way people see the world. Do you have that power? I do, and I use it ALL the time. Anyone who says they have their best ideas in the shower are practicing this power in the known isolation of the shower.  

Maybe it is trite to pull out book like Love in the Time of Cholera, or Albert Camus The Plague, but it is also assuring to find writers moving through these ordeals, (real or imagined) and finding out something universal about solitude, isolation, and the human condition. In Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, she experience the Spanish Flu and the result is a significant shift in the world as she knows it. It is stunning, beautiful, sad, and perhaps one of the most moving statement of shifting from innocence to experience in literature. 

As writers, we may secretly relish this time of sequestering ourselves, more time writing, more time dreaming. It isn’t the writers of the world I am worried about, it is all those who have yet to discover how enriching it can be to settle, to focus, and to create. We have to continue the process of introducing friends and family into deep reading, critical thinking, field walks, beach explorations and all the magical ways we find inspiration through solitude. From our worries and our vision of the world – will come great stories, great vision, and a sense that we are all capable of great things even in solitude and with some social distance. 

Busch, Akiko. How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency. Penguin Books, 2019.

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