The Difference Between Alone and Isolated

Muse came and went and, as I wrote in my last entry, I returned to my writing desk.

There are subtleties of aloneness that I had not considered in my last post.  After the conference, I can see the difference: I am as alone as ever but far less isolated than I was a week ago.

I am more connected with writers and literary professionals than I was before Muse.  I have spent most of my writing time this week hardly writing at all, but maintaining correspondence with the people I met over the weekend.  Actually, between the twitter and the email and the status updates I started feeling like this–

I hit critical mass when I saw the news about Obama’s statement regarding his support for same-sex marriage.  I was also halfway through reading Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to Eat,Pray, Love where she considers western attitudes about matrimony as she herself prepares for her second marriage.   With my head filled with new trivial about the legal, emotional, and community implications of marriage, I couldn’t come up with a coherent statement to show my support for his support, or my disappointment in our culture as a whole that this is even a point of contention.

I had to step away from the computer, put my smart phone down, and walk away.

Where did I go?

The Museum of Fine Arts.  Really, what better place to unplug than a museum of hushed galleries filled with masterpieces that silently demand your attention.  Maybe demand is the wrong word.  I paused in a room filled with impressionist paintings where work by Van Gogh and Monet and Degas shared the walls with the same humility.  Like– “yeah– we’re here now.  We were made by these super cool artists that lived 100 years ago and are now respected all around the world and probably will be for a while.  It’s cool.”

I stopped in that particular room to think for a while.

A lot of writers complain that writing is isolating.  After hibernating all winter with my manuscript-in-progress, I know first hand how lonely writing can be.  But it doesn’t have to be.  I can recall a workshop I attended where the instructor asked students to list all the stereotypes associated with writers.  We came up with–

Troubled, pained, alcoholic, romantic, emotional, misunderstood, privileged, indulgent.

With that kind of model, it’s no wonder that writers isolate themselves from others. As tempting as it can be to continue working alone, where no one will judge or argue,  isolation can not be the exit for an artist.

At the conference last week, keynote speaker Richard Nash noted the reader, “completes the text.”  The same way Monet’s lily ponds needed me and the dozens of other people milling in the gallery to be seen and appreciated and understood, or even disregarded, a writer’s work is incomplete without the reader to act as a witness, taking action by giving the story a place to exist within his or her imagination.

In that way, Nash noted, books are much more like video games than movies.  We can passively watch movies, sponging in the story through visual and auditory details, but in books or video games we are required to take action, participate.

Chuck Palahniuk shared a similar sentiment during his Muse keynote speech three years ago.  Palahniuk did not use writing as an excuse to check out of the world, but a reason to be a part of it.  Saying yes to every party or reading or function he was invited to, Palahniuk would rush off to the bathroom to write little notes to himself about conversations or characters for future stories, but ultimately, built connections that would lead to a successful career.

There’s no better example of this than Amanda Palmer, who launched her kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 to promote her new album, and exceeded her goal in the first few hours.  With over 10,000 contributors, she has raised a half million dollars and still has the rest of the month to get more support.  All because she has worked her ass off, created wonderful music, and built meaningful connections with fans and fellow artists.

The lesson here is to jump in, do what you love, talk to people about it, share your work. Mistakes will be made, that’s a given.  Have thick enough skin to take criticism but stay open to feedback.  Give feedback to other artists and musicians and writers and entrepreneurs.  There’s always room for improvement and we can help each other.

Get connected, but don’t forget to unplug– there’s whole lot of paintings in the world, quietly waiting for you.