Why I write -- sharing solitude


Smeerp of Wonder
Staff member
Oct 13, 2008
West Sussex, UK
In 1991, I went to Canada for a three-week trip with a friend. He ran low on money a couple of weeks in, so went for the cheaper option of travelling to Boston, while I got the train across to Vancouver for a few days. On one of those days I hired a car and drove across Vancouver Island to Long Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park. I'd picked up the recommendation from the Michelin Green Guide, but also I just wanted to get as far west as possible, and Long Beach was about as far west as you could get because the next land was the Far East.

I reached it with about two hours of daylight left. It turned out to be a vast expanse of wet sand sloping to a sea of gentle breakers, backed by a temperate rainforest, and at the high tide mark was masses of driftwood, whole trees sculpted by sea and weather into fantastical tentacled shapes. Everything was overlaid with a haze illuminated by the mellow, lowering sun. And it was deserted. I wandered around for an hour or so, absorbing it and taking photos, and in all that time the only people I saw were a couple walking their dog, who when they passed me turned out to have Yorkshire accents. It was amazingly tranquil, despite the noise of the distant breakers, but the scale of the place, the distance I'd travelled to get there, and its situation on the globe, all inspired a sense of awe too, and the combination with the tranquility was very affecting.

In the thirty years since, I've several times mentioned that place to people and tried to get across how it felt to be there, but it never seemed to really work. Then a few weeks ago I was at a neighbour's garden party and met one of her friends, a guy in his eighties who'd lived his early life in Vancouver. And it turned out he knew Long Beach, and when I recounted my experience and mentioned the haze, he said, with a brightness in his eyes, "Yes, that's it exactly". And I got quite emotional, because at last after thirty years here was someone who got one of my most intense and formative experiences, because he'd shared it, albeit maybe decades earlier.

I thought about that garden-party encounter the other day, when I reread the first few chapters of a story I started back about 2014. It features a young man isolated by the fact that he magically screws up any digital device he comes near, and who lives alone in a caravan at the edge of a coastal nature reserve in Scotland. What surprised me was that the natural description in that story seemed to me to have more power than in either of my series, even in the specifically nature-themed YA books I'm writing now. It occurred to me that it isn't any better as prose, but that my nature writing always feels more intense and effective, to me at least, in scenes where the protagonist is in solitude and feeling alone, as if the absence of human company turns their attention more intently on their surroundings.

And then I wondered if it was also true of me that I relate to the natural surroundings (or maybe any surroundings) more intently when alone. Or maybe that just happened to be the case in my youth and that's what I'm relating those written passages back to.

I've never really been sure what I wanted to achieve by writing. There were several possibilities I could get on board with, such as telling an entertaining story, giving life to invented characters and worlds, or communicating my love of nature, but nothing very specific. When I started out at about 25, it was because I couldn't find anything to read as an adult that did the same for me as Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising (the book rather than sequence) did for me at the age of eleven. A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that this was a hopeless ambition anyway, simply because the state of being a child, and the way one absorbs new things, is so different to adulthood. But now I think I didn't realised what TDIR *had* done for me, which was to communicate the numinous quality of solitude in nature, exemplified by when Will finds the rest of his family asleep and has to go out alone into a snow-covered world that is new to him. And not nature, but the depth of history sunk into the land itself.

I now think that I've always subconsciously wanted to do similar with my writing: share intense experiences I have in relation to the world (mostly the natural world, but also the past) and which I can't share in any other way. I can't share them at the time with other people, because the intensity of those experiences depends on solitude (unless you're with someone you're in love with, I think). And just trying to share them by speech doesn't work as well, because the other person won't experience it *as* me, they'll experience themselves hearing me talk about it. But by giving similar experiences to fictional characters whom the reader "becomes" (I very much like Grant Morrison's term "fiction suit"), I can get the reader to experience something like it themselves. Or at least that's the idea.

The question that bothers me is whether moving away from isolated protagonists, to ones more concerned with complex plot and interpersonal relationships, means the natural description will inevitably feel less intense to a reader, or whether it only does so for me because it lacks that connection to the solitude in which I experienced what I'm trying to convey. I've been told that even in the "non-loner" books, the natural description is still one of the strongest elements. But something I found when recently doing an editing pass on the first YA nature-themed book makes me wonder. There were two scenes in that book that linked with those "spirituality of nature" ideas, one from each of the main characters. One I've always loved, and came out perfect first time; the other I liked the idea of, but have never managed to get quite right. The first is from the POV of a character who, despite not being a natural loner, has just gone through an experience of intense solitude, but the second was from a POV whose character and thoughts at that moment are quite sociable. Having made all the connections I've just written about, I realised that section didn't work, and got rid of it.

I wonder if any of this strikes a chord with anyone?
I certainly relate to the appreciation of solitude. I live on 14 acres in one of the more sparsely populated bits of Cornwall (apparently the population of the parish is below 200, and our postcode covers less than a dozen houses, spread along two miles or so of road), and I can go for days without seeing anyone other than the Biskitetta.

I also note that I often write loner characters, and am currently writing four separate POVs, each of which is in some way isolated or disconnected, but rather than writing about them in solitude, I am very much trying to write about them interacting with people and situations far away from their naturally isolated nature. Whether that's working is another matter, but I don't have your drive to write about physical solitude, perhaps because it's not something that gives me an intensity of experience but quite the opposite - solitude is calming and comfort whereas crowds are the opposite.

It sounds to me that you are driven to convey your passion for solitude in the natural environment and it's impact on you, whilst I seem to write about characters who would be happier in your empty natural setting but are forced to cope with people.

Thinking back to one of my first jobs, I had an office all to myself, which was quite handy as I was working with a large number of documents, and some of those were also physically large on pages up to A0 in size, so it was good to have space to lay everything out. It also suited me because I was on my own and able to get on with the job with minimal distractions. Then came the sweep of management ideology, and consolidating resources, which involved shoving everyone into an open-plan office, which I found stressful and distracting, and which certainly impacted on me getting my job done. All subsequent jobs were also in open-plan offices up until the magic moment of downsizing, "retiring" and moving to the edge of nowhere in Cornwall eighteen years ago. My boss at the time told me that I would be bored in six months and wanting my job back, but he was wrong about that.
The only thing Van island inspired in me, was a fervid desire to move back to the mainland.
I have stayed on Long Beach a couple of times. Equally magnificent watching the storms come in over the sea in a grey day or watching the sunset.
I think nature should be enjoyed in solitude, without noisy humans who by their presence disturb what nature represents, a quiet and uncomplicated world, a balm for the restless soul, a feast for the eye.
But that's something different than experiencing solitude in the 'unnatural' human world, amidst people, where solitude easily threatens to become loneliness.
I am single and often alone, without any problems. I know how to entertain myself. It is only occasionally that I experience loneliness. And I know that when, if, I need someone to talk to or need company, family isn't far away. But curiously, a walk alone in a natural surrounding helps me more that the socially awkwardness I often feel when I am with people.
None of this would appear in my writings. I think the opposite is more likely, that I write about what I wished I was or had what I lacked. Not about what I experience, not about myself.