Alone But Not Lonely

September 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm (Writing) (, , , )

All moved into the new place, I’ve spent most of today trying to set up the library in my office. It’s not much yet. Most of the books are still in boxes, waiting to go to their homes on the empty shelves, while others are stacked in piles on the floor in groups of letters so I can alphabetize them. There are a couple separated from their fellows- a copy of Hamlet sitting by my chair, an architecture/religion book by the bed- but most of them are in view of the empty cases with the shelves stacked against their sides. All of the office supplies are in a similar state of transition, packed away with only a few pieces free to be used. The walls are bare, the cork and white boards leaning against the wall, and the desk is littered with the odds and ends that come of trying to unpack. A screwdriver, a hammer, a pair of scissors, packing tape, small things that never properly fit into boxes.

It isn’t an office yet, but it’s on its way.

It has potential.

Most importantly, it has a door that closes, and only one chair.

Writers are a strange breed, largely because what we do is simultaneously isolated and crowded. We sit for hours in a room, on a bench, at a table in Panera, staring at notebooks or computers, often with headphones in to filter away the outside world. We’re in our heads far more than we are in the space around us. We go for hours at a time without talking to other living human beings. We hole ourselves away, to plan, to draft, to revise, and our family and friends roll their eyes and let us be because they know our habits. We have bursts of connection- collaboration with partners or sounding boards, critique partners, conversations with agents and editors and bloggers- but most of the time, it’s a writer and a Thing.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that writing has a reputation as being a very lonely sort of profession.

It isn’t, though. Even when we emerge from the office craving simple human contact with ANYONE, even the rowdy pot-smokers on the stairway, it’s not because we’ve been alone or lonely. It’s because we’ve spent hours surrounded by people we can’t reach out and touch.

Far more than I think we ever successfully translate onto the page, our characters are real people in our heads. One of the joys of having my own apartment means I don’t need to worry about weirding out a roommate when I have conversations with my characters.

No, seriously, conversations. I talk with them, testing out their voices, listening to the patterns of their speech. My background is in music and theatre, so the sound of a thing is very important to me. When we read, even if we’re not consciously dissecting the language, we notice when sentences are ungainly or dialogue seems awkward. I like to read my stuff out loud- not just the dialogue, but the narration as well- to hear how it reads, to make sure it’s smooth. One of the things I look for is speech patterns.

Speech patterns change from person to person, taking into account personality, vocal habits, regionality, education, hell, even what they like to read or watch on TV. (For instance, you can always tell when I’ve been watching BBC.) What we say, and how we say it (where we put pauses or emphasis, even the order in which we string the words together) is distinctive, so one of the best ways I learn my new characters is to simply talk to them. I play with the sounds, and in so doing, I usually learn a great deal.

The more real the characters become, the more they’re able to stand on their own feet as people, the less lonely we as writers become even sitting alone in our workspaces. They talk to us, they share their backgrounds and their personalities, they tell us where they’re going and how they’re getting there, and eventually they reach a point where they just don’t shut up. We come to know these people better than we know most of our friends (that’s not a bad thing- everyone deserves their privacy, and characters rarely have any from the writer once they breach the levee). We’re the only person sitting in the room- we’re surrounded by people no one else can see.

We may be socially isolated while we’re writing, but we’re far from lonely.

Until next time~

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