She sat in the second row amidst a noisy gaggle of fourth graders. She was petite and olive-skinned, and her dark eyes measured me as I paced back and forth and pontificated about matter ethereal and authorial. I could tell, from her sharp, sensitive answers to my questions, that stories were seared into her soul, branding her for a calling that perhaps even she did not yet recognize.
After her classmates had exhausted their inquiries about my writing, my age, my dog’s name, and the magical source of all ideas, she quietly raised her hand:
“When you were our age, were you ever lonely?”
Her eyes were so direct, her question stated so simply and honestly, that it was perfectly clear what she was asking: Were you ever like me? Is it possible to feel so alone, so different from everyone else, and still grow up to be the kind of someone I want to be?
I couldn’t, in that room full of a hundred children, run to her and throw my arms around her. And I doubted very much that she was the only one who harbored such a question in her heart. So I answered her as simply and directly as she had asked: “Yes. Yes, I was lonely. I was so shy and quiet that boys would tease me in order to see who could get me to talk. And yet in my books I found friends. As I read and wrote stories I became other people, I went on adventures, and I found out more about who I was.”
I wanted to tell her: The loneliness will end. You will find your place.
I wanted to tell her: The world is full of lonely people, and someone else is looking for the friend that only you can be.
But those are only half-truths. It would have broken my heart to speak the whole truth to her or to the nine-year-old version of myself that I saw in her eyes: You will continue to be lonely for a long time, and your loneliness is the furnace in which fine metal will be forged, and out of that place of inner fire will rise your art. For you will be a writer someday, and words will come from those places in you where speech is muffled and still.
* * *
I have no idea what it is like to be an outgoing, extroverted writer. I can only speak from the perspective of someone who scores 99% on the introvert scale—who still, after having had many so many dear friends in my life, pushes constantly against a wall of shyness, who still feels lonely in the midst of loving community. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the feeling of being the Picassoesque face in every crowd—slightly disjointed, slightly askew, poised on the edge of normal but too cockeyed to be cool. You would like me, surely, if only my left ear were not hanging crookedly off the end of my tongue.
But along this introverted journey I have learned a thing or two about loneliness and community and art.
When I was four years old, my pre-school teacher told my parents never to let me close myself up in my room by myself—because she could already see the tendency in me to get lost in my own mind, to bury myself in my imagination. (My parents didn’t tell me about this conversation until I was an adult. Growing up, I assumed it was a universal rule that children were not allowed to close the doors of their bedrooms.) That teacher was prescient; she saw the warning signs of a lifelong struggle.
I had no right to be a lonely child. My family was extremely close and unfailingly supportive. I did not look different from my peers or even act much different (except for being quiet). The real problem was that I was too deep for my own skin. I was always standing apart from the world, analyzing it, taking it in, mulling over it. My thoughts, questions, fears, and dreams were buried so far under the surface that I did not know how to scale that chasm back to the land of other people again. It was like pulling a heavy bucket of words up from the bottom of a well; there was just too much. It was too hard.
Sometime around age thirteen, I discovered the following poem in a literature textbook:
A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
I didn’t know who Walt Whitman was. I had to look up promontory, filament, ductile, and gossamer in the dictionary. But I knew that this poem was about me, as surely as if my name had been written at the top. I was that spider. The poem expressed precisely how it felt to grow up as a shy, overly thoughtful girl. I hugged it to my heart all through high school.
And then, in college, my favorite professor told me something that was the complementary truth to my pre-school teacher’s warning: “The time you spend alone with your books and your art is not wasted, and it is not selfish. That solitary learning and growing will make you a better friend, a better wife, a better mother, a better teacher.” This acknowledgment and affirmation of my introversion, like the Whitman poem, made me start thinking about aloneness as the necessary fire that launches us into community.
I have heard so many people make fine distinctions between solitude and loneliness, saying that in the solitude of creativity we are alone but not lonely. Because of course solitude is the incubator of a writer, or any artist. It forces you to develop a rich interior life. The mastering of an art—and the nurturing of those disciplines of contemplation from which art grows—requires vast amounts of “alone time.” Stories and poems emerge from silence. Their birthplace is a quiet gasp of wordless wonder.
Except that so often the solitude of art-making is lonely. Deeply, painfully lonely. And I think somehow it must be, to a certain extent. If you are an artist by nature, then art comes out of that place in you that cannot be shared with another human being except in this creative form. It gives a voice to inner things that otherwise could not be spoken, inner things that make you who you are in your truest moments. Flannery O’Connor said, “The quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from.” Peculiarity and aloneness. Don’t most of us feel that way? And yet this sense of disjointedness and isolation can be the very source of the peculiar word that we alone can speak. If we were perfectly “normal,” perfectly loved, perfectly understood, perfectly aligned with the contours of the world we find ourselves occupying, would there be anything left to say?
There comes a time in our childhood or adolescence when we learn that the world is broken. Not only that, but we are broken, like Humpty Dumpty, and we cannot put ourselves back together again, even when we are surrounded by well-meaning royal helpers. Loneliness is the gaping hunger of the cracks.
But the grace of art is that it thrives in broken soil. And that is why, when I saw that fourth-grade girl, full of loneliness and imagination, I saw the seedling of an artist. I saw someone who, like me, had a secret room inside. Who probably, like me, was longing for someone else to come and fill it. But no, I thought as I looked at her, seeing my own nine-year-old self, if another human being could come into that inner room and fill it up, you would stay there forever, never emerging from the cocoon of your own dreams. The fact that no one can come into that room, but you still need to share it, forces you take the precious things in that room with you and leave it—and that is a creative process, a movement outward.
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself . . .
Here is the paradox: You cannot make art except by being alone, and yet you cannot be an artist in isolation. Along with that wonder born in solitude comes an irrepressible urge to turn to someone else and tell him or her about it. The creative impulse in you speaks two things. First: Make this. Then: Share this. Do not hold it tightly to your chest. Cast it out of you and let it fall. Then cast it out again, and again, Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold.
I have come to believe that in order for art to be art, it must be given: creativity is at its heart an act of self-giving, and it is given in gratitude for having received something. It is an act requiring great courage—courage to stand in that lonely place and at the same time to be conscious that one is surrounded by faces, and to be constantly reaching out of the loneliness into communion with the world. Art is always reaching.
Here is a further paradox: In order to not be alone you must go by the way of aloneness. In order to find one who can receive your words you must have the courage to first send those words on the journey out of your self into a world that may not receive them. You must fling that gossamer thread out across those oceans of space—and flinging is not a safe, calculated movement. It is reckless abandon. It is a motion of both carelessness and joy.
And you will be rejected. You will find yourself, sometimes, in community (because it is still community whether you like it or not, whether you are happy or not) with people who are utterly different from you, who have opposite interests and concerns, who do not understand you and whom you do not understand, and yet they could be the very people from whom you will learn the most, who will hone the edges of your spirit until it grows gentler in the friction, and to whom you must learn to give yourself because that is when the gift is hardest and riskiest and therefore valuable in its frailty.
The loneliness from which your art arises may give you insight into some deep empty place in the heart of humanity, and your unique expression of that need might be the mirror in which others can finally see themselves and know they are not alone. So by forming the fruits of our solitude into words or pictures or music, we turn loneliness into love. That work of art—that story—that poem—becomes a third place, outside of my heart and yours, yet bridging both.
My husband Pete says he could not have written his novels about Fin Button today, because marriage has taken away so much of the emptiness and sadness that was the fuel for that story. Yet how many thousands of people was he unwittingly loved through that story spun in a bachelor’s empty room? I was single until I was 36, and the years leading up to marriage were pockmarked by moments of searing loneliness that will always remain part of my own peculiar experience. The gossamer thread that finally caught and held to another person was art. I offered my story—the story that had pulled me out of myself and into the world—to one particular (and equally peculiar) man. He offered his story to me. And those words wrought in our separate solitudes became the first bridge between us.
But even in marriage, even in the midst of likeminded community, even when we finally find those people who will shelter us from the burning glare of the great alone, we (at least we introverted artists—I cannot speak for anyone else) always ebb back into a solitary hidden place inside that is only ours, that we cannot explain to anyone, that no one else seems to see or understand, and yet we are so driven to share it that it must come out in artistic expression. This place is the spring in the mountains from which flows the river that will bless all of those precious people in our lives. It is the place of prayer, and it is the place of art. Because in that innermost place we are most aware of the things that transcend us.
Is it possible to create from a place of fullness, joy, belovedness, and belonging? I am sure there must be, but I don’t know what the art of perfect wholeness looks like, because as far as I’m aware no broken person on this broken earth has ever made it. I don’t know what songs Humpty Dumpty will sing when he is put back together again, yet I wonder if even then the quality of his art will derive precisely from the peculiarity of the cracks from which he was healed.
I have been deeply lonely in my life, and I have been deeply loved. And I would not part with either of those experiences, for they both have been necessary to set me upon the journey I’ve taken.
And so this is all I want to say to her, in the end—to the beautiful dark-eyed girl who stands on a solitary promontory, spinning her gossamer thread:
Fling your silken soul far out into the world, little spider. It will catch.