Why Writers Are the Loneliest Artists
The best writers are paranoid about being misunderstood.
At its essence, writing is a lonely craft.
There are no teammates, no live audience, no applause at the end. The magic often happens in a quiet room where you're able to translate your thoughts onto a blank canvas.
Ernest Hemingway revolutionized a modern style of writing, and he published seven novels, six short-story collections, and two nonfiction works. In 1929, Hemingway's novel, A Farewell to Arms, spent weeks at the top of best-seller lists. At just 30 years old, he was the most famous writer in the United States.
In October 1954, Hemingway received the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his mastery of the art of narrative."
In his acceptance speech, he said:
“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”
His remarks are impeccable. He simultaneously insults the people who gave him the prize while alluding to the idea that he doesn't need recognition or admiration from his peers in order to be a great writer. He ends it with: "I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it."
Hemingway, like many writers, had an obsession with being misunderstood. That's why rather than speaking, he wrote. I was recently talking to my dad, and he said something that struck me as profound.
He said, "You write because you're lonely, and you want people to better understand you. But those who read your work to understand you don't actually know you." It's a perpetual cycle of societal misunderstanding and self-imposed isolation.
After The New Yorker published a profile on Hemingway in 1950, he said: "After the New Yorker piece, I decided that I would never give another interview to anyone on any subject and that I would keep away from all places where I would be likely to be interviewed. If you say nothing, it is difficult for someone to get it wrong."
For many, writing is the ultimate form of expression. Carl Jung once said that introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling. Yet in hopes of explaining one's thoughts and feelings, writers somehow become more isolated from the very people their work is meant to reach.
Author David Foster Wallace explained the paradoxical nature of writing: "There's a strange loneliness, and a desire to have some kind of conversation with people, but not a real great ability to do it in person."
Different people write for different reasons. If you've been with The Profile for a while, you know how much I obsess over nuance, precision, and detail. For me, the actual process of writing feels like a chaotic jigsaw puzzle of ideas that I must organize into place. Why? In hopes of being understood by a reader (you!) I may never meet. It's crazy! But it's also intoxicating.
As I explored the root of this, I found that writers I've studied have one thing in common: They write because they're paranoid about being misunderstood. It's about the innate satisfaction they experience when they adequately translate their inner world into writing that makes total strangers feel what they feel and see what they see.
The life of a writer is a paradox: It’s a selfish act done for the enjoyment of others. While it’s beautiful, it’s also remarkably lonely.
"You must be prepared to work always without applause," Hemingway said. "When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights, and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this, the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them."