I once spent two weeks living on my own in a cottage in Warwickshire. The cottage was in a small hamlet, down a little grassy lane. It was medieval, tiny and pretty (think Goldilocks’ cottage crossed with Mr Mole’s home.) I was there to work on a novel. And as well as being about three hundred miles from my own home, I also felt about two hundred years in the past – the reason for this being I couldn’t work out how to connect to the internet.
What followed, frankly, was one of the loneliest and most panicky episodes of my life.
Being alone for a long time takes a lot of getting used to (I normally live with my husband, three children and two quite demanding cats.) Not needing to even speak for hours – days! – felt extremely strange. And when there’s no-one else around to see what you’re doing, even something like sitting on a chair or switching on a kettle or deciding to go outdoors for a bit all took on an existential kind of enormity.
What I did have, of course, was plenty of time to think – and what I ended up thinking, was:
a) Oh God, I’m really lonely
b) This reminds me of my childhood
c) Will my family ever forgive me?
d) I have to start writing something
e) Oh! I’m beginning to enjoy myself.
I suppose a kind of survival instinct had kicked in at (e); and I could either go quietly mad or use the loneliness I was experiencing and do something with it.
Is loneliness, though – that bracing, Robinson Crusoe kind – becoming endangered in our socially-connected age? Being solitary in the twenty-first century seems like a very different thing from what it was a couple of decades ago. In a lone star spirit of enquiry, I asked various friends and colleagues what they thought. The playwright Oliver Emanuel, who’s recently returned from a writing retreat himself, had a similar response to self-exile as I’d had (ie, mild panic – “no internet and no phone – it drove me crazy”). The difference between us was that after a while I began to enjoy my internet-free existence while it seems, despite finding isolation useful for his writing, Oliver continued to miss it. But then he’s a playwright. And playwrights, he suggests, are social creatures on the whole. (“Though I still value loneliness. It’s a way of gaining perspective – a loss of other people – and that can be valuable. . .”)
Fellow dramatist and novelist Lesley Glaister agrees with this too. “I love and need solitude to be creative and to stay sane,” she says. “And in solitude my mind blossoms to fill the space.” The words “sanity” and “loneliness” tend to go together, of course. As do “sanity” and “writing”. And the recent explosion (if that’s the right term) of mindfulness classes suggests we live in an age that’s seeking a generally simpler, less IT-fraught way of existing. (I also sought the opinion of a mindfulness tutor in fact, but he’d just headed north for a week of isolated reflection. . . which seemed like the coolest ipso facto response he could have made. . .)
It’s always been the case, of course – writers needing to be at one remove. Maybe this was most obvious during the Romantic days of Wordsworth et al, and their wanderings over hills and across moors. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself,” declared Jane Eyre – and her creator, Charlotte Bronte, must have known pretty much all there was to know about loneliness. But what is real solitude these days, and what is friendlessness, when we can see little pixelated versions of our friends any time we like? Technology has atomised us, as the artist Steve Hollingsworth puts it (who’s no technophobe himself, using electronics and computers in his own installations), “and there’s nothing lonelier than looking through a window at night and seeing someone staring into the white void of a lap-top screen. . .” Actually, when I think about it, I suspect writers like Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker might have relished the avatar-friendly age we live in.
I suppose what bothers me still though, is that if we deplete half our words and energy on social blah, what peace of mind will we have left to write with, and what will we consider at more than a white-noise level? And supposing this technological support-system was suddenly lost to us: what self-reliance would we have left? A creative loneliness – and not just “aloneness” – seems to me to have a real worth: being semi-permanently attached to people means we don’t suffer the same kind of terminal cut-offs we used to. And loss and missing and ruminating about people has always been so central in fiction (think of all the existential wondering that goes on in, say, Wuthering Heights or L’Etranger or The Catcher in the Rye.) Internet wondering seems a disjointed, fragmented kind of thing in comparison and sometimes not even all that advisable – googling old acquaintances and scenes from decades ago feels like grabbing too many snacks at a party, just because they’re there.
So how can we defend good old-fashioned loneliness? How can we hold onto it, amid all our other, noisier emotions? (Nobody ever said that grief doesn’t have its place, after all. Or guilt. Or even greed.) I suspect the effects of social media may not be quite such a disaster as all the hell-in-a-handcart warnings about it imply. Wanting to be alone is probably the same as it’s always been: what’s changed is the younger generation’s ability to slip in and out of isolation (social media as background noise rather than foreground irritation. “Being alone can mean being on my own, in a room, with Facebook open in the background,” as Esme Jones, a student at Cambridge University puts it. “I feel distanced enough from it to ignore it if I’m really absorbed in my work. . .”) Perhaps it’s simply a question of knowing how to use it, and when to switch it off.
Meanwhile, maybe we should think about establishing something like the Real Solitude Association – it could be a bit like the Real Ale Society, where slightly angsty and oddly-attired creatives could get together (or not, of course.) Or we could reclaim weekends and Wednesday afternoons as days when you just don’t “connect”. Or start a cerebral version of the 5:2 diet (five days sociable, two days a hermit – or the other way round?) I never really appreciated Daffodils as a teenager, but I do now. Because we all need to lie around on couches occasionally, in pensive and in vacant mood. We all need to spend time alone. Sometimes, we might even need to be a bit lonely.
Ruth Thomas is a novelist, short story writer and Lecturer in Creative Writing at St Andrews University. Her latest novel The Home Corner (£7.99) is published by Faber