Live at the Red Ink Series: On Loneliness in the Writing Life
Featuring Kristen Radtke, Amy Leach, Jane Wong, and Dana Spiotta
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books Are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next virtual discussion, “Dreams,” will take place on February 24th at 7pm and feature Jean Chen Ho (Fiona and Jane), Emily Maloney (Cost of Living), Claire Messud (A Dream Life), Daphne Palasi Andreades (Brown Girls), and Julia May Jonas (Vladimir). The following is an edited transcript from November’s panel, “Loneliness,” which featured Kristen Radtke, Amy Leach, Jane Wong, and Dana Spiotta.
Michele Filgate: Loneliness is always a timely topic, but it has taken on a new meaning in the pandemic for many of us. When I think about loneliness, I think about one of my favorite books on the topic, Olivia Lang’s The Lonely City. She writes: “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way that feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.” I want to start out by asking each of you what loneliness means for you as a writer and in your work.
Amy Leach: Ever since I was invited to be on this panel, I was trying to figure out if I was lonely or not. And sometimes I think, yes I’m very lonely. And sometimes I think no, I’m not lonely at all. And sometimes I think, well, I’m intermittently lonely, depending on my identity. In my identity as a person, I’m not lonely. I don’t have many opportunities to be lonely; I have two faithful and constant companions with me much of the time, three if you count the dog. My pandemic was far, far more social than my pre-pandemic life with the children home from school. But even before I had children I don’t think I suffered from loneliness that much. Books are friends, and trees are friends, and birds are good friends.
In my identity as a writer, I don’t feel lonely either. Writing is a good friend, usually. As a writer, I feel whole and complete, and I don’t feel like I’m missing my team. However, in my identity as a musician I suffer from a huge loneliness. If I am whole and complete as a writer, as a musician I feel I am only half of a musician, or a third of a musician, or a fourth of a musician, and I’m missing my trio, missing my band. And if I find out that someone plays clarinet or drums or cello, I will become aggressively friendly as only the very lonely can, and I will try to press them into coming and playing with me.
Dana Spiotta: I like that idea of having different identities, parts of yourself being lonely and other parts not. I think it is interesting to think about loneliness; I tend to write about people alone a lot. And I think a lot of times, the characters I write about, and certainly it’s true of the last book, Wayward, but also I think in the other books as well, I write about women who purposefully seek solitude, who will run away or go underground or hide in some way, and really want to be alone. But you can want to be alone and want your solitude, and then within that, also feel terribly lonely. I think when you’re in that transition point where you are letting go of one life and you’re moving into the new life, you have to sort of let yourself feel lonely in order to go to the new thing.“I think my relationship to loneliness changed a lot by writing about loneliness for so long.”
So it feels sort of built in to it. What I’ve changed in my view of loneliness as I’ve gotten older is that when you have a lot of family life going on around you, you really think, oh I’ll never be alone again and I wish I could be, and you miss it. But then there’s a kind of loneliness within a full life in which you are lonely for a specific person or other people that you are not with. Since my father died, sometimes I feel a very specific longing for him that’s a level of loneliness that will never go away no matter how populated my life is.
I’m starting to get to this paradox, and I think this is very true of the character in Wayward, in that her daughter’s leaving, and she feels very, very alone, even though she can’t really stand to be around anybody. And so, there’s a perversity in needing to be alone and also feeling the pain of being alone, but sometimes you still need to be alone.
Also, I used to think when I was young that I would always want solitude, that I would always want to be alone because I could write, I could read, and I could watch movies and listen to music, but I do think—especially not having seen other people outside my family for so long, and not seeing them in person—the pandemic has really shown me as it’s shown many of us, just how much, even the most lonerish type, really kind of misses being around people in person, that kind of loneliness. So I feel there are many different levels of loneliness and kinds of loneliness, and they coexist with wanting solitude at the same time.
Kristen Radtke: I mean, I think my relationship to loneliness changed a lot by writing about loneliness for so long. My book is about loneliness and I understand loneliness in a different way now, in its complexities and complications, and I also understand its biological value and why we feel it, which is a really necessary reason because it propels us back toward each other. So I think I also appreciate loneliness in a way, and I try to listen to it more.
And I also think it’s really important to distinguish the difference between solitude and loneliness, or aloneness and loneliness, which are really disparate things that can sometimes overlap, but not always. And also, to understand that everyone has a different threshold for how much loneliness they can tolerate and how much loneliness they are predisposed to feeling. So I think that is something, understanding that these things are inherent within us, and then if I experience a period of loneliness it helps me not experience it as a personal failing, it’s just something my body is programmed to feel. I think that’s helpful.
Jane Wong: I think a lot of my thoughts and writing on loneliness are tied to my experiences growing up—because I felt literally invisible. Kids would throw rocks at me and yell, “Shut up, Jane.” Because I didn’t speak, I was silent. And because so much of my life was built around this idea that I was invisible, I was incredibly lonely. And then I started using loneliness as a kind of shield. I was proud to be lonely. I was like: I’m fine, I’ll just hang out with my books at the public library. I grew up in a Chinese American restaurant and most of my friends were customers—people I’d never see again. That’s a really interesting type of loneliness. I connected easily with strangers, with customers, for just a split second. And then, they were gone.
I did my MFA at the University of Iowa, and I was so lonely at Iowa. I didn’t realize I was lonely until there was a space of community. Right after I left Iowa, I went to the Kundiman retreat, which is an Asian American literary org. At Kundiman, everyone immediately hugged me upon meeting me. All these poets were saying: welcome, let’s be friends. I was so freaked out, I actually ran away. I was so scared of these people who wanted to be close to me that I left that evening. I remember going back to my room and there were these little love notes slipped under the door. The notes said: you know, if you want to come join us, we are here for you. Or we will see you the next day, it’s totally fine! I had been so used to being lonely and using loneliness as a kind of protective shell. I’m actually learning right now how to not be lonely.
I still think about my younger self and I think: wow, if that was the default for me, what had I been missing out on during those years of possible care and connection? I will never forget that embarrassing moment of literally running away from a community that was so welcoming. And I love Kundiman! I returned the next day and I did all the workshops and social gatherings. I had no idea that I had been that lonely. And that’s when loneliness really wraps around you, when you don’t even know it’s happening to you.
Now, I love writing with people, which is something I would have never done before. It feels really special to me. I have a thing I call “cut and paste,” which is a gigantic google email thread, which actually ends at 100 emails so you have to start a new thread. We just share pieces of things we’ve been working on, with no comments. But you know someone out there is reading brand new drafts. I’ve shared with these poets over many, many years. So that’s how I write these days—not lonely, at all.
MF: How did your relationship to loneliness change or transform or stay the same during this pandemic so far?
KR: I think what was interesting for me about is it is I was finishing up, I’d done a book about loneliness and then suddenly everyone was talking about loneliness, and like, prior to that it felt like loneliness was something that people didn’t really talk about very often, it felt kind of shameful, like it hadn’t really been destigmatized. But I do think the loneliness of the pandemic was a very specific kind of loneliness that’s very different from the epidemic problem of loneliness in America and in a lot of countries, which are really deeply rooted. There was an imposed isolation with the pandemic, and there was also something communal about it; there was the sense that we were all going through the same thing.
And I think one of the things that’s so difficult about loneliness in regular times is that you feel at odds with everyone else, like that quote you read, Michele, from Olivia Lang, about this idea that like, everyone else is sitting down at a feast when you are hungry, and there was this sort of stabilizing feeling during the pandemic that everyone was isolated in the same way. And I also think that we showed up for each other in the pandemic in a way we haven’t in a long time: mutual aid organizations formed, we checked in our neighbors—I felt that pretty acutely, and those are the kinds of things that I think we need to do all the time to evade community wide loneliness.
JW: One of my students shared with me a poem about our time now. And how, as events and restaurants are slowly opening up due to vaccination etc, that they have never been so lonely. That they miss that online community and that type of connection. Because now it’s kind of awkward. Being back in-person, at least in the classroom and walking around downtown, I feel like there’s something that’s not quite touching. Something has shifted. I loved that one quote you shared about hunger because I grew up in a restaurant and I didn’t want to cook my entire life. My family was always pushing me out of the restaurant to go to school. A
nd during the pandemic, I am learning to cook for the first time in my late thirties, to really think about what it means to eat, to make meals, to feel as if I’m connected to people through food. It was silly, but I had a lot of Zoom dinners where we made the same exact same thing at the same exact time. lt felt less lonely to cook. There was something so tender about dropping off food for other people, and people dropping off food for me. That was the one thing that kept me away from loneliness: the eating and feeding and cooking. Especially meals from my childhood which give me comfort.
DS: You hear about people having these pandemic bubbles and really thriving in the pandemic… and then in a weird kind of a way, it felt, partially because of what Kristen was saying, that we were all in the same sort of boat, but also, we weren’t, though, right? Some people had really different experiences than other people did, and some people didn’t get those connections, and some people didn’t have the bubble, and some people couldn’t do the bubble. So even in this kind of common experience, it felt as if there were ways to do it wrong, and so it felt… I don’t know if that comes under the category of lonely or just sort of alienated in some ways, maybe that’s another way of thinking about it.
One thing I did find I agreed with a lot of people on as a coping mechanism during the pandemic was the importance of the pets, dogs and cats and having animals in your life. I noticed that of the older people I know, especially the ones that were by themselves, those with pets really did much better and felt less loneliness in some ways.
AL: I just saw a woman walking her pig, and she had this beautiful pig, and I told her I had just the night before dreamed that I adopted a pig. I did not adopt a pig during the pandemic, but I did adopt a dog. We were driven to get a dog after three years of recovering from our very, very special dog that we had—recovering from both the dog and the loss of the dog. I will say that the pandemic also got me teaching. I guess the university here had expected fewer freshman than usual, and they had more freshman than usual, so I became an emergency teacher. For a lot of my students I was teaching the only class that was in person—masked, of course. They expressed how much they appreciated being in person. Talking in person—there’s nothing like it.
MF: Dana, when I interviewed you about Wayward for the Los Angeles Times, we talked about anger in your book—both in the context of the main character, but also in the age that we live in. How does anger connect with loneliness in your novel?
DS: In a weird kind of way, anger is a way of getting attention but bad attention, maybe. There is righteous anger but also just this fruitless anger, where you are not resilient in the way that you expect yourself to be. You are exposing more than you want of your emotions, you feel out of control, and that pushes people away or puts people off. And it’s sort of humiliating for my character Sam. And at the same time, all these things can be undercut by the other side of it. I think she feels that a lot of the anger that she has, she’s just been suppressing and it’s been there all along, so there’s something empowering about letting herself express what she’s been feeling. I think she’s going through a kind of crucible of many contradictory feelings about loneliness, about anger, about her relationship to the world.
MF: Kristen, in Seek You one of my favorite lines is when you write, “Perhaps we see loneliness in others simply to feel less lonely ourselves.” Can you elaborate on that?
KR: I think it relates to what I was saying earlier about how one of the difficulties of loneliness is that it feels shameful, it feels like something you are experiencing that no one else is, which is never true. I think we look for confirmation bias. And I think it’s like that when you’re in a certain state of mind, you’re looking for clues for the universe to reflect that back to you, so I think if you see a solitary person you can project a sort of world or a sort of life onto them that kind of reinforces what you need to see at the moment. I definitely felt like that during periods of loneliness, especially New York where you get to observe a lot of strangers, sometimes for prolonged periods of time like on the subway.
MF: Jane, in How To Not Be Afraid of Everything, you have a poem called “Lessons on Lessening.” I’m so moved by the way that poem opens: this idea of hearing the noise from an upstairs apartment, of being separated from the love and affection the speaker imagines above her. Is loneliness a kind of lessening?
JW: It’s so funny how all the seeds of my poems start from real things, real events. I was so lonely writing this poem; I distinctly remember hearing my neighbors above me hanging out—it sounded like bowling. I just sat on the floor listening to them. It felt like, if I just sat there long enough, maybe I could be part of what they’re doing. I felt like loneliness was accumulating in this poem. And I can feel that through being weaved in my own weight at the end of the poem.
In this poem, I wanted to learn from my younger self. To imagine loneliness not as a means of lessening, but as giving us strength to some degree. I mean, maybe that is just a warped way of trying to redefine what loneliness is! I think about that moment of just laying against the floor and trying to be a part of something that I couldn’t be a part of. And then I think about how, in an apartment building, maybe someone else was doing the same exact thing as me. So much of this book is about my family and hunger and gluttony, but How To Not Be Afraid of Everything is also full of heartbreak poems. I was so fearful of romantic loneliness. I wanted to speak to that lack of intimate relationships and constantly being left.
Disappearance, or ghosting/whatever you want to call it, is awful—and I’ve experienced so much of it in my romantic life. One person literally disappeared into Alaska. And I keep thinking about this, about how lonely I felt in those moments of heartbreak. So thank you for that question. I don’t know how we ended up in the Heartbreak Hotel, but I think that is a part of loneliness for me that I have to admit to. All my ex-boyfriends are still hanging out at some shitty dive bar in Seattle, I’m sure.
MF: Amy, “The Everybody Ensemble” very much feels like a work that is focused on exuberance found in the natural world. At the end of “The Modern Moose” essay, you write: “Yes to the pond where the waterplants thrive, yes to the pond where the water-plants fail, yes to the pock where the pond used to be. Yes to you healthy, yes to you sick, yes to you blooming, and yes to you stricken. Though you have seen better days, though you no longer delight me with Colts-foot and Lil-ies, yes to the Earth, my Earth, for I do not hope to find a better where.” Can you talk about this exuberant defiance and how it relates to loneliness?
AL: I like the idea of exuberant defiance! I wrote about the modern moose, because I was thinking, well we think of ourselves as so modern, but moose are also modern, so they should be respected as much as Elon Musk. And how are moose dealing with modern life? In that essay I say that the moose has made vows to the earth, like marriage vows. Like the lunatic vows that lovers make to each other, so even if they find a better prospect they are still going to stay faithful to that first partner. Some people are looking to rocket away to other places, but the moose is faithful to the earth, even if the earth has seen better days.