The Loneliness of the Full-Time Writer
Mike Gayle Tries to Find Community in a Solitary Profession
The year was 1999 and I was in the middle of writing my second novel when I was first struck by the loneliness of being a full-time writer. Stuck on a scene and desperately in need of someone to bounce ideas off I first tried calling friends who, without exception, told me they were busy. “I’d love to help you out,” said one, “but I’m sort of…you know…at work?”
Next, I tried my agent; after all I reasoned, if I don’t finish this book then she won’t get paid, so maybe she’ll be able to talk. But when I called I was told she was in meetings. Finally, I tried my editor, again assuming: here’s someone who’s fully invested in me, surely, she’ll have five minutes to chat? But I was wrong; she, too, was otherwise engaged. After leaving various messages for people hoping eventually someone would reply, even though it was only two in the afternoon, I went to bed, pulled the duvet over my head, and remained there until my wife got home from work at just after six.
“What are you doing in bed?” she’d asked. As I opened my mouth to tell her I had a sudden flash of insight: this wasn’t just about getting stuck with my book and no one being free to bat ideas around with me. “I think I might be lonely,” I replied. “And worse still, I think I might have been lonely for a very long time.”
This line recently found its way into my latest novel, All The Lonely People, a story about Hubert Bird, a West Indian senior who is chronically lonely but desperately pretends he isn’t. And while I’m neither an octogenarian nor live alone, I too have at times experienced loneliness largely because of the job I do—the job I’d always dreamed of doing.
The day I got the news from my agent that not only had secured a book deal, but such a good one I’d be able to give up journalism and become a full-time writer was my absolute dream come true. I was ecstatic. No more sucking up to commissioning editors to get writing gigs for me. No more traveling down to London from Birmingham to work shifts at various magazines for weeks at a time. No more being stuck in over-air-conditioned offices. No more grumpy co-workers and phones that rang all day long. No, I thought smugly, from now on it would be just me, my computer and my genius with a commute from bedroom to spare room that took less than thirty seconds. This, I imagined, must be what it felt like to win the lottery.
I remember my first day as a full-time author like it was yesterday. Sitting on my brand-new IKEA office chair, at my brand-new IKEA office desk, with my brand-new Apple G3 desktop. I’d imagined hordes of jealous part-time authors with their noses pressed against my office window desperately wishing they were me. Look at him living the dream, they’d say wistfully. If only we could be so lucky. And at first it did feel like I was indeed living the dream. I’d write, make cups of tea, and then write again, then make more cups of tea, then write a little more and then more cups of…wait, what was happening here? Why was I making so many cups of tea when I didn’t even drink the stuff? It couldn’t possibly be that I was actually missing the ebb and flow of office life, could it? The “good mornings,” the “what did you get up to last nights,” the endless discussions about things we’d watched on telly the night before. No, that was impossible, I’d hated it. Hadn’t I?
Ploughing on alone at my desk, day after day, week after week, the other thing that struck me was just how little the phone rang. During the run up to my book deal, I’d been talking to my agent almost daily, and then in the immediate aftermath I’d speak to my editor at least a couple of times a week or at the very least get several dozen pages of faxes listing the problem sections of my debut novel that she wanted me to work on. But now things had quietened down, so too had the phone and the fax, and I felt their silence keenly.Why was I making so many cups of tea when I didn’t even drink the stuff? It couldn’t possibly be that I was actually missing the ebb and flow of office life, could it?
If the phone ever did ring, I’d be so desperate to hear another human voice that frankly it was sort of embarrassing. “You want to know if I’d be interested in getting a quote for double glazing? Well, before we get to that let me tell you what I thought of last night’s episode of ER…” I was lonely, really lonely, but I didn’t know it. Thankfully, I was soon offered the one thing I was after: community.
The year following my first as a full-time writer, a group of UK authors got together to produce a book of short stories called Girls’ Night in/Boys’ Night Out for charity. The book was a great success, and raised a huge amount of money for the charity War Child. At the launch party a few of us got talking about how lonely being a full-time writer could be and how someone somewhere should do something about it. The next thing I knew I checked my email and to my surprise I found an invitation to join an internet message board for writers. Apparently, the husband of one of the writers I’d been discussing loneliness with was a dab hand at the internet and had created a board for us, and just like that the problem of my loneliness was solved.
Whenever I needed a chat I’d go to The Board, and there amongst others I’d find fellow writers like JoJo Moyes, Lisa Jewell and Sophie Kinsella talking about last night’s TV, sharing writing tricks and tips or simply blowing off steam. It was absolutely everything I needed, all the best bits of working in an office and none of the worst. I mean, we even had IRL office Christmas and summer parties, which never failed to be the stuff of legend.
Of course, with the rise of social media, The Board, after ten years of glory eventually faded away. Today, with Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, it’s far easier to join a writing community, to find your tribe and feel less lonely than it was when I first started out all those years ago. But I’ll never forget those early days and the friendships I formed most of which thankfully I still have.
I know the internet is flawed; it can be an all-consuming, hateful monster, but its power to connect as we’ve all seen over the past year or so can be a life saver. I know it was for me back then.
So, do I still get lonely sometimes? Yes, but nowhere nearly as much as I used to. Five years ago, after decades of lobbying from my wife, I finally caved and we got a dog, a beautiful seven-year-old rescue greyhound. He’s not exactly brilliant for bouncing ideas off, doesn’t hold particularly strong opinions on the MCU, and as he sleeps pretty much all the time he isn’t exactly the best conversationalist. But he is good company and for that I am grateful.
Mike Gayle’s All the Lonely People is available now via Grand Central Publishing.