Writers, The Loneliest Artists of All
Michele Filgate on Solitude, Melissa Broder, and Olivia Laing
I’m never as lonely as when I’m in a crowded room. It’s always been that way; as a child, I’d always wish I could slip away from family functions, and find some secluded spot where I could use my book as a shield against the world. Why was it ok to watch a football game, the rules of which baffled and bored me, but rude to engage in a more quiet, private activity like reading? When we’re in a room full of people, we’re expected to make conversation. But what if I didn’t want to talk?
Since moving to New York City, I’ve sought this kind of very public seclusion, the comforting if unsettling feeling of being alone with people, by going to restaurants or cafes with a book or my laptop. In places where we aren’t expected to interact with one another, where we can remain anonymous, I feel most myself. The soothing noise of half-heard conversations serves as background noise as I tune out the world.
There’s hardly a minute of my life in which I’m not obsessively fretting about something. I suppose I get a break when I sleep, but even then, I have horrible anxiety dreams; ones in which someone attacks me and I go to scream, but no sound comes out. I’m rendered mute by fear. Or dreams in which my childhood home is suddenly moved to a swampland, and I have to wade through water where crocodiles and other awful beasts wait to devour me. I toss and turn in my twisted sheets, restless, ruminating.
I’m often worried by how overpowering loneliness can be.
We are ourselves before we are actually ourselves. Clay waiting to be shaped by experience, perhaps, but there’s something pre-formed about our personalities before they are even molded.
I write this essay while sitting in the back room of a Brooklyn bar just before dusk. Faint light through the window renders me a ghost of myself. Near the table I sit at, someone has scrawled “Drink Me” on the wallpaper in shaky cursive in the middle of an illustration of a bottle. An angel holds a glass up to it.
Loneliness, of course, is fundamental to the human experience—and who better to explore that particular subject than writers. Two recent books use different approaches to try to figure it out. In Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today, the poet behind the popular Twitter account of the same name uses confessional writing to address her own neuroses. In Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, the journalist and critic fuses her own personal story of living in New York with the lives of artists who have tackled loneliness in their work, including Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, and Andy Warhol.
The irony of loneliness, of course, is it that it’s an isolating experience that many people (and especially writers) are unified by. So why, then, is it so hard to write about?
“Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee,” Olivia Laing writes.
But articulating how adrift one feels is becoming more and more common online, however judgmental others might be about it. Broder’s @sosadtoday Twitter account has over 300,000 followers. The author readily admits that she turns to the Internet as a way to deal with her anxiety and depression, but she’s also consumed by it.
“The Internet has enhanced my taste for isolation,” Broder writes in her book. “It has increased my solipsism and made me even more incapable of coping with reality.”
Is it self-centered to write about loneliness? No more so than it is to write about happiness, bitterness, or any other human emotion. Broder is trapped in a body and mind she can’t escape from. She writes to articulate the uncomfortable on the page. Laing takes a different approach to address similar issues, but she uses a wider canvas to demonstrate her points. What’s more: she shows that looking to art, like Edward Hopper’s haunting Nighthawk, can make us feel less alone.
“And yet what Hopper captures is beautiful as well as frightening…” Laing writes. “As if loneliness was something worth looking at. More than that, as if looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.”
Is loneliness worth it, then, if it sometimes leads to great works of art? It’s a feeling that won’t ever go away for some people, no matter the good fortune that surrounds them. But loneliness can lead to despair, an inability to function, and suicide. Isn’t it crucial, in that case, that there’s an open dialogue about it? It’s a relief, then, when writers address the subject with a certain amount of vulnerability and emotional honesty.
“If loneliness is to be defined as a desire for intimacy, then included within that is the need to express oneself and to be heard, to share thoughts, experiences and feelings,” Laing writes.
The back room I’m in is separate from the main part of the bar, where everyone else is gathered. I like having this space to myself, while knowing that others are nearby, talking about the day over glasses of wine or beer. It’s lonely and not lonely. The light fades, and I keep writing.