Fiction, Memory, Reading, Writing

Alone in our heads

In my earliest memory, I am lying on my stomach in the kitchen looking through the square holes in a grate. I am eighteen months old. My parents and I live in the upstairs apartment of an old house converted into a duplex. Our kitchen lies above the kitchen of the downstairs apartment. Our only heat source is radiant, meaning the heat from downstairs rises into our apartment through open grates in our floor. My mother warns me not to drop anything through the holes, but that was never my intention. The family who lives downstairs is eating dinner, their table is directly below the grate, and I am watching them and listening to their conversation. That’s the extent of that memory, but I now see it as an early indication of my interest in observing people, what they do, what they say, how they act and react.

Yesterday, I followed a link to a video interview with John Irving. In one segment1, he mentioned an early indication he knew he could be a writer: he desired and needed a lot of alone time. Aha!, I thought. Sometimes, when I look back on my childhood, it seems sort of like those Charlie Brown cartoons where adults are unseen and their voices are muted. I had parents, two sisters, and a fair amount of friends, but I preferred to spend a lot of time alone with my imagination.

At this point, I can’t say if that choice was strictly my nature or if it had been enhanced by circumstance. I was labeled early in my school career as one of the “smart kids.” That designation sets you apart in ways both good and bad. You may be given free time while other students work on a subject that you breezed through. You may also be assigned extra work. In both cases, you’re alone.

If you’re a writer, then you are a reader. And I presume, like me, as a child you gobbled up books like candy. I don’t know about you, but reading time was alone time for me. And then, inspired by what I read, I wanted to act out my own stories in the backyard with my baby dolls in my “covered wagon” or behind the living room sofa where I sat up an “apartment” for my Barbies. Alone. Whole conversations carried on in my head.

Of course, I played games with other children, but I preferred make believe to sports or most physical activity. I would try to act out some of my stories with friends, but it was frustrating for us all. I always wanted to be the star and director—“now you say this and then you do that and then I say …” It was just easier to play alone.

When I got a little older, the ultimate isolator struck—illness. I spent only nine months of my seventh, eighth, and ninth grades actually in school. The rest of that time I was either bedridden, in the hospital, or recovering from surgery. Except for three months with a visiting teacher, I taught myself and took tests by phone. Needless to say, I didn’t fare well in the social skills usually developed during this period of life. But I can remember only a few times feeling lonely. And never was I bored. I had my imagination.

In light of all this, do I mind that writing requires me to spend a lot of time alone? Of course not. I think I was destined for this life. Only now, I don’t lay on my stomach. I just close my eyes to watch and listen for the story to unfold.

1 The whole interview is here: http://bigthink.com/johnirving  If you want to hear just the portion I referenced, click the segment titled: How to Tell if You’re a Writer

(Previously published on this blog on 7 November 2009.)

29 thoughts on “Alone in our heads”

  1. A lovely post and one that surely resonates with many writers. I think to write you have to love spending time alone in your own head so to speak. I was an only child and spent many happy hours alone making up stories with toys etc My family wondered why I was so content to play alone, but it was all good training for writing time. We wouldn’t want to write if we didn’t enjoy being alone with our stories! I do like being around others and spending time with people too, because that’s where the stories come from…

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    1. Welcome to my blog and thank you for reading and commenting, Tracy. 🙂 Yes, I think one would be miserable as a writer if they weren’t content to spend time alone in their head. But, obviously, some of us prefer to stay on the fringes even when not writing, while others plunge headlong into the fray for inspiration. Then again, maybe it’s my age. I spent decades out there gathering material. 🙂

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  2. I had four brothers and was the only girl and thought that the reason I spent a lot of time alone – they often had to share a room while I had one to myself, because I was a girl – I envied their togetherness. But, I came to see how as an adult I still craved “alone time” — I have lots more of that now that I live in the Smoky Mountain cove – and now that I write for a living – it suits me. yes.

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    1. I envy your home, Kat. To counteract that, I tell myself if I lived in such a beautiful place, I’d sit and dream and never write a word. Oh gee, now that I said that, I’m thinking we might all be better off if I moved up into the mountains. 🙂

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      1. *laughing* — in reality it’s not the life for everyone – for example, some of GMR’s BR friends came by and though they have enjoyed their visit here, they said, “we could never live as reclusively as you do – we’d have to be in the heart of the city -” of course Asheville is the city to me here – but it’s still a small mountain town compared to BR and other cities! 😀

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        1. I too envy your location and wouldn’t find the seclusion hindering to writing, but a plus. We are in the center of a major bedroom community of Kansas City (on the Kansas side) which includes a road with a car passing by on average of 1 per second most days. Too much stimulation for a writer (at least this writer). We are here because Tom has never lived anywhere else and his clients are here. If we hit the Power Ball or my books began selling in the thousands we’d be off like a shot to either the lower mountains to a cabin or a cottage with thatched roof in Scotland or England. Of course, as they say, “life is always better on the other side of the fence” so I guess we’ll take what life hands us, which is what most folks do when they haven’t a bottomless pocketbook.

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