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. We could be twins….I too was labeled early on as the intelligent one who asked questions even the teacher had to look up and it soon left me alone except for whichever other student in class was closest in grades. Again, though 5th grade was my “sick” period, most of that class I got at home with the books and assignments brought home by a neighbor. As the only girl with three brothers until I was 13 I too was alone at home but never bored. I helped set the ACT Standards for the Literature/Reading portion which was evidently accomplished in part during 1958 in St. Louis. They ascertained my reading level and vocabulary was at the Junior in College level and the teacher tried to move me up several years in school. Mother said absolutely no, that I didn’t have enough friends as it was! She was and still is Ms.Social Butterfly! Though I couldn’t begin writing seriously until the last several years (had to earn a real living which my mathamatical side provided), I nevertheless am making up for the lateness of the endeavor, having published 4 books in the last two years and am half through the fifth. For me too, my mind is never blank but on the contrary….trying to keep to just one topic at a time to make real headway. I never have understood those who need music playing or the TV on to feel comfy…for me that creates pandemonium unless I am solely trying to follow a movie or the news. Being alone can be good, even great and our need for company must come after our apetite for writing is sated.

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    1. Interesting, Kathleen. I wonder how many writers have similar stories? I’m actually glad I remembered this old post. I’ve been feeling a little anxious lately and now I know it’s because I’m not getting enough quality alone time.

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      1. Know that feeling too….when I’m not in a relationship I’m gayer and much more relaxed because I feel such guilt if everything isn’t perfect for a partner….taking oftentimes too much of the day….thus alone time is either tiny or nil! I guess we have to just take the time and realize that we’ll be happier and more complete afterwards….giving those who share our world a friendlier, nicer and more complete person with whom to share their world.

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        1. Kathleen, although my retired husband does occupy some of my time, I also find myself not making the best use of my alone time when I have it. I’m just not very good at jumping into quality writing quickly.

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  2. A lovely and insightful piece of your childhood that you’ve chosen to share with your readers, Linda. It’s always fascinating to glimpse at the past person and compare that to the present.

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      1. I’ve a few bios of authors and it seems to be an underlying tone. And not just writers but people like Steve Jobs, Stephen King. It seems some level of isolation as a child is necessary that allows creativity to take root and grow.

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        1. Thanks for the additional input, Chris. If I could spare the time, I’d read more bios of creative people. I was only about a third through the recent book on Steve Jobs when I had to return it to the library, but I was fascinated. I wonder, with our busier lifestyles, if children today are being short-changed on alone time.

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  3. This is a wonderful post. Thanks for sharing. I am an extrovert and need to be around people. But when I was a child growing up on the farm, I didn’t have much people contact so I made up friends and adventures in my head. That is when the story telling began. Now I love being in crowds and I listen and watch. I make up stories about people I see on the bus and overhear in the elevator. It is funny how this works for different people. I will never give up my day job in the busy city because I need it to fuel my creativity. What we all have in common is eavesdropping and spying. What fun!

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    1. Thank you, Darlene. 🙂 It’s probably useless to look for types among writers, but your comment made me wonder if extroverts and introverts tend to write differently—different genres maybe. In any case, I think curiosity is a given, so eavesdropping and spying are essential tools. 🙂

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