What Hemingway Can Teach Us about Professional Loneliness

The clock ticks, my dog snores, and traffic picks up outside my front window. I’m working in the living room today, surprised by how different it feels to see the cars passing and to hear the mailman stopping and to see my neighbors come home as the work day draws to a close. Why didn’t I think of this sooner?

Normally I work in the office at the back of the house. My desk overlooks the backyard where squirrels play and my pets lounge when the sun is shining on the concrete patio. In the office, I’m surrounded by bookshelves and a fireplace and my husband’s desk where he works from home one day a week. The desk drawers are stocked with all the pens and stamps and staplers a woman could need.

Friends envy my flexible work schedule and stay-at-home wardrobe, though a few admit they’re not self-disciplined enough for such an arrangement. My husband’s two-hour daily commute sometimes makes him wish he could work at home more often. And it’s taken a while to help my family understand that just because I am home I really am working. I have the tax bills to prove it.

There’s just one problem: after fifteen months of working at home, I’m lonely.

A recent study by workplace provider Regus shows that 37 percent of home-workers are “lonely working on their own” and 65 percent say “they miss mixing with fellow professionals.” Sixty percent said they “were getting ‘stale’ and needed to schedule trips outside the house.” As well, a 2010 YouGov poll found that self-employed workers most often feel loneliness and isolation since they don’t have the support or camaraderie of colleagues. I don’t think Tilly and Shadow, my dog and cat, count.

Add to that the particular loneliness and isolation that can come with the writing life. Author and HuffPost Blogger Kristen Houghton describes it like this: “Writing is solitary work because it needs concentration, quiet and commitment. … to write a novel or short story requires intense alone time. It’s essential to your craft,” she said. “Writing is often a frustrating business combining long hours alone and little instant recognition.”

Who’s Lonely Now?

I recognized my angst when I recently read Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, a fictionalized account of the years when Ernest Hemingway was married to his first wife, Hadley. As McLain imagines, when the two first lived together, “Ernest had believed he could write anywhere, but after a few weeks of working in the cramped apartment, always aware of me, he found and rented a single room, very nearby, on Rue Descartes …. He didn’t want distractions and didn’t have any there.”

As time goes on and Ernest is away more and more, Hadley is the one who first feels lonely.

‘Sometimes I wonder if you want me writing at all. I think it makes you feel lonely.’

‘It’s not the writing that makes me lonely, it’s your being gone. It’s been so long since you’ve even tried to write here at home. Maybe it would work now and I could see you. I wouldn’t have to talk or disturb you.’

‘You know I need to go away to make anything happen.’ He closed the notebook and put his pencil on top, rolling it back and forth with his fingertips. ‘I have to be alone to get it started, but if I really was alone, that wouldn’t work either. I need to leave that place and come back here and talk to you. Do you get what I’m saying?’

‘I think so.’ I walked behind him and put my head on his shoulder, rubbing my face into his neck. But the truth was I didn’t, not really. And he knew.

‘Maybe no one can know how it is for anyone else.’

By late in the book, however, it’s Ernest who begins to feel lonely. “Ernest wrote very hard for the first few days, but then realized it was impossible to really be alone—and that maybe he didn’t want to be alone.”

It’s More Than Getting Out of the House

I call this “professional loneliness,” though I have felt its reverberations even in my social life. It’s not just that I need to get out more. In fact, taking breaks during the day to run errands, go to the gym, or have lunch with a friend sometimes add up to more stress, because then I’m not working. Instead, it’s the loneliness of making all the decisions and doing all the work on my own. It’s also the isolation of feeling that no one else understands. It’s the lack of a network to support the ups and downs of vocational life.

To keep myself happily self-employed and to make my writing life sustainable for the long haul, I know I need more than just getting out the house from time to time. Too much time on Facebook doesn’t help either. Instead, I need to address these core concerns of professional loneliness. My plan involves several approaches.

Community, Networking & Food Truck Fridays

First, I’ve found a community of writers close to home who meet regularly in various venues. Some of them are freelancers who meet quarterly to talk shop. Others are creative writers who meet twice a month for critique and encouragement. A couple writers fit into both groups.

I’ve also joined a group of local business people who have a shared interest in our community and more experience than me. They call themselves a networking group, and after the first couple of meetings, I sensed their network is strong. I also met with a small-business consultant and with my accountant to bounce ideas off of them and get advice for my future. I’m still the one responsible, but they knew enough to say no to some of my ideas and yes to others.

Finally, I joined a coworking studio where I can work any time of day, any day of the week. I don’t really need the workspace since I have that nice office at the back of the house. But joining MatchBOX means I can get out of the house and still be working. It also means there’s usually someone to say “hi” to on the way to the kitchen, and we can all be thrilled together on Food Truck Fridays.

More times than not, though, I still find myself working alone at the back of a quiet house. As technology continues to advance and the “gig” economy gains ground, more and more of us may find ourselves in this situation, working from home or even self-employed. Solitude—aloneness, if not loneliness—serves as a necessary part of that arrangement, especially for writers. But today is Saturday. Soon the swirl of weekend activities will pull me from my writing. That’s as it should be. Like Hemingway, I need to be alone if I’m ever going to get my work done, but to make this writing life last, I also need people to come back to.

Photo by geir tønnessen, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Originally published at Tweetspeak Poetry on September 16, 2015.

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Charity Singleton Craig

Charity Singleton Craig is a writer, author, and speaker, helping readers grow in their faith and experience true hope in the middle of life’s joys and sorrows. She is the author of My Year in Words: what I learned from choosing one word a week for one year and coauthor of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts.