The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Rhyming Poetry vs. Song Lyrics

hourglass table

Okay, so back around Christmas I indulged in a rant about rhyme. To my mind, rhyme in poetry is a lot like sex in movies. Often it is irrelevant, not really helping the plotline or character development. It is there because people expect to see it there. It makes them feel like they are getting the Real Thing, whatever the heck that means. But this is about rhyme in printed poetry, or in the annoying jingles on TV commercials. In other contexts, rhyme is appropriate and powerful.

Usually that is because the rhyme is original, not the moon/June/spoon pablum we get when we are kids. (Although, having said that, I must admit that a lot of Dr. Seuss and pretty much all of Shel Silverstein is pretty brilliant.) But often you get stopped in your tracks by an original rhyme. This happened to me Friday. I was in the Park Street subway station, on the Red Line waiting to go to MIT, and there was a female musician singing with her guitar. I had never heard the words to Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2AM)” and the chorus mesmerized me. Here it is:


‘Cause you can’t jump the track, we’re like cars on a cable
And life’s like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button, girl.
So cradle your head in your hands
And breathe… just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe…


This rhyme is awesome because the images are so original. That rhyming couplet has been stuck in my head for days. It sounds true even though I can’t entirely decide what it means.

In older and more traditional poetry, rhyme helped people to remember things. We still use this in the alphabet song. Other cultures developed other mnemonics. Old Scandinavian poetry used alliteration, the repetition of consonants. So, for example, from “The Seafarer”:

A song I sing                                     of my sea adventure

The strain of peril,                         the stress of toil,

Which oft I endured                         in anguish of spirit

Through weary hours             of aching woe. (Kennedy 19)

Now that we live in a world where people read silently and do not do a whole lot of performing for their friends at parties (or at least not that way), such mnemonic devices, which clearly still work as my experience shows, are no longer really necessary. I think this today. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow.

Kennedy, Charles W., ed. An Anthology of Old English Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1960