Solitude versus Loneliness

When I lived alone in Manhattan, a married friend with three sons once said to me, “Enjoy your solitude.” I did. But I was lonely, too.

Later, in Vermont, waiting in line to be seated at a diner with my three young children while my husband was working, a different friend greeted me and said, “You’re here alone?”

“Hardly,” I said, shifting the baby in my arms, and trying to move toward our table with the two toddlers clinging to my legs. As a young mother, it seemed I was never alone. But I was still sometimes lonely, and I craved a moment of solitude. Or two.

Those family years of managing a family business, keeping a household afloat, and raising children, were also years when I spent almost all my mental energy planning time alone, to write.  Occasionally, I managed it, either by waking before the rest of the household, by hiring babysitters, or by sending the kids to visit their grandparents. Twice, I went to weeklong writing retreats, which were fantastic, and connected me both to my writer’s voice and to other writers, so I didn’t feel so alone. But then I’d return to the hectic world of office work and carpools and teaching and – somehow – writing, too.

Once, to meet a deadline, my husband took the kids away on vacation without me. It was incredibly luxurious to be able to write in the solitude of home. But by the end of the week, I was lonely, and eager for my family to return. I wanted to be with my family, and I wanted my solitude, too.

Now, my kids are grown, and I have the solitude I always longed for – and more. My husband still works long hours, and so do I. For the first time in my life, I can spend all day at my desk. On ideal days, I never leave home. I can do this for days, until something triggers a switch forcing me to look up, see that my cats are pets and not friends, and I realize I’m lonely again.

I’m finally catching on that too much solitude leads to intolerable loneliness, and too much social time distracts me from writing. And the one thing I know is that I have to write.

So I’m learning how to walk the line between being alone and being lonely. Here are ten ways I keep my balance:

  • I breakfast with a friend – my husband. It’s the only meal we’re sure to have together each day, and it’s a good time to reiterate what we each have planned.
  • I don’t “do lunch.” I find meeting friends for lunch too disruptive to my morning thought process. Instead of focusing on my work, I start thinking about what I’ll order, and I’ll keep checking the time so I know when I have to get ready to leave.
  • I exercise daily. Most days, I walk alone and work through narrative problems on my feet; sometimes, I walk with a friend. I like the flexibility.
  • I attend a weekly writing group, where I write with, listen to, and socialize with other writers.
  • I date. While my husband’s usually my first choice, he’s not the only one I go out with – to hear lectures or music, view art, attend plays, readings or just talk. Generally, I like seeing friends one-on-one or in small groups, especially if I want to return to my solitude the next morning. Big groups and rowdy parties make it harder for me to pick up my narrative thread.
  • I take time off on weekends. Depending on the season, I pursue outdoor adventures like snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking, boating – always with friends.
  • I volunteer. I serve on a Reparative Parole Board at a local restorative justice center, and I engage in activities that help build social capital and promote community in my town – a subject for a future blog.
  • I dine, usually at home. On weekdays, this can be a solo meal or another one shared with my mate; weekends, it could be a meal for the family and friends.
  • I schedule time to write. Basically, I protect my mornings, making no appointments or plans until after noon. I used to just block this time out in my planner; these days, I write down what I’m going to work on each day.
  • I schedule time to play. This is hard for me, and I am often at risk of letting my writing life bleed into play time, evenings, nights, weekends. But I’ve just made an appointment to have the piano tuned, and it’s time to tune up my bicycle as well.

How do you manage time with others and time alone?

69 thoughts on “Solitude versus Loneliness

  1. My inspiration often comes from my interaction with others and picking small elements of their characters to transplant into my fictional ones. So I consider that I am always working even if I am dancing along to zumba. In other words I do not manage my time well but am bursting with enthusiasm to get words onto paper so in a strange way it works.

    • Yes, there is that element of “always working” (which makes me appear very absent-minded, I’m afraid). And one of the things I love about working on a novel is having my characters with me all the time – so in a sense I’m never alone. But I do seem to need solitude in order to channel them on to the page.
      Thanks for writing, Deborah.

  2. The best I’ve read since time! You are great Deborah! And so helpful!
    Sincere kisses!

    Jose Luis Samaranch

    PS.: I’m a blogger too but in Spanish. I really hope you can understand. I would like to share with you so many thoughts and feelings.

    Twtt: jlsamaranch

  3. Thanks for this post. I’m married with two young children, so I could relate to so much of what you wrote about!

    Mornings are the best solitary writing times for me, too. Some mornings I write before everyone else gets out of bed, and on school mornings (my son is in preschool three mornings per week, my daughter is in school all day), I often lock the house, ignore the phone, and write. Then I feel free to play with the kids, attend to everyday tasks, and socialize in the afternoon and evening, since my writing work is done for the day (always allowing for more writing – maybe a post-kids’-bedtime session – if I’m so inspired).

    I also like the idea of “deliverables,” from Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Noncomformity. Instead of measuring my writing time in hours, I set up standards for a day, a week, a month, a year – for example, two blog posts per week, one book per year, etc. I know many writers use number of words per day as a standard too.

    You make a great point that “too much solitude leads to intolerable loneliness.” And that, of course, saps our writing potential – we lose perspective, and lack new experiences and material to draw from.

    • “Lock the house, ignore the phone, and write.” Fabulous!
      Thanks for this account of how you manage writing life in the midst of motherhood.

  4. Thank you for taking the time to write this. It’s given me plenty of ideas on how to better organize my life to have time for others and my writing amongst other activities. If you can do it, then I definitely can, as I am married, but have no kids yet hehe

    • “No kids yet hehe.”
      Isn’t there a saying about she who laughs last, laughs longest”?
      Thanks for writing – and good luck!

  5. I’m glad to read I’m not alone. I’ve been on both sides of this. Craving aloneness for much of my life, I finally have about all I could want. Now I’m looking for friends so I don’t wear out my fiance when he returns from work. I quit my job and moved with him across the country. Finding new friends in a new area has proved challenging for me. In the meantime, I blissfully dive into my creative endeavors but now find I need that social interaction to keep it stimulated. Balance is key. Thanks for sharing your tips. I’m getting there.

    • Wow, a cross-country move, no job, fiance – you’re a brave woman! And courage is exactly what you need to write.
      Good luck,

  6. “…learning how to walk the line between being alone and being lonely.” This is a constant struggle for me, and I found your post so relatable and inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing this! And oh, how I long for days to spend at my desk and nowhere else. But oh, too, how I fear only spending my days there.

    Thanks so much for posting this. It really spoke to me!

    • I’m glad this resonated for you. Thank you for letting me know. It’s very encouraging to hear that what I’ve written hit home.
      Good luck,

  7. One of my favorite topics. May Sarton is my favorite poet and she seems to like this one too. Thank you for sharing the beautiful way you balance. It helps me. For me, I am writing now after a 20 year break so I am still looking foward to the day that I feel a little less in the surge of the urge to write so that I can move back toward balance. For now I am jumping on whatever computer the kids happen not to be using and scribbling on alot of napkins.:) Oh yes, and I agree and acknowledge that for me too much solitude leads to horrible loneliness. Great point!

    • Yes – May Sarton.
      And I’m glad that you find this post encouraging. I’m encouraged to know that it’s helped.
      All best,

  8. This was an awesome post — thank you. I too, craved my writing/work time when my kids were young. I work from home as a freelance writer (I write business articles to pay the mortgage … and am working on a novel). My kids are now almost 20 and 14… and it seemed like, when they were little, that the day would never come when I would have uninterrupted time to do my work and write. I am glad that I was home for them (and still am, of course, for our 14 year old), but I see my time, finally, freeing up. The danger is that I could easily start filling up the time with more and more volunteer work, seeing friends, foster caring dogs (which I did when my daughter first left for college). But, I’ve made a conscious decision, this year, to pour my time into writing my novel. That is my new “baby.”

    • Yes, learning how to say “No” is a difficult one – especially since doing other “stuff” also fills the coffers of our imagination and aids our work. Balance, balance.
      Thanks for writing.

  9. So clear and full of thoughtful questions. But I do know, though, that whatever mode you were in last week in Manchester, you were right there and full of life.

    • Thanks for coming with me – driving over the mountain together was a fun way to socialize on the way to the recording studio. Let’s do it again!

  10. love this post! in the chaos of everyday life, it is very important to find that moment of is only from solitude that creativity can arise…and thus it is essential to find that sweet spot between being and doing

  11. Deborah, Thanks for the post. I can relate. Now i live in the mountains at our farm part of the month and in the city the rest of the time. I write, i read, i garden, i build, listen to music, play the guitar occasionally and do research and communicate on Facebook. I am with my third wife, the kids are gone and we travel and party with her family on the coast and above the city (Medellin). My wife works at what she loves every day and then we watch movies and share some Chilean wine and revel in our solitude together. I love your book, i understand Rose and Percy and the changes that come with age. Time now, is a precious commodity soon to be gone, these are my creative days, i dig the solitude and i dig the get- togethers, i’ve known loneliness and i am not there anymore, thankfully. This is the best time of my life.

    • Thanks for reply – and for your kind words about INTO THE WILDERNESS. I’m glad to hear that your life’s so good.

      • Ya know i have no excuses anymore for not writing, so i do or i don’t, depends on what i’m reading, at present its Deborah Lee and James Joyce, Dave Matthews is supplying background over Scotch on the rocks, i have nothing to prove anymore and it’s really cool, i love to write and read, its my passion, but i do it for me now. There actually are Muses, i was surprised when they showed their creative little selves. Art is long and life is short.

  12. Oh, I can’t imagine having a whole day to write as my boys are still little (don’t tell them that) and life is busy. Thank you, Deborah, for sharing this. I long for solitude and always wonder when I get it, if I will be lonely. Balance is the key and your tips are great! Thank you for a great blog.

    • Your boys won’t always be little, but your life will always be busy. Learning to create solitude and achieve balance is a life-time practice, and some days are better than others.
      Hearing from readers mitigates loneliness, so thanks for writing,

  13. This was a wonderful read — thank you.
    I wish I had more time to write, but I find that I simply have too much other stuff going on. When I finally get a bank of time in which to write (anything from an hour to a couple of days) I’m usually so tired and worn out that I slink guiltily away from the sight of my writing desk. It makes me sad, but I don’t do anything about it. I keep telling myself: just start, and one of these days I will.

    • I know. I used to expect myself to turn on the writing machine as soon as I was cut loose to do so, only to discover it took some time of simply sitting still before I could quiet my mind enough to hear myself think. Daily writing practice helps keep this muscle toned. I think you’ve given yourself good advice: “Just start.” To which I’d add – “and be kind to yourself; write without expectation.”
      Thanks for your comment.

  14. Hi, your blog reminds me of a story that I read during my high school. There, a culprit was imprisoned for 20 years and that “solitude” turned him into the most knowledgeable and intellectual man, as he got indulged in reading variety of books which include law, medicine, botany, history, geology, etc. However, utilizing the positive aspect of solitude could be fruitful wherein the indulgent, unintentionally, starts loving his or her isolation and at the same time being admired by the society, rather than being tagged as lonely.

    • Yes, I think writers often feel conflicted between the need for solitude and a sense of selfishness for claiming it. This is one of the many aspects of being a writer that makes the calling a difficult one. But for those who are called – there’s no escape but to write one’s way free.
      Thanks for your comment,

  15. Hi,

    I can totally relate. Im introverted so I usually want to be left alone, but then the loneliness slowly creeps up. Learning to find the thin line between the two (solitude and loneliness) is key. And this post just offered a huge chunk of help!

    • Glad you found this helpful, Peter. And thanks for letting me know. The internet is a way to stay both alone and connected, but it’s no substitute for face-to-face contact with family and friends. The trick for me is to figure out my terms – and stick to them.
      Good luck with this balancing act,

  16. Deborah, you are sooo lucky! I wish I had the luxury of that kind of time schedule to work, play, etc. and have more balance. I am the go-to girl in our house, with an elderly mother I have the sole responsibility of assisting (though she lives independently) and a daughter with special needs, as well as a teen trying to meet the demands of prepping for college. I find I have to get up at 4:30-5:00 in the a.m. to get an hour to myself. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I get a few hours on the weekend and it’s a VERY rare occasion when I’m able to have a day to myself. I haven’t had a real vacation in nearly twenty years.
    The moments I manage to find to be with my own thoughts and to write them down or “play” with my characters and stories are a godsend. My writing is the one thing I can count on to help me maintain myself, to find a bit of internal balance even when the world around me may be in chaos and I’m overwhelmed by a hectic schedule.
    I love getting up early in the morning, making my first and only cup of coffee, sitting down at my desk and looking out the window, hearing the birds, watching the dark become light, and thinking of what I’m going to write. So peaceful and exciting at the same time!
    I feel lonely when I’m unbalanced, but it isn’t because of the quiet or lack of people around me. When I feel loneliness, it’s a more insidious symptom that I am losing myself. That when I miss ME. That’s how I know I need to make some room, get a little distance between myself and the demands of the outside world – to concentrate on my own balance.

    • Laura,
      Yes I am lucky – and you are articulate, and what you say is so important. I am glad that you are able to rise early, sit at your desk, and stare out the window. I’m glad that you know that you need that kind of practice to write and stay balanced. Sometimes, I think that some of the more horrible acts of violence that occur around the world are the result of a person who hasn’t had a time to find balance or a way to articulate passionate feelings – except with a gun.
      You have many responsibilities, and I’m sure you fulfill them with love and grace, because you treat yourself to that morning time, and write your way to centeredness.
      Thanks for writing,

      • LOL oh, oh, yes indeedy – there is a fine line between balance and insanity! I walk that line occasionally…though guns and violence don’t figure into the equation! I have been known to raise my voice when interrupted during a particularly creative session…shame on me! 😀

    • Everyone’s different! I used to love lunches, but then I discovered I loved uninterrupted time more.
      Thanks for writing,

  17. I really like this post. What great ideas! I can experience solitude without actually being alone. When I am alone I don’t feel lonely. Maybe I’ve developed this through the practice of meditation, I am not sure. 🙂

  18. I enyoyed this post. For me lonliness is an abstract feeling, I live a rather hermetic life in rural Mexico. I sense lonliness, I move on, and I adore solitude. It was interesting though to see that we share some strategies. If I don’t exercise daily if feel lonely more often, and I must schedule fun, which for me is a horseback ride, or it tends to go by the wayside, sacrificed to writing, to chores.

    • Yes – I find that exercise is key to all-around well-being. I’m not a horsewoman, so I’m curious to know if you feel companionship with your horse? I have a dog who reminds me to take a walk, and two cats who remind me to be still. Very helpful, these pets.

      • Absolutely. I moved to Mexico so I could have horses. I am not a good enough writer to exspress my connection to them, or (as I would rather believe) it is beyond words. Essential these creatures. paz, Abby

  19. Loved this!
    Learning to become comfortable in one’s own skin is a first step to being comfortable being ‘solo’.
    Imagine being blind….hearing the world around you and yet, not really being a part of it.
    or deaf…
    It takes courage being human.

    • “It takes courage being human.” Yes! Thank you for that.
      Glad you liked the post – and that you took the time to let me know. I appreciate it.

  20. Deborah, I am pretty much with you on how you balance your life with solitude and writing and being with others meaninful in your life. I don’t especially like attending local events in this small town–not much stimulating around here, I am afraid. I find that as I walk for exercise, I encounter all sorts of new people and make new friends all the time. I cannot honestly say I have ever been either bored or lonely. My friends say this is because I am a natural Earth Mother and relate and feed upon everything around me at all times. How blessed am I if this is so! (And I think it is!)

    • Hi granbee –
      You are a rare bird to never be bored or lonely – and a lucky one. I think you are twice blessed: to be so richly engaged in the world around you – and to know it. Thanks for writing; it’s always nice to hear from you!

  21. Pingback: Being a Part, or Apart? « Invisible Horse

    • Thanks. I read your lovely, thoughtful, piece. I’m honored to be mentioned in it, and I love your wordplay: a part v. apart.
      All best,

  22. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Deborah. As a single person, I live with a nagging worry that if I don’t work hard to maintain friendships, I’ll become a “woman with cats,” living a diminished and lonely life. As a writer, I often need to turn down invitations to make time for writing and for the solitude that opens creative space in my mind. A fellow children’s author has a dream of the writers’ club where we can go after we finish a chapter and crow about our success (or complain about our frustrations!) I love your guidelines; thanks for sharing.

    • Jeanne,
      I love the idea of a writer’s club for crowing/moping as needed! When I feel tremendously isolated, I think about getting a job, but every time I accept a teaching or a writing gig, I resent the mental and temporal space it takes away from sustaining my fictive world. Balance! balance!
      Thanks for writing,

  23. Pingback: A Writer Cannot Live By Words Alone « Live to Write – Write to Live

  24. I try to not be away from the house both weekend days — it’s one or the other for me: if I’m out on Sunday, I’ll stay home on Saturday. I work mostly from home these days, so I have to force myself to invent errands to go out. I try to walk to the library or the post office each day, go to town for my produce once a week. I live with my mother, so there is usually someone here. I do a lot of my socializing online, keeping in touch with far-flung writers, but I am active in a community of musicians as well and see other singers a couple of times a month.

  25. I’m still at the stage of trying to raise two lively boys, run a business from home, organise and adapt to moves abroad… and write as well. So solitude seems like a distant memory (and a shining beacon of hope somewhere ahead of me). Nice to know that we do get there eventually!

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