The Evolution of Solitary Writing

by Chris Connell

Society is undergoing a shift, and the act of writing is experiencing a transformation in the digital age. New norms, like collaborating with a team on writing projects and real-time editing are common practices for many contemporary writers. Conversing with people online is not a new activity, but for me, sharing my writing process in real time is difficult. Harriet Wilkins did an exemplary job illustrating how these online communities can become established by explaining how participants “revealed knowledge that they shared prior to the conversation, established new spheres of shared knowledge, and developed norms for memberships and for ways of talking with one another.” Media that once showcased a writer working alone is currently being challenged which raises the question of whether a writer has truly ever written alone. Collaborative real-time writing environments such as Google Docs can invoke anxiety in new writers; but if they did not exist, there would not be an opportunity to explore what a solitary writer is, and how collective idea sharing creates better writers in the contemporary digital world.

I am compelled to be honest about how I feel writing this piece for my research to be productive. I am opposed to what I am trying to uncover, because I fear what I find will force me to redefine what it means to be a writer. I have held onto this idea that writers are supposed to write alone—in solitary confinement to create their best work. However, the idea that writers never write alone leaves me perplexed, yet curious, despite the thought of writing in front of others making me nauseous and conflicted. Charles W. Tolman offered some insight when he said, “Even if I go bare-naked and implementless, I go with knowledge given me by others. Survival in the strictest sense is impossible for individual members of our species on their absolute own.” I question if I have romanticized writing and created a self-made prison cell where I am unable to see the value in my surroundings and how they can positively influence how I write.

I have never felt like writing alone is a glorious act, but perhaps there is a lesson to be learned. I am starting to realize that I have been conditioned to believe writers need to endure loneliness and block out outsiders to connect with themselves so they can create something meaningful. I have been on a lonesome track as a writer, concealed inside myself for as long as I can remember. I’m cautious of the unfamiliar winds that threaten to overwhelm me as my feet find their footing on this new terrain. Fear climbs out from the deepest crevices of my mind as I venture into the unknown. 

According to Perry and Morphett, real-time editing in Google Docs has the potential to create anxiety among peers, but this does not take away from the positive aspects it provides by allowing users to seamlessly converse and share ideas. It creates a collaborative space that benefits the collective. I recently learned about Google Docs and this concept of real-time editing in one of my classes. My group created one for us to share ideas together. I stared at this foreign document as a teammate typed his thoughts effortlessly. He basked in the light while I hid in the shadows afraid to share my truth. I watched as each letter appeared, one after another, like dominoes. It makes my skin crawl to even think about. It felt oddly intimate and personal to be there watching others write. I sat there solid as a stone, frozen and alone in the cyber abyss, unable to participate.

The walls started to close in, so I left the uncomfortable by retreating to my familiar space. I turned to Microsoft Word to write my thoughts out, which flowed like water through my fingers. But deep down, my subconscious was aware that even the deepest wells run dry. I completed my work as I always do and then copied and pasted it into the document for everyone to see. This curious feeling kept creeping into my mind. What if I learned to lean into the collaborative and begin anew? Would it strengthen my craft and benefit others, or would it feel like an invasive species eating me from the inside out?

 Having a sense of belonging in “the writing community itself offers emotional support and makes the writing process less lonely and more enjoyable.” I continue to hear this and wish I was a better liar because even though the idea frightens me, a part of me feels inspired—but something is holding me back. I feel like a vampire waiting to be invited into someone’s home—but in my case, there is no malicious intent behind entering. I cannot help but wonder what would happen if I learned how to critically engage with these alternative writing methods.  

On the other hand, Emily Dickinson is an interesting example of a brilliant writer who lived a life alone with her work. After returning to her family home, she became more solitary, and it was extremely rare for her to engage with people outside of that seclusion. Perhaps there is some warped idea of self-preservation that keeps me and other writers locked away inside our beautifully decorated tombs that we call our writing rooms. 

I am starting to question if I am ever actually alone in the traditional sense when I am writing. I am drawn to a statement Stephen Toulmin makes when he is talking about Wittgenstein’s work: “All such units of understanding obtain their meaning by entering language not via the minds of single individuals but within “forms of life” (Lebensformen) that are essentially collective.” I find myself in an internal struggle as I stumble across an ignored vastness of the unexplored infinite continuum of space. I can feel its presence, but it is elusive and shrouded in secrecy. On this mountain of curiosity, I attempt to climb into a living, breathing reflection of what if? But I end up swept into a cloud of confusion. My soul feels intertwined with writing, so I feel as though I have no choice in the matter. I am aware that there is a darkness in the distance, waiting to devour me in the name of loneliness while I work. I long for its touch because it brings me closer to a feeling of purpose and belonging in society—a way to contribute something meaningful.

I never take writing for granted because I understand the power language has and its ability to bring real change to people’s lives and society. In Hannah J. Rule’s essay, she discusses how Susan Wyche’s work “is transformative for writers” to see that the “where and with what” they write matters. When I slip into a haze and get lost in writing, I try to remember what a privilege it is to share that moment with others and think about how my words might impact others who may read my work.

While digging for information about how solitary writers can be alone while maintaining engagement with others on academic projects, I encountered an interesting concept about short bursts of writing called “snack writing” and how you can write alone while accomplishing writing together, digitally. Christine Winberg discusses how “human activity is always undertaken by subjects, mediated by tools and embedded within a social context.” This idea of peering through this lens while monitoring the act of snack writing online communally is fascinating because it’s reshaping the outdated, traditional thinking of what it means to be a solitary writer. Another study focused on computer-mediated collaboration and creativity in children. Finding common ground was essential in the programs the children used for social creativity; collaboration was enhanced through the emotional relationships established among the users. It is perhaps possible that this individualistic way of looking at writing and other creative tasks will change with the next generation due to their early introduction to digital online collaboration methods.   

Through new experience, I’ve learned that the act of writing is a living breathing organism whose underlying foundation is rooted in people, places, and things all around us. It is not a solitary and stagnant practice that is derived solely from individual writers. It is a collective gathering of information over the course of human existence. Linda Brodkey’s work helped me see that the reason for writing is undeniably grounded in the very soil we walk upon, which shapes our way of learning, teaching, and understanding of how we interact with our surroundings and society in the act of writing as a collective. It is challenging for me to admit that I have been misled to believe that writing is solitary when it is largely social by nature. It is likely that my ego is at play and has this subconscious desire to continue romanticizing solitary writing because it would mean that my work is unique and wholeheartedly mine. 

 Perhaps it is me deflecting to bypass acknowledging the unknown. As I learn to reframe my way of thinking, I begin to appreciate digitally collaborative, social writing networks and all the assets in my vicinity that influence and contribute to the way I write. I happily admit writing this essay has forever altered what solitary writing means to me and how I will engage with literary landscapes.

CHRIS CONNELL is a student at York University who is pursuing his passion for writing. He has a daily yoga practice and is certified to teach. His guilty pleasure is reality TV with his partner. He loves late night tubby time with lush bath bombs, books, and tea.