PEN 2011: The Value of Your Time



I am neither lonely nor in solitude, but I am alone…


And I also feel a kinship with my new favorite Norwegian author, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold. She, along with Lewis Hyde and Shin Kyung-Sook, shared their ideas of how both the sentimentality and actuality of being lonely and alone affect the creative process. Joshua Wolf Shenk moderated the panel, titled Loneliness and Community. And the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature continued.


Though the distinction was never made explicit at the event, there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Alone signifies a physical state whereas lonely indicates a psychological state. Alone: separate, apart, or isolated. I want to be alone. Lonely: Affected with depression because of a lack of friends, companionship, etc. I am so lonely.


Skomsvold penned her acclaimed debut novel, The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am, in the basement in which she lived—alone. The underground dwelling place is depressing both literally (it is a sunken space) and mentally (there is little light and nature, if any). I know this well, for I too live in a basement, a depressing habitation that requires even on the brightest summer day the glow of all lamps to give my place some semblance of daytime. My perceived kinship with Skomsvold ends here, though, at the alone/lonely divide.


In her apartment, Skomsvold was not only alone—she was also terribly lonely. Lost, she was smothered in a sorrow so immense it seemed almost inescapable. Writing a novel became the only way she could attach herself to something. Skomsvold has navigated some serious emotional seas, and judging by the reading she gave from her book, the experiences have deeply informed her writing. At the closing of her opening remarks, she wiped tears from her soft face. The last time I felt such raw emotion was with Lee Stringer, who left the audience in tears, at last year’s PEN World Voices Festival.


Skomsvold, then, in her time of physical and emotional isolation, seemed to simultaneously embody all manifestations of being by yourself: alone-ness, loneliness, and solitude.


[Update! Ms. Skomsvold has shared her opening remarks with The Mantle! You can read her short essay here.]


Is there a difference between alone-ness and solitude? In definition, the difference is slight, but qualitatively significant. Alone, we are merely separate, apart, isolated. In solitude, we are being alone, and likely we are enjoying this one-ness. I am living in solitude. I am in solitude.


It is in solitude that we can discover and learn about ourselves, Hyde said. It was Emerson, I believe, who likened solitude to listening inward. A successful journey into the discovery and acceptance of “I,” of me, is necessary before we can successfully engage the community around us (be they friends, family, co-workers, fellow urban inhabitants, the world).


Solitude, then, is a blessed experience in which we should all be able to engage and enjoy. Unfortunately, the practice is lacking in today’s modern age, especially among the youth. Hyde argues that too quickly young people jump into marriages or careers without having spent a proper amount of time in solitude, i.e., in self-discovery, which can lead to social, emotional, and psychological issues down the road.




Alone-ness, however, can threaten the psyche. The first question we must ask when one withdraws, Hyde declares, is: what is it that you are moving away from?


To assist him in deciphering the puzzle of alone-ness, Hyde turns to the Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the stages of Rilke’s journey into loneliness. Hyde confusingly alternated between “alone-ness” and “loneliness.” Thus while the stages are fairly clear, applying them to being alone or to being lonely result in the creation of distinct mental schemas.


Stage one in Rilke’s (and, thus, yours?) path into loneliness is reminiscent of the first stage of recovery from an addiction: recognition. Immediately the need for distinction between alone-ness and loneliness is apparent. One must recognize, “I want to be alone,” or “I am lonely.” (If it is the former, I would suggest stage 1.a and recall Hyde’s question: what is it that you are moving away from?)


Stage two is to recognize that there are “guardians” who will prevent you from going alone … or from being lonely. Guardians can be taken to include family, peers, co-workers, clergy, or whomever it is you interact with in life. If you want to be alone, you must recognize that there will be others—unwittingly or purposefully—who will prevent you from being alone. For example, as I write this, I am alone and I want to be alone. That does not, however, prevent my mother from calling. Whether or not I answer the phone, she still inserts herself into my mental state, and thereby unwittingly prevents me from being wholly alone. If you are lonely, however, you must recognize that there are guardians who will try to prevent you from falling into your sad state. They may not succeed, but they will (again, unwittingly or not) seek to provide you with some level of companionship and understanding.


Stage three: you must recognize the risks of your desire/state of being, namely that being alone or lonely risks losing the love of others. If you wish to be alone, you must necessarily prevent others from being with you. If you are lonely, you alienate those who are trying to reach out to you. In both occurrences, the costs could be detrimental to your relationships.




Okay… you’re alone or lonely… now what?


As to being lonely, I will not hazard a guess. I have never been lonely for an extended, depressing amount of time, so I can’t even imagine what it takes to escape that state of mind. Skomsvold found the light by writing her novel. She did so as a way of attaching herself to something. And so, I surmise that having a goal, or at least finding a center of gravity, is one requirement to escaping loneliness. Patience, it seems, is a requisite virtue as well.


As for the lonely writer, the image may be a sleight of hand trick. Solitude, Skomsvold definitively states (and Hyde agrees), is necessary to do any serious writing. We imagine the scribe tucked away in a cabin in the woods, holed up in a musty apartment, or locked away in a remote hotel, furiously writing writing writing to finish that perfect story. Surely writers have been lonely, but the act of writing and then publishing is not a lone act. An author may write while she is alone, in solitude even, but eventually she seeks the feedback of editors, publishers, and peers on her work. Writing quickly becomes a social act, as does promoting one’s work. David Foster Wallace was certainly lonely, but alone he was not (he was a professor, appeared on television, etc.). The famous recluse Thomas Pynchon might be alone, but his writings don’t necessarily scream loneliness.


The Internet, however, does allow for the possibility of a lonely writer to also be alone when it comes to publishing. Creating a blog certainly requires no human interaction. But as soon as that first comment or email is received, she is no longer completely alone.


If anything, it is the reader who can live the life of loneliness and/or alone-ness, and in solitude, if he so chooses. For the very act of reading is a singular activity, requiring that the world around you be temporarily (if not gleefully) rendered mute.



Joshua Wolf Shenk, Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, Lewis Hyde, Loneliness, PEN 2011, Psychology, Rainer Maria Rilke, Shin Kyung-Sook