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Updated: April 5, 2013 17:55 IST

Isolation and imagination

Latha Anantharaman
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Coverpage of the iconic 'Wuthering Heights'.
Special Arrangement Coverpage of the iconic 'Wuthering Heights'.

If we cured little writers of their loneliness, would we one day see a vast reduction in literary output?

At a recent literary festival, a poet said she started writing very young, as a “lonely only child”. Many writers seem to have this kind of background, some just as lonely in a house full of siblings. Are lonely children more likely to become writers, or are budding writers more likely to isolate themselves and become lonely?

It’s a chicken-and-egg question, but in any case it reveals that loneliness and writing are linked. Among the most famously isolated writers were the Bronte family at Haworth Parsonage. What they wrote as children has been scrutinised almost as much as the novels they wrote as adults. They formed teams of two to create fantasy worlds. Maybe each of these Brontes was brilliant, or maybe they just always had a conversation going in their heads, but when you have no friends and can’t go anywhere, and your siblings are dropping like flies, you have nothing to do but work it all out on paper.

It was a Joan Didion essay (On Keeping A Notebook, quoted in the website www.brainpickings.org) that provoked me to examine the connection. “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Didion muses, “inexplicable to those who do not share it.... Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss”.

Is writing then just a symptom of a condition that no loving parent would wish on a child? If we counselled those little scribblers, if we arranged friends for them to talk to, if their teachers mentored them and put them on the junior volleyball team, would we one day see a vast reduction in literary output?

Maybe not. Writing as a profession is now taught in universities. People join creative writing programmes and come out qualified to publish a novel. They probably don’t work day jobs to pay the bills. So you will still have enough books to keep the shops open.

And how do we hear the voice of that anxious malcontent, even if she continues to scribble undisturbed? That writer continues to resist, rearrange. She knows she must record the conversation in her head and work out all the implications on paper, if only for herself. The best stories are likely to emerge when we write from the soul rather than for a market. On the other hand, we know that books don’t find their own way into print, as some authors pretend. If a writer is not at all sure she must be read, and she’s unwilling to hustle publishers, she may after all remain, quite content, in her own little world.

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