The Purposes of Writing from a Lonely Place


When I was a little boy, when I still dreamt of being a lawyer like many of my peers at that age, my inquisitiveness bothered my mother. “Mama,” I asked her one day, “don’t you think six children are a lot?” She gasped some air, tossed her hand in the air and laughingly said, “I wanted to make sure none of you end up lonely.” Of course, that is the most logical response to provide an eight-year-old with ill-conceived view of the world; and still thought babies were dropped by airplanes and the woman with the quickest grip caught many. That logic made me think that my mother was always on the lookout for airplanes so that I may have more siblings– therefore loneliness was impossible. I am born in a family of six: one older brother, two older sisters and two younger sisters– making me susceptible to “the middle child syndrome.” A house full of children never got rid of my feelings of loneliness. But therein was a place I felt whole– in the lonely hours when my siblings huddled around one another, I wrote. Sometimes I would write letters to my father knowing that he would never be able to read them, or love letters to a girl I had a crush on (or at least that is what boys my age did then) or wander off into empty yet therapeutic words.


It is in the alienation of body and my thoughts from my family and the world that kept my pen moving. By the time I was thirteen I had compiled poems in Setswana and English. I wrote my first short story when I was fifteen. I was working on a play for some time and I gave up on it. I never thought my loneliness would be an integral part of existence and liberation. It is often said that “writing introduces one to a different world,” and that remains unquestionable for my journey as a writer and the way in which I create my craft. I do not write because everyone else is doing it, I write because I find undeniable beauty in the way words can remain still on paper but move the heart.


I am of the view that the world is a lonely place. The loneliness in which we are born into tends to make us fixated with grouping things, and ensuring that they “belong.” We may look at the way the stars are held by the sky and consider the way in which they form a pattern and call it a constellation. We assume that the existence of a pattern suggests “rightful belonging” and this is the same with my life. The fact that my parents worked out an algorithm with regards to the age gap between me and my siblings, the existence of that pattern, suggested that we would belong together. The assumption was that there would be no kind of isolation. Loneliness would be foreign. But who wonders if the moon is envious of the stars forming a pattern? Does anyone ever bother to invite the moon to disturb the hegemony of belonging? Amid that isolation and “otherness,” that is where my writing resides. Isolation enables you to escape from yourself and observe the world in which you live in. I fundamentally believe it is the role of the writer to become an eye for the world when everyone is comfortable with belonging. It is in isolation where one can question the premise of belonging and its impediments on existence. Whilst grouping is a survival tactic, a writer thrives because of their observing nature. When we stop observing, we stop questioning; and therefore, we cannot create.


Whilst isolation enables one to observe, the art of creation depends on vision. I was once told that writers live in a figurative world: the world full of metaphors, similes, hyperboles and puns, which they find refuge in when they express themselves. I find this to be true. Carl Phillips adds that “the ability to see in terms of metaphor is a special kind of vision.” Metaphors as the writer’s lens enable one to give words, in their empty form, life. When words have a shape, a smell, and can evoke an emotion, they become a place of refuge. We write because we are seeking a refuge– a place to be safe and alone with our thoughts. A place in which the mind refuses to connect with anything but the tangible words on paper.


The sacredness of the connection between the writer and the words, is the space where truth is uncompromised and revealed. It is the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth. We can best tell the truth when are able to confront it, deal with it and accept it. The misery about the truth is that it is often like a stepparent– too often, the immediate reaction is to ignore their existence, lash out in anger towards them because of the discomfort they will create, and eventually understand that there is a valid reason they are around. The truth exists to create immediate discomfort, although it often liberates. The truth, at least for me, is that writing is a place where truth resides. We best tell the truth when we are honest with ourselves. Honesty with one’s self through introspection; Stacey D’erasmo engages the idea of truth and introspection by exploring Rainer Maria Rilke’s counsel: “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”


The misfortune about belonging is that a sense of individuality is limited, or ceases to exist. Stars hang on the sky but we cannot set them apart because of their “togetherness.” But I think the moon is a star that refused to be held back by identity and belonging. We can tell the different phases of the moon because of its loneliness in the sky. The way in which it occupies space and how it never competes with the sun. The moon is sure of itself. A lonely place that enables a writer to be isolated enables the writer to occupy space remain concerned with ensuring that their words continue to stand on paper and exude energy. The benefit of introspection is that it allows you to “go into yourself” and teach yourself ways on becoming an honest version of yourself with the truth and that hones a clearer vision.


As an autobiographical writer, the truth needs to rest on paper like the sun rests upon the sky without compromise. In The Art of Fiction, Nicholson Baker complicates the idea of autobiographical writing; he adds that he “[likes] a high ratio of true events to made-up events or rearranged events.” I find this to be an intriguing idea– it begs the question: can the truth be made up? I think of it in terms of writing fiction: maybe I will take a true event from my life and make it someone else’s reality. Characters are all made up but they have some truth in them– the way in which we can feel them, hear them and express emotion towards them. I think that is where the truth become complicated. For me, there is no absolute truth, the truth is subjective; but how do express the subjectivity of the truth as something objective? Like Baker, I find the truth to be an exhilarating place where a writer can extract their craft, and this can be truly achieved when a writer learns ways to embrace loneliness and exercising agency by singling themselves out.

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