Writing: a solitary pursuit or a social activity?

This week in Blogland there has been a lot of talk about where writers work and lots of wonderful photos of their solitary desks, all reinforcing the notion that writing  is a lonely pursuit (see blogs by F.C.Malby and Terri Windling). So, it is very timely that I am welcoming back our very own guest blogger and writer Kendra Rose, who suggests the very opposite could be true!

KendraRose3 Last week I attended a talk at the British Library titled: Women Writers in the British Museum given by Susan David Bernstein, Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The talk was based on her book Roomscapes: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh University Press, 2013). Although I had not read the book and knew little about the subject matter previously I found it very interesting.

library:1 One of the main themes was the idea that the British Museum Reading Room was not a space where only educated men of a privileged class visited but an accessible, public workspace for many emerging and known women writers, particularly during the late 19th century. She believed that it was this social element which spurred their work forward in new, experimental directions, thereby transforming the writing process from a solitary activity to a social one. This was of course at a time when most women still worked in the home.


history_readingroom_185f Although the space was available to anyone who wished to use it, in the early days they set aside a special area called the ‘Ladies Section’. Needless to say, most of the women neglected to sit in this area thereby irritating some of the male users who claimed that the women distracted them. In 1857 the newly redesigned Reading Room was opened to the public. The new design was based on a drawing by the librarian Antonio Panizzi and perfected by the architect Sydney Smirke. It changed the room from a rectangular shape to a round dome, thereby creating a more friendly space where readers could easily spot each other and frequently interacted over the catalogues in the centre of the room.

Virginia_Woolf During her talk Bernstein spent a good deal of time discussing Virginia Woolf whose classic A Room of One’s Own famously informed women writers that, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Bernstein challenged that theory, citing the number of women writers who had neither and who used the British Museum Reading Room as their workspace, amongst them Eleanor Marx, George Eliot, the feminist poet and novelist Amy Levy, Christina Rosetti and even Virginia Woolf herself.

It would seem to have been a question of class, with some of the wealthier women writers who had both the space and the books they needed at home choosing to only use the Reading Room when absolutely necessary.

library2 I thought this was an intriguing way of approaching writing, which I have always considered to be a solitary activity. I’d be interested to know what other writers think of this. Of course, even if writing is a solitary activity writers still need to network with other writers and this often happens now through writers groups, writing classes, and also online via blogs and social media. However much of the writer’s actual writing is done alone, and it can be a lonely business.

Last November I participated in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. As part of the event several ‘write ins’ were scheduled where groups of participants would get together in a pub, cafe or museum and spend time writing together. Admittedly I did not attend any of those events because I didn’t think I’d actually get any real writing done there, to my mind it was just a recipe for distraction. Of course, I thought it could be a great social event just not a productive use of my writing time.

Stack of Library Books What do you think? Is writing something to be done alone or with others? Or does it matter? For myself I tend to get more done when I’m alone in the privacy of my own home but I know there are many writers who write from cafes, libraries and other public spaces. Of course this doesn’t seem to be quite the same as a regular group of writers writing in the same physical space and meeting to discuss their works in progress. I’m not sure that there is anything quite like this anymore, unless you belong to a group which has their own office or studio space. Do you know of anything like this? I’d be interested to know. Perhaps I’d join it.

Women Writers Susan David Bernstein’s book, Roomscape: Women Writers in the British Museum from George Eliot to Virginia Woolf is available from Edinburgh University Press http://www.euppublishing.com/book/9780748640652 Unfortunately due to the price of it (£70, discounted to £59 for the event) I wasn’t able to obtain a copy, but it sounds like a great read if you can afford it.”

*thanks to The British Museum for the image of “The Reading Room under construction, William Lake Price, 1855 (detail)” and to the Modernism Lab at Yale University for the Virginia Woolf photo.

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23 Responses to Writing: a solitary pursuit or a social activity?

  1. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hell. Kendra
    A really thoughtful post and well written. In some ways I like the solitude of writing and can sometimes find that things like writing groups can be a distraction and not always helpful. However, as writers once there is a finished product you need contacts and connections to spread the word about your work. A thought provoking post Kendra

  2. Kendra says:

    Hi Ruth,
    I like the solitude of writing too, though you are right that writers also need connections to get their work known to others, as well as perhaps a bit of writerly company from time to time. I think that writing groups are good for bouncing ideas around and also for helping to critique works in progress. I don’t think they are so good for ‘writing with’ if you see what I mean. It probably depends on what kind of a writer someone is though, and maybe also the concentration levels of that particular writer. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Katie says:

    Hi Kendra
    That’s was an interesting read. I think writing is an alone thing for me anyway, when I pull out the laptop and sink into writing the slightest distraction can snap me out of it. So I like to write alone. However I agree every writer needs other writers to talk to and swap ideas with.

    I don’t agree you have to have a room of your own just some very good head phones that block out the sounds around you.

    Thanks- for a great blog read
    Hope your well

  4. Kendra says:

    Hi Katie,
    I’m the same. I find that it sometimes can take a lot of work to get into a creative “zone” where the imaginary world and characters you’re creating for the reader become real and it is all too easy to get distracted and turn this off. I don’t agree with Virginia Woolf either. I think a writer just needs a quiet place where they can concentrate and this doesn’t have to be their own room, though I suppose it does need to be a place where they can be alone for at least some of the time. I remember reading that Stephen King wrote in an alcove under the stairs in his early days, as well as on a portable typewriter in a laundryroom where he worked. The headphones might be the simplest solution though.
    What would your ideal writing place be?
    Thanks for your comments!

    • Katie says:

      Hi Kendra

      Hmm If I could create a righting place It would be a small room with a wind a fan and a few photos and quotes on the walls. Just some where cosy to sink into the mind of writing. When I was a kid in our other house we had this little toy cup-bored that I would hide in to write in my diary it felt more magical then a big open space.

      The head phone’s the quick fix when around others 🙂

      I agree it is easy to get distracted when there are other things going on.

      Take care

      • Katie says:

        Hi Kendra

        Hmm If I could create a writing place It would be a small room with a window a fan and a few photos and quotes on the walls. Just some where cosy to sink into the mind of writing. When I was a kid in our other house we had this little toy cup-bored that I would hide in to write in my diary it felt more magical then a big open space.

        The head phone’s the quick fix when around others

        I agree it is easy to get distracted when there are other things going on.

        Take care

        • Kendra says:

          Hi Katie,
          That sounds like my idea of a great writing space too. I think coziness is important for writing as it can make you feel secure even if you aren’t too confident about what you are writing and therefore make the words flow a little easier. Your cupboard sounds like just the thing–what a great place to begin.
          Thanks again.

  5. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi again,
    I’m lucky enough to have a study it is where I go each morning. I aim to be at my desk for 8am though sometimes its earlier. My neighbours don’t tend to get moving until past 9am which means I’ve got a good hour of near silence. I put pictures of famous authors in my study as well as some quotes. I have my iPod but most of the time, even though my headphones are in, Im not listening to anything. Sometimes I put classical music on if the dog next door is making a racket. It seems to quiet him down.
    I suppose my study is my ‘ideas lab’ and it’s where ideas for paintings as well as stories and longer work, start to grow. I know not everyone has the space for a study, but it’s important I feel to have peace and quiet.

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Ruth,
      It sounds like you have a good routine in place. I try to set a time and number of hours for myself too and then stick it out even if it is difficult, but if it gets counterproductive I do something else. I think this helps because there are many times when writing can be difficult and your story might not move at the pace you’d hoped. Luckily there are also great times that make up for this. I like writing in the morning too, I find my mind is clear of distractions then.
      You are lucky to have a study where you can write. It must be nice to be able to have all your writing and painting materials in one place. Of course, peace and quiet is important too.
      Thanks again for your comments!

    • Hi Ruth and Kendra and Katie,
      I also have a “quiet” writing work space and I love it. I try to go there every day at nine but it doesn’t always happen. It’s where I get the actual writing done. Ideas, on the other hand, tend to come when I am not in that space, when I’m walking or shopping or (like Agatha Christie) doing the dishes. I tend not to share my writing now – not until I have finished whatever I am working on (and as I am writing novels and that can take a while) but when I was starting out I really appreciated being part of a writing group or class or anywhere where I could get support and feedback – not that I always got the feedback I wanted to hear, ha! For me the most important thing about sharing is trusting the person/others you are with. The one other place I like to write is the reference library. It’s quiet and warm and when I am there I feel like I am part of a group without having to actually communicate with anyone ( because underneath I am a very anti-social grump!) . So I understand the women library users enjoying the space in the Reading Room and I loved the fact that the ladies refused to stay in the”Ladies Section”. I was also bemused by Susan Berstein’s comment about “class” and how the wealthier women stayed at home in their own libraries, while the less wealthy used the library, which I can believe. But wealth is relative and in this case I imagine “working class” women, the really less wealthy, would be all too busy cleaning the houses of the middle/upper class women (while they sit in the library) to go there themselves ;o) Great post, Kendra. Thanks so much!

  6. Night Fligher says:

    Hello everyone.
    l am new here.
    l think writing needs quiet solitude for collecting the right thoughts but partly someone needs to be also social life for collecting new experiences for his/her next work(s). But all in one it doesn’t matter, in the point of view of the reader the only one thing that matters is: THE RESULT.
    Good reading.
    Night Flighter

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Night Fligher.
      Welcome and thanks for your comments. I agree completely. Without life experiences we wouldn’t have anything interesting to write about. I do remember however that in some of the course notes for a creative writing class I took that they said that a person has had all of the life experiences needed to write stories by the age of six, or something to that extent. I believe it was referring to emotional experiences in life though as opposed to life experience generally. It’s interesting now that I think about it, I don’t kno if I’d agree with this or not.
      Glad you enjoyed it.

    • Hi Night Flighter
      I agree, writing needs a quiet space, for me anyway, but I also agree that life experiences can help stimulate creativity in many ways – although, “experience” is relative to the individual. I agree with the writer Eudora Welty, who once wrote:
      “I am a writer who came for a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all series daring starts from within.”
      Great to hear from you and yes, for the reader, the reading experience is everything 🙂

  7. Interesting article! I write very much by myself, but i get ideasfrom all over the place and inspiration from a lot of other people. It’s perhaps really only the actual physical writing I do totally by myself, the thinking part is partly alone and partly with others.

    • Kendra says:

      Hi craftygreenpoet,
      I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was such an interesting talk and not what I’d expected to hear from another writer. That’s interesting and something which I think a lot of writers do. It’s great to be ‘working on something’ without sitting down to work on it yet. I’m the same and get inspiration from many places but when it comes to the actual writing I have to ‘go it alone’ or it won’t ever happen.
      Thanks for your comments!

    • Yes, that is exactly how I work. But even if I am in my writing space and all alone I also need to know I will have no distractions – for example, knowing I have an appointment at the dentists later in the day, puts me off. I really need a whole day ahead of me.

      Thanks for comment, CraftyGreenPoet, great to hear from you 🙂

  8. Wendy says:

    I like my own company and my own space so I am quite happy being a lonesome writer. It may be just me but I find the idea of writing in a cafe rather pretentious! A sort of ‘Look at me I’m a writer’ thing going on. I can only write in my own house on my own. It is solitary but I make sure that a lot of my hobbies are social to compensate for this – I also make time for meeting up with friends. Intereraction with other writers is through my blog.

    • Hi Wendy,
      yes, I like my own company too when writing. In fact I’m a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde … when I’m writing I lock myself away and I have no internet and no phone and I do not want to talk to anybody!!!! But when I am not writing I also like to do social stuff. I meet/catch up with friends and family – apart from my own immediate family, I have eight brothers and sisters. I also used to play basketball, then I practiced and coached judo, then I played volleyball and now I do a bit of zumba but I love going for long walks most of all. The break from the writing gives my creative side a chance to recharge (at least that’s what I think). What works for me, may not work for anyone else, the key, I think, is to know thyself! :o)

      • Kendra says:

        Hi Marianne,
        I think its important for a writer to have the space to sort through their ideas and creative processes. I like to lock myself away too, it makes writing somehow feel safer. Some people probably think that writers are really boring, always staying home by themselves and writing but I think that’s just because writers have all sorts of interesting adventures in their stories so they don’t need to have as many in real life (though they still need some!). I try to do lots of social stuff too when I’m not writing, especially anything exercise related as writing can also be very sedentary ( I like long walks best too).

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Wendy,
      I agree and am the same when it comes to writing, and yes I find the whole writing in a cafe a bit pretentious too. I always think they may look great doing it but at the end of the day I wonder how many words they have actually written (and how many cappuccinos have they had to buy to stay there). I like being alone when I am writing but also try to make time for social hobbies when I’m not writing.

  9. Ruth Hunt says:

    In reply to Wendy and writing in cafes. I have given up painting outside as the number of people who stand behind you and say ‘how did you do that bit of sky’ got to the stage where I thought I might end up killing someone. I once tried to write at my local cafe and ended up putting it away after the second or third comment from an enquiring stranger provoked the same feeling.

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Ruth,
      That does sound like it would get to be a problem fairly quickly! Talk about breaking your concentration. I wonder if there are any artists who paint (or perhaps even write) in public as a way of raising money for themselves, similar to street performers and musicians. That could be interesting.

  10. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Kendra,
    I have certainly seen fine artists in France, who take a portfolio of paintings, unpack them all and then lure the public in by offering to do quick and fairly cheap portraits in the hope that they buy something more substantial and expensive.
    I suppose the equivalent are things like poetry readings and readings from novels/short stories where you have a pile of books on the table ready to be signed…..

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