Actually, I do care.

Writers are a very strange species. Observe: stooped creatures, often nocturnal, that dwell in small rooms or corners of rooms, hunched over keyboards, muttering to themselves. Gnarled fingers and slit-like eyes as dark symbols appear on glowing screens. If you approach them during this process, if you violate its sanctity, this may elicit a grunt, a growl or a passive-aggressive rebuke. They may tolerate a hand on their shoulder, in passing, but rarely being spoken to. Words don’t mix with words, and they are busy creating spells to summon worlds into existence. They live in their heads, where the words are kept and sown and harvested, and as the words tumble out, as the dark symbols line up on the glowing screens, these creatures, these creators, are all-powerful. The outside world, the one that you inhabit, is merely a distraction, an inconvenience. And yet, it exists. Stubbornly, relentlessly, it exists.

In the outside world, we are as powerful or as powerless as the rest of you. In the outside world, we are exposed. Writers are, in their majority, introverts; it is no accident that we choose an occupation that demands isolation. An occupation that means, for all the support we might have, for all those gentle hands resting, briefly, on our shoulders, we are alone. And it is something to think about, it is almost schizophrenic, that the work we do, if we do it right, results in exposure. Over-exposure. That, by putting our work out there, we are practically inviting dozens of people, hundreds, thousands, into our small rooms and into our heads. To admire our neat stacks of words, to pick them up carefully and examine them, or to trample all over them, as they choose. We are inviting the outside world in, and leaving ourselves no place to hide. The outside world where we are as insecure as the rest of you, as vulnerable, powerless now to control the words that come our way.

And they come. Relentlessly, they come. It is no accident, because by putting your work out there, by saying “here, look, this is a thing I made”, you’re inviting judgement. You’re asking to be judged. Yet none of us, writers and humans, like to be judged. Unless we’re judged worthy; unless we’re judged good. It’s schizophrenic, but there is no way around it: once a thing is out there, it’s fair game. Except it’s not a game. Not to us. Once you cross over from writer into author, you’re no longer playing.

Until I published my first book, I’d never given much thought to reviews. I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond clicking “publish” and watching my book appear on Amazon, as if by magic. Beyond “look at this thing I made”. But reviews are the words that come our way; reviews are the judgement we invited. And it’s all fun and games until you get a negative one, and the world you carefully constructed in your quiet room comes crashing down, and strangers that you invited in yourself trample all over the ruins. Relentlessly and sometimes – even worse – casually, as if it means nothing. And writers, strange creatures though we may be, are just as vulnerable as the rest of you. There is a person behind the thing, and you can hurt them. And you would think, as writers, that we’d know of the power of words, how they can create or destroy, cut or heal, but no: paradoxically, we step into the outside world unprepared. To be lifted up high by praise or be casually shredded to pieces. Sticks and stones will break your bones? Words are much more lethal. And ratings, like ninja stars aimed at the soft, fleshy parts of our souls.

You’d think we’d know. But we cross over from writer into author, unprepared, and then we have to learn. That the thing we put out there is a target, not a shield; that it’s fair game and people will play by their own rules. That we cannot control the words that come our way. We have to learn not to care. But what inconsistent, schizophrenic creatures would we be, putting ourselves out there to be judged, if we didn’t care? Let me be the first to tell you, if you haven’t heard it before: actually, I do care. I may get better, with time, at picking up the pieces, I may get quicker at smiling and shrugging it off, but I will never not care. Good or bad, the judgement that I invited will always mean something. Just now, I cried at a lovely review that thanked me at the end. I care. This is not a game to me.

This is no sob story. We reap what we sow, and if we don’t like our harvest, perhaps we should choose another field. But if we insist on growing these crops, if we insist on peddling them to the world, we must do it with as much care as we can muster. As much vulnerability. We must tend to them, relentlessly. We must nurture the soil and tease out the weeds. We must stack up our words as neat as we can, so that they may withstand the judgement, even if we can’t. We must inhabit our worlds fully before we invite other people in. So that when we step out of our little rooms, stooped and slit-eyed, and say “look at this thing I made”, we can be sure that it’s the best thing we could have made. This is the best that we can do: as writers, as humans.

We can’t blame the seeds or the soil or the weather for the fact that not everyone likes tomatoes. Of course, there is something to be said for not going out of your way to trample all over someone else’s vegetable patch, but that’s judging other people by our own standards, which is exactly what reviewers are invited to do. We can’t blame them for the place where they started, or how high or how low we appear through their eyes. We must learn how to come down from the heights where praise lifts us, and how to stand up again when we’re tripped up, or fall. And we must care. Even when it hurts, we must care. Otherwise, we might as well stay in our rooms, playing at being a writer, and growling every time we are approached, and shrugging off every gentle, supportive hand that’s placed on our shoulders.

The above image was created in response to an Amazon review which compared reading my book 100 days of solitude to watching paint dry. I ran it as an advert for the book, with the headline “Cheaper than a tin of paint”. I don’t know if it sold any copies, but it kept me amused for a while. It was my way of shrugging it off.

You are invited to judge me on Amazon, or on facebook.

What does solitude mean to you?

As many of you know, the first book I published, 100 days of solitude, is an account of how I gave up my life in London to spend a few months living alone on a Greek island called Sifnos. It was initially only meant as an exercise in writing full-time, but it ended up being so much more than that, and it opened my eyes to infinite, previously unimagined possibilities for a different, more fulfilling way of life. One that has solitude – the time and space to be with yourself – at its core.

Many people equate solitude with loneliness, and it frightens them. I went to my hairdresser here on Sifnos for a haircut the other day, and she asked me again, as she always does:
    ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ (I have a reputation on the island: that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot – isn’t she writing a book or something?)
    ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Sometimes.’ But don’t we all? Loneliness isn’t dependant on where you live or how many people there are around you; you can be just as lonely in a crowd as you can be on a quiet mountain trail; you can be just as lonely in London as in Sifnos. And the same, in reverse, goes for solitude: no matter what your circumstances, you can get it, the kind of solitude you need. An hour to yourself, to read, or think, or do nothing; a walk in the park or along an empty beach. You don’t have to seek it in extremes.

But there are other people who only respond to extremes, and my version of solitude offends them. They equate it with isolation and hardship, and I have far too good a social life to qualify as a proper recluse. And that’s fine; it’s a fair judgement: I am that girl who lives alone and walks around a lot, but I talk to everyone. These critics and I have a very different understanding of solitude and its purpose. To me, it’s about being more connected, not less. But to be able to forge meaningful connections with other people, you must first be connected with yourself. And that’s what we lose when we make our lives so overcrowded. That’s why I live alone. That’s why I walk. That’s why I write.

I came across an interesting article entitled The Benefits of Solitude last night. It’s an excerpt from a book called Solitude: In pursuit of a singular life in a crowded world by Michael Harris and it echoes, in a much more eloquent way, the thoughts expressed above. According to the book’s blurb: “The capacity to be alone–properly alone–is one of life’s subtlest skills. Real solitude is a contented and productive state that garners tangible rewards: it allows us to reflect and recharge, improving our relationships with ourselves and, paradoxically, with others.” Thank you, Michael.

You can read the article here.

It seems Michael Harris and I have very similar definitions of solitude, but the point is, not everyone does. We all have a different understanding of solitude and loneliness, happiness and fulfilment, and we are all free to seek the latter two in the way that makes sense to us. Not everyone will associate them with solitude but I, for one, will forever advocate the solitary walk as a means for being the person I want to be.

Before I go, I’d like to introduce you to the King of the Solitary Walk, and a man whom I’m tentatively beginning to consider a friend: writer and long-distance hiker Keith Foskett. As he describes in The Last Englishman, Keith has walked the entire length of the US, from the borders of Mexico to Canada (the Pacific Crest Trail), and though there was hardship and isolation and loneliness, he never really experienced them in a negative way. His is an extreme version of taking yourself away from everything to become more connected. His latest book, Travelled Far, is free on Kindle at the moment, and you can also get a free copy of his first book, The Journey in Between, by signing up to his mailing list. I don’t often recommend books, but I’ve read Keith’s work and I do so without any hesitation.

And if you’re curious about my own version of debatable solitude and you’ve yet to read 100 days of solitude, you can now get a free preview of the first 15 days by clicking here.

What does solitude mean to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comment below or email me.

(This went out as a newsletter to my mailing list this morning. Click here if you’d like to join.)