In Pursuit of Solitude
I was getting my hair dyed at The Powder Room, one of those retro hair salons in Wellington where the stylists wear bright red lipstick and flared dresses with cherries on them. To avoid conversation, I flipped through a magazine and found this passage:
“It remains unclear to me why the pursuit of solitude creates such anxiety, even animosity, in so many people. It seems at worst a fairly harmless activity – who can possibly be offended by an elderly hermit, a long distance solo-walker, or someone who chooses to live on her own? Why is this forever being presented as ‘unnatural’ and somehow fairly sinister?”
I could never do what you’re doing, people said to me after I booked my one-way ticket to New Zealand. If by what I was doing they meant pursuing my lifelong love, I felt even more fearful for them than they did for me. That is not what they meant. Of more interest to most—even after I’d spent weeks in remote parts of the island writing hour upon hour—was how it felt to be disconnected. My technology ban generated a depth of intrigue my fiction would envy.
In the telling, it becomes impossible to separate the two: my writing and my detachment from what has now become acceptable digital behavior. But I am no wondrous exception. All writers write alone. Even in crowded libraries or next to their baby’s crib, the act by its definition is isolation. I just decided to indulge in it, take myself off the streets of Manhattan and place myself on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
I swam with wild dusky dolphins, sailed across the Cook Strait, hiked up volcanic mountains, and traversed the edges of rocky peninsular cliffs. I set my laptop on limestone formations, on pebble beaches along Lake Wakatipu, and on the rattling foldout tray of seat 8A on the Northern Explorer rail carriage. These idyllic settings did not, as I had naively hoped, inspire aha! moments to resolve the problems of my plot. Looking up at those long white clouds, my fictional characters did not appear before me as Care Bears.
Surrounding myself with that magnificence became rehab. It took so much natural splendor, days and days of exposure to it, to rid my system of the toxins accumulated from an existence tethered to a smartphone. Once I had been cleansed, I wanted nothing to do with it. My nose distastefully turned upward, the way it used to when I woke up hungover in college and smelled leftover vodka in plastic cups.
I wrote, and walked, with less fear. I decided which thoughts could settle down with a comfy blanket in my mind. I did not wake up to a photo of a dead baby on my Facebook feed. Nobody told me they were ‘like so super annoyed’ at their boss because he acted like such an ass in the morning meeting, so their frustration did not find its way into my day.
As many writers do, I swallow other people’s pain until it gives me a tummy ache. Vile presidents don’t make me laugh; they make me conjure up ways to show up at the doorstep and turn that white into red. Fury infiltrates me, sends me into nightmares that continue long after I’ve opened my eyes. And so, being in control of what I exposed myself to provided me with safety. In my own company, my natural inclination for positivity went wild. Nobody contradicted my stubbornness to seek out good; no one said I should be less forgiving to the cruel, that kindness made me weak. Instead, I kept coming back to these sentences I had written down months ago while watching a rapist and his victim give a talk together: “. . . how will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”
Writing asked of me bravery, a willingness to enter heaven and hell with equal enthusiasm. I did not protest. A by-product of no one being around to receive my grievances, in person or in pixel, was that they came to an immediate halt. Complaining was poison.
You must be disciplined, people say to me, to dedicate yourself to something like that, day after day after day. I heard a writer once say it is like having an affair. You are tortured by it, but you make time for it. You sneak a minute in the bathroom, an hour before work, late at night after the kids are asleep—even if you know there is every chance no good will come out of it.
You do it because your desire for it cannot be controlled; your passion overtakes the practice. I am not a morning person, but I rose in unison with the sun every day in New Zealand, so excited to do the damn thing.
Writers don’t share enough, myself included. I am a novice to fiction and I am desperate to know how other writers write. Not after their work has received recognition, but before, or in that suicidal middle. So I offer my confessions in the hope I’ll receive some in return. My first drafts are horrible; they sound like a sappy teenager wrote them. Self-criticism decapitates my creativity; I have to coax it into staying a safe distance away. I want to strangle my characters’ necks at times for lack of being able to understand them. The knowledge that someone will read what I am writing stuns my authentic voice into submission. I make myself sound the way I want to be heard. But when I write for myself, when I lie and pretend I never want to be published, I am a freakin’ badass. I own that white page.
That is a phrase I borrowed from my husband. I’d come home from my writing class fixating over students' comments about my fiction and he’d say, you own that story, you own that paragraph, you own Gotham Writers. Hiding my face in my palms, I’d mumble through the gaps in my fingers that competition did not motivate me, and I did not in fact have ownership of any of those things. The one thing I discovered like gold in New Zealand was that my solitude has not been a lonely endeavor. Solitude and loneliness get lumped together rather unfairly.
Solitude is being alone, but loneliness means feeling alone. Miles away from my husband and other loved ones, not once in my time spent away did I feel lonely. Even more surprising for a serial crier, I did not shed a single tear on Aotearoa soil. It is an understated generosity when people encourage freedom. Or when a marriage, rather than constrain, expands. When a partner does not limit, does not bind with possession, does not slot into category. There is a Maori word for it, aroha, and I find its English translation—love—too limited. Aroha is the creative force behind dreams, the union of all senses into one breath. It is the energy that propels forward.
I am afraid of going backwards, of returning to routine, of contentment fading away like the dye off my greys. I don’t want to feel obligated by that green speech bubble on my phone. I don’t want to evacuate the moment in order to capture it, put it on Insta or Snap or other places not respected enough to be called by their full name. But socialize I must. Not only because I have to function in society, but because what I write about is social behavior. People talking, fighting, grieving, giving each other the evil eye. I write about busy bodies and chatterboxes and am every bit as nosy as the interfering aunties in my stories.
By being alone, quiet and observant, I accumulate material like a creepy stalker. I am ashamed at the way we whore out words on platforms, seeking out 140-character gratifications. But then the writer in me inhabits the opposing side and I watch how I, too, groom my words; select them carefully, wear them like enticing jewels, polish them and dangle them in just the right places, inviting attention—a sly, seductress who ultimately reveals more the less she says.
This impulse to share could be considered critical to human nature. The most challenging for me was to witness beauty without telling someone about it. It seemed greedy at times, to keep my adventures to myself. On other occasions I felt disheartened that no lens, photographic or literary, could encompass the wonder of being present in that physical space. I struggle with that often, when I want another person to understand my pain, my happiness, my exact sensibilities. It is a futile aspiration, one I have to often remind myself to abandon. Ultimately, I am the only witness to my experience, and in order to find solace in a maddeningly connected world, it becomes imperative to consider that enough.
Uttama Patel was born to Gujarati parents who found their way to the United Arab Emirates via Kampala, Surat, Pondicherry, and Colchester. Her occupations have been as varied as the stamps in her passport: journalist in Chicago, education consultant in Abu Dhabi, editor in London, marketing manager in Hong Kong, writer in New York.