The Unselfish Act of Being Alone

By Chelene Knight


Writing alone

I want to talk about the power and necessity of being alone.

It’s 4:30 am and I should be asleep, but jet lag is real. And I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be thinking about exhaustion because I’m currently in a really luxurious hotel in Singapore (thanks to the amazing organizers at the Singapore Writer’s Festival), laying on a king-size bed, ceiling-staring, and wondering how the heck I’ve come this far. And I don’t mean the literal, “I’ve come this far” sort of thing, but instead, the “I’m no longer the quiet little girl at the back of the room hoping to disappear into my shoes, evaporate, be invisible” kind of far. How the heck did this happen? And how come every time I take off to a new city to do an event, I have very little desire to partake in the social offerings? How come I just want to keep to myself in my hotel room?

I’d like to think I am a quiet extrovert. Someone who holds a room when they have to, but prefers the solitude and silence of being alone in a space—any space— whenever possible. I know what my writing process looks like and that I personally require solitude to draft, but is it a selfish act to require space alone before and after events too? The same questions always arise when I ponder what my out of town off time looks like: Should I be feeling guilty for not mingling? How come I feel guilty? As a touring author, what is really expected of me? Can I deliver on it all, and should I? Does everything have to have a social aspect to it? 

The night before writing this, I did a fantastically intimate panel in Singapore called “The Language of Loneliness” and it was just what I needed. We discussed how being alone was a good thing for some of us, and how the calling in of our communities and collaborators when they are needed is a massive part of so many of our writerly processes. There’s a certain level of power and elation that comes from setting boundaries and owning the bits and pieces that make me feel good about every aspect of my work. I want to start talking more about solitude because it’s something I need. I didn’t realize this before, but without it, I cannot create and I definitely cannot reflect. And reflection plays a huge role in keeping the momentum going.

After the event I went right back to the hotel and wandered around a bit just to think and reflect about the panel. Sometimes it takes three or four days to really process how an event went, and I like to do this by asking myself a series of questions: What went well?  What didn’t go so well? Were all of my expectations met? What was my initial impression when I walked out on stage? I sat down near the pool with my notebook and began to write about what surprised me about the event. I sat there in that lounge chair for an hour and I had about four pages of really great thoughts. I also felt incredibly relaxed because those thoughts now lived on the page. I may never do anything with them, but they have a place to live and not in my head. I would not have been able to do this if I ignored my own needs. 

The need for solitude is also a concern for those of us who freelance, or work for ourselves in some way. We can’t just take five random days off when traveling for events. Well, I mean, we can, but last time I checked there wasn’t any vacation pay or someone to write all of my articles, essays, books, and handle all the other work I do on a daily basis to earn a living. The wheels are constantly in motion, and they need to be. But again, I feel guilty for admitting that I need a good chunk of time alone to do the work.

I want to preface this next thought by saying that I love my non-writer friends and family. But the folks who think, and say so openly, that we writers are lucky to be doing this work, while never acknowledging it as work, need to take a step back and think about what that word does and how it diminishes the amount of time, energy, and preparation we writers put into these events. “Oh you are so lucky to get to go to [insert random city here] there’s so much you should do there.” The reality is, when I get to whatever city I am doing my event in, I have no desire to socialize, and I only sight-see if I have a full day free from events because … I am tired, and I still have to work once I get there. I know that I chose the non-nine-to-five-no-weekends-off type of lifestyle, but that lifestyle choice requires a different mindset and work ethic. I want to catch up on my emails, my one hundred writing projects, and my community work, because, like I said, it doesn’t stop just because I am out of town. In fact, I don’t even know why I bother to put the out of office auto reply on my email because I am going to answer all incoming messages. It would pain me more not to. But what does all of this say about the nature of this work? Perhaps that it never stops. And oddly enough, we never let it, and we definitely do not want it to. It is not luck that brought us here. It’s quite the opposite actually. And it’s definitely attributed to perseverance and resilience. I need folks to recognize that. I love this work, but it is work.

I’m still in Singapore and I am a few hours away from teaching a sold-out Creative Nonfiction workshop, and I am really looking forward to it. But as selfish as it sounds, I am also looking forward to finding a spot to sit alone and just exist in the silence I know I deserve. As writers, we always have something going on in our heads. Some voice asking us to produce something, create something, or revise something. I have learned to take advantage of every single opportunity to hold space alone. I sort of demand it now, which is new. The guilt is still there, and I own that, but it’s slowly dissolving the more I talk about the necessity of being alone. So for any of you writers who need to hear this, it’s ok to find a dark corner at the back of a room in the basement of your hotel to just be.

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making RoomLove Me TrueSustenanceThe Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.

The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling. 

Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.