As COVID drags into its tenth month on the West Coast, we all feel like experts on the ways that solitude and loneliness shape us. They’ve been my travelling companions for many a year and I think we should celebrate them. But with the added caveat that both states are different for everyone and I’m only offering up the way I’ve made my peace with them.
Between the publications of my first and second novels, as I struggled to find my voice as a writer, I lived with two cats. I started my days at 5 in the morning so as to write for two hours before commuting to my day job. When I came home to quiet evenings of reading and cat care, I began to wonder if I was on my way to embodying the cliché of cat lady.
I didn’t mind, exactly, but I was in my 20s and, therefore, uncertain. That first book (now mercifully out of print) had met with a small measure of success, but as I looked around at friends and neighbors, with their spouses and dental insurance, I began to think I’d made a terrible mistake by not going to law school.
My father, who is not a man you’d normally turn to for life advice, took me to dinner during a particularly bad month and said, “With writing, the trick is to eliminate loneliness without disturbing solitude.”
Huh. As my friend Sharyn would say, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
One of the ways I gauge the quality of my work is by whether my solitude is enriched by the company writing creates. If, instead, the negative voices that flourish when one is lonely gain traction, then what I’m writing is no doubt deeply problematic.
Both solitude and loneliness have their place in any life, and I’ve learned from both. Like most of us, I like being alone, but get blue and cranky when lonely. And that is why I have spent the past eleven years living with dogs.
Now, I love and revere cats. My next book is about a cat. Cats, as you can see, are excellent editors.
But a dog takes you out of yourself on a regular basis and that, I believe, is what makes solitude so comforting. You leave it and then return to yourself (and your work) in much the same way you happily hold a hot drink on a cold morning. Dogs need basic things: walks, meals, and, yes, love. But they also need love, games, belly rubs, and treats. They need your company.
Cats, on the other hand, powerfully need to ignore you. I have been ignored by the same cat for over thirteen years. And he has amused himself by hating my dogs.
Start with Henry, whom I got from a rescue when he was five and who moved across country with me before dying at fourteen. And Olivia, who came from a rescue in Los Angeles and blew into my heart during the 10 months I had her before she died unexpectedly. There’ve been some fosters in there and the beloved dogs of beloved friends.
Henry, who was odd looking, noisy, and loved everyone, was the model for the dragon in my novel, The Language of Spells. There was something about him that made me believe in magic.
Olivia, who was delicately beautiful, high-strung, and hated dogs, was the reason I wanted to write a romance novel. There was something elusive and loving about her that said: Love stories matter.
If you are lucky enough to be chosen by a rescue dog, that dog has a story for you.
And, if a dog is not the right companion to put your loneliness on a diet while force feeding your solitude, I hope the thought of one points you in the right direction. However you live with solitude and loneliness, they’re part of your process. And like dogs in the kitchen, they will come and go. Make friends and go to work.