I Don't Know How To Be Alone
Thinking about my novel and thinking about myself
I’m obsessed with being alone because I don’t know how.
I think in some ways I can trace most of my major life decisions to an attempt to figure this out: breaking up with my first girlfriend even though we were happy, leaving New York, attempting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, taking sporadic social media breaks… what am I doing if not trying to figure out what exists inside my body and my brain when I am not receiving any external stimuli. It’s a strange goal, maybe: I love people so I have decided I must train myself to be okay without them. But it is actually a necessity. Humans are not designed to be entirely alone and also, as I will never forget Leah texting the group chat a couple of years ago: Is loneliness not at the heart of the human condition? Join the club, bucko. We are all inevitably sometimes alone. We have to be okay anyway. I’m working on building up my distress tolerance skills. I’m trying to become the best version of myself. I’m doing the work. I have to learn how to be alone.
I tell my writing students that we are all beholden to our obsessions, and that as writers we are lucky because we will spend our lives exploring them, thinking out loud on the page, growing up in public, committing to our own personal bits and also rethinking them, revising them, chasing them until they no longer chase us.
I do believe this. Your brain is the only version of itself on this whole planet, the stories you have to tell that live inside your head absolutely no one else on this earth could tell, because they’re yours! I tell my high school students frequently, determined to impart on them how special they are, how much their stories deserve to live outside their brains and how they are the only ones who can make that so… but I do not believe that as a writer I am necessarily answering the questions I return to over and over.
This year, I wrote a novel. I tell people it’s about friendship and betrayal and what we owe each other, and it is. (And if you’re an editor reading this and find yourself interested in this premise, please let me know, as my agent is taking the book out on submission soon!) It’s also about loneliness. I’ve realized that anytime I write about friendship I am also writing about loneliness. No matter how wonderful our friends are — no matter how much we are all showing up, doing the work — no matter if your friends become your family as so many of mine have — you’re still alone sometimes. I think I have spent this year learning that. I mean, I’ve spent this year grieving my dad — when I look back on my life there will be no other way to categorize this year, if I had to archive it in only one folder the folder would read in large block letters THE YEAR DAD DIED, THE YEAR I GRIEVED DAD, THE YEAR I BECOME SOMEONE WITH A DEAD DAD — but the worst part of grieving has been realizing how solitary it is, how no one can make it go away, how no one can save me from myself.
So I wrote a novel about a girl who is trying to learn how to be alone, and the girl is both me and also not me, and at the end of the book she still doesn’t really have a clue. My main character ends the book at age 26 hoping that she’ll learn this valuable life skill in the coming years.
I am not my main character, but. I’m turning 33 next month. If I wrote a novel about a main character who is not me, but, based on myself today, I’m not sure she’d know anything more about how to be alone than my 26 year old main character does. That’s annoying.
I texted my best friend the other day, when I was frustrated that I do not innately understanding how to be entirely alone, using my main character and a scene in my book as a proxy to talk about myself:
Thrilled that Fiona has made so much progress since I left her at that stupid equinox fire in 2014.
My best friend humored me, as our best friends sometimes do.
hahaha, she wrote back. it is a journey! and takes practice. and tbh fiona has been in serious relationships for a significant amount of that time so you haven’t had much of a chance to get practice.
The casual switch between “Fiona” and “you” made me laugh out loud. I wrote back: tysm for joining me in my casual conflation of my Main Character and my Self.
But seriously… how do we practice Being Alone? And what is the point? What am I aiming for when I say I want to take space and learn to be by myself? Am I supposed to stop dating? Stop fucking? Stop texting my friends when I am sad? Stop craving external validation to make me feel hot? I do love my self. I enjoy my own company. I like my life. But I also enjoy dating, love good sex, rely on my friends, am obsessed with compliments. The point of being able to be alone is to be secure, to feel safe inside myself, to know that no matter what happens I Will Be Okay Because I Have Me. Is loneliness just part of being secure? Just a feeling that washes over you and you accept it and then it passes? Just part and parcel of the human condition?
After a particularly bad breakup many years ago, I was fond of telling anyone who would listen that I would rather die alone than ever be so unhappy in a relationship again. Nothing about the partnership I’d been in had been working and I was embarrassed I’d stayed so long. I knew for a fact that being miserable and single was better than being miserable and partnered.
I still think that. I do. But I also think it’s lonely being lonely. I guess maybe learning how to be alone is getting to a place where it doesn’t feel lonely to be by yourself? Maybe I will find an answer by the time I write my second novel. In the meanwhile, I remain full of questions — just a writer chasing my obsessions, just a person trying to figure out how to be alone.