The Writer Alone

A woman out of her mind, locked in an apartment. This, I believed, was the optimal, and probably only, condition under which art could be made.

Tajja Isen | Longreads | September 2018 | 10 minutes (3,511 words)

Imagine the kind of company I was: Between sixteen and twenty-three, solitude lit up the part of my brain that other people save for smoking breaks. How long it had been since my last bout and how soon till the next, when I’d finally slip away and breathe easy. If the smoker’s unit of time was the splintered hour, mine was the unbroken day. Real life did not begin until I was alone. Anything done around others was merely provisional, a wavering line between two points, during which my mind was mostly elsewhere — if I even showed up. To friends, I made out like I was put upon, as though these ascetic stretches were mandated by some higher-up. As if it didn’t feel a bit like playing god to cancel plans and sever a connection. I affected regret, but I thrived on these excisions; tiny cuts that whittled my world into a zone of focus. These, I believed, were the optimal, and probably only, conditions under which art could be made.

It worked, at least for a while. I was militant about the time and space in which I wrote. I’d mimic the rhythms of different idols — Kafka’s wee hours worked well, as we shared a need for silence in houses stuffed with other lives; Franzen’s free passage from early rising to writing, an unbroken motion from one dream state to another. I briefly considered the Nabokovian retreat to drafting in the bathroom. Unpopular heroes, now, but I was very young, and men remain a benchmark for permission to take your work seriously. Franzen in particular compelled me; the way he made his dedication into a sort of faith. Stretches of The Corrections were written with shades drawn and lights off, the author blindfolded — presumably of his own accord — and his ears doubly blocked by plugs and muffs. This to keep the work “free of all clichés.” I admit to a curiosity about this method that still flickers.

Now, this kind of glass-blown aloneness feels like it’s fallen out of fashion; something consigned to a certain type of writer from the late nineties or early aughts, for whom the internet remains a thing to be poked with a stick from afar. I’ve been shaped by Franzen’s work more than it’s cool to admit, but in late 2018, it’s hard to conceive of a model of “genius” that’s aged worse than a white man alone in the dark, sensorily deprived in preparation to pass judgment on the culture. Who dares to cover his eyes, especially now? We tend, and rightly, to be suspicious of the artist who wants to hold herself apart from the quick, polluting current of opinion, yet still reserve the right to jump in and condemn it. The total opt-out has become the stuff of satire, the absurdity of privilege writ large, whether through its deliberate skewering in fiction or the razor-edged photographic negative of a magazine profile. Most people have lives.

Between sixteen and twenty-three, solitude lit up the part of my brain that other people save for smoking breaks.

In her newest novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a note-perfect rendering of total disengagement — both its inherent ludicrousness, and the soaring levels of privilege that voluntary absentia can take to maintain. Her unnamed narrator — wealthy, white, Columbia-educated, and, as she reminds us at every opportunity, extremely attractive — plans to drug herself into a yearlong hibernation. With the help of a quack psychiatrist, she architects a narcotized reset that will, she intends, leave her cleansed and ready to rejoin the world.

The narrator repeatedly reassures us that her actions are not what we probably think they are. It looks like a suicide plot, but she insists that it’s “the opposite … My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought that it was going to save my life.” It also looks like an addiction to pills, but she is disciplined about her intake: it’s “all very regulated” and “totally aboveboard.” As grotesque as we’re meant to find her, her actions look even more like a version, or perversion, of performative white feminism: swearing off shaving; spinning narcissism as self-care; settling for “consistently bad” bodega coffee rather than having to see “anyone ordering a brioche bun or no-foam latte,” like there’s something admirably anti-capitalist to the choice. She’s both glib about and blind to her own privilege; when it comes to the material resources her yearlong withdrawal takes to maintain — automated bill payments, apartment maintenance, prescription costs — she deadpans that she “[isn’t] worried about money.” (The fount of her wealth is the estate of her deceased parents.) She’s hilariously, at times uncomfortably enthusiastic about the oeuvre of a woman of color — though here it’s Whoopi Goldberg rather than Audre Lorde or bell hooks; Moshfegh’s careful in choosing an object of desire with just the right absurdity quotient. This year of rest and relaxation looks, it turns out, like a lot of things.

It also resembles — minus the drugs, but your mileage may vary — my one-time fantasy of artistic withdrawal from life. Or even like a literary person’s dream in general. As I contemplated this woman’s impossible retreat from the world, I was reminded of Zadie Smith, who wonders if there are others like herself who watch prison documentaries and secretly lament, “Wish I had all that time to read.” Insultingly, books hold no appeal for our narrator. On her trips to the bodega, she glances at mildly disastrous headlines, but remains unfazed: “Things were happening in New York City — they always are — but none of it affected me.” Which would also be the case if you were blindfolded and wearing earplugs.

This year of rest and relaxation is also, I’d venture, a certain fantasy of making art. In spite of the setup’s grotesquerie, there’s something essentially creative and literary at play. In her essay on Moshfegh’s novel and Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, Maris Kreizman points out that our narrator “low-key aspires to be an artist,” a fleeting wish that she barely pursues — if you could even call it that — by working a dead-end front desk job at a Chelsea gallery. When she’s fired from the post — for sleeping on the job, natch — she retaliates by taking a shit on the floor and, if you didn’t already want to cheer, complaining how it’d “been stupid to believe that employment would add value to [her] life” (there’s that anti-capitalist flexing again). In reviews of the novel, people tend to focus on the chemical cocktail; the drugs she experiments with, and their ensuing side effects, once she’s no longer burdened by “unnecessary labor.” What’s gotten less attention is the act that marks the apotheosis of her solitude — a piece of performance art.

The narrator orchestrates a collaboration with Ping Xi, a provocative artistic wunderkind she meets during her stint in the gallery. The arrangement, exploitive and discomfiting as it is, proceeds as follows: Under the influence of the (fictional) drug Infermiterol, which induces days-long blackouts, the narrator appoints Ping Xi as her warden and — tit-for-tat — documentarian. In her blackout state, he has total access to her as his “model” — “a woman out of her mind, locked in an apartment.” Ping Xi might be the career artist, but he’s only in it for the shock value. Our narrator has loftier artistic objectives: “Mine was a quest for a new spirit,” she announces; a way to litmus-test whether life is still worth the trouble. Using art to answer these questions is, in this particular case, concerning, but also somehow pure and justifiable. Who hasn’t looked to the page, screen, or song and begged for safe passage into a flow state; one that helps you, even momentarily, “escape the prison of . . . mind and body”? Who hasn’t felt and fought the warring impulses to face the carnage of the news cycle, or just to look away? Am I the only one who picked up this novel and sighed, “Wish I had all that time to write”?

***

I chased my own R&R to extremes during the winter of 2014. I was fresh off of writing the LSAT; three months of withdrawing from life to rewire my brain into pure logic. I didn’t see anyone socially for the last six weeks — not because I spent every one of those hours in study, but because I feared any ripples in my cultivated stillness. In the final month, I even gave up books, starving myself of narrative prose in the hopes that the reading comprehension sections might start to feel like an indulgence. As if sustained deprivation were the single, clammy passage to a secret state of mastery — a possibility that’s been dogging me for years, and one that I often still worry might be true.

My post-exam gift to myself was the means to retreat even further from the world. The objective was to be as far from human company as possible. The day after the LSAT, I ran away to Painswick, a town of 3,000 in the Cotswolds, that I’d chosen partly because it’s the birthplace of Thomas Twining — he of the tea. I’d booked a cottage for two weeks in February with little express agenda apart from being alone. Women cooed and told me it would be just like that film The Holiday. I let them indulge their fantasies until they started in on the man I’d surely meet, at which point I snapped. The pressure to return with stories about other people was a violent ripple in the stillness; more motion than I could bear. (I’ve also mentioned it’d been a while since I’d seen anyone socially). I meant to be the architect of perfect solitude. But the point of the trip was neither rest nor relaxation; misanthropy also only goes partway toward a rationale. The desires to inhale country air, prestige drama, and Charlotte Brontë’s prose were anchored, even justified, by a pulsing central certainty: Just think of all the writing you’ll get done.

Aloneness feels like it’s fallen out of fashion; something consigned to a certain type of writer from the late nineties or early aughts.

The English countryside is not a popular destination in February, which seemed ideal. I took cold, muddy walks through farms and fields, hours in which I never met another person, despite sighting sheep and clearly lived-in houses. Whenever I take any landscape shots, I pride myself on framing them in such a way that it cuts out any visible human presence; in Painswick, I didn’t even have to try. I wandered through the local churchyard and photographed its 99 yew trees — the hundredth, the legend goes, withers with every attempt to replant it — and mouthed the names of those long dead. I bought bad wine and an incoherent selection of foods from the single poorly-stocked corner store. When the man at the counter exclaimed over my continued visits and asked where I was staying, I started eating less. I settled into an uneasy silence, picking as my post the armchair by the fireplace, from which I could check the cottage’s two entrances in between stretches of Villette. The clatter of the mail slot was a moderate emergency when it cut through one morning. I spent hours chasing the house’s late-night creaks. I could neither relax enough to write nor, after four months of thinking in multiple choice, string together a decent sentence. A woman out of her mind, locked in an apartment. With a little under a week left in the trip, I fled to London, ringing up the homeowner to stammer out a lie about a friend in town.

The trip wasn’t as awful as it sounds in the retelling. I didn’t see it as a failure; nor did it stop me from trying to erect similar barriers in the weeks and months that followed. I refer, with great affection, to the stretch between undergrad and law school as “the hermit years,” during which I was always first in line when the library opened, would often only speak when spoken to, and reliably lost interest before any second date. I wrote a novel draft that lives, with love, in a box on a shelf. I remember easing into the idea, in mixed self-congratulation and apology, that my greatest joys would come from my creative work, rather than anything that directly involved another person. This was not a tricky pill for me to swallow, even if it turned out a few years later to be the wrong prescription. At least in part, the Painswick trip was a self-exam; a way to test the depth of my attachment to the fantasy of pure aloneness. I wasn’t quite ready to let go of it, even if I was starting to see that there could — there must — be other ways to live and write. Back in Toronto, at the tip of what would open up into the hermit years, I told my questioners that we should talk, do lunch, catch up; that the trip had been just what I needed; that I was now cleansed and ready to rejoin the world.

***

The ostensible writer’s fantasy in My Year of Rest and Relaxation finds its cousin in Ottessa Moshfegh’s own one-time artistic practice. In a recent New Yorker profile she admits that, for a long time, she believed that “producing her best work required a monkish commitment to abstemiousness and isolation.” These rhythms served the work that she views as a calling; a higher purpose that offers her “a karmic role.” In other interviews, Moshfegh’s descriptions of her process take on a similar quasi-mystical bent. The lengths to which she’ll go to nurture her work are deliberate to the extreme: As a seventeen-year-old, she once pursued and put up with the lechery of an older male writer, an exchange she deemed worthwhile because his knowledge would help her fiction “rise up to a higher realm of existence.” There’s a delicious frankness to the way Moshfegh talks about her ambition. You can count on the word “blunt” to appear in the interviewer’s preamble. Though Moshfegh once fled New York because of her claustrophobic peer group, a crowd of aspiring writers who all possessed the same “insane ambition . . . to be the standout literary voice of [their] generation,” she effectively absented herself to do just that.


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At the height of her commitment to solitude, Moshfegh’s focus on her work shrank to such a pinpoint that lust became, to her mind, “a poison.” She committed herself to celibacy. Her period stopped. Her vow was helped along by the fact that, apparently, no men ever hit on her. If McGlue (her first novella) hadn’t been published nine months after I ran away to the UK, I could have made of her life a guiding principle of my hermitage. But it was an intensity she ultimately had to renounce, both because her routine took physical and psychic tolls, and because of external intervention. Moshfegh met her now-fiancé, the writer Luke Goebel, when he showed up to interview her for the website Fanzine. Read it to see two people falling in love on the page, trading flirtations like “I’m just now getting out of an anal obsession.” Goebel didn’t leave her place for twenty-seven days. You can build your fence around the hermit years, but more likely than not, the world is going to intervene.

Most writers, of course, don’t even have the luxury of trying to keep the world at bay in the first place. Elbowing to fit artistic work within the quotidian mess of a life, especially as teaching and media jobs dwindle into oblivion, is an urgent and ongoing conversation. The writer Mike Scalise recently reignited these concerns on Twitter, calling for graduate writing programs to teach their students how to develop a sustainable artistic practice around the demands of a non-academic 9-to-5. Even fields that would seem like they’d slot in easily alongside the pursuit of writing, like arts administration, can backfire and sideline the creative work. The replies to Scalise’s thread are lengthy and sobering: Many people rise early to squeeze in an hour or so of writing before their workday starts; keep weekend hours akin to a second full-time position; and advocate the need to “practice patience” in the face of a slow-moving word count. I was humbled by the intensity with which fellow writers fight for their time, seeking to prevent the damage that the working world can too easily do: “endanger[] and in several cases eliminate[] great books” by draining the energy needed to nurture them.

I remember easing into the idea, in mixed self-congratulation and apology, that my greatest joys would come from my creative work, rather than anything that directly involved another person.

We find ourselves scandalized by or enamored of the myth of the literary recluse — or the career hibernator — because of the tragicomic chasm between her list of daily demands and ours. I’m reminded of the savage send-up of literary idleness in Toni Morrison’s monumental Song of Solomon, in the form of the aging white “poetess” Michael-Mary Graham. In her rendering of Miss Graham, Morrison — who, as a working single mother, knew a thing or two about producing work amidst the demands of a life — doesn’t hold back. Graham, she tells us, has carefully pruned her life of any distractions — marriage, children, certain styles of home furnishing — that might obstruct “the Great Agony” of her calling. It’s a lifestyle she can only keep up, we’re told in a parenthetical aside, due to — like Moshfegh’s narrator — “the generosity of her father’s will.” The “heavy demands of artistic responsibility,” however, turn out to be pretty light in practice. Of all the hours in the day, she spends comparatively few putting pen to paper. She writes daily from ten to noon and three to four-fifteen, with her evenings dedicated to literary salons full of other “poets” — most of them unpublished — in which she positions herself as the deliberate object of adoration. Her bylines aren’t even that impressive.

Compare that with the glimpse of her own circumstances that Morrison offers in the preface to Sula. During the novel’s composition, she was living in Queens and commuting to a Manhattan office job, shuttling her children between public school, daycare, and her parents’ place, so cash-strapped “that the condition moved from debilitating stress to hilarity.” But for Morrison, this place of desperation also gave rise to community and creative exploration. She found herself surrounded by single and separated women in similar circumstances. Cut adrift from the prescriptive contours of a life, these women were able to cultivate a different kind of freedom in their artistic work, founding theater troupes, designing clothing, and — in Morrison’s case — producing writing that was “unencumbered by other people’s expectations.” “Nobody was minding us,” she remembers, “so we minded ourselves.”

The obstacles never stop mounting up. How do you write around a full-time job? How do you write within a shared life? How do you write with children (or, as Lauren Groff does, refuse to be asked about it at all)? How do you write in the face of political disaster? How do you write, as Lyz Lenz asks so urgently, in the age of despair? My little cottage might have sent me out of my mind, but for a brief moment I also had it made; a strange oasis in an already privileged stretch of time between degrees, living at my parents’ house and composing pages of baroque and apolitical sentences, languishing in a state of aesthetic bliss.

I’m writing this on September 11th — an event that comes at the end of Moshfegh’s novel; an awakening from the culture of cartoonish optimism and self-improvement that in many ways catalyzes the narrator’s luxuriant year. To set the novel immediately pre-9/11 almost makes a virtue of, or at least a case for, the total opt-out: If everyone around you is so palpably asleep, why try to keep your own eyes open? “I think I could conjure 1910, the way it smelled and looked, but I can’t tell you the major world events that happened,” Moshfegh told The New Yorker. All she wants is “to see the edge of [a] building,” and then she’s content to imaginatively reconstruct the remainder based on that single glimpse. Her method speaks to me, as much as I might struggle daily to cultivate an approach less ascetic, more aware. I maintain the perpetual fantasy of an off-the-grid cottage, as I imagine many of us do. I’m often terrified by sensing the thinness of the boundary between my life’s many prospective versions — the one who works in a law firm and returns home at odd hours, drained and unable to write a word; the other who gives up every link to life and decamps to a hidden cabin but, faced with the weight of eternity, can’t squeeze out a sentence, either. And still the dream persists! If I were given a shot at a Cotswolds do-over, I can’t begin to tell you how much writing I’d get done.

* * *

Tajja Isen is a Toronto-based writer and voice actor. Her work has appeared in outlets that include BuzzFeedThe Globe and Mail, Electric LiteratureBitch, and Catapult, where she is also a contributing editor.

Editor: Dana Snitzky