July 25, 2007

One Hundred Minutes of Solitude

Loneliness is simply a misunderstanding of Solitude.

I’m not sure where I first heard that phrase…I think it might have been from a woman who was once a nun. In the past few days, I’ve grown to realize that many people don’t have a grasp on the meaning and importance of solitude.

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines solitude as:

Pronunciation: 'sä-l&-"tüd, -"tyüd
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French & Latin; Middle French, from Latin solitudin-, solitudo, from solus
1 : the quality or state of being alone or remote from society.

Also – solitude, may imply a condition of being apart from all human beings or of being cut off by wish or circumstances from one's usual associates.

Let me start by saying this – I love my readers! I love that so many of you feel connected to Dora’s tale and to The Birth House. And, I have loved giving readings in so many amazing places and have loved getting the chance to meet so many of you. Just ask my publicists – they often have to drag me away after readings…I’d chat away for hours if they’d let me.

But here’s the thing…
By the end of last summer, the drop-in visits to the house got to be a little crazy. On sunny weekends, we’d have several carloads a day. Well, it seems that the by-chance knocks on the door are ramping up even more-so this year, and they are coming right as I’m trying my best to pull myself away from the world to write the next novel and my first stage play. So, while I wish you well as you happily wander around Nova Scotia on holiday, I’m afraid that I must retreat into a summer of solitude.

To be honest, I knew this about myself going into the summer, and I even painted a sign to put by my door.

When several visits happened back-to-back, with no attention paid to the sign, I asked my husband – “Isn’t it clear?”

He hugged me and said, “People don’t get solitude these days. Maybe you should have put, Author at Work.”

“I have a problem with the word, work. It’s a dirty word. It's ugly sounding. It’s not really what I do. I let things flow, I mull, I ponder on paper, I consider, I weep, I gnash my teeth, I sigh, I scheme, I cheer for the underdog, I follow my characters to the ends of the earth.”

“But if you don’t put work, then they think you’re available. By using the word solitude, you’re just feeding into the perception that writers don’t work.”

Let the gnashing of teeth begin.

The other morning began like this:

I put the solitude sign outside the door in a visible location.

I begin to rock out to some ABBA while doing the dishes.

A knock on the door.

I realize I can’t get out of it, because the visitor has looked in the kitchen window and seen me doing the dishes.

I go to the door.

A woman in her 60’s has her hand on the doorknob, ready to open the door and come on in. She gruffly asks - “Are you the woman who wrote that book?”

“Umm, yes.”

“Well, my daughter’s read it.”

(She doesn’t have a book in her hands, or I would have offered to sign it for her.)

“That’s nice. Tell her thanks for me.”

“I haven’t read it yet – I’ll wait to get it from her, (pause) I guess.”- another pause. (Was I supposed to have a book ready for her unexpected visit?)

“I hope you enjoy it when you read it. Give your daughter my best.”

She then goes on for quite a while about how far she’s come, how her daughter would never forgive her if she didn’t stop and so on, and somehow, by they end of it, she leaves me feeling like I let her down, like I wasn’t what she expected.

I tried my best to be gracious while the dog was crazy-barking and my six-year-old was hollering out that he “needs his lunch, now.” I smiled, I extended my dish-pan hand, I waved good-bye. Then I spiralled into an afternoon of sputtering, “what did she want from me?”

Last October at a fancy cocktail party in Toronto an editor for my Canadian publisher came up to me and exclaimed – “you’re so giving for a writer, it’s incredible. You really make yourself available.” I took it as the compliment it was meant to be, but her words also made me pause. I knew what she meant, but I also realized that I hadn’t really taken the time to figure out what “being available” would mean to my writing.

During long, anxious pre-publication days, writers dream of holding their first novel in their hands, of giving readings, and of meeting readers and exchanging meaningful conversation about story, process and craft. In all my daydreaming, I never imagined I’d have people hanging out car windows snapping photos, or knocking on the door. Wow.

I hate disappointing people. More than that, I’m really squeamish when it comes to being mean. (Mean people suck.) While, I’m not going into complete hiding (there’s the website, email, the blog, facebook, etc.), I desperately need some solitude. Short of hanging a sign that says: Go AWAY! I sat down today and chalked up a new sign. I’m hoping this one will take.

By the way – I’m wondering what would you do?

Any advice?

What would your sign say?


patricia said...

I'd say..."Get the hell outta my kitchen!"

Kidding, I'm kidding. Sorta. While I can't speak from any kind of similar experience, I can certainly understand the importance of solitude. I love people, and am very sociable, but I gotta have my alone time, or I will go postal. Plus, like you, I need to be alone to work.

You've had a lot of success all happening at once. Of course you want to be nice and gracious (because you are!), but like the women you write about, you've got to be strong, too.

I see nothing wrong with your approach. I hope it works!

By the way, I'm going to be doing my first ever book signing at Toronto's Word on the Street this September, for my first illustrated trade picture book – I'm terrified!!

patricia said...

Talk about serendipity – I didn't even realize that image in my most recent post has the word 'solitude' in it!


Ami said...

P - That "Solitude" image from Douglas Coupland's new installation in your post is PERFECT!
Thanks for sharing it with me.

And I know that you'll ROCK at Word on the Street. You've been ready for this for so long, it's who you are.
Well deserved and I can't wait to hear all about it.
I'm sooooo proud of you!

marta said...

Plenty of people are suspicious of solitude. Growing up an only child with a single dad who worked two jobs and living in "the boondocks" meant I spent a lot of time alone. I was rarely bored or lonely. I grew up thinking that alone time was normal and necessary. But lots of people would worry about me and fret that I was lonely or whatever. "What do you do? How do you sleep? Why don't you come to my house?"

It was incomprehensible to them that I might like the solitude.

Just recently my husband and son went camping with family so that I could have two days and one night alone. And that's what I did--I spent the time alone save for two hours spent at my favorite cafe (still by myself). On Monday, people asked, "how was your weekend?"

"Fantastic," I said.

"Really? What'd you do?"

"Stayed home alone and wrote!"

"Oh," said with puzzled, worried look.

Hey, what's the first thing you here about people who go on killing sprees? "He lived alone." Or the flip side of that--"She died alone and wasn't found for days." (Notice gender roles!)

Unwanted solitude can be tragic, it's true. But if we could learn to enjoy spending time with our own selves pursuing our own passions--what a wonderful thing.

I might go with your husband's idea of the "writer at work" sign. I know it's not how you feel about it, but it will communicate better. And work is something everyone understands.

Chris said...

Wow, that is crazy!

I loved your book and live in NS but I don't think I'd have the nerve to come knocking. I always think, "What if she's busy?" when I drop in on friends (and that's friends!)

I think a 'by appointment only' sign is a good idea. You'd never write a thing with so many distractions. And it's not rude at all.

Anyway, like I said, I loved your book. This is the only dropping in I'll do! lol!

sassymonkey said...

I solemnly swear to never stop by your house unannounced and uninvited.

I hope this works for you. I understand the need for solitude.

T. Lothian-Redden said...

Maybe if you list exhorbitant visitation admission rates ($25 per 15 minutes, etc.) then people won't be so inclined to think they are entitled to invade your private space unannounced! Just kidding. I guess it's the downside of anyone in the public eye - the public feel they own part of you, and you cease to be a private citizen. So uncivilized! I think you should put on your board - "Shhh! Author meditating! Thanks for dropping by."

doctor d said...

Who does this dropping in?! Don't you all think it's a bit odd? I know that in Nova Scotia, and in North Dakota where I grew up, dropping in on friends is considered normal. But that's what FRIENDS do. Maybe this is the downside of your ability to bond so well with your readers?! We all want to be your friend!

I think your new sign is a good one, and I do hope it works. I personally want you to have the solitude you need so that you can weave for us your next piece!
Good luck, Ami.

Linda said...

Ami - unless you live in a cabin in the wilderness, the solitude thing is an ongoing issue

I've been a writer for 25 years - I didn't get started until my three kids were in their teens - I know how difficult it is to demand time alone - even after you have a number of books published, people still think what you do is a hobby - you're just at home so your time is always expendable

it's easier for me now but, frequently, I still get too many interruptions - I write in an attic room - the phone is old and the ringer doesn't work so I can work and not have that distraction - if my husband is here and I am in my office, he can field off visits

Merilyn Simonds (The Convict Lover & The Holding) has strict writing hours and won't talk to anyone or see anyone during that time each day - I admire that but haven't been able to be that focussed or whatever it is you need to fend off and stay alone on a regular basis

I think, in your case, you do need a sign - AUTHOR AT WORK - AVAILABLE FRIDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY (for instance) - people will be ticked off, perhaps, but too bad - you can't just drop in on a laywer or doctor

I visited Margaret Lawerence, once, many years ago and I certainly made an appointment

We were in NS in May this year and quite close to Scot's Bay one of the days and even though I would have loved to, I felt I couldn't just drop in

You signed my copy of The Birth House when you read in Cobourg and it is magnificent - so much work researching and rewriting but so worth it - hope the new novel is going well - Linda Hutsell-Manning

Holly said...


Thank you for writing the book. It was wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I yelled...

I read about your dilemma and I think the sign may still have people come to the door in order to make an appointment.

You may try something like Closed for creating next master piece or something less pathetic.


La Piquine said...

*hugs* Oh Ami. I had no idea it had escalated to this point and I feel bad for you. Both signs seem great to me, especially the artistic 1st one - I don't understand why that 1st one didn't do the trick.

I second what one poster says - I too solemnly swear to not drop in unannounced or uninvited at your house. Especially knowing how passionately you are invested in the Jerome play you are writing. You need your 'me time'! Between the play, the new novel and your own family life, phew, you do have to find solitude, some peace & quiet - I ask the Universe to give you all the "rocking out to ABBA" time your creative heart desires! And for goodness' sake, may your loving fans respect your privacy.

I can't imagine what it must be like. I suspect what I would do if I were you would be the sign on the door & likely something along the lines of: available by appointment only, or perhaps to be more specific: available every second Friday from 1-3pm.

Lise Robichaud

sheri said...

what about "it is now i am writing a second book, i hope to be treasured more than the first, so please understand i can not answer the door right now."

Miss May said...

While I appreciate your lengthy and generous explanation of why you feel you can't take visitors right now, I believe it is absurd that you should even feel the need to justify why you don't want STRANGERS coming to your house. You don't need to say "I'm working:" in my view a desire for privacy is reason enough to request privacy.

Readings, panels and events are created so readers can have a chance to meet and chat with the writers they admire. That's an appropriate forum for conversations and simply part of being a (bestselling) author. It is completely inappropriate for ANYONE to come to your home unannounced.

I'm about to publish my first novel and am starting to understand the strange phenomenon of assumed persona a little bit. While I know that I will likely not experience a rush of strangers at my door, I sympathize with people assuming you're accessible to an absurd degree.

Please don't be afraid of being "mean." You're simply being human. I think if those visitors put themselves in your shoes for even a moment they would understand your need not to be surprised by strangers - regardless of whether you're working on the second book or doing nothing at all.

Linda L. said...

That is bizarre, and pretty nervy. I would not drop in on you - that is what your comments section on the blog is for. But the other day as I was dining on my back yard deck at 6 pm with my husband and chldren a CANVASSER (badge said YMCA) walked around to my back yard and started to ascend the steps to my deck! With that canvasser face - a combination of self righteous resolution and pugnacity. I preempted her first word with "I do not want to be canvassed while eating dinner" and a stony stare, she paused (probably shocked at my rudeness -whaddaya figger?) I firmly said "good-bye" and she left. Just as she was coming up the stairs the phone rang and my husband dashed inside to answer it. It was Primus.
Of course my friends or anyone in true and immediate need can come to my door unannounced.

How about a sign with The author is IN/OUT a la Lucy?

M.B.S. said...

Miss May is right. You don't need to apologize. You're a professional. Your home is sacred.

Can you gate your driveway? Then have a sign made in metal letters that says, "I love you. Come see me. By appointment only. Thanks!"

Putting a sign in chalk right outside your door--don't you feel obligated to put it out every morning, and move it when you sweep, and otherwise be uncofortably and regularly reminded of the barriers that encumber you, this "meanness" that isn't you that is a necessary part of keeping your life going, the pull that all writers face to leave their work for chores, visits or other distractions? The sign itself becomes an obstacle.

I say put one at the head of your drive. Then another one on your door. In metal. Official-looking. No chalk. Leave a number for appointment-making.

duck said...

Your a professional and deserve to be treated as such. It really irks me that you need to spell out commen sense to people. I think maybe its because in writting you are putting yourself out there, into strangers hand, into their homes. Readers mistake this artistic intimacy for real intimacy and then take liberties. The fact in your writting you are so emotionaly available through the characters is a gift to your readers, and should be looked on as such, not taken advantage of and that availability is most certainly enough. We get to walk into your art and snoop arround, we dont need to snoop in on your family life. I say try everything, just get your space and the mental distance you need to create, this is a selfishly motivated sentiment. I will be haunting the ailes of the finer book stores waiting for your next book.