Michael Harris is the author of Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World and The End Of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, which won the Governor-General’s Literary Award.
As millions are forced by COVID-19 to confront the pyjama-clad malaise of a socially distant life, they ought to remember that some of us have useful experience with such solitude. Some of us are writers.
We are experts at working from sofas, experts at facing down the lure of midday naps. And we’re also well-acquainted with a worry much of the world is encountering for the first time: the nagging thought that with nobody watching us, we will waste the day. It’s a problem that starts off small and grows existential by the end of week one; we struggle to invest solitary hours, solitary days, with meaning and purpose.
Wasting those hours without giving in to despair is a writer’s specialty. We know how to rationalize an hours-long Wikipedia rabbit-hole about Cardi B. We know how to stare at ceilings and masochistically undo the morning’s work. And so I’ve been sorry to see non-writers beating themselves up when they fail to make “use” of their involuntary isolation. Some seem to feel they should be learning French or lifting weights instead of drinking box wine. Shakespeare, we are told, wrote King Lear when he was quarantined during the plague. But so what? You’re allowed to watch Friends.
All writers eventually learn three fundamental truths about the laptop-and-sofa life:
1. You will waste almost all your solitude.
You will grow inexplicably entranced by weight-loss testimonials on YouTube; you will solve all the temples in Legend of Zelda; you will shop for hand sanitizer on your phone while streaming Mad Men on your laptop. None of this will quiet the bitter voice that every 20 minutes will remind you everybody else is writing King Lear.
Time at the office was equally wasted – but it did not feel that way because corporate environments have faceless, grandfathered procedures that always suggest there’s some mysterious point to the three-hour “all hands” meeting, the endless redundancies, the zombie-walk of bureaucracy. There isn’t.
When individuals are sent home and become responsible for their own work lives, they start to feel personally responsible for wasted time. They have to face the glum fact that most of life is sawdust, stuffing, filler.
Writers, like all the at-home tribe, know this better than most. The tiny glamour of business lunches and work outfits and boardrooms does not gird their days. Now that millions have lost their jobs and millions more have gone freelance – in spirit if not in name – we are all facing the filler. Consequently: Nielsen reports that homebound populations are consuming 60 per cent more media; in grounded Italy, installations of the Netflix app rose 57 per cent; across Europe, amid heroic efforts to keep overwhelmed hospitals running, there’s also a more prosaic struggle to keep overwhelmed internet infrastructure afloat; friends in the online gambling industry tell me profits in China soared as the virus shuttered that country. And all the while Twitter resounds with the self-flagellation of those who think themselves uniquely lazy and off course. But clearly they are, in fact, on the human course. We are, all of us, distractible souls.
2: The solitude you’re running from wants to tell you something.
The only way a writer ever gets something written is by paying close attention to their own distraction and learning how to game it. We learn to spot the tiny moment when fear of stillness abates and good work again becomes possible. Does it come after the morning coffee? Between two midnight cocktails? Whenever that brief period may be, we make it sacred and safeguard it because that hard-to-handle solitude is where new ideas emerge.
I think this attitude matters right now because, if we could all study our lonely hours and find ways to stop fleeing our own company, even for a moment, there are extraordinary things to notice about this time of lockdown. Alongside the pain, the fear, the unbearable stress of unemployment and child care and sickness, alongside all these very real troubles, our sudden solitude is a cold-turkey withdrawal from the paroxysm of activity and “growth” that dominates 21st century life. Pollution has, for a brief interval, been rubbed from the skies. We are, in a small way, being forced to experiment with stopping. And tackling this loneliness the way a writer tackles it – with faith that stillness has its uses – could remind us how fundamentally lives will change if we ever attempt “de-growth” in our untenable, polluted world. COVID-19 has mellowed the whole frantic hum of human consumption, and it will not be the last push-back against our industry.
3. You aren’t actually alone.
Writers know that the pain of isolation is worthwhile precisely because it leads to some larger communion. That’s why we write – to forge a bond between strangers that can’t be managed by running around and shaking hands.
Phone calls – voice-to-voice interaction – have made a come-back in the age of COVID-19, even among the millennials who were supposedly terrified of that intimate technology. Meanwhile, in Vancouver, where I live, the residents of the densely packed West End towers step out on their patios to cheer at 7 p.m., thanking the health-care workers as their shift changes. In Italy, they step onto their balconies and sing Volare to buoy each other up.
We ought to remember that, whether we’re spending our isolation writing King Lear or just rewatching Ru Paul’s Drag Race, we’re all engaged in one of the largest acts of care in human history. Each day alone is a gift to someone you’ll never meet. So, this moment of isolation is, really, an enormous and shared experience, one that makes common eight billion solitudes.
The Globe and Mail
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.