It’s been a gray day, not cold compared to the Midwest or the East Coast but chilly for Tuscaloosa, with the temperature in the mid-40s. And the truth is that it’s been a hard few weeks. Writing-wise, things are fine. My fiction workshop went well and I’ve recently had a couple pieces picked up by literary journals. I’ve planned out the stories I want to complete this semester and I’ve started the very earliest of brainstorms for my next novel.
But I’ve been lonely, and I want to talk about that loneliness. I think it’s important, because we’re not just writers. We’re human beings, and sometimes we have hard feelings, and it can be even harder to talk about them. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about why sometimes I cherish my alone time and sometimes I don’t at all, and I’ve been interested in why the alone time I had in Los Angeles didn’t feel nearly as lonely as the alone time I have here. There’s a practical concern here too, since I’m a far less productive writer when I’m feeling lonely than when I’m not.
Turns out, upon reflection, that my life in Los Angeles was pretty different than it is here, especially with regard to how my time was spent. When I was living in Los Angeles, I worked, oftentimes at least 8 hours a day and at least 4 days a week. In addition, I was a high school teacher, which is an inherently social job. Any time that I wasn’t teaching or interacting with students, I was probably talking with my colleagues. I had an hour lunch every day and that hour was again spent chatting with other teachers. So by the time I got home each evening, I had already spent a large chunk of my day socializing. Moreover, particularly this past spring, there were plenty of evenings when I didn’t go directly home, since as a PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellow, I had a several hours long-commitment at least one night a week and sometimes two or three.
Another difference is the number and type of friends I had in Los Angeles (not to mention family/relatives). Because I grew up in Los Angeles, worked a full-time job, took improv classes, etc., at any given time, there was probably someone I knew doing something that I could join in on, and my friends in LA were more likely to have Type A personalities, teachers and personal assistants and film and digital media folks who thrived off social interaction. This meant that when I did have alone time, it was because I chose to have it, not because I couldn’t find something to do. In addition, Los Angeles’s dating scene, while certainly imperfect, is at the very least plentiful. If I had wanted to do so, I could have gone on a date a week, probably more, so again, it felt like there was more choice involved. Finally, I lived with my dad and my dad’s dog, and even though my dad may not be the most exciting person in the world (I suppose I’m not the most exciting person in the world either, not sure who has earned that title), I could count on someone to eat dinner with most nights I was home, someone to ask me how my day was. And again, the dog. Endless dog love and cuddling.
With that context in mind, Tuscaloosa and an MFA creative writing program couldn’t be much more different. Instead of having at least 40 plus hours of scheduled work time a week, work time that automatically included social interactions, I now have less than 12 hours a week in which I have to be on campus in a specific place, accounting for both classes and my TA work assignment. Sure, I have plenty of writing and reading I need to do as well, but that’s mostly time spent alone, and since those obligations are much more amorphous, there’s a less finite line between work and leisure than there was in L.A. (After all, one could always be writing and reading more, right?)
Furthermore, MFA creative writing programs are an introvert’s sanctuary. There is a certain persona more typically associated with writers, and it generally revolves around this idea of reclusiveness, or at the very least, a much more diminished desire for social interaction than that of a hardcore extrovert such as myself. In certain ways, I feel guilty, like I should be more appreciative of this gift of time, but I also know myself to be the kind of writer who does best when writing in the nooks and crannies of free time around a full day. For me, the endless hours of unscheduled time are daunting, not invigorating, and when I feel the urge to reach out to people, I can feel uncomfortable as well, like I’m bothering people with my desire to be social, even if all I really want to do is sit in the same room as someone else while we both work or to grab a quick drink.
In another context, the answer would be to simply reach out to people beyond the program, to find my extroverted comrades elsewhere in the city, but the capacity for meeting new people in Tuscaloosa, people with whom I would share common interests, is relatively limited. Tuscaloosa is essentially a Southern college town. It’s not a big city and doesn’t have the same social diversity of a big city, limiting one’s ability to find either new friends or new romantic partners. I won’t go into this next part too much here, but then there are the stresses of living with someone currently who has a very different personality from me and the anxieties of deciding whether I should live alone next year or if I should take the risk of living with a currently unknown roommate (everyone I talk to who lives alone says it’s a good call, but, like, what’s to prevent me from coming home at night and staring at the white living room wall and contemplating the meaning of my existence? Not to get too deep or anything).
I like the program here, I really do, and there are lots of moments when I do feel good, when I’m at a board game night or a pie party or grabbing dinner with a few friends and I’m happy. I know that the onus here is on me, to figure out how to make my life here in Tuscaloosa feel more comfortable, more settled, less lonely. I know that there are things I could do better. I should go to the gym more. I should do work in coffee shops more, especially the one that’s open into the evenings (even if the aforementioned unnamed coffee shop does have a Prayer Wall and an abundance of crosses decorating the ceilings). I should stop worrying about bugging people if I text them about making plans. In fact, I should reach out to more people, and I should remember that other people here are lonely too. I should go to Birmingham more. I should volunteer at the local humane society. I should talk more with friends and family back home. I should find a part-time job to supplement my meager grad school stipend.
I should lean into the loneliness. I should watch more movies. I should take more hot baths. I should remember that things change with time, that I will become closer with the friends I have started to make here and that there may be more weirdo extrovert writers in the next incoming class, that at some point, maybe I’ll start dating somebody and wish I had more alone time. I should remember that this is not forever even when it feels like it is.
Maybe most importantly, I should get a dog. But actually, that is the plan for next September once I have a new place. Because nothing helps with those lonely feelings like sloppy, stinky dog kisses, and that is a fact.
Currently Cooking: Poached Eggs and Grits
Currently Watching: Another Period (with Christina Hendricks playing the part of “Chair”!)
Currently Listening: Vampire Weekend (yep, guilty pleasure)
Currently Reading: Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum